Disability Studies Possibilities in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands

By: Lillian LeCompte

“Disability Studies Possibilities in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands”

Weird bone structure, exaggerated body features, and dark imagery all permeate the work—live-action or animated—of one of today’s most prolific filmmakers: Tim Burton. In every full length and short film he creates, the man’s obsession with depicting the body in as strange a way as he can and testing how far it can stray from “normal” is featured front and center. One of his most famous movies is Edward Scissorhands (1990), which tells a fairytale-inspired story of a man with literal scissors for hands. The film is written to be a macabre and fantastical comedy/drama, but the titular character’s abnormal appendages can be seen as a deeper social commentary. Edward Scissorhands can be analyzed with a disability studies lens to reveal a metaphor for the disabled person’s life as they face microaggressions, harassment, exploitation, and ostracization in an able-bodied world through Edward’s “otherness” that sets him apart from those around him and his grotesque body.

A Background on the Grotesque Body and the Grotesque in Media

To clarify, the grotesque body is any body outside the societal standards of beauty—a thin man, an obese woman, the body in an unflattering position or from an unflattering angle, eyes too small or a nose too large, etc. The grotesque body furthers into what the dictionary definition of a “medical deformity” is as well—missing limbs, robotic features, dwarfism, and any other condition that alters the body from the norm. Even subcultures like drag queens and regional cultures like the Polynesian’s tattooing traditions fit into the grotesque. Grotesque, in essence, is the deconstruction of what we have accepted as the standard of beauty. The grotesque body type includes several real-life and non-fantastical ailments, meaning the mentally ill, physically ill, and otherwise “abnormal” body types/functionalities are often villainized or humiliated in film, like with the freakshow trope. In his essay “Fantastic Films, Fantastic Bodies: Speculations on the Fantastic and Disability Representation,” David Church argues, “The fantastic film… bears so many resemblances to the disreputable phenomenon of the freakshow” in which the disabled body is placed in an exploitive way. The otherworldly, villainous body runs rampant, too, with the antagonist having a stark contrast to the attractive protagonist. Sometimes, though, this juxtaposition is more subtle than the difference between Bruce Wayne and The Joker, or a group of normal teens and Freddy Krueger. Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge is an elderly woman instead of young and spry. The Lion King’s Scar has a quite common facial blemish in place of a fresh visage. The Marvel Universe’s Slug is an obese man rather than toned and muscular. They all fall into the grotesque, and these natural body types have slowly been normalized into the enemy—or, at the very least, emblematic of someone not deserving of good. Church posits that because fantasy-based media has adopted this general antagonization of the disabled or “other” body (any body that is unconventional by Western beauty standards), disabled studies analysts tend to pass over these formulaic stories. The titular character of Edward Scissorhands is definitely a grotesque figure, and it is easy to look over this movie as nothing but another entry in the long list of films that demonize the unconventional body. However, one can analyze this film with a disabled studies lens and see a representation of the struggles disabled people face.

Models of Disability

Two concepts that will be crucial to this essay are the models of disability: the social and the medical. The social model of disability identifies the obstacles (physical, verbal, mental, social, or otherwise) those with abnormal bodies face and asserts that those obstacles are created by an able-bodied community made for able-bodied citizens. The able-bodied world that abnormal bodies cannot function in pushes abnormal-bodied people into the category of impaired or disabled. So, the inaccessible world around a wheelchair-bound person, then, makes them impaired. Consider the following: a man in a wheelchair still has the ability to transport himself as efficiently as a man who can walk. However, he can only do so if the able-bodied designed world around him shifts to also supply wheelchair accessible ramps alongside stairs. If the world expands to accommodate any body type that deviates from expectation, those other bodies are no longer impaired.

