Movies

As someone with limb difference, I know The Witches would have hurt me as a kid

Imagine you have a child born with Ectrodactyly – a condition typically characterised by missing or malformed fingers or toes – and one day they came home from school crying inconsolably because they were called a witch.

I fear, for anyone watching the recent Warner Brothers remake of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, that this could soon be at least one child’s reality. 

In the film, Anne Hathaway plays the character of the Grand High Witch. She is revealed as having three talon-like fingers on each hand, which she hides by wearing gloves. As the antagonist of the film, she is supposed to be grotesque and scary.

For someone like me – who’s missing the middle three fingers on my left hand – I was shocked because it paints us in an incredibly stigmatising way.

I’m not alone, either. Strictly Come Dancing’s JJ Chalmers and Bake Off’s Briony May Williams slammed the depiction as ‘careless’ and ‘something meant to make you feel sick and revolted’, respectively. 

While I’m not outraged by the depiction, and don’t think I’ll be personally impacted because of the film, I worry for children. 

I also am left confused as to why they took this route in the first place: in the original book it doesn’t even describe the Grand High Witch as having missing fingers and the 1990 version with Anjelica Huston doesn’t depict them in that way either. So why did they go in this direction with the remake?

All it does is reinforce the idea that people like myself should hide our limb differences.

Thankfully, this wasn’t always the message I received as a child. I grew up with understanding people and friends around me so I was never really bullied or treated differently for my hand.

In fact, when I first started primary school at age four the head teacher told me that she would talk to children at assembly about how everybody was different in their own special way and just because people are different it does not mean you should treat them like you would anyone else.

Still, that didn’t mean I never got questions about it – especially as a child. People would sometimes ask ‘Does it feel weird?’ or ‘What happened to your fingers?’ but I think those questions are inevitable and in my case it actually made me more confident explaining to them I was born without fingers.

If the opportunity presents itself, I’ll even crack a joke about my hand – but it took years for me to develop a thick skin about it.

I know that if this film got released 20 years ago when I was in primary school, I absolutely would have been way more self-conscious and probably hid my hand away in fear of being taunted as a witch.

It’s something that the Lucky Fin Project – a charity that raises awareness and celebrates children born with a limb difference – has been talking about over the past few days, starting the hashtag #NotAWitch. 

Unfortunately, the comments section labelled people getting offended by the Grand High Witch portrayal as ‘snowflakes’.

But imagine never seeing yourself represented on screen and then when you finally do, it’s as an evil character that people are supposed to fear.

Or even worse, you’re a five-year-old kid who sees the film and becomes extremely anxious so you started to hide your hand in fear of getting bullied.

Seeing yourself represented on screen in a positive light is so important. I always wanted to be a police officer growing up, but because I never saw anyone that looked like me in that role, I didn’t think it was possible. 

Thankfully, with a lot of hard work and persistence, I achieved that goal back in 2013 when I joined Greater Manchester Police as a Special Constable and then a full time officer in 2019.

I’m also currently working with the Greater Manchester Police Disability Support Network, in order to encourage people with disabilities to apply and pursue their dream careers. I want to be a positive role model to help counter the negative tropes out there – like The Witches. 

Since the backlash, Anne Hathway apologised, which is great to see. She said: ‘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. I did not connect limb difference with the Grand High Witch when the look of the character was brought to me; if I had, I assure you this never would have happened.’

She clearly recognised that there is an issue here and she educated herself. Personally, I don’t think it’s her that needs to apologise though. I believe it falls more on the shoulders of the film makers Warner Bros., so I am happy to see they have also issued an apology.

I hope these apologies send a powerful message to Hollywood that our limb differences are nothing to be ashamed of and we should have nothing to hide under gloves or otherwise.

We need to help inspire kids with limb differences so that they can see themselves represented and know to never give up on their dreams.

Just because you’re a little different doesn’t mean you’re any less special.

You can find out more about the Lucky Fin Project here. You can follow Ben on Instagram here

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