The Mythology of the Face-lift

Wendy Doniger

FACE-LIFTS, and surgical procedures to make the face look younger, are nothing new. Medical techniques that have made them a reality are fairly recent, but mythological texts spanning many centuries and many cultures (from ancient India to Hollywood) have imagined what the consequences might be if those who wished for a new face were to get what they wished for. Contemporary accounts of cosmetic surgery differ in many ways from mythological treatments of the theme; where the modern technique constructs a new face ex nihilo, most myths imagine the exchange of one face for another, existing face. Both sets of stories, however, frequently express the desire to have not just any face but one’s own face as it once was in the past–to masquerade as one’s younger self, as it were. And the myths, at least, demonstrate that this is a foolish, impossible, or even fatal desire. It is my contention that the myths are right, and that the lessons they teach should be taken seriously by people contemplating real, surgical face-lifts.

Face Lifts and Incest: Indian and Inuit Myths

Many myths about face-lifts were conceived by cultures far from the worlds of cosmetic surgery in Europe or the United States. Here is a story from a late medieval Indian Sanskrit text:

The Goddess Sloughs Her Skin

One day the god Shiva teased his wife, the goddess Parvati, about her dark

skin; he called her “Blackie” (Kali) and said that her dark body against

his white body was like a black snake coiled around a pale sandalwood tree.

When she responded angrily, they began to argue and to hurl insults at one

another. Furious, she went away to generate inner heat in order to obtain a

fair, golden, skin. Her little son Viraka, stammering in his tears, begged

to come with her, but she said to him, “This god [Shiva] is a woman-chaser

when I am not here, and so you must constantly guard his door and peep

through the keyhole, so that no other woman gets to him.”

Eventually the god Brahma came to her and granted her wish to have a

golden body and to become half of Shiva’s body, in the form of the

androgyne. She sloughed off from her body a dark woman, named Kali, who

went away to live in the mountains. Parvati, now in her golden skin (Gauri,

“The Fair” or “The Golden”), went home, but her son Viraka, who did not

recognize her, stopped her at the door, saying, “Go away! You cannot enter

here. The only one who can enter here is my mother, Parvati, who loves her

son dearly.” Parvati said to her son, “Viraka, I am your mother; do not be

confused or mistaken in your mind. Do not doubt me, my son, or be misled by

my skin or my limbs; Brahma made me golden.” The Goddess then returned to

Shiva, and they made love together for many years.(1)

Parvati is a woman divided against herself–or, rather, a woman forced by her husband to divide herself into two polarized halves. Shiva likens her to a black snake when he teases her, and like a snake she sloughs off her black outer sheath to reveal her golden inner form. The creation of a double is her solution to the problem of Shiva’s womanizing (more precisely, goddessizing); insulted and rejected, she walks out on her unfaithful, hyper-critical husband. But she does not stay away for long: Eventually she sends back a more acceptable form of herself, the golden goddess. The chopped off, negative Kali is banished to the liminal area of the Vindhya Mountains (the southern region that composers of the ancient Sanskrit texts in the northwest of India regarded as beyond the Hindu pale, the place to dump things that you did not want in the story any more); the remaining golden form becomes the female half of the androgyne. I have discussed elsewhere (Doniger, 2000) the apparently racist aspects of this myth; ancient Indian authors did not have a recognizable concept of race, though they did have negative ideas about people with dark skin, whom they sometimes regarded as lower-class or even out-caste. But we cannot ignore the parallels with the uses of cosmetics in our own day to change characteristics stereotypical of race–hair straightening, light makeup, and, of course, the surgical transformations of Michael Jackson.

Viraka’s failure to recognize his mother when she returns seems to be superficial–she has changed the color of her skin–but it has deeper, darker overtones, for he knows his mother loves him (as he himself says) and this woman has rejected him and left him behind. The failure of a son to recognize his mother often, though not in the myth of Parvati/Kali, leads to incest; it results in incest, for instance, in the ancient tale of Kutsa (O’Flaherty, 1985, pp. 75-6). This same failure of a son to recognize a mother stems from incest in an Inuit myth that gives a new meaning to the “lift” in “face-lift,” for in this tale a mother “lifts” her daughter-in-law’s face in the sense of stealing it, as in “shop-lifting.” Moreover, she also attempts to “lift” her daughter-in-law’s husband, her own son. This is a story about Kiviok, an immortal who is said to have gone south on a ship after the white men arrived in the Arctic but to be ready to come back when he is needed. His most recent manifestation was around 1979, when a Russian satellite threatened to fall on Baker Lake, a small community on the Hudson’s Bay. Kiviok is said to have harpooned the satellite out of the sky down into northern Manitoba, thus saving the community (Robin McGrath, 1990). We might call this myth

The Woman Who Stole Her Daughter’s Face

[Kiviok came to a land where there were only two people, an old lady and

her daughter. He married the daughter, but one day while he was out

hunting, the old lady killed the daughter and skinned her head down to the

neck. She pulled her daughter’s head skin over her head to fool her

son-in-law,] so she would look like her daughter and could marry Kiviok.

[When Kiviok approached, the old lady put on the head and walked to meet

him, but] because her looks didn’t really change, she could still be

recognized as an old lady. [He told her to remove her kamiks, and] when she

did, her legs were skinny and brown like straw. [After she told Kiviok what

she had done, Kiviok married the old lady, but not for long. He left her to

go back to his parents.] (Kalluak, 1974, pp. 18-21)

In contrast with the tale of Parvati, this is an anti-face-lift myth. Kiviok is fooled by the face-lift, but he can tell the difference between the legs of an old woman and a young one. Another variant of the myth contrasts with the face not just the legs but the body as a whole:

Kivioq came to be very fond of his young wife, and was therefore very much

surprised when he came home one day and found only one of the women. Her

face was exactly like that of his wife, but her body was shrunken and bony.

