"How 'The Witches' Affected People with Limb Differences"
People with visible disabilities often struggle with self-esteem. As children, they are frequently teased and bullied about their handicaps. The visibly disabled have basic problems of identity and identification as they rarely see people who look like them in the mainstream media. Journalist Cara Buckley reports that a study found that “less than 2 percent of characters with speaking parts in top movies from 2018 were disabled.”
Limb differences occur for varied reasons. Babies may be born with conditions in which limbs are missing or fused together. The CDC reports that approximately 1,500 babies born in American each year have upper limb differences and about 750 have lower limb differences with some having both. It is also possible for people to lose fingers, toes, arms, or legs to accidents, violence, or disease. Over 2 million Americans live with limb loss.
Rhiannon James of the United Kingdom has a hand with two fingers. A fan of Roald Dahl’s novel The Witches, she was excited to learned a remake of the motion picture The Witches would soon be in theaters. The novel had been made into a 1990 film called The Witches that was directed by Nicolas Roeg. The 2020 movie is directed by Robert Zemeckis who co-wrote the screenplay along with Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro.
Excitement shriveled into disappointment and dismay when Rhiannon James learned that the witches in the remake, including the Grand High Witch played by Anne Hathaway, were depicted as having hands in the which the middle and ring fingers were missing, something which can occur for multiple reasons and is characteristic of a congenital disability called ectrodactyly in which one or more of the central digits of hand and/or foot are missing. “I was horrified when I first saw that The Witches had used a limb difference as part of their new movie,” she recalled. “I’m angry that they are showing someone with a limb difference as something that should be feared and covered up.”
What’s more, James fears the effect such a film could have on youngsters with limb differences. “This is a film that is aimed at a child audience,” she notes. “It is giving the message to young impressionable children that someone with a limb difference is someone who should be feared.”
A Brief Synopsis of The Witches (2020)
There are differences between the novel, the 1990 version, and the 2020 version but this article will not describe those differences except when relevant to the subject. The 2020 version of The Witches was directed by Robert Zemeckis who, with Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro, wrote the screenplay. Chris Rock narrates the film, telling the story of what happened to his character as a child. The child protagonist is never given a name but only called “Boy.” The main story is set in 1968. After a car crash leaves Boy (Jahzir Bruno) without his parents, he leaves Chicago to live with his grandmother (Octavio Spencer) in Alabama. He is understandably depressed after being suddenly orphaned. Hoping to cheer up the child, Grandma gifts him with a pet mouse. His spirits rise as he cares for the mouse whom he names Daisy.
When in a store, Boy looks for a box of nails that he hopes to use to build a little house for Daisy. Also in the store is a witch who tries to lure him away with a caramel and – a snake! Grandma calls Boy and the witch vanishes (along with her candy and serpent). Boy tells Grandma about his odd encounter. Grandma assures him that witches are real -- a witch placed a hex on her childhood playmate, Alice, turning the little girl into a chicken! According to Grandma, she and the little boy must find a place to hide from the witch and her evil confederates. The pair take refuge in a hotel but – wouldn’t you know it? – the witches are holding their convention in that hotel!
How are witches identified? Grandma reveals that they have claws they hid under gloves, bald heads they hide under wigs, and toeless feet which necessitate wearing sensible shoes. Their eyes possess a weird purple tinge. They have a superior sense of smell -- to smell out children!
Boy, intent on training Daisy to do tricks, takes the mouse and a rope to the hotel’s grand hall. On his way, he meets another boy named Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) but Bruno’s mother pulls him away. Boy goes into the grand hall and prepares to train Daisy. Suddenly the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) leads her coven into the hall. The boy dives under the stage to hide.
GHW announces the plot to put a potion into candies and turn all the world’s children into mice! She has already given a potion to a little boy who is going to attend their meeting. In comes Bruno who soon transforms into a mouse! Then mouse Bruno enters the place where the boy and Daisy hide. GHW finds Boy and turns him into a mouse. Bruno and our hero learn that Daisy is also a child who was turned into a mouse so we have a trio of children-turned-into-mice.
