The way in which witches are portrayed in television and cinema has evolved drastically over the course of 30 years, growing from gross misrepresentations featuring gruesome and malformed women inflicting intentional evil, to more modern representations such as within Sabrina’s Chilling Adventures and American Horror Story: Coven. Both offer diverse characters that hold different identities and talents within a world of fantasy and Wiccan history while tackling issues such as race, gender, class, and budding female sexuality.
The move to humanize a figure that has historically been steeped in marginalization and persecution has become an aspect of counterculture, with followers of popular culture drawing social parallels between the past and present forms of persecution in patriarchal establishments. The current wave of feminism is working towards a reclamation of terminology that has long harbored pejorative meaning back into society for acceptable usage amongst oppressed communities. Now ‘witch’ is now being remade into a term of empowerment, along with further representation being presented on television following the lives of complex female characters rather than stagnant figures of female mental and physical frailty resulting in a life of sin. The history revolving around women who were deemed witches began from a fear of the woman’s role within the home holding a kind of ‘power’. According to Louis Jackson’s Witches, Wives and Mothers: Witchcraft persecution and women’s confessions in seventeenth-century England, delves into the majority of cases regarding witchcraft were directly tied to a traditionally feminine defined space such as the home, child-rearing, healing, birth, and the dairying economy. Jackson states that because women had a particular power over these positions, they were in turn seen as a sanctioned threat and therefore to reassert male dominance witch trials began. The picture of the untamed woman is seen throughout literature as a figure in need of being controlled due to Christian scripture representing women as the sinful daughters of Eve, the trials pointed to these unruly women as obvious examples that they are potentially threatening, violent, and harmful to the current status quo. Because of the intangible nature of both witchcraft and female sexuality, women were often portrayed as easily overcome or vulnerable to the devils intentions (Jackson, pg 71), largely steeping these images of the untamable woman in religious doctrine. In 900 AD, the Catholic Church proclaimed that anyone who believes they posses magical power is believing a lie. This is most clearly delineated within the canon episcopi, which states that any bishops or officials must work to uproot those who practice sorcery or evil acts from their perishes, further adding “It is also not to be omitted that some unconstrained women, perverted by Satan, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and openly profess that, in the dead of night, they ride upon certain beasts with the pagan goddess Diana, with a countless horde of women, and in the silence of the dead of the night to fly over vast tracts of country, and to obey her commands as their mistress, and to be summoned to her service on other nights.” (Lea, Henry C. Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft). The evocation of Diana, goddess of the hunt, fertility, and childbearing, are being used to demonize female sexuality by the catholic church by claiming these women are experiencing these visions through the corruption of their soul rather than the body, yet this corruption is due to the sinful real world experiences had. The accepted Doctrine of the church essentially states that the acts of sorcerers or witches were fantasies or illusions inflicted upon them by their own deeds and a result of the devil himself, therefore, according to such doctrine, to believe in witchcraft as an actuality is heretical and pagan in the face of the church. Witchcraft itself was not as much of a prolific concern to the church until the 14th century, but rather the concern of heresy and openly flouting pagan beliefs in the face of hierarchical order of theological belief, which the inquisition sought to correct. Heinrich Kramer’s book, the Malleus Maleficarum (translated to The Hammer of Witches), described the ways in which women were particularly vulnerable to Satan due to her feeble mind/body/slippery tongue/jealous nature and inherently evil disposition.The long term effect of the Malleus was notable, in turn causing those on both sides of the theological debate to become further convinced that witchcraft was a serious and ongoing problem while also contributing to the persecution of women. The idea that women, driven by their own nature and sexuality, can lead to unnatural occurrences of misfortune or disaster and are fornicators of the devil are still tropes that can be found throughout Western Culture (cinema, literature, etc.). The evolution of the witch has been negatively connotated with promiscuity, immorality, sexual deviancy, a connotation that is slowly being reappropriated as a force for empowerment amongst feminists. Witches have been misunderstood and treated as threats to patriarchal forms of power (such as the church) for living on the fringe of gendered social hierarchies and political structures that are steeped in beliefs of sin and depravity, especially in regards to women. Historically, othering or dehumanizing these women worked to further marginalize them as a group and punish them for not meeting societal standards. Women as a whole have faced this othering for millenia and into the current political sphere, though within the last ten years there has been a significant pushback against these forms of oppression through radical feminist empowerment, such as the Women’s March of 2017, a form of protest and show of solidarity.
