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'The Witches' insults people with visible disabilities

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Image: Kayla Maurais/Unsplash

The 2020 movie The Witches was supposed to be a fun readaptation from the 1983 novel of the same name by Roald Dahl. But instead of being fun, it insults people with visible disabilities -- in this case, people who happen to have limb differences.

Now witches have usually had a bad rap in theatrical productions, seen as both powerful and ugly female creatures of the night who prey on children and adults alike.

Witches have been a symbol of persecution throughout history, as suspected witches were burned at the stake or drowned in truth-trials that no ordinary mortal would have a hope of surviving.

And, as with many cases of persecution in history, witch hunts served less as protection for towns and villages and more as a way to remove "undesirables" from the community for political or property-theft reasons.

Historically, claiming someone was a witch was one of the ultimate forms of othering. Having a physical disability was another othering factor which separated an individual from the group norm. While not exclusive to each other, witches were seen as scary, and people with physical disabilities were also seen as scary, so they were often lumped into the same group.

In the Middle Ages, epilepsy, or what was known then as "the falling sickness" was attributed to demonic possession or witchcraft. During the Salem witch trials in America, disability was seen by the community as representing a punishment for the witch's disloyalty to God.

This history aside, the movie The Witches takes attempting to scare people with a character who has a physical disability to a new level.

While in the book, Dahl presents the head witch (in the film played by Anne Hathaway) as having, "claws instead of fingernails," director Robert Zemeckis decides to portray the Grand High Witch with what appears to ectrodactyly, which means the absence of one or more of the central fingers on the hand.

So instead of easily allowing Anne Hathaway to wear long acrylic nails to resemble claws, the director had the film edited so that the Grand High Witch is missing her two middle fingers on both hands, making her hands look more like bird's feet than bird claws.

In a news statement after its release, the studio noted that it wanted to place a "new interpretation of the cat-like claws that are described in the book," so that meant creating a character with a limb difference.

This was obviously made as a way of upping the "fright factor" of the witch's character.

In the world of disability, the visual still reigns as the measure to which someone is considered outside the norm.

Visual representation takes hold on someone's imagination much easier than the other senses, and Zemeckis must have known this when he created Hathaway's character.

Despite the visibility of some disabilities, people with physical disabilities are too often considered a "tragedy." Visible disabilities frequently draw attention from those without disabilities.

While the Grand High Witch tries to hide her disabled hands by wearing gloves, the big reveal is supposed to frighten the audience and provide a sense of "evil" to Hathaway's character -- so monstrous in form that she could not possibly be "human."

Why can’t women with physical disabilities ever be portrayed in mainstream media as sexy? People with physical disabilities are human. We get horny. We want sex.

Instead we're portrayed as evil or as seductresses or as wanton in character, as if our physical disability is just a manifestation of what is wrong with us on the inside coming out. This is the trope that director Zemeckis falls into.

The social media outrage over the portrayal has been swift, as it should. Instagrammer Briony May Williams writes in a post on the subject:

"When I look at the pictures of @annehathaway with her witch hands, it brings tears to my eyes because I see MY hands in the photos. I see my genetic disorder that caused me to born without any fingers on my left hand. I see something to be afraid of, something meant me to make you feel sick and revolted."

For her part, Anne Hathaway has apologized for the pain she admits she has caused those with physical disabilities, especially those with limb differences.

On Instagram, she posted, "I did not connect limb difference with the GHW [Grand High Witch] when the look of the character was brought to me; if I had, I assure you this never would have happened."

A Warner Bros. spokesperson said the studio was "deeply saddened to learn that our depiction of the fictional characters in The Witches could upset people with disabilities."

In response to the film, the Paralympic Games tweeted out, "Limb difference is not scary. Differences should be celebrated and disability has to be normalised."

The saddest part of this is that this film was geared towards a kid-friendly audience, potentially instilling a fear or disgust in children of those with physical disabilities at an early age.

If they see Anne Hathaway's character as evil, what will they think if they run into someone with a limb difference on the street in their daily lives? Yes, The Witches is a fantasy, but the potential for real-life pain is still there.

This is the exact opposite message that should be presented to children. An alternative would be Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeast, which features a character who has a different hand shape than the rest of the characters, and is revered for it, not feared. It is also a fantasy, but can help improve the lives of people with disabilities by creating a character who, when working with others, can be heroes in their own lives.

People with disabilities are not freaky, scary, disfigured or malformed. We are not broken or not whole, even if we are missing a limb or cannot walk. We are complete people. Our disabilities are not a prop.

No one should be apologizing because a film such as The Witches with such a character should never have been made. Maybe the creation of this film and its oversight on the impact on the lives of people with disabilities highlights how far our community still has to go.

A veteran activist and journalist for rabble.ca, Krystalline Kraus is an intrepid explorer and reporter from Toronto.

Image: Kayla Maurais/Unsplash


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