Skip to content
Skip to navigation menu


Television’s last taboo?

30 March 2009

TV studio

At least 400,000 people in the UK have disfigurements to their face, hands or body. Yet people with disfigurement are rarely represented on television, and when they are, it is often in a stereotypical way, as the villain in a drama or the subject of an over-sensationalised documentary.

However, most people would welcome more positive representation of those with disfigurement on television, according to new research from the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.

The findings suggest that the recent negative reaction to CBeebies Channel presenter Cerrie Burnell is not representative of the views of the public as a whole. The report also concludes that television producers should find new ways to challenge ignorance and discomfort about disfigurement, to remove the taboo and stigma attached to it. This could be achieved by including people with disfigurement in a less sensational way, so that the wide range of human appearance becomes the norm on television, as it is in life.

The report is a culmination of two years of research by Dr Claire Wardle and Dr Tammy Boyce, incorporating the review of 8,650 hours of television footage, 17 focus groups and interviews with 16 media producers.

The research found that people with disfigurements are rarely shown on UK television or film. When they are, in fiction they are often cast as villainous characters such as Freddie Krueger or The Joker, or reclusive types forced to hide from society such as the Phantom of the Opera. Non-fiction representation is usually in the form of a factual documentary where the portrayal of adults or children with extremely rare congenital conditions is over-sensationalised and voyeuristic. Participants in the research that had no personal experience of disfigurement were just as outraged by these negative portrayals of disfigurement as those who did have experience.

The report recommends a number of ways that those who work in television can make a difference, such as:

• Having more people with disfigurement in front of and behind the camera, so that disfigurement becomes incidental, and not the main story

• Giving voices to people with disfigurement so that their personalities, perspectives and opinions are not ignored

• Relying less on the myths and stereotypes which surround disfigurement

• Including storylines about disfigurement in fictional television programmes that addresses society’s levels of prejudice, ignorance and stigma

Dr Wardle said: "Television represents disfigurement in a way that would be completely unacceptable for many other minority groups. Television has played a role in changing attitudes towards mental health, race and sexuality and has a responsibility to do the same with disfigurement. It should be working towards making the invisible visible, moving away from a 'freak show' visibility to an everyday visibility, where people with disfigurement are also given a voice."

The research was funded by the Healing Foundation, a national, medical research charity supporting research into all surgical and psycho-social aspects of disfigurement and visible loss of function, in partnership with the Wales Office of Research & Development, part of the Welsh Assembly Government.

The Healing Foundation also established the UK Centre for Burns Research in partnership with Cardiff University, the Welsh Centre for Burns and Plastic Surgery at Morriston Hospital, Swansea, and Swansea University. It is the first major academic research Centre of its kind in the country.

A panel discussion is being held (30th March 2009) by the charity Changing Faces in association with Society Guardian, addressing the research findings and their implications for broadcasting. The invited audience will include leading figures in broadcasting, commissioning and news editors, script-writers, academics and people with disfigurements.

Related links