The new production of Roald Dahl’s The Witches has sparked conversation and controversy with it’s depiction of the Grand High Witch, played by Anne Hathaway.
(Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t read The Witches or seen the film yet)
One memorable scene in Dahl’s original novel includes the main character overhearing the evil plots of the titular Witches. The scene is tense and sinister, as our main character hides in a cupboard and hears the plans while trying not to be discovered. Classic rising tension. As part of the reveal of these terrifying villains, they shed their normal human disguises to show cat-like claws and itchy bald heads.
A blog post from our friends at Alopecia UK (which you can read in full here) captures the experience of Jen, who first heard this scene as a young person with alopecia.
“Jen: “I remember us reading The Witches in my English class. As the teacher started reading out the description of the witches as they removed their wigs (‘a witch always wears a wig!’) to reveal their itchy bald heads I inwardly cringed as I knew what was coming next. The class clown shouted ‘AHHH! JEN’S A WITCH!’ At that point I wanted the ground to swallow me up whole but I laughed along and kept any feeling of wanting to cry firmly on the inside. At the end of the lesson the teacher came up to me and apologised. I could tell he felt awful about having picked that story. I smiled and laughed it off, ‘Don’t worry about it’. I’d wait until I got home to have a little cry.”
I have a near identical experience in a classroom reading of the novel. I’ve always hated the 1990 film, despite my love for Angelica Houston (Morticia Addams – What a queen).
The 2020 adaptation of The Witches has made some changes to the source. One that has attracted significant attention is the image of the three fingered hands of the Grand High Witch. There has been outcry from advocates and individuals with limb differences, with petitions launched to boycott the film and some organizations have released statements very critical of this depiction. Hathaway and Warner Brothers UK have released apologies in response. Several alopecia organizations have shared thoughts and personal stories of their experience of the films and original novel, like the Alopecia UK article linked earlier.
As a person with alopecia, various chronic health conditions and a film degree they never use, I’m often drawn to discussions about media representation.
I usually find them very unsatisfying.
Representation in media has been a topic of much discussion for a long time now. UK based organization Changing Faces launched the “I am not your villain” campaign in 2018 to stop using visible difference, like scars and burns, as a shorthand for villainy.
Representation has been the core topic in several major Hollywood casting controversies centered around what actors have a right to play certain parts. Notable controversies include able-bodied actors playing people with disabilities, like Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, or transgender characters being played by cisgender actors, like Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl.
Representation concerns also turn to how those parts are written and portrayed. Racial and cultural representation in media has a long history of being genuinely dangerous for many communities. Feminist academics have been talking about the implications of gender representation in media since the cows left home (See the 2011 documentary Miss Representation for more).
Who should write or play stories about minority or disadvantaged groups, and how should those stories be structured and framed?
I don’t know. This is a blog about alopecia.
But I do have some follow up questions that are, to me at least, the more interesting emotional core of the issue.
What is it about media representation that hits to the core for so many people? What does it mean to be represented? Why does representation so often hurt? These are the questions that interest me about media representation and the ongoing cycle of controversy.
Media is part of how we experience the world. Our experiences and perceptions are shaped by what we see around us. Media constructions and representations communicate certain values and perspectives, and these have an influence on the people and culture who connect with that media.
And when that media touches on something that is a part of our selves, it’s really vulnerable. When the camera turns towards something that we experience as part of our lives and our identities (like say, living with hair loss and occasionally itchy wigs), that experience and identity gets warped and twisted and decontextualized and it comes out… wrong. And it hurts.
Media is a funhouse mirror. In fiction and non-fiction alike, the process of storytelling takes something real, distorts it, and reflects it back to us. Even the most serious and sensitively-constructed stories have just a little bit of bend in the glass.
And when the distortion is slight enough, or it bends in a way that makes us look good, or that we find funny, or it’s so twisted that we can’t recognize what the original was suppose to be, well, we’re usually okay with it then. But sometimes, the mirror gives us Angelica Houston peeling a wig off an itchy, scabby bald-cap, or Anne Hathaway revealing a claw that looks just a little too much like real limb differences, and the kids in the classroom turn and yell ‘AHHH! JEN’S A WITCH!‘. And we feel painfully seen and awfully distorted, represented and misrepresented at the same time.
The representation is recognizable as something like our selves, but it’s wrong in a way that hurts.
This isn’t one of those articles arguing that media causes all our problems, or the tired arguments like violent media directly causes violence. The issues are more nuanced than that. This also isn’t one of those articles saying people are too sensitive these days and that it’s just fiction about witches and nothing to do with alopecia and we should all stop complaining. The issues are more nuanced than that.
This is an article suggesting that we be aware of why we feel hurt by these things. That we acknowledge that trying to find an undistorted image in the funhouse mirror is a kind of impossible task. I don’t believe it’s possible for the media mirror to produce an image free of distortion. The disassembly and reconstruction that is inherent to the media production process doesn’t allow it. That said, I think those who make content can (and should) aim to be mindful, responsible, and careful, and we should be able to hold them accountable when they fail at that. Those two opinions are not in conflict.
Will I watch the new The Witches film? No, but not because of the controversy or representation. It’s just not my kind of film. In the end, this article isn’t even really about The Witches – it’s about media. What it does for us and why we care.
And if I could leave you with anything, at the end of our 100th article here on Love, Alopecia, it would be a request to watch more weird stuff. Pay for content. Support media that tries something new. Support Australian made. The weird stuff is what starts to shift the dial on what kinds of stories and what kinds of representation get to the mainstream. So watch more weird stuff.
You might just find something that feels a little more representative, a little more real on the way.