Film, Venue

#NotAWitch: The Witches and Disability

We all suffer from the odd moment of mind boggling brainlessness. Warner Bros just had theirs after releasing “The Witches”, an adaptation of the 1983 novel by British writer Roald Dahl. The main issue relates to director Robert Zemeckis’s seeming ignorance towards the very concept of disability, unequivocally blurring the line between physical impairment and witches. Put simply, he messed up. Big time. 

Adapting “The Witches” was a touchy business from the get go. Dahl was writing at a time of patriarchal predominance, male centrism few condemned and many justified. Unlike in the age of #metoo, his outlook was born in the context of a structural and societal dynamic that prevented true female empowerment. His novel is now placed at number 22 on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books, making the decision to adapt his text ever more brave. 

So doomed from the start? Not necessarily, but Zemeckis has only made the problem worse through the film’s deplorable portrayal of limb deficiencies. Anne Hathway’s character, the Grand High Witch, has three fingers on each hand characterising the congenital disorder ectrodactyly. Far from being inhuman, her ‘witchlike’ character displays features firmly rooted in reality. 

Here lies the problem. In the case of “The Witches”, difference – far from being celebrated – is shown to be creepy. The blatant propagation of a disability stigma knows no bounds. Or as awareness platform Reach recently put it, “many limb difference children and young people have a significant challenging time accepting being different, overcoming mental health and physical challenges that many others take for granted and being subjected to bullying.” 

Film directors, including Zemeckis, have a crucial role to play in raising cultural appreciation of issues pertaining to our contemporary society. Likewise, an ability to maintain a finger on the pulse of your audience must also involve a critical awareness of the link between audience preferences and values, which explains why films that negatively depict disability are generally rejected at the box office. Put simply, people who hate racism refuse to watch racist films, and people who hate ableism refuse to watch ableist films. 

Apologies aside, “The Witches” make for one of the most disturbingly inaccurate portrayals of disabilities in entertainment history. Paralympian swimmer Amy Marren reacted on Instagram, writing that “in a time where we are supposed to be moving forwards, we are in fact going backwards.” Dead right, we are. So do yourself a favour and give this one a miss. #NotAWitch


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Sam Gordon Webb

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June 2022
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