Festival of Facialities

Welcome to the 2017 Effaced from History? Summer Festival of Facialities!

Effaced from History? aims to expose and examine how facial disfigurement has been conceived, represented, responded to, and affected the lives of people since antiquity. Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring guest posts from a number of postgraduate and early career scholars to showcase some of the exciting research being undertaken on facial difference in a range of disciplines and contexts.

As part of the festival, the Effaced from History? group is proud to announce the launch of a new book series with Bloomsbury PublishingFacialities: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Human Face. The first volume of this series will be a volume derived from contributions to the 2016 Effaced from History conference, entitled Approaching Facial Difference: Past and Present, edited by Patricia Skinner and Emily Cock. The volume will be published in early 2018, and we will be previewing chapters here over the next few weeks among the festival posts. While the pre-order is available for those who are very keen, right now we can debut the snazzy cover:

Approaching Faccial Difference cover

Posted in Classical, Contemporary, Early Modern, events, Festival of Facialities, medieval, Modern, Publications, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

John Gavin’s Ears

Today’s disfigurement news comes courtesy of a quick stop in the Scottish town of Douglas this weekend. On the main street is a monument to the tailor James Gavin, whose ears were cut off with his own scissors. The plaque explains:




The stone is pictured below, and further information about Gavin is available on the Douglas Community Council website.



Carving by John Gavin, Douglas, Scotland.

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Facial Difference in ‘Wonder Woman’

Spoilers ahead for those yet to see the movie.

I finally saw Wonder Woman last night. I already wanted to live on a paradisaical Amazonian island, and this has solidified that desire. The movie was fun, the cinematography was spectacular, I love that she’s a museum curator, and Gal Gadot as Diana and her team do kick a lot of ass very admirably.

You know that there is a ‘but’ coming.

I had been told by a friend that one of the key villains wore a prosthetic over a significant facial scar, so went into the film hoping for a subversive treatment of the disfigurement-as-evil trope, a la Changing Faces’ film Leo.

Unfortunately, Dr Maru (aka Dr Poison), played by Elena Anaya, fits pretty neatly alongside the large number of fictional villains who are marked by disfigurements that either result directly from their evil deeds, or are supposed to act as some sort of spur toward evilness. As raised in a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA: Dermatology), these are overwhelmingly on the face and scalp as the most visible part of the body on film, and very rarely echoed by comparative representation of classic heroes with facial differences.

Several other commentators have highlighted the negative portrayal of facial difference alongside other disabilities in the film, including Meriah NicholsCarly Findlay and Erin at The Geeky Gimp. There is an element of the unexpected in the revelation that Ares (the god of war, who has goaded mankind into this conflict in order to reveal their true nature), was not the Bombastically Bad German Enemy but the Mild-Mannered Englishman With A Cane all along, but even this–as Erin points out–relies on the audience making assumptions about a character’s physical limitations translating into powerlessness.

Dr Poison

Elena Anaya as Dr Poison in Wonder Woman. Image Warner Brothers.

Diana enters World War I after an American pilot, Steve (Chris Pine), crashes his plane near the Amazons’ island, and she decides that she must help the humans by releasing them from Ares’ influence. Once we are outside the homosocial feminist paradise of Themyscira, only three women have significant speaking roles: Diana, Dr Maru, and Steve’s secretary, Etta, who is charged initially with giving Diana a make-under so that she will be less conspicuous than a goddess scantily-clad in armour in 1910s London. Somewhat exacerbating the juxtaposition between Diana and her masked counterpart is the continual focus of other characters on her attractiveness: even as Steve attempts the classic film move of making a woman dowdy by giving her spectacles (guest post on spectacles as a disfigurement in the 19th century coming soon!), Etta points out that she is still “the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen”.

Wonder Woman glasses

Men aren’t attentive to girls who wear glasses.

The point also arises as Steve attempts to charm his way into Maru’s confidence while disguised as a German officer at the ball. When Diana enters in a knock-out gown, Maru immediately spots that she has lost Steve’s attention to a more classically attractive woman.

