The Witches: A Frightening Message?

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#NotAWitch seems like a bizarre statement to write on your body, but in recent times it has a purpose.

The new Warner Bros film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1983 novel The Witches has sparked controversy, particularly among the Paralympic community, for its negative portrayal of limb impairments.

The characters of the witches are depicted with three fingers on each hand- not the same as in the book or the 1990 version of the film, where they are portrayed with long, thin cat-like claws. The hands in the 2020 remake have been remarked on as similar to the condition ectrodactyly or split hand, where one or more fingers are missing. Several people –from Paralympians and disability charities to hand surgeons and a Great British Bake Off contestant- have spoken out about the message the film sends about people with limb differences being ugly or frightening, like a witch.

Part of this has involved Paralympic athletes with limb differences writing #NotAWitch on their limbs and posting a picture of the statement on social media to raise awareness in normalising them. This is particularly intended to benefit children with and without these conditions, to help them understand it is not a scary or bad thing to have. Many of these athletes faced bullying and stigma from their peers growing up, and they do not want to see children today facing the same treatment because the film has made it appear acceptable.

Warner Bros have publicly apologised, stating they wanted a different interpretation of the witches’ claws seen in the book, which were kept the same in the 1990 version of the film. They stressed that they were upset by the reaction, and it was never their intention for the characters to represent anybody with a disability. “This film is about the power of kindness and friendship”, they said.

Despite this, the backlash against the film has continued. Para-triathlete Claire Cashmore said it felt like society had “spiralled back into the dark ages” in how disabilities are viewed and highlighted the ongoing issue of representation of disabled people, especially in the film industry. Former Great British Bake Off contestant Briony May Williams was born without any fingers on her left hand and has received negative comments on social media about it. She said the film clearly depicts limb difference as something to be afraid of and revolted by and praised those who have spoken up about it. Responses have even come from the medical profession. The British Society for Surgery of the Hand issued a statement outlining their disappointment at Warner Bros not embracing today’s public acceptance of disability and showcasing it poorly for entertainment.

Anne Hathaway, who plays the Grand High Witch in the film, took to Instagram promising to “do better” and saying she initially did not associate limb difference with her character and fully supports inclusivity. Her post was well-received by charities and her followers for being a sincere apology supportive of people with limb difference.

Those who have spoken out do not want people to boycott the film but are instead encouraging positive conversations about limb impairments and wider acceptance of being different to others- particularly among our children.

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