Errrr… Clark Kent. No, Superman.

One of my pet peeves is the tendency of some writers and authors to think that their protagonists can fool others into believing they are really someone else by wearing glasses, or a fake beard, or by changing their hair cut or colour. Superman is perhaps the best example of this. Glasses on — Clark Kent. Glasses off — Superman. And no-one ever notices.

I’ve run into this most recently in the Jack Harvey novels written by Ian Rankin. You all know how much I love Ian Rankin: he’s responsible for me getting an agent (his) and through his agent, a publisher.

When he was still struggling as an author long ago, Rankin wrote under the pen name,  Jack Harvey, so that he could produce an additional book a year for a bit of extra income. Apparently it’s considered unwise for a publisher to release more than one book a year by the same author  (except in e-books, I’ve heard, but I digress).

In Witch Hunt, one of Harvey/Rankin’s female characters puts on a short skirt, changes her hair and jewellery, and heads off to meet with a suspect, satisfied that no-one will recognize her.

Now, I don’t know about men, but I went from blonde to dark red and a colleague asked me if I’d lost weight. No-one stopped me at the door of my office to ask who I was; no-one called security. I’ve had short hair, long hair, medium hair, streaks, no streaks and colour, and it didn’t seem to stop anyone from recognizing me. Most times, they didn’t pay any attention. I might get a “have you changed your hair?” kind of comment but no-one said, “Where’s Peggy and what have you done with her?”

Stieg Larrson does the same thing with Salander. In one book of the trilogy (don’t ask me which one: I can never keep the names straight), she disguises herself by taking out her piercings and changing her haircut. In her case, since her initial appearance is quite extreme,  the transformation was more believable, although still not completely.

Another example is in Kite Runner,  where the male protagonist glues on a fake beard (in the movie, it’s so obviously fake that one cringes).

When I see this, I always think: but what about the rest of the things that define who we are: our height, our facial features, our posture, our stance, the way we walk, our distinctive voices, hands, nails, body shape? To me, it strains credulity to be asked to believe that with these minor changes, a character can pretend to be someone else. Sorry. Not buying it.

If all we had to do to disguise ourselves was change the colour or length of our hair, half of the women I know would never get through Customs.

A fat suit, I get. Those Mission Impossible latex full face masks like the one a young Asian wore on board a flight to disguise himself as an old man? In real life, that almost worked but he forgot to do his hands and got arrested.  (And forgot to leave the mask on until he had actually exited the airplane, but there’s probably no disguising an idiot. )

But the idea that we can transform our appearance so completely by changing our hair colour and hairstyle? Not even Extreme Makeover is able to render its subjects completely unrecognizable after weight loss, plastic surgery and dental surgery: most look better, but not different.

If you’ve seen the show Undercover Boss, you’ll know how many times employees who have actually seen a picture of the boss recognize the real deal when he walks in, despite the fake beard or moustache, different hair colour/cut and new glasses. The ones who don’t recognize the boss wouldn’t anyway, even without the lame disguise. I doubt they could have even named the boss before the show aired.

Give me coloured contacts, shoe lifts, fat suits, fake teeth, a wig and an accent and I might buy it. But please don’t ask me to accept that hair dye and pair of scissors is going to render us unrecognizable: to quote Aristotle, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

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5 Responses to Errrr… Clark Kent. No, Superman.

  1. April says:

    I am so with you on that! Superman/Clark Kent drives me NUTS! I can’t remember what author I was reading recently, but it was a crime novel, and the bad guy was ingeneous with his disguises. Not only did he wear various wigs and colored contacts and different hats, but for one of his disguises, he had a limp. In another, he pushes himself around in a wheelchair. I thought that was brilliant. Because you’re right – you can’t just slap on a mustache and call yourself new. So much about the way we walk and talk and move is unique.


  2. Debbie says:

    I agree – it used to drive me nuts how apparently stupid Lois Lane was. Anyway, it’s one thing to want to look vaguely different for a cursory glance (e.g. wear beard, add pregnancy bump) and quite another to actually interact with people who have already/met know the person. I can think of acquaintances I haven’t seen for decades who I randomly meet and recognize despite having changed/aged significantly. In the John Twelve Hawks books the characters change their faces by injecting muscle relaxants and inserting prosthetics in their mouths, and lifts in shoes… it’s all about trying to fool facial recognition software and is a bit more convincing than the standard disguises. But I couldn’t help but thinking that they’d just end up looking really weird and therefore attracting more attention…


  3. Peggy Blair says:

    A wheelchair is good. Or someone pretending to be crippled up, like Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects — I’ll never forget that scene at the end where he straightens up and walks off and you realize you’ve been had. But even then, that wasn’t intended to disguise his appearance so much as conceal certain traits. And yes, for an otherwise smart girl, Lois Lane was a dolt. Clark Kent and Superman are like the sexy librarian except even then no-one pretends that when she lets her hair down and pulls off her glasses that she’s actually someone else — they just think she’s hot.


  4. Sam Webb says:

    In defense of Superman/Clark Kent, in the comic books it was explained how the glasses helped to actually project a different image of the hero – TV and movies just expected you to believe it.

    But as far as the hair color/cut/fake mustache/put on a hat routine – right there with you!


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