The Lone Ranger: Why does Hollywood pick villains with facial disfigurements?

Once again, Hollywood has equated facial disfigurements with being evil. It's time to stop such lazy disablism.
  • @VictoriaMWright

I was rather looking forward to watching Disney’s reboot of The Lone Ranger. It stars Johnny Depp as Tonto, some bloke I’ve never heard of as The Lone Ranger, and two of my favourite actresses, Ruth Wilson and Helena Bonham Carter. That is until I learned that the villain of the film, a character called Butch Cavendish, has a facial disfigurement.

According to the film’s official website, ‘Cavendish is a ruthless outlaw whose terribly scarred face is a perfect reflection of the bottomless pit that passes for his soul.’

I will translate: Cavendish has a facial disfigurement in order to show he’s truly evil and monstrous, because evil, monstrous people have facial disfigurements.

Actor William Fichtner, who plays Cavendish, even told an American entertainment website that the character’s “cleft lip” meant he didn’t need to worry about expressing the villainy of the character in his performance as it was already there in his “look”.

Fichtner remarked, ‘It’s creating a look. It’s filling up that look with who the guy is. I didn’t have to worry about creating a way that he would look or move or something like that.’

Not only does this suggest that the actor himself believes that audiences associate disfigurement with evilness, but the choice of a cleft lip - a congenital disfigurement (i.e from birth) - means that any argument that his character could have received his facial scar through fighting and is therefore a valid characteristic for him to have, does not apply here.

The use of disfigurement in this way perpetuates the dangerous stereotype that people with disfigurements are inherently deviant. I say ‘dangerous’ because children and adults with facial disfigurements do experience bullying, verbal abuse, discrimination and, in extreme cases, physical violence due to prejudice. This is not political correctness but a sad fact.

I wrote an article for Independent Voices last year criticising the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, for yet again featuring a villain with a facial disfigurement. A few people tweeted that I should just relax and enjoy the film. Someone suggested I was being politically correct (probably a man who knows nothing of intersectionality!) and someone told me I was being overly sensitive (which I found hurtful and cried for a week over).

But it’s not so easy to enjoy a film like Skyfall or The Lone Ranger, using disfigurement to provoke disgust from the audience, when you’re the sole person in the audience with a disfigurement yourself.

Unsurprisingly, the UK’s Cleft Lip and Palate Association (CLAPA) are boycotting The Lone Ranger. They stated that there were ‘extremely disappointed’ by the portrayal of Cavendish and that Disney is ‘cashing in on prejudice’. Stereotypes like this, CLAPA argues, sends ‘a deeply harmful message that will impact the 90,000 people that were born with a cleft in the UK as well as others worldwide.’

But perhaps the biggest controversy over the film has been about the casting of Johnny Depp as the Native American character Tonto. According to the American website NPR, Disney officials and Johnny Depp ‘labored for months to court Native Americans’ in order to ease their concerns about Depp’s casting:

‘The studio gave proceeds of the movie's world premiere to the American Indian College Fund. During production, a local Navajo elder blessed the set in Monument Valley. And in Santa Fe, social activist La Donna Harris adopted Depp as an honorary son and member of the Comanche tribe. “We gave him a Comanche name: Shape Shifter," says Harris. "He's able to change into all these different things he plays, from a Caribbean pirate to a Comanche." In Lawton, the chairman of the Comanche Nation, Wallace Coffey welcomed Depp, presenting him with a beaded medallion necklace of his Tonto character. Then they joined a gathering of Comanche VIP's at a special screening of The Lone Ranger for tribal members.’

That’s nice. May I suggest that as the film is about to be released in the UK, that officials from Disney, Johnny Depp (as the star of the film) and William Fichtner offer the same courtesy for those of us with facial disfigurements? I would be quite happy for them to give proceeds from the movie’s English premiere to charity. I would be particularly delighted to attend a private screening of the film, party with Depp, enjoy some vol au vents, and present Fichtner with the Wright Family’s favourite term of endearment - ‘Shit Stirrer’.

That would be nice too. But it won’t happen. Because although Disney have enough awareness to realise they might piss off some Native Americans, I doubt it even crossed their minds they might piss off disabled activists.

So for that reason, I’ll be boycotting The Lone Ranger. I don’t care how good the film might be, or how sharp Depp’s cheekbones are (mine are sharper, honey). I’m not going to spend my money on a film that regurgitates prejudice about people with facial disfigurements – people like me.

Disney were contacted for comment but have yet to respond