Following its recent release, The Witches has received a lot of criticism for the way in which it portrays disability and deformity. Is backlash over fictional, non-human characters warranted, or is this a case of political correctness gone too far?
Warner Bros has apologised for the upset and anger caused by their latest Dahl book-to-film adaption, The Witches. Disability campaigners and individuals have aired views that the film is perpetuating stereotypes and stigma, while others defend it for being a work of fiction.
The Witches : New Release
This recent adaptation was directed by Robert Zemeckis, featuring Anne Hathaway as the Grand Witch. This central character has overt limb deformities, including missing fingers.
The Witches debuted in October 2020 on HBO Max. It’s the second movie adaptation of this much-loved Roald Dahl book, which also features Octavia Spencer, Chris Rock and Stanley Tucci. The story is based on a young boy who’s staying at a hotel with his grandmother when he happens upon a gathering of witches. He learns of their evil machinations, with a grand plan to turn the children in the world into mice. Together with his grandmother, he attempts to prevent the witches from carrying out their malevolent scheme.
In the original story, the Grand Witch has cat-like claws. Artists and designers collaborated to give this character’s appearance a new interpretation for the 2020 release. Given as how the character is a “non-human” creature, it wasn’t intended to portray reality; Warner Bros claimed it was intended as a family-friendly film with a “love-filled theme”.
Perpetuating Disability Stigma
Campaigners have pointed out that the character appears to have the ‘limb abnormality’ Ectrodactyly. By portraying this character as a monstrous villain, it further perpetuates stigma and stereotypes, suggesting those with disabilities are somehow frightful and abnormal.
Amy Marren, Paralympic athlete, stated that she was “disappointed” in the portrayal. The Twitter Account for the Paralympic Games furthered this by saying “Limb difference is not scary. Differences should be celebrated and disability has to be normalised”.
RespectAbility, a disability advocacy organisation, believes the issue is that many of Hollywood’s evil and scary characters are somehow deformed and abnormal, which subconsciously suggests we should be afraid of those that look different to us. The hashtag #NotAWitch has been trending on social media as part of the film’s backlash.
The organisation goes on to say that making the witch appear scarier by creating a limb difference essentially “teaches kids that limb differences are hideous or something to be afraid of. What type of message does this send to children with limb differences?”
Apologies On Behalf Of The Witches
Warner Bros has apologised on behalf of the studio, saying they are “deeply saddened to learn that our depiction of the fictional characters in ‘The Witches’ could upset people with disabilities.”
Anne Hathaway has also apologised for any offence caused, saying that she’ll “do better” in future now that she knows the upset it has caused. In a social media post, she explained: “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”. She continued to say that “I did not connect limb difference with the GHW when the look of the character was brought to me; if I had, I assure you this never would have happened,”
Morality Versus Fictional Reality
This begs the question of how to go about changing social perceptions and stigma when it comes to works of fiction. It could be argued that these characters are not human and bear no relation to real world people and situations. It might be argued that witches generally shouldn’t have big noses and boils, which could cause offence and deepen judgements against those with such characteristics.
This runs the risk of any film or other media needing to be critically aware of all issues affecting diversity and inclusion, making filmmakers apprehensive about each and every film they make. Some people think it’s taking a valuable pursuit – increasing awareness and reducing scepticism – too far. It echoes the criticism and attempted erasure of children’s films and old Christmas songs, except this time it’s around disability and deformity. Will the pursuit to do the right thing suck out the enjoyment from entertainment?
There is a definite need to create more awareness of illnesses, disabilities and disfigurement as so many still face a great deal of ignorance, intolerance and judgement from the general public and even medical professionals. However, should this moral pursuit be kept within the realm of real life, or should it cross over into fictional worlds? Does imagination and make-believe of any character, even non-human, need to be policed to ensure it causes no upset and only continues to further the need for greater awareness and inclusion?
Where do we draw the line between fiction and non-human characters borne from imagination, and the moral need to stamp out stigma?
What do you think? Do you find the portrayal upsetting? Do you think the outrage is justified or has the criticism of this classic tale’s adaptation been taken too far?