Why new film The Witches is angering The Disabled Community

Mark Arnold by Mark Arnold Additional Needs

Mark Arnold

Mark Arnold

Mark heads up Urban Saints pioneering additional needs ministry programme and is co-founder of the ‘Additional Needs Alliance’, a learning and supp...

‘The Witches’ (PG) is a new comic supernatural fantasy film, based on the Roald Dahl novel, in which a young boy encounters a coven of witches.

It has stirred up enormous controversy among the disabled community for its portrayal of witches with physical differences/disabilities.

We journey through the film through the eyes of various characters, including the unnamed ‘Hero Boy’ (as boy and mouse), Grandma (as a girl and an older woman), Daisy/Mary (a girl turned into a mouse by the witches), Bruno (as boy and mouse after he too is transformed), the Grand High Witch, and a host of other characters.

There are a huge range of themes covered, or alluded to, in this film.

The pain, loss and loneliness of becoming an orphan, hard lessons about fairness, and the finding of a friend.

The battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ flows through the film, with blurred edges as ‘good’ and ‘alternative’ collide.

Other themes that have been picked up from the book and the film include suggestions of societies view of women, misogyny and sexism, as well as the films portrayal of the physical differences of the witches and the impact of this on disabled people.

The portrayal of the physical characteristics of the witches has been controversial, with many disabled people and organisations representing them criticising the film for “once again” portraying physical difference as evil.

The Paralympic Games movement has, among others, been openly critical of the film, Tweeting that “Limb difference is not scary. Differences should be celebrated and disability has to be normalised.”

While the Lucky Fin Project*, a non-profit project aimed at raising awareness and support, and celebrating those born with symbrachydactyly or limb difference, Tweeted “The community upset over this “kid friendly” film has been overwhelming. The deliberate choice to make Anne Hathaway’s character in the new @wbpictures film #TheWitches limb different in efforts to make her more creepy and sinister is upsetting. #LimbDifferenceAwareness

Actress and TV presenter Grace Mandeville, who was born with a foreshortened right arm, said 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 [a split hand] thanks to this film.” "I thought we were moving forward in this industry, but once again a movie has used scars and a disability to create a scary character."

Grace added: "I'm aware that this is just a movie to some people, but this affects the perception of disabled people more than you'll realise. I dread to think how a class of children would react to a new classmate who has a scar or a limb impairment after they've all watched this film."

UK Paralympic swimmer and Para-triathlete Claire Cashmore was among others who warned that the film could have a negative effect.

Claire, who was born without a left forearm, said images of Hathaway's character had left her "very confused/upset", and suggested Warner Bros should have sought feedback before making the film. "We want disabilities to be normalised and be represented in a positive light rather than [be] associated with being a scary, evil witch,"

Under pressure from a deluge of criticism, Warner Bros. have issued a statement of apology.

A spokesperson for Warner Bros. said the studio was “deeply saddened to learn that our depiction of the fictional characters in ‘The Witches’ could upset people with disabilities.'” “In adapting the original story, we worked with designers and artists to come up with a new interpretation of the cat-like claws that are described in the book,” the statement reads. “It was never the intention for viewers to feel that the fantastical, non-human creatures were meant to represent them. This film is about the power of kindness and friendship. It is our hope that families and children can enjoy the film and embrace this empowering, love-filled theme.”

It is hoped that movie studios will learn from the fall-out of this controversy and will attempt to consult better and make wiser decisions regarding future films.

Nobody is holding their breath on that one though…

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