The “Other” in American Film

Villains are nothing new to the world of cinema. We’ve all seen them growing up ranging from Disney movies to action epics. However, one troubling thing has remained over the years and that is the villains themselves. It’s true that they’re a necessary evil (no pun intended) of any storytelling, movies have the burden of being the most explicitly visual medium. As such, filmmakers are required to address the “looks” of villains. The only issue is that, even after all these years, the villains are beginning to look the same. True, they don’t possess all of the same characteristics, but unfortunately they share enough to make the villain notably different than the hero or heroine of the piece. This difference can take many different forms, but all of these forms can be boiled down to one term; “other”.

The “other” is an important idea because it allows us, whether consciously or subconsciously, to identify the threat to American film audiences. The people that we are supposed to react to are rarely the heroes. In fact, the idea of the “hero” is something that most Americans accept without questioning. Mainly because most of us are able to tell who the hero will be early on in the film. This is primarily because most American films tend to focus on the hero’s journey and the hero him or herself. However, even more recognizable than the hero is typically the villain. Heroes can come in all shapes and sizes. There are even movies with themes that say exactly this. However, the villain is not afforded the same privilege. The villain seems to be a direct reaction to the hero. This is achieved through their words, but their is also a reliance on the notion of the “other” to establish the villain physically. Although this can be achieved in a variety of ways, there are typically 2 categories that the villain falls into.

The first category is probably the more physical of the two, and that is physical deformity itself. This category is more typical of horror movies than any other genre. One example is Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th films. It’s true that most of the films he hides behind his hockey mask, but he does show his face. When he does, he is clearly deformed. For most American audiences, this simply adds to the horror. However, the category of physical deformity isn’t exclusively reserved for horror films. It has also been used in children’s movies, such as The Lion King. The villain of the film, Scar, is physically identifiable based on his scar. Even more adult, such as 2006’s Casino Royale, rely on this technique to physically identify the villain. Le Chiffre’s eye is the most recognizable part of the character, even though it clearly does not make up all of who he is. Evil isn’t something that’s always physically noticeable, but most film-going audiences rely on these physical cues to know who to hate and who to fear. Of course, utilizing physical deformity also allows the audience to disassociate with these characters and to either be afraid or disgusted by them. This idea of disassociation is crucial to the audience, but also the establishment of the villain, which leads me to my next category.

Although some people may view this term as too abstract, the second category is the idea of “otherness” as a whole. It’s simple differentiation and allows the audience to associate one side with the good and the opposite side as evil. This is achieved through the physical relationship between the hero and the villain, leaving the audience entirely out of the picture. Since this is such a rudimentary idea, it is normally most noticeable in children’s movies. One of the most prominent examples is Disney’s Aladdin. Although the title character is supposed to be Middle Eastern and the good guy, he is more white than anything else. of course, this is necessary so that children can associate the evil Jafaar with “otherness” with his darker skin. However, this method of associating the hero with predominantly white characteristics and having the villain with darker skin or darker hair color, or even (as ridiculous as it may sound) facial hair while the hero is clean shaven, is old news. It allows audiences to project their fears onto others. What is perhaps most shocking though is its prominence today. Some of the memorable villains on the show 24 where most recognizably evil based on their physicality just as much as their plans.

While there is much complexity that should be afforded the villains of many modern movies and TV shows, the fact remains that more villains than not can be physically identified. This can be achieved through making them physically as well as morally repugnant as in the case of the first category. However, there are many other ways to define a villain through his or her physicality that I did not discuss. Finally, in the more abstract category, is the notion of “otherness” which is crucial to all of our understandings of what villains are.


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