Thus he discovered that it was the old woman who had killed her daughter

and pulled her skin on over her own. Kivioq then left that place and went

home to his own village. He rowed and rowed and at last recognised his own

village, and when he recognised it, he fell to singing (Rasmussen, 1932, p.


Again the mother’s masquerade is literally only skin deep, and quickly penetrated. Yet another version has been wonderfully retold by Annie Dillard:

A young man in a strange land falls in love with a young woman and takes

her to wife in her mother’s tent. By day the women chew skins and boil meat

while the young man hunts. But the old crone is jealous; she wants the boy.

Calling her daughter to her one day, she offers to braid her hair; the girl

sits pleased, proud, and soon is strangled by her own hair. One thing

Eskimos know is skinning. The mother takes her curved hand knife shaped

like a dancing skirt, skins her daughter’s beautiful face, and presses that

empty flap smooth on her own skull. When the boy returns that night he lies

with her, in the tent on top of the world. But he is wet from hunting; the

skin mask shrinks and slides, uncovering the shriveled face of the old

mother, and the boy flees in horror, forever (Dillard, 1975, p. 273).

Farley Mowat, on whose telling Dillard based her own, phrases the central incident like this: “He had got wet during the day, and the moisture shrunk the false skin on the old woman’s face so that it all split and came off” (Mowat, 1952, p. 159). Dillard tells this story in answer to the question that she poses: “Is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all?” The implicit answer to this question–Yes!–reveals the futility of the face-lift.

Sloughing Off Immortality

In some variants of this myth, the sloughing of the skin–a major ingredient in the face-lift that is meant to restore youth–brings not youth, but death. Sir James George Frazer cites a variant from the Central Celibes:

The Grandmother who Sloughed her Skin

In old times men, like serpents and shrimps, had the power of casting their

skin whereby they became young again. There was an old woman who had a

grandchild. Now the old woman went to the water to bathe and she hung her

old skin upon a tree. When she returned to the house her grandchild kept

saying: “You are not my grandmother, my grandmother was old and you are

young.” Then the old woman went back to the water and drew on her old skin

again (Frazer, 1950, I, p. 70).

On the surface, this is about the surface, the skin, but what is at stake runs far deeper–death. Frazer cites other myths very like this one, including one fetchingly entitled, “The Composite Story of the Perverted Message and the Cast Skin.” Another story in this series was recorded in 1909:

To Kabinana and To Karvuvu are brothers. Their mother had cast her skin and

now she was a young girl once more. But To Karvuvu cried he would not have

his mother like this and he brought her old skin back again. To Kabinana

said: “Why have you put the old skin back again on our mother? Now the

serpents will cast their skin and our descendants will die!” (Frazer, 1950,

I, p. 74; Meier, 1909, I, p. 39)

Several other versions, from Tanna in New Hebrides and the Admiralty Islands, also depict a son who rejects his mother when she sheds her skin (“I don’t know you…. You are not my mother” [Roheim, 1940, p. 20]). In retrospect, we can see that the version from the Celibes simultaneously distances and exaggerates the problem by making the older woman not a mother but a grandmother, and erases the overtones of incest by making the younger person not a son but a child of unspecified gender. The psychoanalytical anthropologist Geza Roheim glosses these stories for us: “A child or grandchild refuses to recognize the rejuvenated grandmother or mother in the young woman. In the last version quoted above and belonging to this group the difficulty lies in the Oedipus complex. If mothers were to cast their skins and hence mankind were to live forever, sons would want their mothers for their wives–hence we must die” (Roheim, 1940, p. 21). As in the Hindu and Inuit myths, the face-lift confuses the generations in such a way as to foster incest.

Malinowski recorded a related myth from the Trobriand islands which spells out, at least in Malinowski’s retelling, the implications for the origins of death:

The Animals of the Below and the Above

After a span of spiritual existence in Tuma, the nether world, an

individual grows old, grey, and wrinkled; and then he has to rejuvenate by

sloughing his skin. Even so did human beings in the old primeval times,

when they lived underground. When they first came to the surface, they had

not yet lost this ability; men and women could live eternally young.

They lost the faculty, however, by an apparently trivial, yet important

and fateful event. Once upon a time there lived in the village of Bwadela

an old woman who dwelt with her daughter and granddaughter; three

generations of genuine matrilineal descent. The grandmother and

granddaughter went out one day to bathe in the tidal creek. The girl

remained on the shore, while the old woman went away some distance out of

sight. She took off her skin, which carried by the tidal current, floated

along the creek until it stuck on a bush. Transformed into a young girl,

she came back to her granddaughter. The latter did not recognize her; she

was afraid of her, and bade her begone. The old woman, mortified and angry,

went back to her bathing place, searched for her old skin, put it on again,

and returned to her granddaughter. This time she was recognized and thus

greeted: “A young girl came here; I was afraid; I chased her away.” Said

the grandmother: “No, you didn’t want to recognize me. Well, you will

become old–I shall die.” They went home to where the daughter was

preparing the meal. The old woman spoke to her daughter: “I went to bathe;

the tide carried my skin away; your daughter did not recognize me; she

chased me away. I shall not slough my skin. We shall all become old. We

shall all die.”