The social model differs from the medical model of disability that still favors the “typical” body by saying that any disfigurement or disability should be corrected by medical treatments to match as closely with the typical body as it can regardless of whether or not the abnormality causes any problems for the person. If the abnormality is “fixed,” the atypical person can live “normally” in an able-bodied accessible world and society does not have to accommodate them. The latter model is seen practiced by the “normal” characters in Edward Scissorhands such as the people who tell Edward about doctors who can help his condition. These instances will be discussed after a brief introduction to the film’s plot.

Edward Scissorhands and the Disabled Body

            Edward Scissorhands opens with an aged Kim Boggs in a conversation with her grandchild, who asks where snow comes from. Here, we get the exposition for the story. There was once an old inventor who lived in the haunted mansion atop the hill. He created Edward (portrayed by Johnny Depp) and gave him everything a human has—except he gave him scissors in place of hands. The narrative then switches to some time reminiscent of the 1950s as Peg Boggs (Kim’s mother) goes about her door-to-door Avon consulting routine in her pastel and idyllic neighborhood, trying to sell this season’s beauty shortcuts. She is turned down by everyone, so she changes up her routine by trying the blackened, decrepit mansion shrouded in rumor and mystery. She knocks, receives no answer, and creeps in, calling out to whoever is there that she has come only to talk about beauty supplies. As she makes her way up a winding staircase, she sees a dark figure flitting around. Peg finds Edward in a shadowed attic-like space, scissor hands and all, alone and scarred. After a brief exchange, she decides to take this deformed creature home, where he is accepted into the Boggs family and causes much intrigue in the neighborhood. The story then follows Edward’s life in this “normal” society. Edward and his struggles to partake in life around him—though his deformity would not actually happen in reality—can represent a disabled body in an able-bodied world.

The Reality of Microaggressions

            One category of Edward’s struggles comes from his inability to physically partake in things the able-bodied person would take for granted. Edward grapples with doing basic tasks in the environment he is in because dressing habits, utensils, and other mundanities just are not made for his hands to handle. These obvious instances of his scissor hands getting in the way of normal activities are not the only way Burton depicts the world challenging Edward. A second category of struggles comes from the words and preconceptions of those around him. From the very beginning of the film, the preconceptions of the townspeople can be seen as microaggressions, defined by New Oxford American Dictionary as “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group” (“Microaggression”). Microaggressions can be done or said directly to the minority/group themselves or indirectly. Even a subtly off-color comment about a minority from one nonminority to another nonminority can work to perpetuate a stigma against the minority, and, thus, is seen as a microaggression. The way Kim introduces Edward to the story can be seen as an indirect microaggression. While Edward is not physically present in the scene, Kim tells her grandchild his fairytale-like origin story: “[The inventor] … created a man. He gave him insides: a heart, a brain, everything. Well, almost everything… [The inventor] died before he could finish the man… So, the man was left by himself, incomplete and all alone” (Edward Scissorhands00:04:20). Even though Edward proves himself to be proficient in hedge and ice sculpting, food chopping, barbecuing, lock picking, etc. and proves himself capable of attachment, love, and compassion, he is still incomplete because he is different. Even as he is introduced by someone who claims to have loved him, the way Kim makes sure to describe him as “incomplete” is a microaggression in and of itself.

Another microaggression comes in his name alone. Edward Scissorhands is directly named after his disability. Edward himself only ever gives a first name for himself before being driven out of the neighborhood. Thus, the audience can assume that able-bodied people around him gave him the moniker of “Scissorhands” at some point. His scissor hands are what defines him to able-bodied people. When Peg first sees him, her reaction is to ask, “What happened to you?” (00:14:11)This implies that something had to happen after he was born, not that he was born this way, like atypical bodies never naturally occur and are inherently wrong. After the shock subsides, she dabs an astringent on his face to help his scarring and reduce risk of infection before deciding to take him home, where she then continues this line of action and tries every Avon product in her arsenal to “fix” his face. Thus, Peg uses conventional beauty tools to make Edward normal, something that becomes a recurring event. As soon as Peg reaches the colorful part of the neighborhood (which represents able-bodied society), the nosy housewives immediately ring each other on the phone to discuss the strange, different character that just entered their pristine, normal lives. Three separate times in the movie, three different characters tell him—unprompted—that they know a doctor who might be able to help him, and one character asks if he has ever considered prosthetics or corrective surgery. These characters are practicing the medical model of disability, assuming that Edward would want to or should want to become as close to “normal” as he can be. Everything in this world is driven by the conceived standard of conventional beauty, as well, causing even more microaggressions.