I wondered if Maru’s facial mask was perhaps a nod to the now well-known masks produced for soldiers disfigured in WWI, such as those crafted by Anna Coleman Ladd in her Paris studio (follow the link to film footage of her workshop). We are reminded of the effects of the war on the soldiers’ bodies both within the battle scenes, and more poignantly as Diana, Steve and the others cross paths with men disembarking from the hospital ship. The destruction of gas masks, with melting leather and shattering glass, is also the image repeatedly used to show the viciousness of the poisonous gases Maru has developed, drawing focus to the physical face.

IWM Q30455

Horace Nicholls, The patient examining the mould of his own face. Imperial War Museum, Q.30.455. Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London.

The character is one of Wonder Woman’s oldest nemeses, and has been through several different iterations through the comic’s history. In an interview, Anaya said that she had created her own backstory for Maru that directly attributed her disfigurement to previous experiments, but the film itself leaves this open to different possibilities. Only a very small scar protrudes from behind Maru’s mask, but the fissure that allows it to move disrupts the otherwise smooth appearance in a dark scar, and is angled downwards, creating a permanent frown.

In the film’s climax, Maru’s mask breaks off in pieces in the wind, as Diana stands over her and must decide whether to let her live or die. The join in the mask is echoed directly, more dramatically, in the line of the scar on Maru’s face. Ares echoes Diana’s mother in telling her that “they do not deserve you”, and drawing attention to the violence and destruction wreaked by people like Maru. I think that Maru’s unmasking at this point stands in for the vulnerability of all humanity, which in this film humans have competed to compensate for through technology: not only a war of “weapons deadlier than ever before”, or Maru’s poisons and prosthesis, but also photography that seeks to immortalise us, the “hideous” pollution and infrastructure of post-Industrial Revolution “jolly old London”, and the wristwatch that, as Steve has to explain to Diana, tells us when to eat, sleep and work. In protected, Edenic Themyscira, in contrast, all of the Amazons’ energies for development are spent on their own super-able bodies, which exist out of time. Later, as an immortal curator at the Louvre, Diana can bear witness to the rapid supersessions of our technological innovations (as well as our bodies), as the weaponry of ancient Greece sits in her office alongside the faded glass plate photograph, and Steve’s now antique watch.

In dwelling on Steve’s love and sacrifice, sparing Maru, and fighting Ares instead, Diana ultimately sides with we poor, fallible humans, setting her up to protect us in films to come. As a film, it’s a great deal of fun, and there have been ample stories recently of girls inspired by the strength of Diana and her female warriors. But it didn’t need the scars.

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Skin Bleaching: A Perspective on the Ghanaian Phenomenon

We are pleased to introduce this guest post from Samuel Adu-Gyamfi (mcgyamfi@yahoo.com) of the Department of History and Political Studies, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and Razak Mohammed Gyasi of the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, Lingnan University, Hong Kong.


Background and Approach

Skin bleaching is the intentional alteration of one’s natural skin colour to one relatively, if not substantially lighter in colour, through the use of chemical skin lightening agents, either manufactured, homemade or the combination of the two as defined by The World Health Organization (Konlan 2016). Knowledge of the history of skin bleaching can be traced to the Elizabethan age of powder and paint, but in its current manifestations, skin bleaching is practiced disproportionately within communities ‘of colour’ (Yaba 2011, 4).

Situated within the first wave of the African independence movements, skin bleaching surfaced as an increasingly popular cosmetic practice as early as the late 1950s and is currently widespread. According to the 2005 Ghana Health Service report, approximately 30% of Ghanaian women and 5% of Ghanaian men were actively bleaching. The same statistic indicates that currently, 50% to 60% of adult Ghanaian women are currently or have at one time or the other actively used bleaching agents (Konlan 2016). The reasons for the upsurge of this phenomenon include the following: memories of historical overtones of colonization, slavery, discrimination, and better job opportunities, executive positions and chances in beauty uphold the supremacy of the white skin (Miyanji de Souza 2008).

The aim for this contribution is to highlight the history of skin bleaching in Ghana from the colonial times to 2000 and focus attention on the perceptions and attitude of Ghanaians concerning the push factor that has driven some members of the society into bleaching as well as the needed efforts of state agencies and civil society to deal with the ever increasing challenge.

