From The Witches to Lion King, portraying disabled people as villainous, scary is a media trope with real world consequences

Harmful depictions of people with facial deformities, skin conditions, scars as evil have real life consequences for people with disabilities.

Srinidhi Raghavan February 10, 2021 09:05:07 IST
From The Witches to Lion King, portraying disabled people as villainous, scary is a media trope with real world consequences

Anne Hathaway in a still from The Witches

What is ‘normal’? In this monthly column, Srinidhi Raghavan explores the understanding of bodies-minds and navigating spaces as disabled, chronically ill and sick people. Read more from the series here.

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It was in August 2020 when the news about the #NewTeacherChallenge on TikTok began to make the rounds. In this challenge, parents were introducing their children to their new teachers, supposedly on Face Time. However, instead of showing them photos of their teachers, they were showing their children a rough-looking mugshot or picture of someone making a silly face. But sometimes, the photo/video was of people with disabilities.

After activist, author, and YouTuber Lizzie Velasquez learned her photo was being used as part of this challenge, she posted a video discussing this trend and the harm it does to people with disabilities like her. She said in the video: "If you are an adult who has a young human in your life, please do not teach them that being scared of someone who doesn't look like them is OK, please. This is a trend that needs to stop. Because we are humans. We have feelings."

Similar to the very real ways in which parents in the TikTok challenge used those with facial differences or scars to scare children, in the latest adaptation of The Witches, written by Roald Dahl, the witches were given limb differences and facial scars “to make them look scarier”.

Facial disfigurement, scars, limb differences, deformity, disability have historically been used in our films, comic books and TV shows to show villainy or evil people. The disability community has challenged this for years. In this video by Jen Campbell, she explores how from a very young age we are exposed to villains who are seen as bodily deformed. What associations do we begin to make when disabled people are often portrayed as scary in media?

As a response to the movie’s representation of people with deformities, we saw many people with limb differences post photos of themselves with the #NotAWitch hashtag. This was done to challenge the harm such representation causes to their lives.

This trope being used in The Witches movie is not an aberration. In fact it is the norm. If you think about many of the villains in films, comic books and popular stories, we see a pattern. Whether it was Scar in The Lion King, or Red Skull in the Avengers movies, or Bane and Two Face in the Batman movies, Voldemort in the Harry Potter books and movies — all these characters have deformities and are depicted as villains and/or evil. This additionally feeds into a popular trope that when you are good, your face reflects it (angelic and white). So then evil is depicted through physical differences intended to scare, incite fear and remind us that good wins over evil. (Here is a handy list of 14 movie villains who have facial deformities or scars.)

Narrow depictions only tell a single story of diverse lives.

These harmful depictions of people with facial deformities, skin conditions, scars as evil have real life consequences for people with disabilities. As I shared this image discussing the latest Witches movies by Jen Campbell, I received messages from other disabled people about the isolation, the bullying and the widespread fear that was associated with them growing up — all because they looked different.

In a post on Instagram, lawyer, writer and mental health advocate Amala Dasarathi speaks of the implications of this representation in her own life. She says: “Since my psoriasis became visibly present, I have always been the subject of stares, questions, comments, pity, horror, disgust, bullying. My skin is always there. It plays a role in every interaction I have. Yet, it's never there. I don't know of any movies, TV shows or other visual representation of characters with visible skin conditions who are not villianised.”

Media portrayal has huge impacts on how we see diversity, how we understand difference, and the subconscious and conscious ways in which we are influenced by imagery and language. For people with disabilities, this struggle continues. One of the interesting things we see when it comes to representation in films is the ways in which the movie Wonder Woman was applauded for a strong, female lead — who is fit, beautiful and non-disabled. All the while casting her opponent or the villain, Dr Poison, as someone with a facial disfigurement. These opposing representations are meant to pit what is acceptable and beautiful as very narrow — reminding us that those with differences are indeed “not normal”.

There are of course more than a few cases where the disabled person is not portrayed as a villain. But this seems to come with a caveat; like Professor X or even Batman for example. Since they have “overcome” their disability, they are seen as heroes, as capable, as deserving of respect. This binary of needing to overcome the disability to be given respect vs being defined by the scarring is something disabled people have to experience every day.

A much needed shift in disability representation can only happen if we first acknowledge that the community is large, diverse, and listen to their voices. Because it takes only a search online to see the numbers of people who have been speaking out about the harms of terrible disability representation. But is anyone listening?

Srinidhi Raghavan is a writer, researcher and trainer. She works at the intersections of sexuality, gender, disability and technology. She works on programme development with Rising Flame and is the Co-Founder of The Curio-city Collective.

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