TV’s Creepy Fixation With Ears, From Tarantino to The Handmaid's Tale

Of all the striking images in the season 2 premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s one that will stay with me, whether I like it or not. If you’ve seen the episode, you know what I’m referring to. After being transported to a safehouse by Mayday, June (Elisabeth Moss) is instructed to leave any trace of her handmaid identity behind. So begins a ritual laden with symbolism. She burns her red dress. She cuts her hair, and burns that, too.
But there’s one element of her past that’s less easily disposed of. When June became a handmaid, her ear was affixed with a tracker — with that, June became another person’s property. To remove the tracker, she has to physically cut into her ear. Blood pours down the left side of her face and neck, as red as the handmaid uniform she’d just thrown into the fire. Despite the obvious pain, June barely flinches. This moment captures just how far June (Elisabeth Moss) is willing to go for her freedom.
While this riveting scene fits the context of The Handmaid’s Tale perfectly, ear injuries are a surprisingly common motif in pop culture. Perhaps it's because in a TV show or movie, so much has to be communicated visually. Destroying an ear has the benefit of being immediately visually impactful and visceral reaction-inducing — but usually not fatal. So to bite or cut off someone's ear is to establish dominance, and further characterization.
Ear injuries also hold a prominent place in historical lore. Vincent Van Gogh cut his own ear off; Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear during a boxing match; when kidnapped, 16-year-old J.P. Getty III had his ear sent in the mail for ransom money. In harsher times, cutting off ears once was a common form of punishment. The practice, called cropping, has origins back to Hammurabi's code, and was used frequently in Colonial America. Cropping appears in the New Testament of the Bible when Simon Peter cuts off the slave Malchus' ear, and Jesus heals him.
Clearly, humans have an aural fixation. Here are other gross pop culture moments dedicated to decimating ears that June, likely, could relate to, should she ever sit in front of a TV again.
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Blue Velvet (1986)

This is one legendary ear. David Lynch's Blue Velvet begins when Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) discovers a severed human ear in a field and brings it to the police station, so beginning Jeffrey's strange journey. The severed ear was actually the first image that occurred to Lynch when he was envisioning Blue Velvet. "I don't know why it had to be an ear. Except it needed to be an opening of a part of the body, a hole into something else...The ear sits on the head and goes right into the mind so it felt perfect," Lynch said in an interview.

If you think pop culture's fixation with the ears is a product of some subconscious connection between the ear and the mind, then Lynch's esoteric explanation might clear things up for you.
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The Godfather III (1990)

The next time you and a feuding friend hug and make up, think back to this scene in the Godfather III. After fighting, Vincent Corleone (Andy Garcia) and Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) meet to reconcile. Vincent jokingly calls Joey a bastard, and then Joey chomps down on Vincent's ear until it's bleeding. How might Jane Goodall describe this if she saw it in the wild? "The two men engage in a shocking dance of masculine energy, culminating in a spat of violence. Neither comes out satisfied."
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Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Quentin Tarantino's movies always veer towards extreme violence, lined with black comedy. But this scene in Reservoir Dogs especially relishes in that violence. Mr. Blonde (Mike Madsen) delights in the anticipation of the torture he's about to inflict on the cop, Nash (Kirk Baltz). He puts on "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel and dances. Madsen entirely improvised this scene.

After some dancing and dilly dallying, Mr. Blonde cuts off the poor cop's ear with a knife. The camera focuses on the sawing motion, and then turns away. Soon, Mr. Blonde is back in the frame, looking at the severed ear with detached curiosity. He asks, "Was that as good for you as it was for me?"
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Dead Alive (1992)

A warning: Everything about this scene will gross you out irrevocably. Before Peter Jackson was making Lord of the Rings movies, he was working on gory comedies like Dead Alive, which tells the story of a son who accidentally turns his overprotective mother into a zombie. At one point in the movie, the mother (Elizabeth Moody) has guests over for lunch. Her decaying zombie ear slides off her head, falls off into her pudding – and she nonchalantly eats it.
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Chopper (2000)

June deliberately cuts off part of her ear in The Handmaid's Tale — and so does Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read (Eric Bana) in this prison-set movie. Chopper is serving a 16-year sentence. At some point, his alliances turn on him, and he's pursued by gang members. So Chopper enlists another inmate to cut off his ears so he can blame the mutilation on the gang. His scheme pays off: Chopper is successfully transferred to another prison division. This maneuver renders Chopper a legend. Both The Handmaid's Tale and Chopper show the lengths people will go for freedom.
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The Big Lebowski (1998)

And now, for something completely awful (but also almost funny?). Towards the end of the The Big Lebowski, a gang of German nihilists demanding ransom money from the Dude (Jeff Bridges) decide to ratchet up their tactics by setting the Dude's car on fire and robbing him. The Dude's friend Walter (John Goodman, takes all three down — and bites the ear off of someone. America was still feeling raw over ear injuries. Just a year earlier, Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield's right ear during a boxing match.
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Gangs of New York (2002)

The very first scene of Gangs of New York sets the tone for the rest of the movie. It says: This is going to be a bloody version of New York, unrecognizable in its lawlessness. The scene depicts a massive gang brawl in the year 1846. In addition to the usual stabbings, one woman leaps like a flying squirrel and rips the ear off an unsuspecting man. In the midst of the chaos, the woman cradles the ear with pride — a war trophy.
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Pineapple Express (2008)

Somehow, Pineapple Express manages to make an ear mutilation humorous. "You killed my ear!" Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) shouts after a drug dealer's henchman, Matheson (Craig Robinson), grazes his ear with a bullet. Dale's friend, Saul (James Franco), retaliates by shooting Matheson.
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All the Money in the World (2017)

This scene is particularly devastating, because it happened in real life. J.P. Getty III, the grandson of the richest man in the world, was kidnapped in Rome when he was 16 by the 'Nrangheta mafia group of Calabria. Paul's grandfather, oil mogul J.P. Getty, refuses to pay the $17 million ransom, so Paul's captors ratchet up their tactics. They cut off Paul's right ear and mail it to a newspaper; after that, the Getty family is willing to negotiate more seriously. This story followed Paul for the rest of his life. The surprisingly callous title of his New York Times obituary mentions it: "J. Paul Getty III, 54, Dies; Had Ear Cut Off by Captors." Paul's story is also being told in the FX series Trust.
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The Handmaid's Tale (2018)

In season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale, June (Elisabeth Moss) unflinchingly brings a pair of scissors to the top portion of her ear to remove a tracker. In addition to being downright bloody, this gesture is laden with symbolism. After living as a handmaid for five years and being another person's property, June, with one final invasive act, liberates herself from Gilead.

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