Studies on Ghana show that people bleach because of the notion of having too dark skin, seeing the act as fashionable and trendy, gaining social acceptance and superiority which are sometimes instigated by peer influence, the need to get some societal acceptance among peers and the attraction of potential suitors, amongst other various reasons. In our recent study into the subject matter of bleaching, two eclectic cities, Accra and Kumasi were selected; a sample of one hundred people responded to open-ended questionnaires. Expert knowledge was also sought from key informants in the field of dermatology at the Accra and Kumasi area of Ghana. Oral and written sources have been used in each instance as a corroborative tool for each other. This report highlights the findings of an in-depth study we have done on bleaching in Ghana. The history and the voices of actors have been allowed to stay in this particular perspective.

Reporting the Ghanaian Case

From post-colonial times to the new millennium, two main methods have been employed for bleaching the skin. These are the use of bleach soaps and dominantly, the use of skin bleaching creams. The use of skin bleaching soaps were largely used between 1957 and 1980; it began to subside by the end of 1980. According to Dr Edmund Delle who spoke on the history of skin bleaching in Ghana in an article published in the Weekly Spectator, ‘Skin bleaching was first practiced by Ghanaian women soon after the Second World War. This was around the late 1940s, when those who practiced the craft used Asepso and Neko as skin bleaching soaps’ (interviewed in Dorkenoo 1990, 2; see Arthur 2002). At the dawn of the 1990s, a lot of skin bleaching creams had been introduced in the Ghanaian market and had come to replace the use of bleaching soaps. By the end of the twentieth century, skin bleaching soaps had died out and skin bleaching creams were the mainstay of the multimillion bleaching industry with respect to cosmetics and products.

Informants with expert knowledge who reported on creams argued that patients who came to them with skin and other related complications due to bleaching reported on and also showed the use of creams with high doses of hydroquinone, mercury among others. These had caused ‘Erythema, permanent leukoderma, skin irritation, contact dermatitis, pigmented colloid millium, nail pigmentation or discoloration, loss of skin elasticity, impaired wound healing, hypopigmentation of the surrounding normal skin’. The common adverse findings reported include ‘kidney damage, skin rashes, skin discoloration, scarring, reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, anxiety, depression, psychosis, peripheral neuropathy etc.’ (Aryee-Boi, personal communication).

The Ghana Standards Authority (GSA), formerly known as Ghana Standards Board which was established by the Standards Decree, 1967 (NLCD 199) and was superseded by the Standards Decree, 1973 (NRCD 173) is also the custodian of the Weights and Measures decree (NRCD 326, 1975. The Ghana Standards Authority has a mission among other things to promote standardization for the improvement of the quality of goods, services and sound management practices in industries and public institutions in Ghana’. The Ghana Food and Drugs Authority on the other hand ‘is the National Regulatory Body responsible for the regulation of food, drugs, food supplements, herbal and homeopathic medicines, veterinary medicines, cosmetics, medical devices, household chemical substances, tobacco and tobacco products and the conduct of clinical trials protocols’. The FDA was established in 1992 as the Food and Drugs Board (FDB) on the basis of the 1992 Food and Drugs Law (PNDCL 305B), later amended by the Food and Drugs Act of 1996’. Thus, the Ghana Standards Authority had been in operation long before the establishment of the Ghana Food and Drugs Authority. However, these two national institutions vary in their work although they work hand-in-hand to ensure consumer safety on products and items accessible to the Ghanaian populace including cosmetic products. In an interview with Madam Frances, the head of the cosmetic testing lab at Ghana Standards Authority, she elaborates on the process a cosmetic product goes through as a requirement at the Standards Authority in validating a standard for the cosmetic product. Elaborating further on that of cosmetic creams in Ghana, she further explains that:

If someone produces a cream, they bring it to us and we do a quality evaluation to know if it meets our standards. The standard for products are not set alone by the Ghana Standards Board. The standard for a product is deliberated on by a committee of stakeholders like manufacturers, who deliberate and come to an agreement that all creams in Ghana would agree to a particular standard and must meet that standard. The sample is brought and tested and if it meets the standard, we send the results to FDA for the product to be registered. So FDA gets to know that product A is registered but with time, they go back to the market and do a market survey, get the product and test again because some clients knowing that they are bringing their products to be tested, bring the best, do the registration and the product is allowed on the market. Because the product is expensive, they find it difficult in doing the right thing. They manufacture the cheap products after the product is approved in order to make their profits.