After that men lost the power of changing their skin and of remaining

youthful. The only animals who have retained the power of changing the skin

are the “animals of the below”–snakes, crabs, iguanas, and lizards: this

is because men also once lived under the ground. These animals come out of

the ground and they still can change their skin. Had men lived above, the

“animals of the above”–birds, flying foxes, and insects–would also be

able to change their skins and renew their youth (Malinowski, 1926, pp.


This variant blames women, as usual, for death and goes on to divide the blame between the foolish young woman and the vindictive old woman (the mother, cited in the beginning, vanishes, leaving the generations on both sides to fight it out); in an attempt to solve the problem of old age, the women inadvertently invent death. The disguised grandmother in this story might lead us to view the story of Red Riding Hood in a new light, not as a conflict between the kindly granny and the wicked old wolf, but as a conflict within granny herself, who has her own big teeth with which to devour her little granddaughter.

Victorian Exchanges

Some of these myths imagine the transposition of not merely the face but the entire head (as in the ancient Indian tale of the transposed heads, told of both women and men [Doniger, 1999, pp. 204-259]), while others, such as the Inuit myth of Kiviok, more precisely target the face as the locus of the transformation. Stories of both types, however, express a deep distrust, sometimes even a terror, of the magic powers that make these transformations possible. This fear was also voiced, in a different key, by nineteenth century Victorian novels that sounded a warning against the science of their time: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus (1818) against galvanism and dissection, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1887) against psychotropic drugs, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) against blood transfusions and hypnosis. A novella from this period and genre, though French rather than English, Theophile Gautier’s 1856 Avatar, is about the transfer of a soul from one body to another, which might just as well be viewed as the transfer of a face from one soul to another:


Octavius de Saville was in love with Prascovia, the wife of Count Olaf

Labinski; but she, being chaste, rejected him. Doctor Balthazar

Cherbonneau, who had studied for many years in India, put Octavius’s soul

in Olaf’s body (now referred to as Octavius-Labinski) and the reverse

(Olaf-de Saville)–each now designated, in the text, by the soul’s first

name and the body’s last name. The wife immediately realized that her

husband had someone else’s soul in him, precisely because he lusted after

her as her husband never did, and she locked him out of the bedroom.

Olaf-de Saville challenged Octavius-Labinski to a duel. Each one

experienced a wave of terror as he was about to plunge his sword into the

body that he had inhabited until the day before, an act that felt like a

kind of suicide. But since Olaf-de Saville wanted to destroy the body that

might deceive Prascovia, heedless of the danger to himself he “lunged

straight in order to reach, through his own body, his rival’s soul and

life.” Octavius-Labinski, however, eluded Olaf-de Saville’s thrust and

disarmed him (remarking that Olaf, whose body he wore, was by far the

better swordsman), but refused to kill him because, he said, “That death,

even though unreal, would plunge my dear mother into the deepest grief.”

Then Octavius-Labinski said to Olaf-de Saville, “I am going to restore

your body to you, for Prascovia does not love me. Under the appearance of

the husband she recognised the lover’s soul.” They went together to Dr.

Cherbonneau, who put Olaf’s soul back in Olaf’s body. But Dr. Cherbonneau

allowed Octavius’s soul to escape, so that Octavius died (or, at least,

Octavius’s body died). Then Cherbonneau made a will, bequeathing all of his

property to Octavius de Saville, and put his own soul into Octavius’s body,

allowing his own senile body to die. Appearing as Octavius de Saville

(though, in reality, Balthazar-de Saville), he attended the funeral of Dr.

Balthazar Cherbonneau. Olaf Labinski returned to his Countess, who at once

recognized her beloved husband (Gautier, 1856, pp. 1-89).

The soul gets star billing both in the plot and in the names–hyphenated not by marriage but by transmigration. The protagonist wants to possess the woman not with his face but with his soul, although, since he also wishes to possess her physically, he also needs his rival’s face. Prascovia, however, rejects his soul and recognizes the impostor for the very reason that he became an impostor: He wants her.

These themes are further developed in another French variant on the theme, Maurice Renard’s novel Le docteur Lerne, sous-dieu (1919), which gives not the soul but the brain a new face. An old man, rejected by the young girl he loves, surgically exchanges his brain with that of his young nephew. Again the ruse is detected and there is a duel; the uncle stops his nephew from killing him by exclaiming, “My dear friend, if you do that you will kill yourself!” The double confronts himself and cannot allow his soul to kill his body; the doubling that was intended to win something new for the lover (a new, better face, and the object of his love) turns out to deprive him of what he has (his own face, and ultimately his life).

Face-Lifts in Contemporary English and Japanese Literature

In Angela Carter’s novel Wise Children, an episode of plastic surgery occurs when a man named Genghis Khan, who has recently divorced his wife, is about to remarry a young girl named Dora; but his ex-wife, still in love with him, replaces Dora at the altar. Dora tells the story:

Mrs. Genghis Khan

I thought I’d gone mad. I saw my double … and then I saw it was a

replica. A hand-made, custom-built replica, a wonder of the plastic

surgeon’s art. The trouble she’d gone to! She’d had her nose bobbed, her

tits pruned, her bum elevated, she’d starved and grieved away her

middle-age spread. She’d had her back molars out, giving the illusion of

cheekbones. Her face was lifted up so far her ears had ended up on top of

her head but, happily, the wig hid them. And after all that she looked very

lifelike, I must say, if not, when I looked more closely, not all that much

like me, more like a blurred photocopy or an artist’s impression, and, poor

cow, you could still see the bruises under the Max Factor Pan Stik, however

thickly she applied it, and the scars round where the ears should be. Oooh,

it must have hurt!…. Before me stood the exed Mrs. Khan, who loved her

man so much she was prepared to turn herself into a rough copy of his

beloved for his sake … her hands were wrinkled and freckled on the backs,

they can’t do a thing with hands, cosmetically, but there was no time to

find her some gloves, let’s hope he doesn’t look until too late…. Genghis

Khan and the imitation Dora lived happily ever after, once he’d got over

the shock, and if you believe that, you’ll believe anything (Carter, 1991,

pp. 1/55-6, 161).

