"facial equality", "Liberation Phanship", ableism, ALW, Deformity/Disfigurement, disability, Phantom, politics
So a week or so ago, while reading through my Twitter feed, I came across the following tweet from the official Phantom twitter, @PhantomOpera, which represents the show worldwide (although the London, Broadway and U.S. tour productions do all have their own). And I really wanted to respond, because I found it really disturbing coming from an official voice for the musical! But I knew I couldn’t possibly condense why into 140 characters. I really wanted to say something, though, because I didn’t think this should be left without a response! It was part of a discussion on why the Phantom comes out for curtain-call in his full costume, including the hat and mask, when both have been removed during the Final Lair. And @PhantomOpera’s answer was that they wanted to end the show with his “iconic” look rather than his “broken” look, to which another discussant asked if they thought the Phantom is broken. To which @PhantomOpera replied, and this is what I find problematic:
“A little bit. I think the character behaves less refined when he doesn’t have the wig & mask & that’s not a good image to end the show with”
You can (I hope, if I’ve done this right) find the tweet in question here, and you should be able to call up the rest of the discussion from there.
What I find so problematic about this tweet is that it, in fact the whole discussion at least as far as I saw, equates the Phantom’s revealed “deformity” with his being “broken” as though there were some inherent correlation between the two. It makes this correlation by suggesting that he is less “broken” when he conceals his deformity in order to appear more “refined”. And this is classic ableism! Yes, the Phantom is broken, and, yes, he does have low self-esteem (see further tweets in the discussion which describe the wig and mask as props to bolster the Phantom’s low self-image). But this is not “just” because his face is “deformed”. That’s how ableism operates, though. It locates brokenness in the individual body of the person with the bodily/mental/cognitive difference, and, therefore, treats depression, self-esteem issues, feelings of isolation, etc, simply as part of their “condition”. It treats those feelings/psychological states as part of the person’s individual set of problems rooted in their bodily “deficiency” rather than as legitimate responses to the way society treats them. Thus, the “cure” is understood to be to make the person as “normal” as possible so that they can love themself and fit in, not to change society at large to one that can accept them. This is because, to put it baldly, ableism believes that it is the person’s body that is wrong, not society’s inability to embrace them. And therefore, it maintains that to change society would be neither possible nor, in fact, desirable. Thus, in the case of this tweet-discussion, then, it seems to be suggesting that the Phantom’s self-loathing and depression derive from his having a facial “deformity” rather than from society’s exclusion of him – an inevitable, if tragic, reality (Christine’s ultimate acceptance of him being a one-off, miraculous exception) which, if he were “sane”/”well adjusted”, he would have learned to accept. And the phrasing that he “behaves more refined” when hiding his “deformity” implies that his doing so is a good thing – a step toward “normalcy” even if he is, ultimately, too “broken” to achieve it fully.
As I said, I find the above really disturbing, especially from an official voice for the show! Because, to me, Phantom is and should be about countering and resisting ableism. Yes, the Phantom is broken, but not by his face. He is broken by a lifetime of marginalization and exclusion by a society that’s decided his face is too different to be accepted. He is depressed, yes, but because of a lifetime of being told he’s unloveable because of his “deformity”. He behaves in a deranged and violent manner because he can’t take it any more – because Christine’s fear and seeming rejection, coming on top of this lifetime of experience, were the straws that broke the camel’s back. This doesn’t excuse his behaviour or make it OK. But it does put it into its social and, yes, political context. His problems do not inhere in him. They do not inhere in his face. They were created in him by a society which ranks people’s worth – which ranks people’s very right to exist and survive – according to their ability to measure up to a standard based on the young, White, able, “healthy”, cisgendered, preferably “beautiful” body.
But the answer to that is not to conceal the brokenness. It is not to mask oneself to try to measure up to the very standard that excluded you! As the Final Lair itself suggests, it is to recognize the social, psychological and spiritual harm done when we marginalize and other those who do not measure up to that narrow ideal, and begin to make reparation. That is why that line “Pitiful creature of darkness, what kind of life have you known? God give me courage to show you you are not alone!” (Act II scene 9) is so powerful! Admittedly, the gendering can be way problematic – a discussion I’ll definitely have here at some point because it’s absolutely necessary. But, even so, it is the moment when Christine recognizes that it is society that has done this to the Phantom, not his own inner nature. And it can, as I have argued elsewhere, be read almost as an apology on the part of her whole society and an attempt at reparation! And this is also what makes the Phantom’s choice to then let her and Raoul go free so powerful too – not because he has refused that reparation out of some recognition that it’s really all his own psychological fault or problem. But, rather, exactly because he has accepted her reparation. He has recognized and accepted her compassion and, with the strength that has given him, taken at least a small step toward refusing to buy in any more to society’s dehumanization of him. He has finally understood that Christine simply loves the other guy, and that her not loving him romantically truly has nothing to do with his face. And that understanding, combined with her compassion for and comprehension of how he has been marginalized, gives him the strength to stop behaving in a dehumanized way – to stop passing on to her and Raoul the violence he himself has endured.
Considered this way, then, I would argue that the Phantom with his “deformity” and brokenness, yes, but also re-found dignity revealed is exactly the image with which to end the show! And I wonder how audiences would respond, given this, to him coming out for curtain-call unmasked and without the wig, or perhaps to re-unmask while taking his bows? Because, I suspect that audiences would get it, and that that could actually be really powerful! At the very least, though, I’d like for those who represent the show – actors, crew, media spokespeople, etc., – to understand the Phantom’s actions and behaviour in their proper context, and to please not use ableist tropes to present the character as exotically tragic or tragically exotic. Don’t re-marginalize, either the Phantom, or those of us for whom his story resonates as our own!
Note: I’ve put the words “deformed” and “deformity” in quotes to indicate that these are socially constructed concepts that derive from the belief that there’s only one “correct” way for a face to look. Recently, however, I have seen a number of activists reclaiming the word “disfigured” and using it to make the same argument with regard to both congenital and acquired facial differences. Because, as they point out, both are othered for their differences in appearance, and in both cases that stems from the idea that there is only one proper and pleasing human figure. And I totally cheer on these activists’ awesome and courageous work! Indeed, I recently heard the term “facial equality” coined by one such person, which I absolutely love! I use the language of “deformity”, however, because that is the term used in the show (Act 1 scene 10, Act II scene 2) and which, therefore, has tended to be used in the Phandom.
Note 2: The above might, perhaps, make it sound as though I am arguing that the Phantom is better unmasked because that is the “truth”. But that is not quite what I mean to convey. Indeed, I love the Phantom in his full regalia and, in fact, find it smoking hot, especially when played by an actor with the right voice and stage-charisma! But, to me, though I suspect to other Phans as well, the power of his “iconic” look does not come from the fact that it hides his “deformity” and makes him more “normal”. Because, in fact, it does neither. It neither makes his mind and heart less broken by the exclusion he has suffered, nor does it allow him to successfully “pass”. However, and this is something I’ll discuss more in future posts, because it is an attempt to claim dignity even without being able to successfully pass, the Phantom’s Phantom persona and, therefore, regalia can be understood as a form of resistance. And that, for me, is what makes it so potent.