Your favorite cinematic villains have more in common than just being evil or diabolical — they’re also more likely have various skin issues or deformities, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Dermatology.
The study, conducted by a team of U.S.-based dermatologists, found that while heroes often had beautiful, blemish-free skin, characters with dubious morals were depicted having an array of skin issues, including pimples, scars and hair loss.
It’s something that’s been a trope in films for a long time, but in the last several decades has become more prevalent. The researchers say this sort of character depiction might actually be damaging.
“It is not only perpetuating this tendency towards discrimination towards people with skin disease but it also does affect the person on an individual basis,” said Julie Amthor Croley, co-author of the research from the University of Texas.
Croley and her colleagues began their research by scrutinizing the appearance of the top 10 heroes and villains as ranked by the American Film Institute. At the top of the villainous list was Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs, Norman Bates from Psycho, Darth Vader, and the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. The list of heroes included Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, James Bond, T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia and Rocky Balboa.
The researchers discovered that skin conditions were prevalent among six of the top 10 villains, whereas they were largely absent from the heroes list. Some exceptions on the heroes list included Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Rick Blaine from Casablanca, who both had scars but nothing as severe as the characters found on the villain list.
The skin problems that the bad guys and gals suffered from ranged from warts, dark circles around the eyes, wrinkles, grey skin and alopecia. In a pivotal moment in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the audience finally sees what Darth Vader looks like behind his mask; it’s revealed that he suffers from alopecia and has a pale, wrinkled, scarred face. This is supposed to show the manifestation of pure evil, the study’s authors explained.
“All these associations of skin findings with film villains date back to the silent film age in a time when all filmmakers had to communicate [with] was visual cues, they didn’t have spoken word,” Croley said. “With specific reference to scars, filmmakers may use them to illustrate a sort of a stormy past filled with violence.”
Experts like James Partridge, chief executive of charity organization Changing Faces, said these findings were not surprising. However, what is concerning is how skin problems have been used as a visual shorthand without considering how it might impact the lives of people who actually struggle with these issues.
“We want the film industry to take a more balanced approach,” Partridge told The Guardian. “Why can someone with a disfigurement not play the kind parent, the supportive teacher, the famous actor or even the president?”
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.