At every turn, Edward is aggressively forced to see or hear subtle reminders of how he exists outside the standard of beauty. Able-bodied people around him live with a one-track mind—whether they recognize what they are doing or not—of trying to fix what is not conventional, creating an environment of hostile beauty standard enforcement. Peg is an Avon consultant whose worship of Avon products encapsulates her life, acting as something symbolic of the worship of the able, beautiful body and advocacy of the medical model of disability. The first lines Edward hears from her is, “Hello? Avon calling! … Hello? I’m Peg Boggs, your local Avon representative” (00:11:22).  He is introduced to her in the context of beauty and normalcy, not as an autonomous person. Moreover, once he shows proficiency in hair cutting—something associated with higher beauty standards—the townspeople assign him aspirations of opening a hair salon, where Joyce (a promiscuous housewife from the neighborhood) will greet clients and Peg will have a cosmetics counter. Even Peg bragging about Bill being a champion bowler is a microaggression. Bowling is a strange little throw-away detail, but looking at it closer, it is an elusive jab at Edward’s “otherness.” A bowling ball is made specifically for a typical hand, and there is not much room for nonstandard hands to use a bowling ball comfortably. A football or basketball, at the very least, can easily be used as is or lightly modified to be used by a non-typical hand. In order for Edward to bowl, he would need a heavily-customized ball, which is a spectacle all on its own. Edward is absolutely encompassed by the standards of beauty that his societally-impaired body does not fit in.

The obstacles Edward runs into are much like what a real-world person with a grotesque body would encounter. Someone with even minimal facial scarring is often offered unsolicited tips on vitamin E oil. Those who have had a prosthetic hand their whole lives are praised for being able to complete tasks the same way as those with normal hands would, as if trying to complete a task differently is predetermined to fail. To readdress the social model of disability, Edward is only disabled because the world around him is not made for his unique hands, and that world does not change to include him. Instead, he is assumed to want a doctor to correct him. The sentiment is echoed in Peg’s dialogue as she tries to mitigate his scarring: “Then you blend and blend and blend. Blending is the secret” (00:27:39). She dresses Edward in Bill’s clothes—mundane fashion popular with the average middle-aged man—so his all-black alternative ensemble does not call any more attention to him than necessary. Even before he is faced with a hostile standard of beauty, he wants to be “normal.” He expresses wanting to meet all the “doctor friends” that people tell him about to fix his abnormality, but Peg also initially finds a shrine to miracles and “treatments” for grotesque qualities in Edward’s mansion that includes weight loss testimonies, a newspaper clipping of a blind boy who learned to read “with his hands,” and a picture of a Biblical Madonna (00:13:16). Edward Scissorhands can be a metaphor for the unsolicited advice, treatment, and lack of inclusivity in the microaggressions disabled people face in society. The harsh treatment disabled bodies receive doesn’t end there.

