Freak Show Aesthetics and the Politics of Disfigurement: Reconfiguring the Cinematic Terrorist in the Obama era’
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AbstractPart way through the most recent Bond film, Skyfall (Mendes 2012), villainous antagonist, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) removes his facial prosthesis to reveal a horrific disfigurement. It emerges that Silva is a terrorist who targets political sites and public transport systems in a manner similar to Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001 and the London Underground in 2005. Alongside other productions of the new millennium, Skyfall illustrates how the terrorist figure is increasingly signaled, and even defined by physical impairment. Such films often display a particular fascination with the character’s peculiarity to the extent that it becomes not only pivotal to characterization but also to the narrative. Indeed, in Skyfall we learn that the cause of Silva’s disfigurement motivates his terrorist activities and certain scenes consciously present his physical difference as a source of spectacle, rather than as being merely incidental to the narrative. Although villainy has long been associated with some form of physical difference, since 9/11, it is especially associated with facial deviation. Moreover, if facially disfigured villains have appeared in films before 9/11, they did not necessarily display psychological or physical weakness. Contrastingly, the disfigured post-9/11 perpetrator is either psychologically or physically compromised in relation to his/her physiognomic aberration and is also often simultaneously coded as ‘other’ through subtle suggestions of homosexuality and foreignness, these combined features ostensibly constituting a ‘new wave’ of cinematic terrorist representation. While there is no obvious explanation for such a trend, these portrayals may be informed by real-world mediated imagery of radical Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza. Hamza, who had long been suspected of terrorist activity and was convicted of supporting terrorism in 2015, lost an eye and both hands, allegedly in a terrorist incident. One of his hands is replaced by a hook, and he is often pictured holding up his arm, the hook encircling his functional eye. Otherwise, this contemporary mode of signifying the on-screen terrorist may be a conscious effort to depart from other currently contentious terrorist stereotypes (especially the Islamic middle-Eastern character). Indeed, the film Iron Man (Favreau 2008) attracted criticism for its depiction of Afghani fundamentalists because of its portrayal of their leader, Raza (Faran Tahir) as a “typical Middle Eastern hysteric [who] rages about in inflated, un-translated gasps of Arabic” (Catalan). The association of facial disfigurement with bodily weakness and/or psychological instability stems from a broader trend in representations of masculinity, this itself connected to a range of issues beginning well before 9/11. The combination of physical and/or mental fallibility and facial anomaly therefore constitutes a unique development in post-/11 portrayals of terrorist figures. This essay therefore considers the association of disfigurement with the on-screen terrorist by arguing that recent representations of the post-9/11 era, though retaining allusions to ‘foreignness’, depart from Middle Eastern stereotypes to focus on deformity as an alternate means to reconfigure the ‘other’. With emphasis on the Bond franchise – because of its long lineage and preoccupation with villainy - and primarily referring to Casino Royale, and Skyfall, this chapter compares pre- and post-9/11 villains, and engages with theories of ‘freakery’ (Garland-Thomson), criminality (Lombroso), and terrorism (Kassimeris; Jackson; Nacos; Whittaker).
CitationIn: Heather E. Pope, Victoria M. Bryan (eds), Reflecting 9/11 New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre,
PublisherCambridge Scholars Publishing
TypeChapter in book