Villains, Victims, and Vigilantes: The Portrayal of Scars in Pop Culture

Written by Karen Badger, PhD, MSW; Niki Averton on September 04, 2019

Body Image
Equality + Acceptance

Representation Affects Reality

Prior research and advocacy efforts have shown that film characters can influence feelings about physical appearance and contribute to biases and stereotypes. Characters presented in films that reinforce negative stereotypes may be detrimental for burn survivors with scarring and other physical alterations.

Burn survivors with scarring or appearance alterations are vulnerable to social stigma and bias, experiences that can influence psychosocial healing (1,2). Those with facial scarring or disfigurement may often experience discrimination in their work, social, education, and community environment, to which negative stereotyping contributes (3).

Burn survivors with scarring or appearance changes may struggle with self-acceptance and social comfort—facial burns and scarring present additional adjustment challenges (4). Burn survivors reported struggles with acceptance of their appearance and encounters with social stigma in response to their scars—which they described as “being re-scarred” in one study (2).  

“What is Beautiful is Good”

In 1972, Dion and colleagues (5) investigated the association of physical attractiveness with assumptions of positive social and personality characteristics, along with the expectation of better life outcomes. They found the presence of a stereotype they called “what is beautiful is good”, which was later confirmed by others (3).

Some studies explored how characters were portrayed in films relative to this stereotype. In these studies, characters considered physically attractive had good qualities and moral behaviors, while ones with facial scarring or other physical differences or disabilities were villainous or evil. These studies examined decades of films and reached similar conclusions supporting the presence of the stereotype.

  • Smith et al (6) rated top-performing films produced in 1940-1989 on variables of attractiveness, and found that characters scored as more attractive were also scored higher on all other positive variables—regardless of gender or year of the film. They found that viewing films with a what is beautiful is good bias impacted perceptions of others. Study participants viewed biased films and then rated applications of prospective college students. They gave applicants they perceived as more attractive higher scores—even though the applicants were equal in all other qualifications. Viewers of strongly biased films gave the highest ratings to applicants perceived as physically attractive.

  • Bazzini and colleagues (7) assessed Disney films with at least 3 animated human characters for the what is beautiful is good stereotype. They used the same method and rating scales for these non-animated films as Smith et al (6) and obtained similar results. Characters who received higher ratings for attractiveness also received higher scores for other desirable variables as portrayed in their roles and had better outcomes in the movie. Bazzini also found that children who watched a Disney film with an attractive bias who then rated their perceptions of other children, preferred the attractive child over the non-attractive child as a friend.

Bazzini and colleagues (7) observed that these appearance-related assumptions are found across Western and Non-western cultures.

Media Can Mitigate Bias

Films and other media can help mitigate bias and address stereotypes by portraying characters as every day or extraordinary heroes and positive role models, no matter their physical appearance. Black and Pretes (8) assessed how film characters with disabilities were presented in films and found that—although they were frequently shown as not being well-adjusted and their “own worst enemy” (p. 66)—some progress has been made via casting in challenging the ‘monster, victim, or character that otherwise should be feared’ stereotypes of persons with disabilities often found in the literature. These efforts can make a difference.

Viewing positive representations of those with disabilities in the media increased viewers’ awareness of biases, negative stereotypes, their understanding of discrimination, and was associated with decreased negative emotions when interacting in real-life with those with disabilities (3).

Weir (9) said this about the impact of social rejection: “As far as the brain is concerned, the pain of a broken heart may not be so different from a broken arm”(p. 50).

It’s Time for A Hero

In the United Kingdom, Changing Faces (10) launched a campaign in 2012 called “Facial Equality” that addresses negative portrayals of facial difference in films and media, as well as the bias and discrimination experienced by those with facial differences.

A key campaign message was the call to treat people equally, regardless of facial appearance. The “Facial Equality” campaign was the start of an important conversation about media bias. Our answer? “It’s Time for a Hero.”

After a brief review of 32 English-language films, Phoenix Society found that the same stereotypes surfaced again and again: characters who were burn survivors (or could be assumed to be burn survivors) were evil, masked, alone – and often, by the end of the movie, dead. In the 80- year timespan in which the films were produced, little appeared to have changed.

While this quick look at films isn't generalizable research, it does suggest that that, as survivors look for role models in movies and TV, they may most often find villains, victims, and vigilantes with scars like theirs. They may seldom see burn survivors save the day, make friends, or fall in love. They usually will not see healing journeys or happy endings.

So we think it’s time for a better story. It’s time for a hero.


Holaday M, McPhearson R. Student attitudes toward children and adolescents with severe burns. J Couns Dev 1996;75:36-43.

Macleod R, Shepherd L, Thompson AR. Posttraumatic stress symptomotology and appearance distress following burn injury: An interpretative Phenomenological analysis. Health Psych 2016; 35 (11): 1197-1204.

3Jamrozik A, Oraa Ali M, Sarwer DB, Chatterjee A.. More than skindeep: Judgments of individuals with facial disfigurement. Psych Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. (2017, November 30). Advance online publication.

Kornhaber R, Wilson A, Abu-Qamar MZ, McLean L.  Coming to terms with it all: Adult burn survivors’ ‘lived experience’ of acknowledgement and acceptance during rehabilitation. Burns 2014; 40:589-597.

Dion K, Bersheid E, Walster E. What is beautiful is good. J Pers Soc Psych 1972; 24 (3):285-290.
Smith SM, McIntosh WD, Bazzini, DG. Are the beautiful good in Hollywood? An investigation of the beauty-and-goodness stereotype on film. Basic and Appl Soc Psych; 1999; 21(1):69-80.

Bazzini D, Curtain L, Joslin S, Regan S, Martz D. Do animated Disney characters portray and promote the beauty-goodness stereotype? J Appl Soc Psych 2010; 40 (10):2687-2709.

Black RS, Pretes L. Victims and victors: Representation of physical disability on the silver screen. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities 2007; 32 (1):66-83.

Weir K. The pain of social rejection. Monitor on Psychology (American Psychology Association)2012; 40(4). Available at:

Changing Faces. (n.d.) Face Equality Campaign. Available at: