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'Horrified': People with limb differences respond to 'The Witches' movie

“I’m angry that they are showing someone with a limb difference as something that should be feared and covered up," one woman said.
/ Source: TODAY

When Rhiannon James heard there was going to be a new remake of the movie “The Witches,” she was excited. Growing up, she loved the Roald Dahl book and awaited the new adaptation of it. But when she saw that the witches, led by actor Anne Hathaway, had hands with only three fingers, that excitement waned. She balked at the movie using limb differences as something scary.

“I was horrified when I first saw that 'The Witches' had used a limb difference as part of their new movie,” the 30-year-old from South Wales in the United Kingdom told TODAY, via Facebook Messenger. “I’m angry that they are showing someone with a limb difference as something that should be feared and covered up.”

While Rhiannon James feels confident with her limb difference she knows many young children with limb differences who watch "The Witches" movie might feel bad at seeing their disability portrayed as scary or evil. Courtesy @rhi__james / Instagram

James was born with a limb difference and feels “comfortable and confident with it.” But she knows that children with limb differences might not feel as secure with how they look and she suspects that some children who see the movie might bully children with limb differences by calling them “witches.”

“This is a film that is aimed at a child audience — it is giving the message to young impressionable children that someone with a limb difference is someone that should be feared,” she said.

That’s why she shared a picture of her hand with the #notawitch on Instagram. She wanted to show children (and adults) with limb differences that they’re not alone.

“I am doing it to help the generation of children now that will have their peers watch the film and fear them, and call them witches (or other) names as a result of this film,” James said.

Nicole Kelly speaks to children and corporations about disability, diversity and inclusion. When she saw the movie "The Witches" used limb differences she knew that so many children with limb differences would be negatively impacted by it. Courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

Molly Stapelman, founder of the Lucky Fin Project (a nonprofit organization to raise awareness and support children with limb difference) and the mother of 13-year-old Ryan, who has a limb difference, said she has been working with parents for nearly a decade on how to help children who are bullied because of their limb differences. The movie feels like a setback.

"The deliberate choice to make Anne Hathaway’s character in 'The Witches' movie limb different in efforts to make her more creepy and sinister is upsetting," the 47-year-old from Berkley, Michigan, told TODAY via Facebook Messenger. "This reinforces the stigma already present in society, and it’s not OK."

She's not the only one who believes this. Nicole Kelly, crowned Miss Iowa in 2013 and a 2014 Miss America contestant, was born without her left forearm. Since her pageant days, she has worked as a professional speaker talking to children and corporations about disability and diversity. After she saw the picture of the witches’ hands, she shared an image of Hathaway as a witch and her thoughts about how Hollywood relies on several well-worn tropes about people with disabilities. While some might believe they are just entertainment or fun, she said these narratives truly impact people.

“‘The Witches' is not just a movie,” Kelly, 30, who lives in Chicago, told TODAY. “I know literally hundreds of kids whose hands look exactly like that … Those kids are going to school and what do you think they’re being called and talked about? The impact is direct, and it hurts.”

The Paralympic Games shared a Tweet with an image of Hathaway as a witch and an illustration from the book, which shows that Dahl's depiction of the witches included clawed fingers — not a limb difference. The text affirmed the need for media to show disabilities in a humanizing way.

"Limb difference is not scary. Differences should be celebrated and disability has to be normalized," the organization wrote.

Warner Bros. Pictures shared a statement with NBC News:

"We the filmmakers and Warner Bros. Pictures are deeply saddened to learn that our depiction of the fictional characters in 'THE WITCHES' could upset people with disabilities, and regret any offense caused. In adapting the original story, we worked with designers and artists to come up with a new interpretation of the cat-like claws that are described in the book. It was never the intention for viewers to feel that the fantastical, non-human creatures were meant to represent them. This film is about the power of kindness and friendship. It is our hope that families and children can enjoy the film and embrace this empowering, love-filled theme."

Hathaway also shared an apology on Instagram.

"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," she shared. "I particularly want to say I’m sorry to kids with limb differences: now that I know better I promise I’ll do better. And I owe a special apology to everyone who loves you as fiercely as I love my own kids: I’m sorry I let your family down."

Kelly believes movies make such mistakes because people with disabilities are not part of the conversation.

“This would have never, ever in a million years, been the decision that had been made if anybody related to the disability world had been included in this process. And that really is the huge piece that's missing here. Where are our voices and why are we left out?” she said. “These narratives do indeed affect our lives and the way that the world interacts with us.”

Shannon Crossland agrees.

"More of a conscious effort needs to be made regarding which characters they pick to have a disability. It would be great to see disability portrayed in a positive light and for characters to be represented with a disability without it being related to their evil nature," the 24-year-old from England told TODAY via email. "I don't believe Warner Brothers purposely meant to offend anyone. I don't think they made a conscious effort to give this character three fingers as a way to demonize disability."

But still, showing people with limb differences this way influences how others think about people with disabilities and how they treat them.

"There is already a stigma attached to being different and having a disability. Often when disabilities are shown in the media it is almost always in a negative way," Crossland said.

Stapelman believes this could be a teaching moment for the company.

"I hope Warner Brothers takes action in addition to their apology. For example, a disclaimer before the film and links to educate viewers about actual limb different community," she said.

Kelly and others posted an open letter on to Warner Brothers urging them to really take diversity, equality and inclusion seriously. They also created a guide for parents to help them talk with their children about differences and how limb differences and disabilities are not bad.

“I do honestly believe the decision was made out of complete ignorance. I just don’t believe they were intending to hurt the community,” Kelly said. “This is yet again just another reason why there needs to be more diversity at these tables and in these positions of power.”

This story was updated November 5, 2020 at 3:12 p.m. ET to include Anne Hathaway's response.