Anne Donahue’s article for The Guardian, ‘We are the weirdos’: how witches went from evil outcasts to feminist heroes, discusses the changes that have taken place in accordance to growing popular culture ideals and audience. Donahue states that the depiction of The Witches based on Roald Dahl’s 1983 book which features a young boy and his grandmother “rid England of its horrendously disfigured witches (including The Grand High Witch, played by Anjelica Huston) by turning them into mice”, furthering that this depiction made sense for the 90’s due to pop culture during the time focusing on the grotesque rather than the glamour of goth. Within the article writer Fariha Roisin explains this change was due to current style changes, such as The Craft’s (1996) mantra of “we are the weirdos”, coinciding perfectly with the 90’s theme of grunge/punk themes and embracing “individuality and otherness”, the obsession with black fitted dresses and crescent moon symbolism has allowed women to take part in an “alter-ego” of mysticism and celebration of the female body. The idea that representation of witches have evolved into glamour verses the grotesque because of cultural and fashion trends is evident through subcultures that promote the #witch tag on larger social media platforms like Tumblr, where inspirational mood boards and gothic inspired fashion trends are shared in the excess. The movement has come full circle from the focus upon the external (the ugly hag to the chic goth, to a focus upon the individual) to the internal or introspective. The newfound focus upon self-awareness is a mirror to the current feminist movement of becoming more self-aware or introspective to the women around us and creating an environment of acceptance of all creeds or colors, witches in cinema and television now reflect on a characters feelings of confusion, isolation, and need to form a cohesive group in order to survive. These feelings coupled with the idolization of a previously marginalized figure seem to give women a sense of power along with a figure to create a sense of kinship in facing those same social issues or an allowance of showing the good with the bad. Rachel Moseley discusses the way in which women have reappropriated the ‘hag’ or ‘witch’ in her paper Glamorous witchcraft: gender and magic in teen film and television, which she states “This critical position understood the witch as a metaphor for female resistance, witches as representative of women who lead unconventional lives-outside that which patriarchal society deemed acceptable in relation, for instance, to female-centred communities or sisterhoods, personal and sexual freedom and political resistance ??” and who were punished for this. Mary Daly saw in witches a hidden history of powerful women, and reclaimed the figure of the Hag as a powerful, liberated woman, coining the term ‘hag-iography’ to describe this revisionist herstory.”. The reclamation of derogative stereotypes and iconography has led to a cultural phenomenon in which women are able to more fully celebrate their sexuality and femininity. The popularity of the witch aesthetic has gained momentum through the use of social media and online blogging platforms, drastically increasing the number of younger millennial aged women that identify with the empowerment this reclamation is presenting, the use of alter-ego social media presences that promote self-care approaches and granting advice on day to day life, to artistic photography alongside tools normally reserved for spiritual practices has given birth to a discussion online with the feminist question of inclusivity and cultural appropriation.
Two recent and popularized shows cover some of these issues of marginalization, isolation, and feminist empowerment, but also portray negative stereotypes that the current culture has not moved beyond such as how Western culture deals with race. Both the American Horror Story: Coven and Sabrina The Teenage Witch (2018 Reboot) embody the shift towards the gothic/chic fashion and focus of the internal struggle, with both working to tackle issues such as race/gender/feminist/etc. Ryan Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk, creators of American Horror Story: Coven, began the season with the usual trappings of the show, featuring dramatic cinematography, violence, and horrific sex scenes. This season faced particular scrutiny due to the difficult terrain in which Murphy chose to tackle: Racism and sexism. The season centers around a loosely held together coven housed in Miss Robichaux’s School for Exceptional Young Ladies, a classic Garden District manse in New Orleans, a city bathed in the blood of African American slaves and rich with cultural creoles of catholicism and voodoo. The criticism did not come from the shows attempt at showing the rich history and culture of New Orleans, but rather the way in which it played up negative stereotypes of black women while presenting a storyline of Salem witches pitted against Voodoo. The introduction of an infamous 1830’s socialite, Madame Marie Delphine LaLaurie, a woman that tortured and murdered her slaves for their blood in an attempt to preserve and emulate a “youthful glow” was cursed by the Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau with eternal life. She was subsequently placed in a pine box and buried for her sins, to spend an eternity to think upon her actions. LaLaurie was later dug up by the white covens supreme leader as an act of spite for the voodoo priestess, and given a complex moral inquisition with the sole black witch within the house named Queenie. LaLaurie faces the news that, while she has spent decades underground, the Civil Rights Movement has granted African American the same rights as others and her reaction is one of disbelief and disgust. Later on, she and Queenie have a bizarre relationship bordering on friendship.