The details of aging are poignant in this description; the pain that the rejected wife endures for her man is not unlike the pain that Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid experiences when she slices apart her tail to make legs for her lover’s pleasure (Andersen, 1974). The masquerade, described with cruel realism, is not particularly convincing, but it doesn’t have to be; the younger woman’s sympathy for the older woman turns the tables of jealousy and she conspires to help out her out-classed rival. It didn’t work for the mermaid, and we are led to believe that it will not work for this woman either. It never really works.

A milder version of the face-lift, heavy make-up, is described when, years after the Genghis Khan affair, the aging Dora and her twin sister Nora attend a party and want to look young: “It took an age but we did it; we painted the faces that we always used to have on to the faces we have now. From a distance of thirty feet with the light behind us, we looked, at first glance …” (Carter, 1991, p. 192). (This technique was immortalized, according to legend, by the aging Doris Day, who persisted in playing the part of young girls–“I knew her before she was a virgin,” Groucho Marx once claimed–and insisted on being photographed through gauze smeared with vaseline.) Painted in this way, Nora and Dora meet a man they have known since childhood, and he greets them with the usual cliche:

“Floradora! You haven’t changed one bit!” I was about to say him nay, draw

his attention to the crow’s feet, the grey hairs and turkey wobblers but I

saw by the look in his eye that he meant what he said, that he really,

truly loved us and so he saw no difference; he saw the girls we always

would be under the scrawny, wizened carapace that time had forced on us

for, although promiscuous, he was also faithful, and, where he loved, he

never altered, nor saw any alteration. And then I wondered, was I built the

same way, too? Did I see the soul of the one I loved when I saw Perry, not

his body? (Carter, 1991, p. 208)

Aye, that is the question. How do we recognize one another, and ourselves, despite the ravages of time?

Kobo Abe’s novel The Face of Another investigates the psychological pathology of a face-lift made necessary by an industrial accident. At first, the victim of the accident wears an obvious mask to hide his hideously disfigured face; but then he has a plastic surgeon make him a more realistic face-mask that he can put on and take off at will, and in this face he seduces his own wife. Furious at his own success, he is even more deeply wounded when she leaves him and explains, in a letter, that she had recognized him behind the other face all along. The husband explains, in a letter to his wife, his own self-justification: “The mask was no longer a means by which to get you back, but only a hidden camera through which to watch your betrayal of me. I had made the mask for the purpose of recovering myself. But it had willfully escaped from me …” (Abe, 1992, p. 209). And: “I prayed for the fairy-tale miracle of awakening one morning to find the mask stuck firmly on my face, to discover it had become my real face…. But the miracle, of course, did not happen” (Abe, 1992, p. 210). And, finally: “I knew very well that exposing the true character of the mask would probably hurt and humiliate you” (Abe, 1992, p. 214).

In the film made from the novel, the plastic surgeon says to his nurse (with whom he is having an affair), “I hope he will use the mask to find himself, not to escape from himself.” The latter option is, however, what the face-lift achieves in this film, as it does in the myths: it is a vain attempt to escape from oneself. In a subplot, a girl with a hideously scarred face hides it by letting her hair cover most of her face. Eventually, rejected by other men, she seduces her brother and, later, commits suicide. So this, too, is an intolerable situation; to have a face-lift, or not to have it, is fatal (and leads to incest). The more brutal form of the facelift myth, the Inuit version, is imagined in the film when the surgeon finds a man whose skin tone he wants to copy and says to him, “Just give us the shape of your face; we don’t want the details; we wouldn’t skin you for 10,000 yen.” But this is precisely what the surgeon has done to the man who commissioned the new face: skinned him–removed his own skin and given him another–and charged him 10,000 yen.

Face-Lifts: The Films

Face-lifts in Hollywood films are often designed to carry off a deception, but here, too, the issues of youth, beauty, and immortality remain powerful; and here, too, the face-lift almost inevitably results in disaster, often in incest. This pattern begins in the films noirs, with films like The Scar (1948), in which a man gives himself a scar in order to match the scar on the face of the man he murders and then impersonates. Too late, he discovers that he has been impersonating someone far worse than himself, indeed that, in a sense, he has been impersonating himself; and so he, too, is murdered. In Dark Passage (1947), we do not see Humphrey Bogart’s face for the first half-hour of the film, until he has had the plastic surgery that transforms him into–Humphrey Bogart, masquerading as himself; until then, we see the world through his eyes. A face-lift with a sinister twist occurs in Return from the Ashes, a British film made in 1965 (directed by J. Lee-Thompson, from the novel by Hubert Monteilhet):

Return from the Ashes

A Jewish woman doctor in Germany in the 1930s marries a younger man who is

after her money. She is deported to Dachau during the Nazi regime, and,

thinking her dead, he has an affair with her daughter by a previous

marriage. But she survives and returns secretly, though so hideously

changed by her experience in the camps that she hides from her husband

until her old friend, a plastic surgeon–who recognizes her even in her

deformed condition–transforms her face back into what it had been. Before

she can reveal herself, however, her husband catches sight of her and

thinks she must be a woman who looks just like his wife, whom he still

believes to be dead. He asks her to impersonate the dead woman in order to

help him claim her fortune, and goes so far as to teach her to forge the

other woman’s signature. When he suggests that she should have a

concentration camp number tatooed on her arm, to complete the disguise, she

casually remarks that she has already seen to that, and shows him the scar.

