Only yesterday, while reading MovieMovieBlogBlog‘s most recent post on Tod Browning’s inimitable Freaks (1932), did I discover that Pop Culture Reverie is hosting a Disability in Film Blogathon, beginning today. The subject is dealt with in both literal and metaphoric terms in film noir, sometimes with keen awareness of disability politics as we understand them today, and often without. It got me thinking (again) about the two versions of A Woman’s Face (1938 Sweden, 1941 US), which I’ve already written about, comparatively, here. For this blogathon, however, I want to look at them together with particular emphasis on disfigurement and gender.
I want to begin broadly. Disability studies scholarship and the lives of individuals with disabilities make plain that one of the most significant issues with regard to representations of disability in texts (film, tv, literature, comics, videogames, etc.) is how quickly we render disability figurative rather than literal. Stereotypes and myths about disease and disability become shorthand codes for interpreting an image/characterization, and this works whether the figure in question turns out to fulfill stereotypical expectations or to directly oppose them.
One of my favorite film moments for its relatively direct commentary on this tendency comes in Living in Oblivion (1995) during the “dwarf dream” scene. Tito (Peter Dinklage — who has done as much to challenge stereotypes in his career as roles allow) is an actor who is cast as a dwarf in a dream sequence directed by Nick (Steve Buscemi). Tito loathes the role and how he is being directed, and soon balks, trying to get Nick to see why putting him in such a role is problematic — and more than unsatisfying for an actor.
Finally, he can’t stand the ignorance any longer and demands:
Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who’s had a dream with a dwarf in it? No! I don’t even have dreams with dwarves in them. The only place I’ve seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like this! “Oh make it weird, put a dwarf in it!” Everyone will go “Woah, this must be a fuckin’ dream, there’s a fuckin’ dwarf in it!” Well I’m sick of it! You can take this dream sequence and stick it up your ass!
In this context, it’s easy to imagine what happens when the focus of a film is “a woman’s face” and that face has a significant visible scar.
In both the original Swedish (1938) version and the Hollywood remake (1941), the impact of the film relies on the way an external scar creates emotional scarring in a young woman. The visible imperfection makes of our young noir heroine a criminal, full of hostility and the kind of angry energy that makes her not only a crook, but the leader of a gang.
A feminist message we can learn from this portrayal is that when women don’t have to obsess about their looks, they can accomplish much. Sadly, however, this is not the lesson either film ultimately wishes to teach. Our protagonist is not presented as admirable. At best, we might pity her for life’s unfairness. But if we do, we’re buying into the idea that beauty is the primary value for a woman’s life.
Happiness comes only to unmarred women, we learn as the film shifts to focus on the “cure” for anger and criminality: surgery at the hands of a caring doctor. Where the original has a father/daughter type relationship and the latter becomes a poorly developed romance, again in both films the criminal has a change of heart and life once her scarred face is unrealistically “fixed,” rendered entirely unblemished.
Both anger and ambition vanish as fully as the scar, leaving Bergman’s version of the character desiring only to be a governess for some nice family and Crawford’s version falling for the doctor who healed her face and her heart.
Although there are many differences in the films, both sadly share the use of disfigurement to distinguish between a “bad” (scarred) woman and a “good” (unblemished-as-beautiful) one. Such coupling of disability and gender limits women’s value to their appearance and links attacks both ambitious and disfigured women for not being defined by their looks alone.
For me, this lesson is one of the primary values of the film, when viewed through a feminist lens. Perhaps the film is not praising sexist and ableist perspectives but laying them out for us to see. Even if not, however, we can “enjoy” deconstructing the harmful images, reading against the grain (counterhegemonically, if you like theoretical jargon) as we enjoy the actors’ skills and know how much work they put into these leading roles. Just beware the tendency to compliment the celebrities on their willingness to play an “unflattering” role, or we’re right back where we started.