Essentially, the work of the GSA and FDA complement each other to ensure consumer safety in Ghana. Although the operations of the GSA and FDA have been well scripted by a policy document and had seen some successes, the issue of bleaching is still a dilemma. For example, the amount of hydroquinone in creams as an ingredient in cosmetic products have been banned, but as a drug, 2% is allowed and should only be sold by a pharmacist and with a prescription from a doctor. My expert informant acknowledged that public sensitization and education has been very low so most people don’t know about the decisions and regulatory framework and cautions given by the GSA on cosmetic products. Also, the work of the GSA and FDA is made difficult by manufacturers who because of profit go contrary to regulations by these institutions.

It can be noted that the post-colonial period was a young and nurturing stage for the phenomenon. Thus, the attention of the Ghanaian was not drawn to the effects of skin bleaching and this resulted to less public concern and reaction. The very few Ghanaians who talked about the ills of skin bleaching were individuals who were highly informed about the effects of the practice. The practice of skin bleaching thus grew so much that by 1987, it attracted attention from journalist Tom Dorkenoo:

Ghana is world leader in skin bleaching, having come second to South Africa in the game… Between 1987 and February 1989 when the light skin and half cast advertisement appeared in the paper, only four [sic] public figures apart from Dr Delle publicly spoke against the dangers of the disgrace of skin bleaching. These are Lt-General Arnold Quainoo, the General officer commanding the Ghana Armed Forces, Mrs Selina Taylor, Chairperson of the National Council on Women and Development, Mrs Esi Sutherland-Addy, the Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Education and Culture, Efua T. Sutherland, Chairperson of Ghana National Commission on Children and Dr G. L. Boye, Director at the Mampong Centre for Scientific Research into Plant Medicine. While the 14 million strong all seem to be suffering from the effects of the “new-fangled” phrase which has almost become a cliché — THE CULTURE OF SILENCE on the skin bleaching issue (Dorkenoo 1989).

This is as late as 1987–1989 when the practice of skin bleaching had become widespread in the country. This can be attributed to the fact that a lot of people back then did not understand the effects of the practice. However, the Ghanaian perception and attitude changed upon the realization of the effects of skin bleaching. The popular term ‘Fanta face, Coca-Cola body’ became the common name for skin bleachers (Dorkenoo 1998a).

In August 1998, perceptions of some Ghanaians were documented by Tom Dorkenoo and published in the Weekly Spectator. Ivy OdeiTetteh, a pharmacist at Kaneshie hinted that, ‘the problems with skin bleaching sometimes lie with men. Some men like light skinned women and when they don’t get such women, they ask their dark skinned women to bleach their skin.’ Comfort Docey, a nursing sister at Korle Bu hinted, ‘Skin bleaching is not good for the health, especially for pregnant women. Apart from causing skin cancer, it can cause intrauterine death, which is a situation where babies dry up in the wombs of their mothers.’ Ken Nunoo, a journalist thinks that, ‘people who bleach the body are those without confidence. They suffer from inferiority complex and so they want to look like others with lighter skins because they think that men prefer those ones’ (Dorkenoo 1998b). These twentieth-century voices resonate with twenty-first century Ghana.

