“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid,” Auggie Pullman tells us in the heart-warming movie Wonder. A movie I saw twice, crying nearly throughout both times. I cried over memories of the past, and the ways in which my story unexpectedly coalesced with the one unfolding on the screen. Additionally, my tears flowed from watching a movie acknowledging a young boy’s disfigurement while both highlighting and celebrating his heart. A welcome change in a world filled with villains possessing scars.
Villains and Scars
Some of these famous villains make their way into the movie. A bully compares Auggie to both Freddy Krueger and the infamous Darth Sidious, among others. The comparison to Darth Sidious seems especially harsh. Emperor Palpatine looked like a normal, older white male - until a lightsaber duel left him extremely scarred. This change in appearance is symbolic of a shift in allegiance, allowing the audience to see Emperor Palpatine without a mask; his scars serving as a physical manifestation of his complete transition to the evil embodied by Darth Sidious.
Choosing to cast villains possessing scars can be quite damaging upon the culture at large. “These negative stereotypes create a deep cultural bias against burn survivors, resulting in social isolation, shame, and bullying for those living with facial scars,” according to Phoenix Society. After viewing thirty-two films that include burn survivors, a recent study undertaken by the Phoenix Society found that half of those depicted “were good before they were injured,” completely overcome with evil after suffering a burn. Happy endings - a common Hollywood staple concerning plot lines - are seemingly off limits to those possessing scars. “As young burn survivors look for role models in movies and TV… they don’t see burn survivors save the day, make friends, or fall in love,” the study found. Frighteningly, Hollywood depictions of villains may be contributing to a cultural association of deformity with evil.
Returning to School
Unlike Auggie, my own return to school was mostly devoid of bullying. My height and size likely contributing to being left alone. There were a few rare examples of being made fun of on account of the scars I carry. In one particular instance, I was compared to a villain, although for the life of me I can no longer remember the name mentioned. Sometimes memories are mercifully lost, allowing one to forget the more unpleasant parts of the human experience.
I do remember working at a special needs camp the summer after my life changed forever. One afternoon, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was playing. I watched alongside a few of the children, my first time viewing this Disney classic. Near the end, I found myself saddened by Esmerelda’s rejection of the Hunchback in favor of the far more dashing Phoebus. I wondered then if I was destined to experience a similar fate - if my facial scars precluded ever finding a beautiful woman to fall for me.
So ingrained in my own mind was the idea that deformity stood in the way of happiness. Or somehow, any sort of scar or imperfection is enshrouded in a feeling of shame. The pained looks and averted eyes that greeted my presence upon entering a room made me feel inferior and undesirable. As if something was wrong with me because of the way I looked. Puzzlingly, scars seem to communicate something negative about a person’s character. As if outward appearance is ever a good indicator of inner depth or beauty.
Most do not mean to communicate these messages when interacting with burn survivors. The feelings and sentiments communicated are subtle, and likely occur on a subconscious level. Yet I wonder - do the portrayals of burns in Hollywood contribute to a lack of understanding when it comes to interacting with those who look far from ordinary?
Choosing to Hide
In an effort to avoid the stares or rude comments about his face, Auggie enjoys wearing an astronaut helmet in public. His favorite holiday is Halloween, when a costume can cover any perceived irregularities concerning his appearance. The helmet serves as a mechanism to hide, allowing Auggie to successfully disappear.
I myself possess my own version of an astronaut helmet. A few months into my return to high school, I discovered my ability to grow a beard. As the hair came in, growing over the red scars protruding from my face, I felt free. Suddenly the questions were silenced, the rude remarks put to rest. I could be myself, instead of shrouding my personality in an effort to avoid any unwanted questions from friends and acquaintances. Interestingly, this action is a real-life example of another common stereotype found in films - nearly 70% of burn survivors employed methods to hide deformity when displayed on movie screens, according to the same study referenced above.
Feeble attempts to hide do little to shield me from encountering the cultural narrative surrounding scars, however. In a recent conversation with a friend, he innocuously mentioned the movie Scarface, informing everyone within earshot of his deep love for the film. Trying to betray nothing, my body language must have communicated a lack of enthusiasm for Al Pacino’s depiction of a notorious criminal.
“Why don’t you like it?” he asks innocently, seemingly unable to comprehend my reason for not readily praising this popular movie. I attempt to articulate my longing for the portrayal of a scarred hero rather than a scarred villain.
“Wait, is that why you don’t like the movie? He looks that way because he is evil,” he says, hesitating on that last word.
His embarrassed look tells me he failed to calculate the implications of his words before they tumbled out of his mouth. Yet the question remains. Do I look this way because I am evil?
Time For A Change
“Auggie can’t change the way he looks,” Principal Tushman says in Wonder. “Maybe we can change the way we see.” Perhaps this sentiment extends far beyond the culture at large, but to those of us who possess scars. For we all do, some more visible than others. We carry them with us wherever we go, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. It may be too much to hope for a cessation of burn survivors being portrayed as villains; but, is it too much to ask for the world to change the way they see scars?
I am committed to the mission of changing the cultural perspective on scars, both visible and invisible. In honor of Burn Awareness Week, I am choosing to support my favorite non-profit organization in their commitment to increase awareness surrounding the need for a scarred hero. The aim is to raise thousands of dollars on behalf of Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors over the next few weeks, sending a message that change is needed in a world unwittingly peddling falsehoods concerning scars. Visit the following link to help reach this audacious goal: https://app.mobilecause.com/vf/IN/SamuelMooreSobel
“If you really want to see what people are, all you have to do is look,” Auggie tells us near the end of Wonder. I believe this encapsulates the human experience. We all want to be seen, viewed for more than our pasts or the scars we carry. We want to be known for the things we love, the passions we hold dear, the hopes and dreams we carry deep within our souls. I believe we can change the world by changing the way we see. So the next time you see someone who isn’t ordinary, don’t forget to look for their heart.
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