That is as much of the story as this writer will tell. The conspiracy of witches to turn all children into mice is certainly an arresting concept. Nevertheless, the film got decidedly mixed reviews. Critics tended to praise the performances by Anne Hathaway and Octavia Spencer as well as the special effects and extravagant settings. However, they tended to think the overall telling of the story was lackluster. Reviewer Richard Roeper found it “far too disturbing for young children and not edgy enough to captivate adults.” Roeper also notes that this version is “faithful to the ending of the book” but “that ending is odd and dark and filled with gloom.” Most people are not apt to take children, especially small children, to films with gloomy endings.
Disability, Deformity, and Scars Denoting Villainy
Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, the wicked witches in Dahl’s novel did not have fewer fingers than most people but five fingers on each hand that were distinguished by claws rather than fingernails. However, their feet were differently limbed as they did not have toes. The 1990 motion picture also featured evil witches with claws.
Why did the makers of the 2020 film decide the villainesses should be distinguished by limb differences? The studio responsible for the motion picture, Warner Bros., released a statement revealing it “worked with designers and artists to come up with a new interpretation of the cat-like claws that are described in the book.”
Although Warner Bros. claimed it just intended a “new interpretation” of “cat-like claws,” it seems likely that the form this interpretation took played on a historical prejudice that associates disability with wickedness. “A disproportionate number of disabled characters are villains,” writer Fay Onyx notes.
Indeed, stories often use a character’s disability, deformity, or scars as a kind of visual symbol of that character’s evil. The title character of Gaston Leroux’s 1909 The Phantom of the Opera and Freddy Kreuger of The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise are villains with deformed and scarred faces respectively. A disabled villain’s prosthetic devices can take on a kind of horror as is seen in Darth Vader who is described by Obi Wan Kenobi as “more machine now than man, twisted and evil.” Captain Ahab of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Captain Hook of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan both link limb difference to wickedness. An article in Media Smarts observes that there is a common “image of pirates as having missing hands, eyes, and legs.”
It should be noted that the disabled villain is sometimes said to become monstrous because of the trauma that led to the disability and/or because of the rejection and ostracism that accompanied it. Colleen Elaine Donnelly states, “In some contemporary fantasy, we have seen archetypically evil characters redefined primarily by the telling of their backstories, which is intended to provide a rationale for their behavior and to evoke sympathy or pity from the audience.”
There is no backstory in The Witches that evokes audience sympathy for the limb differences of the evil characters. Their seeming ectrodactyly serves only as a visual signifier of wickedness.
The Limb Difference Community Responds
The aforementioned Rhiannon James was by no means the only person with a limb difference to express offense at the 2020 version of The Witches. Many people were disconcerted to see a children’s film link limb differences with evil.
The writer of this article interviewed Levin Sliker, co-founder and CEO of Point Designs, a company that makes finger and partial hand prosthetics for people, including children, with hand differences. Although Sliker does not have a limb difference himself, his work with the community makes him aware of its special needs. What are his thoughts on the 2020 version of The Witches?
“I think that the choice to represent the villains this way was irresponsible and offensive,” he asserts. “I think the consequences of this type of representation can be huge, particularly for children, and specifically from a psychological perspective. I think it’s important for children, but also for adults, to promote the idea of embracing your limb differences and not drawing attention to them in a negative way as I think the movie does.”
Briony May Williams, who became famous on Great British Bake Off and who has only a small digit where the left hand usually is, had a strong visceral reaction to the image of the Grand High Witch. “When I look at the pictures of Anne Hathaway with her witch hands, it brings tears to my eyes because I see my hand in the photos,” Williams comments, “I see my genetic disorder that caused me to be born without any fingers on my left hand. I see something to be afraid of, something meant to make you feel sick and revolted.” She believes the film is “showcasing limb difference as ugly, scary, gross, and evil.”
A beauty queen, Nicole Kelly, was born with a left arm that ends where a forearm usually begins. The disabled beauty won the Miss Iowa tiara in 2013 and was a contestant at the 2014 Miss America pageant. “The Witches is not ‘just a movie’,” Kelly strongly asserts. “I know literally hundreds of kids whose hands look exactly like that . . . Those kids are going to school and what do you think they’re being called and talked about? The impact is direct and it hurts.”
