When “The Witches,” starring Anne Hathaway as Grand High Witch, came out last month, a collective moan rose from the disabled.
The film, based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl, depicted Hathaway with shriveled and disfigured hands, with two fingers and a thumb on each. The studio said her hands were meant to look like cat claws, but they looked a lot like split hands or ectrodactyly.
People with differing limbs, including Paralympians and a “Great British Baking Show” semi-finalist, posted pictures of their hands and arms on social media with the hashtag #NotAWitch. While Hathaway and Warner Bros. apologized, many saw the damage as already done. Here, again, was a disabled villain, one of the oldest and, for many, most damaging storytelling tropes yet.
“It‘s not about being too sensitive, a ‘snowflake’ or being too politically correct,” British pastry competitor Briony May Williams wrote on Instagram. “It‘s about presenting the differences in limbs as ugly, scary, crass and bad.”
The Joker. Lord Voldemort. All kinds of Bond villains and tagged superhero antagonists. Dr Poison. Freddy Krueger. The Phantom of the Opera. Shakespeare’s Hunchback and Butcher Richard III.
As long as there have been scenes and screens, handicap and disfigurement have been used as a visual shortcut for evil – a nod to audiences that a character was a villain to be feared. But disability rights advocates say it doesn’t just come down to telling lazy stories, but creating stereotypes, further marginalizing an already stigmatized community that is rarely portrayed on screen. “The Witches” is a family film, they say, made matters worse.
“Playgrounds are where kids are sometimes the cruelest, and kids absorb what they learn, whether it’s through the stories we tell or what they learn from their parents,” said Penny Loker, a Canadian lawyer and writer of Visible Differences. “They have the balance card to be cruel to people. I was called a monster, and I was called whatever the name of the monster from the movie that was popular at the time.
People with disabilities have successfully challenged the stereotype. In 2018, spurred by a campaign for an accurate portrayal of disabilities, the British Film Institute announced it would no longer fund films in which the villains marked or disfigured faces.
Supporters are aware of the criticism that the world has become too hypervigilant, and that the backlash against “The Witches” is another example of political correctness that hammers artistic expression. What is deemed acceptable has certainly changed over time. There was little criticism of Anjelica Huston’s macabre Grand High Witch in the 1990 film version, or for the 1980s character of Sloth, the monster from “The Goonies” (although, spoiler alert, he ended up doing it. by being a good guy).
Yet even as stereotypical representations of other marginalized groups are increasingly recognized as problematic, the disfigured villain has proven more difficult to rout. In the upcoming Bond film “No Time to Die”, Rami Malek and Christoph Waltz both play criminals with facial disfigurements.
“Obviously, we don’t want a culture where everyone is outraged about everything,” said Ashley Eakin, a writer and director with Ollier’s disease and Maffucci syndrome, which affects growth and bone formation. “For so long, disability has been underrepresented, so if we only see disfigurement in a villain or a character with no redeeming qualities, that’s a problem.”
One in four adults in the United States has a physical or mental disability that significantly limits activities; a recent study found that less than 2% of the characters with speaking parts in the best movies of 2018 were disabled. As advocacy groups work with studios to change this, critics say characters with disabilities still too often fall into predictable buckets, one of which is the villain or victim who brings relief to all, who some have dubbed the ” inspirational porn ”.
“People with disabilities play either villains or happy snowflake baby angels,” said Maysoon Zayid, a comedian, writer and actor with cerebral palsy. “We are either charitable, inspiring, never do bad things with our life. Or we kill babies because we lost an eye in a dart crash.
In Zayid’s view, there are limited circumstances under which it’s okay for a villain to be disabled or disfigured. One is when a disabled actor plays the character, she said, as long as the disfigurement isn’t what makes him mean. The other is when the evil person depicted is a disabled person in real life, and even then, argues Zayid, only a disabled actor should be chosen.
Using disability or disfigurement as a shortcut for evil dates back centuries in Western culture, said Angela Smith, director of disability studies at the University of Utah. In lore as in real life, physical differences have been read as warnings of danger, symbols of evil, or evidence of sin or witchcraft. The eugenics movement has tapped into this, measuring deviations from supposed norms, Smith said, and the presupposition that disability is something negative that needs to be corrected continues to inform modern medicine.
It’s also a long-standing trope in fairy tales and fantasy and horror stories. Monsters are given characteristics – the way they speak, behave, look or move – that are meant to appear threatening or grotesque, Smith noted. It takes place on screen, where the physical differences are often dramatically revealed as a visual shortcut for meanness or immorality: think of the brutally burnt face of Freddy Krueger in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies. All of this, Smith said, subtly shapes perceptions of an already marginalized community whether “The Witches” like it or not.
“Popular films like this send very clear messages: that disabled bodies are bad or bad, that they do not belong to ‘normal’ society or in public view, that they are ‘natural’. to be disgusted by the difference ”. Smith wrote in an email.
Warner Bros. pleaded ignorance, claiming he had worked with the film’s artists to create a new take on what Dahl described as “thin curved claws, like a cat,” never intending that viewers feel represented by the “fantastic, non-human creatures” on screen. Hathaway, in her apology, said she didn’t associate her character’s hands with limb differences, and if she had, the performance wouldn’t have happened at all.
Disability rights advocates said the whole issue could have been avoided if more people with disabilities were in the entertainment industry, whether on camera or behind the scenes. “If there were writers, directors, or other disabled crew, they could have seen it and said, ‘Uh, maybe that’s a problem,'” said Lauren Appelbaum, vice-president. president of communications for RespectAbility, a non-profit anti-stigma organization. people with disabilities.
There is more leeway and less potential to offend, when the bad guys are clearly fantastic creatures, unreal products of the imagination, like the shadow monster in “Stranger Things.”
Yet the question for many remains as to why clearly human or human villains need to have visual signifiers evoking evil. Many of the scariest horror movie characters have been valid. Like Samara, the unstoppable dead girl with long hair in “The Ring”, or the possessed writer of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”. Or – thrill – Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men”, with his creepy, mushy pallor and Dorothy Hamill bob. But even such portrayals walk a fine line, threatening to fall into the indictment of mental illness, a la Norman Bates in “Psycho.”
“The monstrosity is something in all of us,” said Smith, “not something out there in a different bodily form than ours.”