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The ‘Villains’ Among Us: Hollywood’s problematic depiction of the ‘Bad Guy’

If I cast my mind back, and it does not have to stretch very far, I can almost instantaneously pick up a distinct pattern of how the film industry portrays the antagonists of their stories: Captain Hook is an amputee, Barty Crouch Jr. suffers from a tongue twitch, Le Chiffre weeps blood from a milky eye. The list goes on.

Hollywood seems to rely on singling out evil with mental and physical disabilities, their depictions of villainy lacking the open-mindedness that would allow for an able-bodied villain to be tyrannical without their diabolical behaviour being inextricably linked to an ailment.

However, in the wake of more progressive media such as Channel 4’s ‘The Last Leg’ and challenges such as the viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, I—an able-bodied woman—optimistically and, perhaps, naively thought that the world had shed the outdated and outlandish portrayals of an otherness equating to an opposition.

All too quickly, however, reboots in Hollywood became the surest way for studios to draw in audiences and their money. With the beating of an otherwise dead horse, there grew a need to inject old success with a new lease of life. Walt Disney Pictures’ answer to this in their 2019 reboot of ‘The Lion King’, beyond cutting edge new CGI, was a villain far more frightful than the last. That is, Scar had more than just a limp but was now severely scarred, burned and blind.

Now there seems to be a turning tide in audiences unquestioningly accepting the content big studios feed them. In the wake of a lack of diversity in Hollywood, there was #OscarsSoWhite, followed by Natalie Portman’s Oscars cloak honouring the snubbed female directors of the awards show’s Best Director category. Now, with 1000 posts and counting, there is #NotAWitch.

Warner Brothers’ latest venture into the reboot resurgence, with an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’, has taken steps to eradicate the author’s undertones of anti-Semitism and inject modern diversity into its cast. However, it has ironically stumbled when it comes to an authentic, inclusive portrayal of diversity, with the addition of the eponymous witches being hallmarked with scars across their mouths and, most notably, having ‘clawed’ hands.

This ‘fresh’ take has gone down like a lead balloon. It seems Hollywood can just about make room for ethnic minorities and well-rounded female characters when screamed at for long and loud enough, but what of the disabled? In the scramble to appear forward thinking, it seems they did not stop to think. The trend of peddling the idea of physical differences being frightful and evil continues but this time it will not go unchecked. The ‘Not A Witch’ hashtag has produced thousands of stories of disabled people, particularly those with Ectrodactyly—the condition the physique of the witches uncannily replicates; a disability that involves the absence of one or more digits of the hands—expressing their outrage and weariness at being singled out both personally and in the media as being dangerous for their differences.

I spoke to Polly, a Paralympian currently studying here at Oxford University who said, on Hollywood’s hurtful depictions of disabled people:

‘The new Witches adaption and its portrayal of limb deficiency really saddens me. Disabled people have been consistently portrayed as either sad, hopeless characters who remind the audience how good their lives are (examples include Tiny Tim from ‘A Christmas Carol’ or Will from ‘Me Before You’) or villains (Captain Hook or Richard III). What makes ‘The Witches’ 2020 adaption even worse is that the hands depicted in the film -which resemble real life physical differences such as symbrachydactyly- were not even described in the original book and are, moreover, placed in a storyline which has the sole attempt to scare impressionable children.

‘For someone who was born without their right hand and forearm, I can tell you that these depictions in the media really matter. Throughout my childhood, and still to this day, I encountered kids (and adults) who are at best shocked by my arm, at worst, terrified. I have had children literally break into tears just looking at me. I do not want this for future generations, and the film industry has a significant part to play in this. The disability community needs characters that represent us as the multifaceted, complex and beautiful people we are, not as one-dimensional focuses of pity or fear. The damage from this movie will simply perpetuate a larger problem when one would hope in 2020 we would be trying to undo some of the problems already created by the media.’

In the wake of disabled people speaking out about the regressive portrayal of disability in ‘The Witches’, star of the new film Anne Hathaway has released an apology, taking to Instagram to write, in part, ‘As someone who really believes in inclusivity and really, really detests cruelty, I owe you all an apology for the pain caused. I am sorry.’

The portrayal of disability as being inextricably linked to villainy is a trope that has continued to perpetuate an ‘Us vs Them’ divide in life beyond the cinema screen. However, with the backfiring of this harmful stereotype in ‘The Witches’, Hollywood has been forced to open their eyes, once again, confront the lack of diversity in the films they produce. I can only hope that this will spark the start of strides towards genuine inclusivity in the future of filmmaking.

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