The founder of the Lucky Fin Project, a charity dedicated to supporting children who have limb differences and to raising awareness about their issues, Molly Stapelman, is also the mother of a differently-limbed child. The 2003 animated film Finding Nemo inspired the title of the Lucky Fin Project because the title character was a clown fish with an unusually short right fin. In Today, Meghan Holohan reports that the Lucky Fin Project “has been working with parents for nearly a decade on how to help children who are bullied because of their limb differences.” Holohan elaborated that, asked to comment on the 2020 version of The Witches, Stapelman said that the “movie feels like a setback.” Stapelman asserts, “The deliberate choice to make Anne Hathaway’s character in The Witches movie limb different in an effort to make her more creepy and sinister is upsetting. This reinforces the stigma already present in society and it’s not OK.”
Comedian Alex Brooker has hand and arm differences. In an interview, he said the sight of limb differences in the motion picture “jarred quite a bit.” Like others, he fears the film will “add to the stigma” already faced by people like himself. “To me, it sends out a message that we should be scared of people with missing fingers,” he states.
Grace Mandeville, a differently limbed actress and television presenter, says she “was really disappointed with the decision to give the villains in the movie a disability for absolutely no reason other than to make the character seem scarier. The truth is children will watch this movie and some will then be scared of people that have limb impairments or ectrodactyly thanks to the film.”
Police officer Ben Tomlinson was born with ectrodactyly. “If I had seen The Witches growing up, I would have hidden my hand out of fear of being bullied,” he commented in an article he wrote after the film came out. He fears children with the disability will return “home from school crying inconsolably because they were called a witch.”
Many differently limbed individuals have protested the film’s link by posting photographs of their hands and arms on social media accompanied by the message #NotAWitch. Amy Marren, a two-time British Paralympic swimmer, doubled down on the message through a photograph in which she wrote “Able Whole Valued” on her “normal” hand and #NOTAWITCH on her differently limbed arm. The official Paralympics account on Twitter stated: “Limb difference is not scary. Differences should be celebrated and disability has to be normalized.”
Remorse and the Need for Diversity
In the Warner Bros. statement previously quoted, it also stated that Warner Bros. was “deeply saddened” to know that the movie “upset people with disabilities” and elaborated “It was never the intention for viewers to feel that the fantastical, non-human creatures were meant to represent them.”
Star Anne Hathaway has expressed remorse for any harm caused to disabled individuals, especially children, because of the film. “I have recently learned that many people with limb differences, especially children, are in pain because of the portrayal of the Grand High Witch in The Witches,” she stated. “Let me begin by saying I do my best to be sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others not out of some scrambling PC fear, but because not hurting others seems like a basic level of decency we should all be striving for. As someone who really believes in inclusivity and really, really hates cruelty, I owe you all an apology for the pain caused. I am sorry.” Hathaway is adamant that, had she made the connection between a disability and the appearance of her nefarious character, she would have objected to the depiction. “I did not connect limb difference with the GHW when the look of the character was brought to me,” she asserted. “If I had, I assure you this never would have happened.” The actress acknowledged that special sensitivity is required when crafting entertainment for children and the film displayed a failure of that sensitivity. “I particularly want to say I’m sorry to kids with limb differences,” she said. “Now that I know better I promise I’ll do better. And I owe a special apology to everyone who loves you as fiercely as I love my own kids. I’m sorry I let your family down.”
One positive aspect of the film – or rather, the response to it -- could be a renewed commitment to greater inclusivity in the entertainment industry. The insensitivity shown in this case underlines the need to have more disabled people giving input to the entertainment industry. Both in front of the screen and behind it, individuals with disabilities can bring a much-needed perspective.
This author thanks co-founder and CEO of Point Designs Levin Sliker for granting an interview.
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Denise Noe is a severely and multiply disabled writer living in Bolivar, Missouri. Her books include The Bloodied and the Broken, a collection of true crime stories. She also has an ebook of true crimes against young people entitled Suffer Little Children. Books by Denise Noe on the entertainment industry include The Complete Married… with Children Book: TV’s Dysfunctional Family Phenomenon, Teletubbies On the Screen and Behind the Scenes, and Maury: The Story of an American Pop Culture Institution. A Denise Noe book on one of the world’s most popular holidays is Christmas Gifts from the Chanukah Crowd: The Extraordinary Contributions of American Jews to Christmas. Her ebook of literary criticism, Obsessions & Exorcisms in the Work of Joyce Carol Oates, was complimented by its subject.
Her major interests include film, literature, social welfare issues, science, and my mythology.