Exploitation of Disability

As with microaggressions, Edward Scissorhands shows the exploitations those with an abnormal body face. Edward’s otherness leads him to be taken advantage of. As previously mentioned, the housewives take a prompt notice to a divergence in their routine of hair-curling, housework, and generally waiting for husbands to return from their 9-5s. Even more swiftly, they trot back inside to share with each other about the strange young man Peg was sighted with and bombard the Boggs’s landline with calls—not out of concern, just from curiosity and a desire for new gossip. Resembling the climax’s angry mob, the housewives band together at the Boggs’s doorstep and fabricate a barbecue hosted by the Boggs in a whirlwind of veiled, narcissistic insults. The scene that follows is something rare in cinema—female characters over-sexualizing an unknowing male character. In fact, they seem to sexualize him for his disability, asking each other, “Do you imagine those hands are hot or cold?” and posing the hypothetical “And just think what a single snip could do-” “-Or undo” (00:36:24). Now that the women know he is attractive (scissor hands included, thanks Johnny Depp), gentle, and—most importantly—useful to society with his proficient hedge-trimming and shish kebab-cooking, they feel free to make room for him in their daily narratives. Even as they shift to make room for Edward, they still only treat him as a point of entertainment. A thirst for gossip merely becomes them parading Edward like a lovable but funny-looking puppy—an object, and nothing more. Exploitation of Edward is not always that subtle, though. 

One character who transparently exploits Edward is Joyce, who one can go so far as to say takes the place of the typical, male sexual predator in the film. She leads her neighbors in the aforementioned vulgar remarks directed towards Edward, cunningly forces him to visit her so she can ogle and flirt with him more, and treats his cutting her hair as an erotic experience before finally making direct advances on him. This latter point clearly does not go according to plan,and instead of taking the rejection in stride, Joyce accuses Edward of sexually assaulting her. Up until this point, Joyce preys on Edward’s lack of experience navigating such advances. When she is snubbed, she slams her allegations down, confident in the fact that her normalcy will cause her to be seen as the correct party. The inverse statement is true by extension: Edward’s differences will be all the fuel the neighborhood needs to accept that Edward had a drastic character change rather than thinking something suspicious is afoot. Joyce is sexaually exploitative towards Edward, but Edward is attacked with much more than this kind of exploitation. Kim’s boyfriend Jim takes advantage of Edward’s disability in a nonsexual way for his own gain.

Jim’s exploitation of Edward is motivated by material gain and curiosity. After making a habit of antagonizing Edward, Jim finds out that Edward’s unique hands make him proficient at lockpicking as he has the tools for the trade already built in. Jim suggests employing Edward and his lock-picking abilities to try to break into a room Jim’s dad keeps sealed. He justifies using Edward by saying Edward would do anything for Kim—he would be easily convinced, after all. This situation, too, ends up going awry as Edward is arrested for his involvement, and Jim is even more outraged by Edward’s general abnormal existence. Similar to Joyce, Jim twists Edward’s innocence for personal gain by using Edward’s crush on Kim as incentive for Edward to break the law and use his abnormality for Jim’s gain. Moreover, Jim leaves Edward amid the house alarm blaring and neighbors calling the police as the rest of the party speeds off. Once again, a person exploiting Edward is confident that their own normalcy will work in their favor, and Edward—with a built-in lockpicking tool on his person—will be naturally blamed by the rest of the able-bodied community without thinking to look at the bigger picture of how Edward came to be picking locks in the first place.

In both cases, the able-bodied person’s negative feelings towards the disabled man result in them successfully persuading their neighbors that Edward is the villain when he only ever tried to do good. Edward was only accepted for as long as he was useful to able-bodied people. Even Kevin, who was once enraptured by Edward’s superhuman-like abilities, loses interest in him when he gets tired of always winning “Rock, Paper, Scissors” against him. Suddenly, the neighborhood turns on Edward. Fueled by his arrest (something indirectly brought on by Jim) and Joyce’s allegations of Edward being the predator rather than herself, able-bodied citizens begin to see him as a monster now that the novelty of his unique usefulness has worn off. Joyce changes her tune, saying “All along, I felt in my gut there was something wrong with him” (01:08:25) when she took a particular interest in him before. The neighbors grow violent, mobilizing a mob on Christmas (significantly, a time of goodwill towards your fellow man) to drive him out. The man with a disability  that gave Edward a speech about not letting anyone tell him he is handicapped now brazenly inquires of Kevin “have they caught him yet? … Him! That cripple” (01:27:59) Because an able-bodied society cannot divorce the concept of the grotesque body as the antagonist’s trademark, that society pushes the disabled members of their community into the enemy category, even when disabled members have proven themselves to be otherwise—a reality for the grotesque body.