Twenty-first-century television documentaries on the ill effects of bleaching in Ghana have made some gains in the country. Media houses such as TV3, GTV among others, through their interviews with health professionals and skin bleachers have created awareness and continue to raise the consciousness of Ghanaians concerning the adverse effects of skin bleaching. Documentaries by various individuals, groups and interested stakeholders have been run on skin bleaching to create awareness. Movie production houses are beginning to write scripts and act them to discourage the practice. A movie entitled Black Barbie written and directed by Comfort Arthur who was a one-time skin bleacher who stopped bleaching shortly after starting has also educated the public on the dangers of skin bleaching (Gyamfi Asiedu 2016/7). Campaigns on skin bleaching by some prominent Ghanaians such as Ama K. Abebrese and Nana AmaMcBrown who are actresses, Paulina Oduro, a veteran musician and Hamamat Monita, a model through their campaign have addressed skin bleaching and its dangers. Television shows such as The DELAY Show have also made good efforts to highlight why people bleach. One such interview on the show was the interview with Nasara who won the Ghana’s Most Beautiful pageant organised by TV3 in 2009 but had resorted to bleaching her skin. Health programs have also been aired to address skin bleaching and its effects and to educate the Ghanaian populace on its dangers. Lastly, some musicians have done exclusive pieces of lyrical education on skin bleaching. One such is Okuntakinte, a young musician who finds the practice dangerous enough to address it through his music in a song he calls, ‘Melanin Girls’.

Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in 1963, highlighted that people of colour would continue to face discrimination until ‘the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned… until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation …until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes… until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race…’ In 2016 the Ghanaian FDA banned the sale of skin bleaching products containing hydroquinone. But until the individual Ghanaian knows that black is beautiful and colour does not matter, that the skin must be taken good care of for both psychological and social well-being, draconian laws and draconian rules will fail in achieving the ends of stopping the last bleacher.



Arthur, Sylvia, 2002. The new skin bleaching phenomenon. www.ghanaweb.com, 7 March.

Aryee–Boi, Jeannette, personal communication. A Cosmetic Choice with consequences: Skin Bleaching.

Dorkenoo, Tom, 1989. Skin Lightning Craze – Bleaching Has Done It At Last. Weekly Spectator, Thursday March 23: 2.

Dorkenoo, Tom, 1990. Boiled Crab Skins – The Bleaching Pandemic. Weekly Spectator [Ghana], Saturday, July 14: 2.

Dorkenoo, Tom, 1998a. Skin Bleaching – The Pandemic Is Here. Weekly Spectator, Saturday August 15:2.

Dorkenoo, Tom, 1998b. Skin Bleaching – What Ghanaians Say. Weekly Spectator, Saturday August 22:7.

Food And Drugs Authority, ‘About Us’,www.fdaghana.gov.gh, [accessed 30/03/17]

Ghana Standards Authority, ‘About Us’, www.gsa.gov.gh, [accessed 30/03/17]

Gyamfi Asiedu, Kwasi, 2016/7. Comfort used to bleach, now she has made a film about it. The Pulse, 20 December, refreshed 2 March 2017.

Konlan, Irene, 2016. Skin Bleaching: a silent killer of the youth of today. www.ghanaweb.com, 23rd September.

Miyanji de Souza, MD, Melanie, 2008. The concept of skin bleaching in Africa and its devastating health implications. Clinics in Dermatology 26.1: 27-29, online at http://ecommons.aku.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=eastafrica_fhs_mc_intern_med [accessed 30/03/17]

Yaba, AmgboraleBlay, 2011. Skin Bleaching and Global White Supremacy: By way of Introduction. The Journal of Pan African Studies 4.4: 4-5.


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‘Corpus Historicus’ Conference

Followers might be interested in a conference taking place at the end of this month in Sosnowiec, Poland. The programme for ‘Corpus Historicus: The Body In/Of History‘  looks like a fascinatingly wide-ranging and interdisciplinary feast of body studies across history, and we will be interested to see where the face features. I’ve already spotted Marta Gorgula of the University of Silesia speaking on ‘Forgotten Faces of the Great War: The Wounded Servicemen in Henry Tonks’ Surgical Portraits’ (Marta also appears to have made the very cool conference art, below). The CFP has of course closed, so we will have to hope that there are eager Tweeters in attendance to keep us in the loop.

Corpus Historicus poster

Corpus Historicus poster, copyright Marta Gorgula

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‘Wonder’ by R. J. Palacio

Last week I saw a trailer for the new film adaptation of R. J. Palacio’s best-selling young adult novel, Wonder (Penguin Random House: 2012). The film stars Jacob Tremblay as August Pullman, and Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson as his parents, and looks pretty sure to bring out a few cheers and tears from viewers.

