One of Hollywood’s first depictions of limb difference came exactly a century ago, when Lon Chaney portrayed a bilateral leg amputee in The Penalty. To achieve the effect, the able-bodied Chaney had his feet strapped to the back of this thighs, then slipped his knees into crude prosthetic feet. With the right camera angles and a long-tailed coat to conceal the harness, the effect was pretty convincing, especially by the standards of 1920. Audiences were dazzled; they’d never seen anything like it.
Unfortunately, this technical wizardry served a story that portrayed limb loss as monstrous. Chaney’s character, Blizzard, is a bloodthirsty gangster whose heart and soul have been warped by his double amputation in childhood. He pushes drugs, revels in cruelty, and plots with Communists to terrorize the good and decent (and, of course, able-bodied) people of San Francisco. In this telling, limb difference is destabilizing and uncivilizing—as unnatural as vampires and werewolves, an evil scourge upon the defenseless and the innocent.
The Penalty was Chaney’s breakout performance, paving the way for his legendary roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925). These two films deepened The Penalty‘s pattern of equating disability with depravity—rather ironic, insofar as both of Chaney’s parents had complete hearing loss. However, Hunchback and Phantom cemented Chaney’s reputation for brilliance in makeup and cinematic special effects. Both movies are celebrated today as landmark achievements which helped establish the horror-film formula that guides Hollywood filmmakers to this day.
Or misguides them, perhaps we should say. Because here we are, a full century after Chaney’s blunt association of limb difference with pure evil, witnessing the same worn-out trope in The Witches. A remake of the 1990 film starring Angelica Huston (and based on Roald Dahl’s 1983 novel), the film endows its main villain—the Grand High Witch, played by Oscar winner Anne Hathaway—with gratuitously deformed hands. As with Lon Chaney’s silent-film monsters, Hathaway’s physical difference is a visual shorthand for spiritual perversity.
The Witches is meant to be campy, more a dark comedy than a horror flick, so perhaps the filmmakers intended the over-the-top makeup as a winking parody of those painful old stereotypes. But even if we’re generous enough to grant them this benefit of the doubt, The Witches feels like a slap in the face to anyone who’s ever been marginalized by limb difference or any other disability. It also steepens the uphill battle to promote more inclusive, honest portrayals of disability in all media.
Admittedly, we haven’t seen The Witches in its entirety. But we’ve monitored the commentary on Twitter and Instagram under the #NotAWitch hashtag, and there are some powerful doses of truth out there. We’ve excerpted some of the best takes below.
Alexis Hillyard of Stump Kitchen: “Growing up, Roald Dahl’s The Witches was one of my favorite books. . . . I was excited for the new film adaptation from Warner Bros. until I saw that the director made the decision to remove some of the Grand High Witch’s fingers. . . . This is a real condition known as ectrodactyly. It isn’t ‘scary’ or ‘creepy,’ and portraying it as such perpetuates harm against all of us with limb differences, but especially children—who deserve to see positive representation of themselves, who deserve to know that they are beautiful and perfect just the way they are. As a victim of bullying, my heart truly breaks for all the children with limb differences who are going to be made to feel ashamed of themselves because of this movie. . . . .”
Filmmaker Jason Schneider: “If you look at the way disability has been portrayed over the history of cinema, it will put into context why people in the limb difference community are so upset. . . . There is no reason Anne Hathaway’s character should have a hand difference (especially since it isn’t even in the original book that the film is based off of). It is strictly being used here as shock value to represent the character as flawed/evil. Maybe if people with limb differences/disabilities were more commonly (and accurately) represented in cinema and TV, it wouldn’t sting so much… but sadly that’s not the case. This ‘representation’ hurts the thousands of kids with limb differences that will go out into the world this week only to be told they’re a witch, or a freak.”
Paralympic swimmer Jessica Smith: “When I was 17 I was walking through a shopping mall and a man yelled ‘Oh my god, it’s the devil’ . . . . I felt everyone’s gaze fall onto me. ‘What’s wrong with you! Your arm! The devil sent you!’ 17 [years old] in the midst of bulimia and anorexia, being told I was sent from the devil . . . it hurt. I was made to feel that my body was evil. This is NOT about costumes and makeup! This is about limb difference being shown in a negative way. I’ve spent my entire life fighting against stereotypes, only to have Hollywood throw it back in my face.”
Nicole Kelly, former Miss Iowa: “Instead of using good writing . . . people rely on visual stereotype cues. It’s absolutely incorrect and absolutely lazy for storytellers to pull the disability card as such a prop. . . . . We need more people with disabilities at the decision making tables in Hollywood. Or maybe, we can learn that our society still stigmatizes disability as bad/scary and we need to all work to undo that bullsh*t. . . . . This is an extremely clear example of an entire team of people making obviously stupid decisions because nobody bothered including us in any part of the process.”
Ashley Young, model: “I grew up being called a freak and having kids say my little arm was gross or disgusting. . . . Impressionable audiences that this movie is aimed for will take this and run. As a victim of bullying, I already know what they will say. I’m so sorry. . . . I encourage parents of abled bodied children to please teach your kids about limb difference in a positive way.”
Autumn Best, actress: “If you are disabled: YOU ARE NOT A MONSTER. You are beautiful and powerful and HUMAN. People in power have tried to dehumanize us since the beginning of time. We know better than that. Get behind the script! Get behind the camera! Demand your seat at the table and speak up! . . . . The world won’t change for us, so WE have to change it for ourselves.”