While audiences have come to expect Murphy’s storylines that harbor complex moral questions, the negative stereotypes surrounding voodoo culture, black women, and pitting women against one another, are particularly damaging to the promises the show has made. Queenie herself has the particular power described as being a “voodoo doll”, allowing her to inflict self harm and in turn harm an enemy and former worker within a fried chicken restaurant, a cartoonish and lazily racist power coupled with an equally racist assumption of her place of employment considering the geographical location and set up to the story. Murphy has gone to great lengths to try and encapsulate the issues of racism that still plague people of color today, yet has greatly missed the mark by playing into stereotypes of witchcraft/voodoo practice and sympathizing with those who work to oppress those marginalized groups by placing his vision ahead of problematic representations of women and people of color. Furthermore, the season unfolds around the women within the covens inability to form a cohesive sisterhood, each unable to maintain loyalty, rationality, or perform selfless acts. Murphy’s portrayal of women is disgusting as he places Fiona in juxtaposition with LaLaurie, by eliminating multiple witches of her own coven to remain in youthful and powerful she in turn wishes to take that secret from her arch enemy Laveau (imperialistic at heart).
Another equal disturbing show The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina features equally problematic characters influenced by popular cultures need to take radical feminism and commercialize it for consumers. Sabrina is featured as a stereotype throughout the show, a white ally to the LGBTQIA and people of color alike, a founder of the WICCA organization (Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association) in an attempt to help her black best friend Ros and non-gender conforming friend Susie. The show seems to be using feminism as a fashionable aesthetic rather than a meaningful push for inclusivity which leave the audience with “wokeness” for the sake of views rather than genuine need for a more inclusive and interesting show. Kelly Wynne’s article Is Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ Racist?, discusses issues surrounding the show, such as the issue of representing black women as the aggressor within television. Wynne continued to examine how the emphasis upon the black aggressor within the show is a throwback to the way in which black women were demonized for pagan practices: “Through the demonization of Prudence, her character is the embodiment of ‘dark magic’, an association developed during colonization by white colonizers to dehumanize Black folx for our traditional African spiritual beliefs and practices,” she tweeted. “The ‘urban myth’ of Black Women and Dark Magic emerged during this time as a justification for the continued sexual assaults of Black Women, due to their lack of humanity, and ‘exotic savagery.'”. While the idea that witches were ‘other’ and therefore lacked humanity is one often touted throughout history in an effort to legitimize the ostracization and marginalization of women, yet black women have had this othering two fold in both the exoticism and fetishization of their skin and cultural beliefs. Furthermore, while there is nothing wrong with a television show attempting to present diverse representation, the idea of pandering to younger women that use feminist ideology as identity is capitalistic and consumerist at best. Sabrina herself gives the feeling of having a white savior complex in a culture that was predominantly deadly to people of color, which the show ignores all together. More than race, ideas of Satanism being intrinsically tied to wiccan practices is a misnomer spread amongst those who fear paganism. Not to say that some practitioners of magic do not practice Satanism, but generalizing the entirety of practitioners does harm by bolstering ignorance (Romano. “‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ Binge Recap: Welcome to Greendale.”).
Overall while there has been great strides in how witches are portrayed within television, allowing for characters to be presented with internal struggles and moving past the way in which witches were vilified as hideous monsters, though there is an underlying issue with how race is presented that is being overlooked within both television and feminist movement. The idea of creating shows such as American Horror Story and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is not the efforts of discussing difficult issues such as gender, femininity, or race, but rather appropriating Wicca/Paganism within these television shows to push a narrative or consumerist ideals without considering the tradition or history of that culture that is being portrayed speaks to the way in which privileged white women have disregarded their female counterparts and popularized a culture into mainstream capitalism for profit. By tracking how television is reappropriating the witch in both namesake and imagery and allowing female sexuality to become emboldened through mystic practice they can move forward with the intention of being inclusive while thinking more critically upon the stories that are presented to their audience to avoid unintentional racist or sexism.
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