The Villainous Disability Phenomenon and Why It Needs to Die 

  By: Nicole Chedraoui 

How many of you all have seen the movie “The Witches?” How about the new James Bond film, “No Time to Die?” If you haven’t seen either of those, perhaps you must’ve seen the Disney Channel classic, “Peter Pan.” What do all of these movies have in common? The answer: harmful depictions of the villainous disability phenomenon. 

For those who are unaware of what such a phenomenon is or perhaps why/how it was happening underneath all of our noses throughout the history of filmmaking, today I’m here to challenge stereotypical disability representation throughout modern and historic cinema, and relate why it casts such a harmful shadow over the disabled community. 

What is the Villainous Disability Phenomenon? 

If you’re anything like me, you may have been subconsciously turning a blind eye to this phenomenon throughout your whole life, but upon further examination, one universal truth that most can agree on is that: a disproportionate number of disabled characters are villains in common cinema. Think of hallmark classics such as Darth Vadar or Captain Hook, the disabilities of these villains are used in theaters to make these characters more sinister and intimidating. Usually, this is done by emphasizing the character’s disability in a way that marks them as weird or scary, drawing on the idea that disabled bodies are broken, deformed, or less than human. We see this in Star Wars when Obi Wan Kenobi describes Darth Vadar as “more machine now than man, twisted and evil.”

Indeed, many films rely on outdated disability tropes. Rather than the disability being simply part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains. 

The Problem 

To highlight an example of this phenomenon, let’s shine a light on the James Bond films. In their recent release, “No Time to Die,” the film features three central villains who, you guessed it, all suffer from facial disfigurement or have physical impairments. Taking a broader look around historical James Bond films of the past, all of the villains have indeed suffered the same fate, and this is in sharp contrast to the protagonist Bond who represents an able-bodied hero with no bodily impairments. This trope can genuinely be found anywhere and everywhere–think how in Disney Channel’s The Lion King main character “Scar,” is only referred to by his disfigurement, his facial scar. Of course there is also Dr. Poison from the famous film Wonder Woman,Voldemort from Harry Potter, and we can’t forget Kylo Ren from Star Wars. I must point out that this phenomenon is found particularly in sci-fi and horror movies. Often so, these characters have a tragic backstory that provides their narrative with an explanation of their disfigurement, as well as the reason why they are evil. In common movie trope fashion, many of these villains are seeking revenge because of what happened to them. 

The reliance on such a trope has been easily relayed as boring, outdated, and offensive to disability activists all around the world. It should also be noted that all roles mentioned of these actors playing roles of disability, do not actually possess the real-life disability, which is just another example of the lack of representation of disabled people in film. 

“The Witches Controversy” 

For those unaware, HBO Max recently came out with their own original remake of “The Witches” in 2020, and the backlash from this movie from the disabled community was catastrophic. The fallout, which was reported by Deadline, was sparked over a key difference between the 2020 remake and the Roald Dahl classic book–and by extension–the original 1990 film. The witches in the HBO Max remake were depicted having three long fingers, and not “claws instead of fingernails,” as stated in the original book. As you may imagine, many in the disability community took offense to the villainization of such disfigurement. Amy Marren, an English Paralympic swimmer, explained why she found the alteration so troubling. She stated that while she is a “huge advocate of celebrating differences and especially limb differences,” she couldn’t help but find it off putting that these specific traits were specified for the villains in particular. She felt as though this may be spreading more harm than beneficial good, and the athlete additionally pointed out that doctors commonly fashion these three-fingered hands for disabled children, and adults so that they can live a more normal life. 

Marren wrote; “My fear is that children will watch this film, unaware that it massively exaggerates the Roald Dahl original and that limb differences [are] to be feared,” Marren wrote. “I am fully aware that this is a film and these are witches. But witches are essentially monsters.” Unfortunately, Amy Marren was spot on in the interpretations of this movie, especially by young kids, who honestly shouldn’t have had access to such a mature rated movie anyway. Nonetheless, after this movie’s release, kids around Los Angeles with such limb disfigurements reported to their schools being harassed–both online and in person. Reportedly they were mocked and screamed at for “being a witch.” After such reports and backlash from the disabled community, Warner Bros would soon issue their apology to the community.  The Warner Bros would come out to say: “We the filmmakers at 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,” the statement read. “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,” the statement continued.

I must admit that it is admirable thatWarner Bros at least came forward and addressed the controversy. Before 2020, these issues and this phenomenon had never really been brought to light by film directors and the media. 

Why It Matters

You may be thinking– why make a fuss out of something so seemingly normalized and miniscule? As someone with a disability, I myself never even noticed many of these small indoctrinations, or what many call disability-coded villains. Similar to queer coding, disability coding is when a character has traits of a disability, and it is never explicitly said.These representations are harmful to people with these differences, and when these disabilities are displayed in cinema as solely signs of evil, this reinforces damaging beliefs and stereotypes about people who may possess these differences in real life. 

Disabled people WANT to see other disabled people properly represented in common television and film and in a variety of roles and narratives;however, constantly portraying them as evil, or worse, pitied for comedic value is more than harmful to those within the disabled community. A disabilities studies scholar who goes by the name of Tom Shakspeare came out and tried to describe the heart of the issue to the public in late 2020. He stated;  “The use of disability as a character trait, plot device, or atmosphere is a lazy shortcut. These representations are not accurate or fair reflections of the experience of disabled people. Such stereotypes reinforce negative attitudes towards disabled people and ignorance about the nature of the disability.”

Get Involved

Changing Faces is a universal charity who support and uplift those who may suffer from visible disfigurements or disabilities, and recently they have set up a campaign to help spread awareness to their cause. With an outreach titled “I Am Not Your Villian,” this campaign was built to fight for equal representation of visible disabilities or differences on screen. I Am Not Your Villianhas single-handedly called on the film industry to stop using burns, scars, and other disfigurements as a shortcut for their villain tropes. The British Film Institute was the first to back this campaign, and has officially committed to stop funding films and roles that display these harmful stereotypes. Their research also states that only 1 in 5 people with a visible disability have seen a hero-character who looks like them on film, and fewer than 15% of these people have seen someone like them play a love interest on TV. 

Research conducted from “Changing Faces,” has shown that people with bodily disfigurement feel lower levels of self-confidence, are more likely to struggle with body image, and are impacted by self-esteem/mental-health disorders. A large deal of these consequences are due to their bodily representation in society and pop culture. 

With all of this in mind, I think it is safe to say that we should all be in agreement to move past these regressive sentiments that disparage those who are disabled. It’s time that we start to portray these disabilities and disfigurements in a beautiful, positive light on the big screen. Whether it be the hero or the love interest, members of the disabled community deserve to have their differences loved and celebrated by all. 

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