Disfigurement on the Screen

screen-92134_640On Tuesday night, BBC 3 broadcast an hour-long documentary in which Adam Pearson, a British actor and presenter, explores the fringe world of freak shows in the United States.

Pearson has a condition called neurofibromatosis 1, which causes tumours to grow on his face. As a child, he was called ‘freak’ and ‘monster’ in the school playground and his exploration of the modern freak show scene is nothing if not personal to him.

Anticipating disturbing stories of exploitation, Pearson unexpectedly finds himself torn between his initial rejection of the freak show and the urging of the people he meets to embrace his own ‘inner freak.’

The programme left me feeling both disturbed, challenged, and emotional and in awe of Pearson’s courage. But no matter how much the freak show performers claimed to be liberated and empowered rather than exploited, I couldn’t come to terms with it. Calling
someone a freak is to dehumanise them and where’s the empowerment in that?

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I’ve followed Pearson’s career with much admiration, from his cinematic debut in the absorbing and thought-provoking sci-fi film Under the Skin, where he starred opposite Scarlett Johansson, to his subsequent appearances on British television.

Pearson has also featured in a Changing Faces poster campaign promoting public awareness of facial disfigurement. Additionally, he’s a budding comedian and I had the pleasure of meeting him at Changing Faces’ stand-up comedy night in December, where we both performed.

Not only is he a charismatic presenter, a talented comedian and a smart guy, he’s also very approachable. In other words, Pearson is everything a TV producer should want.

He is currently appearing as a reporter on the Channel 4 programme Tricks of the Restaurant Trade, a sign that his career in television may well go beyond presenting programmes about disfigurement and disability.

What does this potentially mean for the thousands of ‘invisible’ people living with a condition that affects their appearance? Will Pearson’s public exposure and success in television translate into wider acceptance of facial difference?

As much as I wish that to be the case, personal experience has taught me – and plenty of research studies back me up on this – that broader perceptions of ‘the other,’ whether it’s an ethnic or religious minority or people with disabilities or a disfigurement, are very hard to shift.

We’re still a long way away from seeing the normalisation of difference. But at least, the success of Adam Pearson is a step in the right direction.

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