Alienation and Humiliation

The film, then, can also be viewed as a testament to the persistent alienation and feelings of never quite belonging to those with abnormal bodies face. Throughout the film Edward is consistently marked as “other,” never quite being wholly accepted. He’s denied a loan to start a business, but told a “decided advantage” for parking and encouraged to get a handicapped placard (01:01:50) so he can be further called out by society as different. Further, we see in a flashback the inventor attempting to teach his creation etiquette, being quoted “…etiquette tells us what is expected of us and guards us from all humiliation and discomfort” (00:38:54). The inventor tries to teach Edward to be socially acceptable, even though—as analyzed earlier—he is still incomplete, and therefore inhuman. The flashback is an instance of foreshadowing, as well. Because of his differences, he doesn’t merge seamlessly with society and finds himself in embarrassing situations like not knowing how to react when presented with sexual advances and misunderstanding idiomatic expressions. After Jim’s aggressive confrontation and his learning the police and neighbors are hunting him, Edward realizes that he will not fit into this environment and will never be truly accepted. He snips his borrowed clothes from Bill Boggs to reveal his original ensemble and, no longer hiding behind a mask of acceptability to blend in, makes his way back to his mansion. The mob of neighborhood residents only disperse when Kim beguiles the crowd into thinking Edward is dead. Commentary-wise, this scene and the whole film can be viewed as the universal struggle of people with real-life grotesque bodies feeling ostracized and persecuted. A disabled person can only find peace when their differences are ultimately forgotten about.

Ending Remarks

In a world of highly-specified beauty standards, several naturally occurring body types and nonstandard body modifications are pushed into the grotesque category, both in film and in reality. Anything from conventionally unattractive facial features to a dramatic medical deformity can land someone into the broad category of the grotesque. People with disabilities are oftentimes placed among movie monsters and scientific amalgams because of how their medical divergences affect them physically. It is an unfortunate fact that the “other,” or any character that is a departure from the standard protagonist, is often used to signify the villain in entertainment media. Sometimes, though, a character with a grotesque body in entertainment media reflects the reality of people with disabilities in the real world. Tim Burton’s 1990 film Edward Scissorhands is one such movie. If analyzed with disability studies in mind, the microaggressions, hostile beauty standard propaganda, harassment, alienation, villainization, and more that those with atypical bodies face on an everyday basis can be seen in how the other characters treat Edward. His grotesque body type dictates how the “normal” residents of the overwhelmingly routine-driven neighborhood interact with him. His visible differences make him a mark of intrigue to the housewives when he is first brought to the neighborhood—an anomaly to spice up the cookie cutter design of their daily lives. Once he proves his disability is useful instead of only a hindrance, the neighborhood residents feel okay with accepting him into their group. Even as he is accepted, however, offhand comments about fixing his scissor hands to make them “normal” and enthusiastic attempts to change his appearance litter their interactions with him. He’s never wholly accepted, always just shy of ostracized. The world he lives in is never altered to make room for people like him, either.  His neighbors eventually turn against him, villainizing his differences and falsely accusing him of atrocities in favor of the able-bodied character’s accounts of situations. Though Edward’s scissor hands are a fantastical deformity that would not happen in real life, interactions between Edward and the townsfolk show the reality of people with disabilities. Edward Scissorhands can be seen as a metaphor for the hardships of living as “other” in a world that refuses to alter itself and accept them.

Works Cited

Edward Scissorhands. Directed by Tim Burton, Twentieth Century Fox. 1990.

Church, David. “Fantastic Films, Fantastic Bodies: Speculations on the Fantastic and Disability Representation.” Off Screen, vol. 10, no. 10, Oct. 2006, offscreen.com/view/fantastic_films_fantastic_bodies.

“Microaggression” Def. 1. LexicoDictionaries.com, New Oxford American Dictionary, www.lexico.com/definition/microaggression.

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