This makes him uneasy, and eventually, when she dyes her hair blond again,

he realizes that she really is his wife. Indeed, as he always used to say

to her, “If a woman has beautiful eyes, there is always something the same

about her, no matter what else happens.”

When the mother claims him back from the daughter, saying, sadly, “He’s

the first man in your life; he’s the last man in mine,” the daughter plots

the murder of her mother in order to keep him to herself. He kills the

daughter and attempts to kill the mother, who is saved by the plastic


This woman intentionally undergoes a face-lift in order to impersonate

herself. This is simply an exaggerated, literalized form of the rationale

for contemporary surgical face-lifts, too: to make you look like who you

“really are,” i.e., who you were before you aged. The surgery removes one

set of scars, but her identity is revealed by another scar, and she comes

into murderous conflict with her own daughter–her younger self, who looks

like the woman she was before she aged. Here again, the shadow of incest

falls across the face-lift.

Memory, amnesia, and plastic surgery form the basic structure of the 1991 film Shattered:


A man who has been in a terrible automobile accident wakes up horribly

disfigured, without a memory or a face. His wife, Judith, shows him (and

the plastic surgeons) photos of his face, and tells him who he is: her

husband, Dan Merrick, a wealthy man who lives in San Francisco. The

surgeons reconstruct his face according to the photos, and he begins to

have memories of making love to Judith on a beach in Mexico. But when he

finds photos of her embracing a man whose face is different from his, he

becomes jealous and disturbed. He learns that he had treated Judith very

badly, that she had been having an affair with a man named Jack Stanton,

and that he had wanted a divorce. He thinks he has tracked Stanton down,

but the person he is following turns out to be Judith in a man’s wig and

jacket, who says, “There is no Stanton; you shot him,” and insists that she

was playing the part of Stanton just now to convince people that Stanton

was still alive, to protect him, Dan. Now he dreams of watching someone

shoot a man who looks like himself, Dan, and when he wakes up he searches

for Stanton’s body until he finds a body that has been preserved in

formaldehyde; it has his face, Dan’s face. He realizes that, behind his

reconstructed face, he is Jack Stanton.

Shocked, he falls and hits his head, and now again he remembers making

love on the beach, but this time he sees his face, the face of Jack

Stanton, and he hears her say, “Jack, I love you.” As Jack, he remembers

clearly that she shot Dan and tried to persuade him to run off with her. He

had protested, “I’m out of your life,” and in her furious resistance there

had been a struggle in the car and an accident, in which she rolled free

and he was disfigured and concussed. Now again there is a struggle in the

car, but this time he is the one who rolls free; the car explodes, killing


“I don’t get it,” Dan keeps saying. “Why did she do all this?” Why indeed? If you don’t have your face or your memories, who are you? What is there, besides the mind and the face, that she loves? Is it just the body? Or is it the idea that he is her lover, not her husband?

Some of the implicit questions left unanswered in this film were explicitly posed, and partly answered, in the novel on which the film was based, The Plastic Nightmare, by Richard Neely (1969–designated on the cover as “a masterpiece of fifties high pulp”). Judith in the novel explains to Jack (after he has figured out that he is, in fact, Jack) how she did it. After the crash, she saw some old photos of Dan: “They’d been taken seven or eight years ago, when Dan was a lot thinner. I thought how remarkably he resembled you. He was your height, was then about the same weight, had the same color eyes and hair and similar features. You could have been brothers. I don’t wonder I found him attractive in those days” (Neely, 1969, p. 236). It would therefore be easy to change his face, but how did she know he would have lost his memory? (As Dan says, “I had emerged from coma conveniently amnesiac …”) And, even if we know how she did it, why did she do it? In the novel, she admits the stupidity, and the failure, of her plan: Passion wears off fast, and they start sleeping in separate bedrooms. Finally she tells him, “It would never have worked anyway … You began to remind me too much of him. I found I was glad when you moved into this room. Everything was breaking down all over again, just as it had with Dan” (Neely, 1969, p. 237). The body and the mind corrupt the face. Shattered is an embodiment of a cynical cliche: that sexual love never lasts, because lovers turn into spouses. As Dan/Jack unwittingly expresses it to Judith: “You know what I like about amnesia? After seven years of marriage, I get to fall in love with you all over again.” But in that film she, not he, is the one who gets to live out this fantasy. Scientists tell us that our bodies are entirely regenerated, cell by cell, every seven years (the period that American folklore regards as the limit for male sexual fidelity, the so-called seven-year-itch). The face-lift attempts to turn back, or at least to suspend, this ticking meter.

Scars and a face-lift are at the heart of a film made in 1996:

A Face to Die For

Emily, hideously scarred in her youth, falls for a man named Alec, who uses

her to get some money, lets her go to prison for him, and runs off with her

pretty sister. A surgeon reconstructs her face and falls in love with her;

but when she discovers that he has given her the face of his dead wife, she

runs away from him and takes a new name, Adrian. Now a beauty, she meets

again a man named Paul who had loved her when she was scarred but never

dared to tell her. He does now, and tells her from the very start that she

reminds him of a girl he used to know: Adrian’s mannerism of hiding her

face with her hair evokes the image of Emily. Then she meets Alec again,

makes a date to meet him in a hotel room, puts on make-up to make her face

look as it did before, when she was scarred, and goes to meet him. She

shoots him and gets away with it because no one saw Adrian come in, just a

girl who was so horribly scarred that, the clerk says, staring right at

Adrian, “I’ll never forget that face.”

