Everything is in the Eye of the Beholder: Disordered Perception and The Twilight Zone

Whether we belong to the generation of the 1960s, 1980s, or the twenty-first century, I am sure we all remember an American TV show The Twilight Zone varying between science fiction, drama, thriller, and horror. Every episode is filled with so much suspense and irony, and its educational character is immense. The show has been so popular that even to this day one comes across its reruns aired on multiple TV stations inside and outside the North American continent. One of my favorite episodes of all time is “Eye of the Beholder”, which deals with how humans come to perceive the surrounding objects and subjects as beautiful or as lacking in beauty, i.e. as ugly. I am here focused on analyzing the episode from the last season where the episodes were narrated by Forest Whitaker. Ever since the history of humankind, beauty has been a very powerful tool in manipulating the masses, whether through visual or written mediums, voice, language, or even our own behavior and disposition. When we listen to a song, see a movie, or read a book, our judgment generally sounds “That is good/bad/awful, or That is so beautiful/That is so ugly!” Likewise, after hearing a foreign language for the first time, most of us will judge that language based on the beauty or ugliness of its intonation and melody, syntax, accent, or pronunciation. Before traveling to a particular country, we always try to pick the places that are supposedly beautiful, instead of picking places based on its people, cultural and historical artifacts or even the culinary specialties they may offer. Why do we need to judge and classify everything in life based on what the exterior has to offer? Why can’t we judge people based on their interior qualities, and their treatment of objects, nature, animals, or other people around them? Why do we fail to perceive a “grain of sand” (Blake), or branch of tree as beautiful, and yet we perceive cars, big houses, restaurants, or disco clubs as beautiful? In perceiving other human beings around us, we all have different criteria for the categorization: some will say that tall, blond women with smooth skin, glowing teeth and thin bodies are epitomes of beauty. On the other hand, some people will say that blond women are artificial and ugly. When it comes to a body containing certain disability/disabilities (e.g. a face with scars or burn injuries, an amputated or twisted arm or leg, etc.) most of us will not look upon such bodies as beautiful or appealing. Today’s impact of the media and the fashion industry teaches both non-disabled and disabled people to alter their bodies in order to fit within the beau idéal.

I have always wondered how we came to define what is beautiful and what is ugly? As Mark P. O’Tool suggests in his essay Disability and the Suppression of Historical Identity, “Regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or social status, people with disabilities often report that their identity is defined first and foremost by their disability” (see Disability in the Middle Ages, p.11). This is true to a large extent, primarily because societies and cultures have pushed anyone that is below the average population to the margins, creating additional physical, social and ideological problems for people with disabilities. Just like the concept of ability vs. disability, the concept of beauty is a social and ideological construct emanating from our obsession with our own bodies! Our bodies dominate the way we present ourselves to others, the way we interact with the outside world, and the way we perceive the world is due to our bodily needs, fears, or desires. In The Twilight Zone’s episode “Eye of the Beholder”, we witness the life of a woman whose body has shaped her sustenance and the way she conceives of nature, the universe, the real and the imaginary. In the opening scene of the episode, the woman whose face is covered in bandages speaks of the beauty in the outside world—namely, her fascination with the sunshine and clouds. Her sentence “I used to look at the clouds all the time: if you stare at them long enough, they become ships, people, anything you want really. If you stare at them long enough” (The Twilight Zone) is suggestive of how we create the concepts of beauty and ugliness. Depending on who looks at the subject, but most importantly, depending on how long we look at the subject, that which at first appears as human might in two minutes appear like a monstrous brute, or that which initially looks like a monster might all of a sudden appear as the most beautiful thing our eyes have encountered. The woman is occupied with her physical appearance to such an extent that she suddenly suppresses her thoughts of the gifts of nature and leaps into thoughts about her face. “I always wanted to be beautiful” seems to be the driving force within all humans. Call it shallow or narcissistic, but the fact is that we all have reached the point where we are striving to reach perfection in terms of our physical, mental, and emotional attributes. With the impact of the fashion industry, which places high emphasis not only on the features of one’s face but even on the shape and size of lips, cheeks, eyelashes or eyebrows, and reality TV shows where six-year-old girls are stripped of a normal childhood by their own parents and turned into barbie dolls, no wonder humans are becoming so susceptible to the superficial and plastic means of altering their bodies. Just like the woman who in “Eye of the Beholder” is laying in a helpless state, confined to bed, I can’t help but think the following: Aren’t we all helpless before our own deficiencies and inadequacies? How have we come to the classification of able bodies versus disabled bodies—is that something that is determined by the socitey and its values, or is it a concept that has been contained in our minds ever since?

What I really love about “Eye of the Beholder” is that it places its viewers in a futuristic setting, a hundred years from now, as explained by the narrator of the episode. Everything has become reversed: that which is now considered an ability has become a disability, and that which is considered a disability is viewed as ability. Beauty has become ugly, and ugliness has become beautiful! The female patient is laughed at and rejected by her own family, friends, medical staff, and the majority of her society, and is looked upon as a an outcast, a freak doomed to complete isolation with “her own kind” (The Twilight Zone). “The state will allow you to live comfortably among those of your own kind” are the comforting words of the doctor to the female patient whose disability (in this case ugliness) is the only thing that marks her personality in the eyes of others. We are told that the hospital we see is not an ordinary hospital, and that the woman we see is not an ordinary patient. So how do we know what is ordinary? The narrator is constantly trying to deceive the viewers, and the reality is that this is not a futuristic setting, but that the action is set in the present, it is going on right before our eyes, in a store, restaurant, schoolyard, café, even the biggest fashion show. Sentences that still echo in my mind are: “Who decides that people who are different have to be separated from the people who are normal? Is ugliness [disability] a crime? Why shouldn’t people be allowed to be different? (The Twilight Zone)” I wonder what would happen if we were all born without faces, but animals still had their faces: Would humans be aware that they lack something in their appearance and physiognomy? Would we look upon animals as ugly, just because we happen to be a more dominant and, allegedly, more intelligent species? It is interesting how human perception of what is beautiful and ugly changes from one decade to another. If we look to the Hollywood movie industry of fifty or sixty years ago, faces not modified by make-up or plastic surgery, i.e. anything that retained the aura of the natural was considered beautiful. In contemporary times, the major showbizz superstars have undergone at least one plastic treatment, because these have become the dictates of our societies and cultures! Just like nature is being eradicated by the products of science, the same happens with everything natural contained inside and outside of our bodies. The way I look at the attitude of medical staff towards the woman in “Eye of the Beholder” is the way the majority of world’s societies look at anyone who does not dress up.

Today, it all comes down to conformity: if you don’t dress up for a job interview, it is pretty much guaranteed that you won’t get the job you applied for in the first place; if you don’t dress up on a first date, most probably you won’t even move beyond that first date; if you’re famous and always dressed up (at least for your TV audience) and you walk out in casual or shabby clothes, without any makeup, your hair messy, one of the paparazzi will uncover your natural face and broadcast it to the rest of the world! Just like a snail hides its body within its shell, humans have to live a life of pretense and hide their real faces unless they follow the dictates of conformity. As “Eye of the Beholder” says: “Conformity we must love and worship” (The Twilight Zone), but the fact is that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!” (The Twilight Zone). Besides, “What kind of world is this where ugliness is the norm, and beauty is deviation from that? The answer is: It does not make any difference!” (The Twilight Zone). And indeed, it does not make any difference, because our parents, friends, co-workers, teachers; after all, our own state, its leaders and their laws are teaching us that anything deviating from conformity equals disabled and undesirable, and that anything that complies with the laws of conformity equals nothing, and nothing but able and desirable bodies.