Scary Is How You Act, Not Look, Disability Advocates Tell Filmmakers


When “The Witches,” starring Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch, was released last month, a collective groan went up from people with disabilities.

The movie, based on a Roald Dahl children’s book, depicted Hathaway with hands that were wizened and disfigured, with two fingers and a thumb on each. The studio said her hands were meant to resemble cat claws, but they looked a whole lot like split hands, or ectrodactyly.

People with limb differences, including paralympians and a “Great British Baking Show” semifinalist, posted photos 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, yet again, was a villain with a disability, one of the oldest, and, for many, most damaging, storytelling tropes still around.

“This isn’t about being overly sensitive, a ‘snowflake’ or being too politically correct,” Briony May Williams, the British baking competitor, wrote on Instagram. “This is about showcasing limb differences as ugly, scary, gross and evil.”

The Joker. Lord Voldemort. All manner of scarred Bond villains and superhero antagonists. Dr. Poison. Freddy Krueger. The Phantom of the Opera. Shakespeare’s hunchbacked, butcherous Richard the Third.

For as long as there have been stages and screens, disability and disfigurement have been used as visual shorthand for evildoing — a nod to the audience that a character was a baddie to be feared. But disability rights advocates say this amounts not just to lazy storytelling but stereotyping, further marginalizing an already stigmatized community that is rarely represented onscreen. That “The Witches” is a family film, they say, made it worse.

“Playgrounds are where kids are sometimes the cruelest, and kids absorb what they learn, be it through stories we tell or what they learn from their parents,” said Penny Loker, a Canadian visible difference advocate and writer. “They have carte balance to be cruel to people. I was called a monster, and I was called whatever the name of the monster was from the movie that was popular at that time.”

People with disabilities have had some success in challenging the stereotype. In 2018, spurred by a campaign for accurate portrayals of disabilities, the British Film Institute announced it would no longer fund films whose villains have scarred or disfigured faces.

In Zayid’s view, there are limited circumstances under which it’s OK for a villain to be disabled or disfigured. One is when a disabled actor is playing the character, she said, so long as the disfigurement is not what makes them evil. The other is when the evil person being portrayed is a person who has a disability in real life, and even then, Zayid maintains, only a disabled actor should be cast.

Using disability or disfigurement as shorthand for evil goes back centuries in Western culture, said Angela Smith, director of disability studies at the University of Utah. In both lore and real life, physical differences have been read as warnings of danger, symbols of evil, or evidence of sinning or witchcraft. The eugenics movement tapped into this, measuring deviations from assumed norms, Smith said, and the presupposition that disability is something negative in need of fixing 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 talk, behave, look or move — that are meant to seem threatening or grotesque, Smith noted. This carries onscreen, where physical differences are often revealed dramatically as visual shorthand for evilness or immorality: think of Freddy Krueger’s brutally burned face in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” films. All of which, Smith said, subtly shapes perceptions about an already marginalized community, whether “The Witches” intended to or not.

“Popular films like this send very clear messages: that disabled bodies are wrong or evil, that they don’t belong in ‘normal’ society or public view, that it is ‘natural’ to be disgusted by difference,” Smith wrote in an email.


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