When the plastic surgeon gives his patient the face of his dead wife (as the wife did for her lover in Shattered), he forces her to engage in an inadvertent masquerade that she only discovers later; but she masquerades on purpose (as herself) in order to murder her unfaithful lover. Since Emily slept with Alec only when she was she was scarred (both at the start, when she was genuinely scarred, and at the end, when she was pretending to be scarred, masquerading as herself), and with Paul only when she was restored as Adrian, neither has a basis for comparison; but Paul, who loved her, recognizes her, and Alec, who didn’t, doesn’t.

A more mythological example of this genre combines plastic surgery with organ transplants: Face/Off (1997), in which Nicholas Cage and John Travolta play a terrorist and an FBI man whose faces (rather than heads) are surgically transposed. This procedure, which is in effect an exchange of masks, leaves souls and/or brains intact:


Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage), a terrorist, is in a coma; Sean Archer (John

Travolta), whose son Castor has killed, under goes plastic surgery to

switch not only faces with him, but voice and body. “I’ve implanted a

microchip in your larynx,” says the doctor, and so Sean can speak with

Castor’s (that is, Cage’s) voice. Then the faceless body of Castor (who

comes out of his coma) forces the doctor to give him Sean’s spare face.

As Janet Maslin sums it up, in a review neatly entitled “Good and Evil Trade Places, Body and Soul,” “Castor is free to wreak havoc with Sean’s suburban family and at F.B.I. headquarters. Bingo…. Sean once looked like Mr. Travolta, but now he looks like Mr. Cage. That means that he sees the horrible sight of his own son’s killer every time he looks in a mirror” (Maslin, 1997, C1). When Sean (with Castor’s face) sees himself as Castor, he shatters the mirror; at one point, the two men stand on two sides of a double mirror, and shoot at one another through it–each shooting at the image he hates, his own reflection but really the reflection of his enemy, whom he resembles inside, through years of obsessive hatred, as well as outside. This is precisely what happened to Dr. Lerne, as well as to the victim in Shattered. The mythology is patent: Castor has a brother named Pollux (the mortal and immortal twins, the Dioscuri, now evil twins actually named Troy, after the sister of the Dioscuri, Helen of Troy) and a son named Adam, while Sean has a wife named Eve.

The teenage daughter of the FBI agent keeps changing her face too–but she does it with green paint and weird earrings, the usual teenage self-mutilation, and her father asks her, “Who are you supposed to be now?” Hers is another sort of splitting, a bifurcation of identity between child and woman that is the key to another familiar sub-theme of the face-lift, incest: she shoots Sean, mistaking him for Castor, naturally enough, but when Castor (whom she mistakes for Sean, her father) makes sexual advances to her, she stabs him. In the end, Sean and Eve adopt Castor’s son, Adam, the surrogate for the son Castor had killed. Maslin remarks that, in terms of films, this is “… a gimmick that hasn’t been seen before” (Maslin, 1997, C14) but as a myth, it certainly has been seen before. In Shattered (1991) and Face/Off (1997), A Face to Die For (1996), and Face of Another (1966), the plastic surgeon at first functions as a kind of deus ex machina, restoring youth, giving life; but in the end, he dispenses loss and death, also divine gifts.

Conclusion: Lift Off

The mythology of the face-lift expresses, and challenges, the belief that in order to remain yourself you must stay the same, and in order to stay the same you must change your face into the face that belonged to who you were. But with the face-lift you actually change into someone else, different from who you really are now: a person with a soul and a face that are formed and scarred by experience. Charles Sibert describes watching a face-lift operation: “With each snip, I imagined the ghosts of the myriad worries that furled this woman’s forehead flying free: there, the times she troubled over school exams; there, the long waits for loved ones who were late; and there, the years of confusion and doubt” (Sibert, 1996, 24). And he records the hesitations of a woman who ultimately did not have the surgery: “`But then,’ she said, a nicely furrowed frown indicating a still-intact corrugator muscle, `I looked at my nose in the mirror and thought, That’s my father there, and that’s my mother right there in the upper eyes'” (Sibert, 1996, p. 45). Family resemblance here serves to anchor personal identity in the surface of the face that changes with age, not with surgery.

A Clairol advertisement for a dye to make grey hair black or blond or red again proclaims: “Grey Hair Lies.” That is, time lies, age lies, death lies. The outer surface of the old woman lies, by concealing the young soul beneath, and the dye restores the truth of youth. Marjorie Garber questions the special acceptability of face-lifts in contrast with operations that change not one’s age but one’s sex: “Why does a `nose job’ or `breast job’ or `eye job’ pass as mere self-improvement, … while a sex change (could we imagine it called a `penis job?’) represents the dislocation of everything we conventionally `know’ or believe about gender identities and gender roles, `male’ and `female’ subjectivities?” (Garber, 1992, p. 117) The face-lift offers a quick fix to stave off the inevitable flood of a deeper change. Saul Bellow’s Armenian cynic spoke of that other change: “On any certain day, when you’re happy, you know it can’t last, but the weather will change, the health will be sickness, the year will end, and also life will end. In another place another day there’ll be a different lover. The face you’re kissing will change to some other face, and so will your face be replaced…. You make your peace with change” (Bellow, 1949, p. 540). “Your face will be replaced” has so many meanings here: Your own present face will be replaced by your aging face or by the face of another person with whom your lover will replace you or, as a result of the first and in order to prevent the second, with a face-lift. Most of us cannot claim, with Bellow’s protagonist, that we have made our peace with change.

