How Faceblindness Makes TV and Movie Watching a Hot Mess

An image from a New York Magazine article titled "What It's like to Be Profoundly Faceblind." This is not what faces actually look like for me - I can see your eyes and nose and mouth and eyebrows and so on just fine. I'm just never going to recognize that your particular combination of those features is *yours.*
An image from a New York Magazine article titled “What It’s like to Be Profoundly Faceblind.” This is not what faces actually look like for me – I can see your eyes and nose and mouth and eyebrows and so on just fine. I’m just never going to recognize that your particular combination of those features is *yours.*

I have never been a big fan of television or movies.  The thought of encountering new ones, in particular, filled me with palpable dread.  And I avoided people’s TV or movie recommendations at all costs – the time from the first recommendation of Firefly to me to the time I actually watched it was twelve years.

(Recommendation: Don’t wait twelve years to watch Firefly.)

For most of my life, I passed this off as a pretentious sort of hipster disdain.  In fact, the mere mention of new TV or movie media filled me with a real and unnameable dread.  I couldn’t understand how other people consumed screen media so casually.  How did they even know what was going on most of the time?

I was in my thirties before I discovered that the reason it’s so hard for me to follow television and movie plots is that I’m faceblind.

Specifically, I have associative prosopagnosia, an inability to recognize familiar faces out of the context in which I usually see them, and only a limited ability to recognize them in-context.  In practice, this means that I don’t recognize my own students outside our classroom – even in the corridors.  I have failed to recognize members of my own extended family when I encountered them in the grocery store.  When my husband trims his beard too short, I have several days of “augh! stranger danger!” in my own house until it grows back out a bit.  And when I look at old family photos, I look for clothing I remember owning as a kid, not for my own face.  That’s right: I cannot recognize my own face in family photos.

I didn’t know this, as a kid.  Nobody ever asked me if I could identify faces; they just made fun of me or punished me for the “behaviors” that resulted in my failing to recognize them (like not saying hello to people I was supposed to know, or not opening the door for the “stranger” who was actually my aunt).  Like so many other things in my undiagnosed and undiscussed childhood, I assumed everyone had this problem and that I was the only one who was hopelessly inept at coping with it.

Not-knowing, unsurprisingly, led to a lot of anxiety while out in public and the eventual development of several workarounds, including paying attention to voice and body language.  I even came to love live theatre, because voice and body language are actually accentuated over faces: I may not be able to see the faces from my seat, but I can still tell characters apart.  I hated, feared, and dreaded new television and movies for the opposite reason: uniform sound mixing, camera angles and cuts, and the ever-increasing homogenization of actors’ “looks” made it nearly impossible to tell people apart.

Here’s what it’s like to watch a new television show or a movie while faceblind:

1.  I have no idea who is supposed to be whom.  It takes me about 15-20 minutes to figure out which characters are which – longer if they change their clothes at any time in that first fifteen to twenty minutes.  By the time I figure this out, I often can’t remember who did what in the first ten minutes of the plot.   (On the other hand, the moment any actor speaks, I can tell you who the actor is and every time I have heard them speak before.)

I gave up on Arrow after an episode and a half because at that point I still didn’t know who was who or who had done what.  Not only did everyone look the same, they all had nearly identical wardrobes, voices, and movement libraries.  Agents of SHIELD, by contrast, has my undying loyalty because from the start, their core cast had recognizably different faces, heights, and styles of movement and dress.  AoS also introduced its core cast person by person, making it much easier to keep track of who was on the bus for what reason.

2.  Plots that rely on disguises, or on “not knowing who the killer is,” don’t make much sense to me.  Plots involving disguises make no sense to me at all, actually.  If the person in disguise speaks, I know who they are.  The voice is as blatantly obvious to me as I assume the removal of the disguise would be to a non-faceblind person.

I can’t stand a single entry in the entire Superman franchise because I end up yelling at the screen, “Oh please, how do you not recognize his voice?!”  I had to watch the X-Files episode “The Walk” (S3E7) three times before I realized that the general doesn’t know who the killer is because he does not recognize the killer’s voice, something that was obvious to me in the first ten minutes.  (On the other hand, I had my back to the screen when Netflix pulled up the following episode, “Oubliette” – but I said “hey, that’s Jewel Staite!” without even turning around.)

One of the reasons I love Netflix’s version of A Series of Unfortunate Events is that it turns this problem on its head: the kids can see through Count Olaf’s disguises, and the disguises themselves are well-done enough to mess with the non-faceblind temporarily, but the adults in the show don’t see it at all.  That must be what it feels like not to be able to hear the killer.

3.  Plots with “identical” characters make no sense.

A plot that relies on two or more characters looking identical? Forget it.  Even if they’re all played by the same person, I won’t see it.

The X-Files episode “Colony” was a leap of faith for me.  The plot revolves around the murders of multiple doctors, all of whom are identical to one another.  Or at least, that’s what the script told me.  What I saw were six photos of balding white men taken at different angles, wearing different clothing, and some of whom were wearing glasses and some of whom were not.  I took it on faith that the men did in fact have identical faces.

As a kid, I hated The Parent Trap for the same reason, even though both twins were played by Hayley Mills, whom I recognized.  They just never did look identical to me, even though they had identical voices and movement patterns.

“Are they supposed to look alike?” is a phrase I have never actually uttered, but I’ve thought it.  A lot.

4.  Plots with police sketches?  Okay, if you say so.

I also never see the resemblance between police sketches and the actual person.  I don’t even understand why police sketches exist, except in the superficial academic “well, other people actually recognize faces and so find them useful” sense.  Let’s hope I’m never asked to describe a suspect to a police artist, because I won’t know what to describe and I will have no idea if the resulting sketch looks anything like the person.

5.  On the other hand, animated series are great.

On the other hand, I have never once had any of the above problems watching animated series, which is probably why I was so engaged in my college anime club at exactly the same time I was dodging recommendations to watch Firefly.  Animated characters are, after all, just pictures – and pictures are far easier for me to tell apart from one another than human faces.

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About Autistic Academic 32 Articles
Dani Alexis is the Legal Coordinator at Autonomous Press, a freelance writer, and human to two spoiled cats.  Her first novel, Nantais, will be released by NeuroQueer Books in 2017.  She's already busy writing its sequel.