- Approaching Facial Difference: Past and Present ed. by Patricia Skinner and Emily Cock
Disability Studies, Disfigurement, Stigma, Disease Construction
In Approaching Facial Difference, editors Patricia Skinner and Emily Cock rightly insist that facial disfigurement is largely missing from disability studies, despite the face’s centrality in “exploring past and present human social interactions (individual and group), and the processes by which norms of appearance are determined and enforced, not by any legal frameworks, but by socio-cultural practices” (p. 1). Drawing on the basic premise that the “normal” and “disfigured” face are themselves social constructs, the essays included in the volume cover a wide historical and disciplinary range. But despite their different foci, they show that “[a]ttitudes to disfigurement are not fixed, but are historically and culturally contingent in subtle as well as obvious ways” (p.6). To this end the essays are organized in three groups: language, visibility, and materiality, though as readers move through the volume they can easily see that the boundaries separating these groups are porous and overlapping.
The three essays in the first section assess depictions of facial difference found in written texts, “where the use of language mimics for the collaborating writer and reader the voyeuristic and gratifying act of staring with eye or camera” (p.4). First, Bonnie Millar offers a sharp analysis of medieval and early modern Arthurian romances and ballads, which show that facial deformity, particularly among female characters, has its moral and social analogues in sin and societal dysfunction. Examining several early modern English documents, Michelle Webb then argues that women’s faces were intimately linked to their social and economic fortunes; facially disfigured women ran the range of being considered unmarriageable to being sought after for marriage because they were thought less likely to cuckold their prospective husbands. In the section’s final essay, Jane Frances suggests that contemporary scholarly studies must take into account the stigmatizing reactions of those who view individuals with facial disfigurements. Assuming that feelings of surprise, horror, pity, or disgust [End Page 216] among onlookers are natural, scholars risk a form of “faceism” and thus become complicit in perpetuating the stigmatizing process (p.57).
The collection’s second section includes essays that address the ways in which “gazing and staring have been at the heart of almost all the source materials relating to disfigurement” (p. 4). Jane Draycott first shows how hair loss was considered a form of facial deformity in ancient Rome. Baldness was regarded as “a significant deviation from the natural order of things” and suggested a deeper character or moral failing (p.76). Kathryn Smith’s essay deviates somewhat from the disfigurement theme, arguing that the forensic facial drawings used, for example, in criminal investigations often fall short of their mark, largely because detailed accuracy of individual features can have the effect of obscuring the facial image as a whole (p.88). Thus, “[s]ubjecting the ineffable qualities of portraiture to various metric analyses may get us some way, but it feels a little too much like Narcissus staring at his own reflection in a pond, an exercise in hubris” (p.103). In one of the more surprising essays in the volume, Patricia Neville, Andrea Waylen, and Aidan Searle use qualitative research based on 15 case study subjects to suggest that, contrary to common assumptions, cleft lip and palate “can be a life-affirming experience,” provided that those with it receive adequate moral support from family members and peers in school and work settings (p.112). Lastly, Morna Laing offers a critical assessment of the Freak-Folk musical duo CocoRosie, whose music videos depict the sister-singers in a number of unconventional or transgressive guises in which unruly facial hair offers “multifaceted identities beyond the tired male/female binary that haunts the human subject” (p.132). More specifically, the hair allows “repressed or outlawed subjects”—hags, witches, animals, and androgynes chief among them—“to shine through” (p.152).
The collection’s final section, which falls under the heading of “materiality,” addresses the...