The mythology of the face-lift imagines people who attempt to swim upstream against the current of time by changing their faces back in the other direction. What is the relationship between our identity and our faces? The face-lift is an attempt to dodge the responsibility mentioned by W. H. Auden (a man whose skin was dramatically etched by his life): “After fifty, you’re responsible for your face.” In the film Dave (1993), the wife of a man who is being impersonated by an imposter realizes that the imposter lacks the “scars” of all their years together; he has “something that amounts to moral cosmetic surgery.” The scars that a face-lift removes are the body’s memory, in a form visible to others, of what the mind may have forgotten. Our scars may be the strongest signs of who we really are: Perhaps, at the final reckoning, the whole body will disappear, and only our scar tissue will be there to testify for us.

The problem of enduring identity in a person as she ages and loses her beauty–the problem that the face-lift attempts to address–is expressed by the Marschallin in Richard Strauss/Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier, who senses that, as she is aging, she is about to lose her young lover to a younger woman. She soliloquizes:

I well remember a girl who came fresh from the convent to be forced into

holy matrimony. [She looks in the mirror] Where is she now? Yes, seek the

snows of yesteryear! It is easily said, but how can it really be, that I

was once the little Resi and that I will one day become the old woman, the

old woman, the old Marschallin. “Look, there she goes, the old princess

Resi!” How can it happen? How does the dear Lord do it? While I always

remain the same. And if He has to do it like this, why does He let me watch

it happen with such clear senses? Why doesn’t He hide it from me? It is all

a mystery, so deep a mystery, and one is here to endure it. And in the

“how” there lies the whole difference (Hofmannsthal, 1911).

Later, she confesses that she sometimes gets up in the middle of the night and stops all the clocks. How do we stop the face of the clock–or, rather, the clock of our faces?

The character of Sosia in Kleist’s play Amphitryon expresses to his look-alike (Mercury) the impossibility of doing what Kiviok’s mother-in-law did: “I can’t annihilate/Myself, transform myself, slough off my skin/And hang my skin around your shoulders” (Kleist, 1982, 1.2). And this being so, he eventually realizes, he must be who he thinks he is, and Mercury cannot be Sosia, as he claims. But the people who opt for face-lifts do not reason as Sosia does, because, unlike him, they do not know who they are when they are confronted with their doubles: the aging people they see in a mirror that seems to be a fun-house-mirror.

There is a gender asymmmetry here: Aside from deforming accidents, women in these stories generally want a new face in order to keep the mate they have, while men want one in order to get a new mate. Stories emphasize the male gaze, the requirement that women, not men, must be beautiful. Old women are ugly, in these stories, in ways that old men are not. Some of their perceived ugliness is natural, not cultural; biologically, men and women do age differently in some ways, though not in others. The softness of women’s tissue makes for more dramatic changes in their bodies as they age (their breasts, for instance, soften more obviously than do the chests of men). But these biological changes are exacerbated by cultural factors that differ dramatically between men and women and that reinforce the biological paradigm that makes older women sexually less attractive than older men. Our society does not set the same premium on physical beauty in men as in women, or even construct “beauty” for older men as it does for older women (compare, for instance, the appeal of the aging Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford with that of the aging Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, even Elizabeth Taylor, let alone Gloria Swanson). Biological decay (wrinkled skin and sagging flesh) is compounded by social construction (a preference for one sort of flesh and skin over another) and a double standard (wrinkles that are acceptable on a man’s face but not on a woman’s).

The process of aging and changing presents us with new versions of ourselves, both the same and different. Some people totally reject the selves of the past, the former lives, the ex-wives or-husbands, the youthful political commitments, and become each new person, each new face. Some acknowledge the truth and value of all the faces at the same time and strive to recognize themselves in all of them. But others totally reject the present self and strive to squeeze themselves back into the selves of their youth, through the magic of the Nautilus machine, the younger and younger lovers, the haunting of high school reunions–and, above all, the face-lift. Even when we succeed, the myths tell us, our short-lived triumph is Pyrrhic, soured by the loss of a precious part of our genuine selves—our faces. This fact is encapsulated in the original title of the film The Scar (1948): Hollow Triumph.

Incest dogs the face-lift because of the confusion of generations, mothers looking just like their daughters, as they so proudly boast on returning from their surgeries and spas. Even when this doubling back does not result in actual incest, it arrests our ability to move forward in time into a position where we can become our parents and eventually accept our own deaths. In the third of the Harry Potter books (Rowling, 1999, p. 312), through an episode of time travel that traces a kind of Mobius twist in the chronological sequence, Harry encounters himself in the loop where the past and present come together and overlap. The first time he lives through this period, he sees, across a lake, someone he vaguely recognizes: perhaps his father? No, his father is dead, but that person sends a silver stag that saves him from present danger. When he goes back in time, he runs to the same place to see who it was, and there’s no one else there; he is the one who sends the stag to save himself in what will be the future. The moment when Harry realizes that he mistook himself for his father is quite powerful; and it is, after all, the only real kind of time travel there is. We become, in adulthood, people who lived some thirty years before us, people who must save our own lives. The face-lift attempts to send us back to that moment in time and keep us there, so that we can no longer save our own lives in the present moment.