While we have to wait for November to see the film, the trailer’s release reminded me that I’ve had the novel sitting on my to-read list for the last year– and what are rainy Bank Holiday afternoons for, anyway? Even my mother has ordered the book for her school library in Australia, having had the issue of facial difference raised on her radar through my involvement with Effaced (impact!). Changing Faces provide their own free guide to teaching the novel to children among their education resources.

The novel’s overarching moral is clear: August (Auggie) is ‘different’, but so is every other person in the book and, by extension, the world. Every character is made up of multiple points of identity, some of which have been stigmatised to varying extents in recent history. There is religious and racial diversity, divorced parents, wealth inequality, and the classic schoolyard nerds vs. jocks. Auggie addresses this in identifying that “Everyone’s known for something in middle school” and that this is generally “what you’re into”. In his case, he recognises that he is “known for” his facial difference, and makes conscious efforts to negotiate this throughout the novel. But he also manages additional facets of identity that he has more control over: he recognises that his obsession with Star Wars is uncool, and so tries to pass for a more casual fan by, at one particular narrative moment, replacing his Star Wars sleeping bag with a plain one.

Auggie’s negotiation of stigma is accompanied by the issue of what Erving Goffman called ‘courtesy stigma’ attaching to his family and friends, some of which is enacted through the shifting of narrative points of view. An early conflict with his friend Jack occurs when Auggie overhears him talking to some other boys about him, saying that he only hangs out with Auggie because the teachers have told him to, and that he shares the disgust of the dominant group, as a way of deliberately distancing himself. Auggie’s sister, Via, starts a new school and initially hides knowledge of Auggie from her new peers. When Amos, Miles, Henry and Jack band together with Auggie against some older bullies from another school, it is in the face of a taunt from the boys that “They’re all a bunch of freaks.” The ‘catching’ nature of stigma is also given a literal form in the book through the children’s myth that anyone who touches Auggie catches ‘the Plague’, and resolution in his awareness at the close of the book, as everyone huddles in to get a photo with him and his award, that “All I know for sure is that we were all laughing and squeezing in tight against each other, and no one seemed to care if it was my face that was next to theirs or not. In fact, and I don’t mean to brag here, but it kind of felt like everyone wanted to get close to me.”

The novel also refers repeatedly to the issue of staring, evoking many of the different types of staring discussed by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson in Staring (2009). While very young children engage in full, open ‘baroque stares’, those old enough to know that it is impolite are “nudging each other, watching [him] out of the corners of their eyes”. Adults, meanwhile, who exert greater control over their desire to stare, nevertheless betray their awareness and shock at Auggie’s appearance. Auggie is introduced to the middle school director’s assistant, Mrs Garcia, and “Then that thing happened that I’ve seen happen a million times before. When I looked up at her, Mrs. Garcia’s eyes dropped for a second. It was so fast no one else would have noticed, since the rest of her face stayed exactly the same. She was smiling a really shiny smile.”

Another recurring feature in the novel is the use of pop culture references by children and adult characters. Often, these are used to describe Auggie’s appearance to others and himself: he is likened to a Lord of the Rings Orc and Gollum, to the eponymous Alien, to Freddy Kreuger, Star Wars‘ Darth Sith, and so on. These references highlight fiction’s classic associations of ugliness with moral depravity or monstrosity– something Changing Faces are directly challenging in their awareness campaigns for Face Equality in film and television.

The novel has in turn provided a cultural touch-point for facial difference groups in America. Most directly, the Children’s Craniofacial Association produced a video called I am Auggie Pullman, which uses the cultural reference to introduce ‘real-life Auggies’:

I won’t spoil the ending, but I confess to finding the end of the novel a little trite/what Stella Young memorably termed ‘inspiration porn‘ (her TED Talk in the link is highly recommended), but at least it was addressed fairly directly in the novel itself in Auggie’s reflection at the end of the chapter ‘Floating’. I’m also curious to see whether the casting of the film reflects the racial diversity of the novel, and whether it will meet with the debate about actors ‘cripping up‘ that has become more prominent in recent years. Stay tuned for further discussion…


Emily Cock



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