In this blog post Alopecia UK Managers, Jen Chambers and Amy Johnson, discuss the recent remake of the film based on Roald Dahl’s story ‘The Witches’ and the representation of hair loss in film and TV.  Jen and Amy have different experiences of alopecia.  Jen lost her hair 25 years ago, at the age of 11, whilst Amy lost her hair 10 years ago, at the age of 27.

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.”

Amy: “Growing up with Roald Dahl stories, I am a big fan of the film adaptations of some of his books, in particular ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ (1971), ‘The Witches’ (1990) and ‘Matilda’ (1996). The Witches is a particular favourite of mine, with superb performances from Anjelica Houston, Jane Horrocks and Rowan Atkinson. As a child, I had no idea about alopecia and so did not connect the baldness of the witch characters to anything in the real world. I re-watched that original film as an adult and did not feel any differently about the film, even though I was sat watching it as a bald woman. I still enjoyed the performances and the story.”

Jen: “I watched the original film and hated the scene where they all take off their wigs. It still makes me feel very uncomfortable. Possibly because I still attach it to the classroom incident and the ridicule from the class clown. I guess this type of thing shaped my views of what it meant to be bald. In TV and film they do often use baldness in quite a negative way, either something scary or bad or something with ridicule attached. It’s made it more challenging to develop a positive relationship over the years (which I have now done). When I saw the trailer for the new film on Instagram and caught a glimpse of Anne Hathaway with her bald head, I just thought ‘Ugh!’. The baldness of the witches is a big part of the original story and Roald Dahl books are considered classics. It doesn’t make it any easier though!”

Amy: “I suppose losing my hair at a later stage in life and not having any hugely impactful and negative moment like your classroom incident, I can easily detach my own hair loss from the baldness of the witch characters in the book and film. But there are other ways that I have seen hair loss portrayed that have left me feeling upset. I re-watched the Friends episode (‘The One at the Beach’) in which Rachel encourages Bonnie (Ross’ girlfriend) to shave her head, thinking that Ross will find her unattractive and leave her. This is exactly what happens in the episode including some laughter and horror reactions from the other characters. I don’t remember my feelings on watching the episode the first time around (I imagine as a 14 year old with no experience of hair loss, I may have laughed along). When I watched this episode (as an adult with hair loss), I didn’t find the episode funny at all. It brought back all the feelings of insecurity I felt when I first shaved my hair; namely that men would find me unattractive and people would think I looked ridiculous.”

Jen: “Urgh, yes that Friends episode. Imagine watching that as a young teenager who had lost her hair! I loved Friends but that episode was just awful for me. It played into my existing insecurities and worries about my hair loss and whether it would impact on me having a boyfriend. The last thing I needed to see was my own fears play out in one of my favourite sitcoms. It seemed like Ross ditched his girlfriend because she has no hair”.

It’s clear that the way hair loss is represented in film and TV can have a huge impact on us and we know from seeing different opinions amongst our community members, that we don’t all view certain depictions of hair loss on the screen in the same way. What one person with hair loss might find upsetting or even traumatising, another person may find entertaining or humorous, or not even make a connection to their own experience.

We believe that TV and film producers have a responsibility to ensure that visible differences of any kind are not included in a way that ridicule, vilify or cause unnecessary upset to those living with conditions that cause visible difference.

Another charity, Reach, helps children with upper limb differences.  They are currently fighting for limb differences to be normalised in movies and television programmes and have spoken out about how this latest film adaptation of The Witches has the potential to be extremely damaging to the young people it supports. Members of their community have been appalled to see that Anne Hathaway’s ‘Grand High Witch’ character has been being given limb different hands; something that never appeared in the book or original film. You can read their statement here.

It can be argued that film and TV have come a long way in the past 20 years to change the public perception of visible differences and disabilities but it is clear that there is still a long way to go.

Alopecia UK continues to support film and TV producers who are keen to ensure characters with hair loss are reflected in a positive light. We promote media opportunities for those with alopecia, helping to increase representation of hair loss in mainstream media. We want those with alopecia, especially children and young people, to see positive images of those with hair loss. In recent years, the inclusion of models and actors with alopecia in mainstream advertising campaigns (both print and TV) is a huge step forward. We now need films and TV programmes to follow suit and include positive, triumphant or heroic characters with hair loss, instead of the lazy and archaic narrative of the ‘baddies’ being bald.