The mythology of the face-lift exploits the tension between two aspects of our ambivalent attitude to the soul, two ideas of the self, two sets of beliefs, often held in common: (1) your soul is deep inside, invisible, and that’s you; and (2) your soul is your face, the public self, the way others perceive you, the barrier between you and the rest of the world. The myths tell us that there is no way of being sure which of these options is true at any moment, but that each is, in its way, true. The poet William Butler Yeats said it all:

If I make the lashes dark

And the eyes more bright

And the lips more scarlet

Or ask if all be right

From mirror to mirror,

No vanity’s displayed:

I’m looking for the face I had

Before the world was made (Yeats, 1965)


(1) Padma Purana (Anandashrama Sanskrit Series no. 131. Poona, 1893) 1.46.1-32, 47-108, 119-121. This is just one episode in a longer text, which I have discussed in my book The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade. The same text, with some variations, appears in the Skanda Purana 1.2.27-29 (the version translated in O’Flaherty, 1975, 251-261) and in the Matsya Purana 154-7 (the version translated by Shulman, 1997, 156).


Abe, Kobo. The Face of Another. Translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International, 1992.

Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Mermaid.” In Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, translated from the Danish by Erik Christian Haugaard. New York: Doubleday, 1974.

Bellow, Saul. The Adventures of Augie March. New York: Avon, 1977 [1949].

Carter, Angela. Wise Children. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Bantam Books, 1975.

Doniger, Wendy. Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

— . The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Gautier, Theophile. “Avatar.” In Avatar et autres recits fantastiques. Verviers [Belgique]: Marabout Geant, 1856-7.

–, Avatar, Jettatura, The Water Pavilion. Vol. 15 of The Works of Theophile Gautier. Trans. and ed. F. C. de Sumichrast. New York: George D. Sproul, 1902., 11-181.

Hofmannsthal, Hugo von. Der Rosenkavalier. Libretto, 1911.

Kalluak, Mark, ed. How Kablomat Became and Other Legends. Canada: Program Development, Dept. of Education, Govt. of Canada, 1974.

Kleist, Heinrich von. Amphitryon. Trans. Charles E. Passage. In Heinrich von Kleist, Plays, Ed. Walter Hinderer. New York: Continuum, 1982.

Also in Charles E. Passage and James H. Mantinband, trans., Amphitryon: Three Plays, 209-281.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Myth in Primitive Psychology (1926). Reprinted in Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. Ed. Robert Redfield. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1948.

McGrath, Robin. Personal communication. Dept. of English, University of Western Ontario.

Maslin, Janet. “Good and Evil Trade Places, Body and Soul.” The New York Times 7 June 1997, C1 and 14.

Meier, P. Jos. Mythe und Erzahlungen der Kustenbewohner der Gazelle Halbinsel, Anthropos. Bibliothek, 1909.

Mowat, Farley. People of the Deer. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1952.

Neely, Richard. The Plastic Nightmare. New York: Ace Publishing Corporation, 1969. Republished, after the movie (1991), and entitled Shattered. New York: Vintage Crime, Random House, 1991.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Hindu Myths. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

–, Tales of Sex and Violence: Folklore, Sacrifice, and Danger in the Jaiminiya Brahmana. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Rasmussen, Knud. Intellectual Culture of the Copper Eskimos. Translated by W. E. Calvert. Copenhagen, 1932. Reprinted New York, AMS Press, 1976.

Renard, Maurice. Le docteur Lerne, sous-dieu. Paris: Cres, 1919.

Roheim, Geza. “The Garden of Eden.” Psychoanalytic Review 27 (1940): 1-26; 177-99.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury Books, 1999.

Shulman, David, with Don Handelman. God Inside Out: Siva’s Game of Dice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Sibert, Charles. “The Cuts That Go Deeper.” The New York Times Sunday Magazine 7 July 1996, sec. 6.

Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. London: Macmillan and Company, 1965.


(w = written by, d = directed by, wd = written and directed by, s = starring)

Dark Passage, 1947, wd Delmer Daves from the novel by David Goodis; s Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Agnes Moorehead.

Dave, 1993, w Gary Ross; d Ivan Reitman; s Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver.

A Face to Die For, 1996, w Marvin Welin, Mark Welin; d Jack Bender; s Yasmine Bleeth, James Wilder.

Face of Another, 1966, d Hiroshi Teshigahara and Kobo Abe from the novel by Kobo Abe; starring Tatsuyu Nakadai and Machiko Kyo.

Face/Off, 1997, w Mike Werb and Michael Colleary; d John Woo; s Nicholas Cage and John Travolta.

Return From the Ashes, 1965, w Julius J. Epstein, from the novel by Hubert Monteilhet; d J. Lee-Thompson; s Ingrid Thulin, Maximillian Schell, Samantha Eggar, Herbert Lom.

The Scar, 1948, w Daniel Fuchs, from a novel by Murray Forbes; d Steve Sekely; s Joan Bennett, Paul Henreid, Leslie Brooks, Mabel Page. (Formerly called Hollow Triumph.)

Shattered, 1991, w Wolfgang Petersen, from Richard Neely’s novel, The Plastic Nightmare, d Wolfgang Petersen; s Tom Berenger, Greta Scacchi, Bob Hoskins.

Wendy Doniger is Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of History of Religions in the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her most recent publication is Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India (1999), and her book The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade is forthcoming in 2000.

COPYRIGHT 2000 New School for Social Research

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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