Reel Women: How Witchy Women Are Making Things More Interesting
We have finally emerged from the dark period of torrid vampire and werewolf teen romances, and the dark days of ‘Twilight‘ appear to be behind us. The new (old) thing is all about witches, a uniquely female character trait that provides both societal commentary and a whole lot of dark fun. Witches are back and kicking ass, and they’re making women on TV very interesting.
If you tuned in to the premiere of ‘American Horror Story: Coven‘ this week, you were greeted with the show’s typically delightful and sinister craziness and its skirting of the boundaries of good taste. This season is all about witches: a young woman discovers she’s a witch and gets hauled off to a boarding school with other young sorceresses, where they can learn from older, badass witches (Jessica Lange, anyone?) how to hone their powers.
As these young ladies come into their abilities, they’re also coming of age — stories about witches have often served as a mirror, reflecting the development of young women. In this case, Taissa Farmiga‘s Zoe discovers her powers just as she’s about to lose her virginity to her boyfriend, but her sexuality is her unwitting weapon, her orgasms giving way to horrific aneurysms.
Typically, in film and television, a woman’s power is derived from her sexuality. It’s a juvenile male fantasy of female empowerment that doesn’t challenge the audience’s perception of what women are capable of, and instead provides the limp thesis that all a woman is good for is the sum of her lady parts. While a woman’s sexuality is meant to be a weapon, this representation reinforces it as our weakness. We are both hindered and empowered by our femaleness. Another typical scenario in film and television (which I recently covered at length over at BadassDigest): a woman’s interesting qualities are all dependent on men; whether she finds one, loses one, is assaulted by one, or something happens to her child (the byproduct of a man).
But there is one characteristic that can be bestowed upon a female character that is both uniquely feminine and interesting, and it’s one that’s been around for ages in both fact and fiction: make her a witch. We all know the story of the Salem witch trials, in which women (and some men, even) were accused of witchcraft and murdered by hanging, burning at the stake, or smothering under the weight of stones. The victims were predominantly women — women who were a little different or odd, or didn’t conform to societal norms. Sound familiar? A woman steps out of bounds and she is branded with a derogatory, gender-specific stereotype. “Witch” does rhyme with “bitch,” after all, and the times haven’t changed that much.
But women found empowerment through witches in popular culture. No, not the wicked ones of Disney fairytales, all haggard old women obsessed with youth and jealous of pretty young things. Even ‘American Horror Story’ co-creator and showrunner Ryan Murphy comments on this concept in the season opener. Kathy Bates‘ Madame LaLaurie, a cruel and wealthy slave owner, is struggling to keep her husband faithful, so she resorts to a little homemade sorcery by applying the blood of her slaves to her face. Jessica Lange’s modern-day Fiona Goode is similarly obsessed with staying young, and even goes so far as to suck the (temporary) youth right out of the scientist she hired to concoct her youth serum.
Films like ‘The Craft’ (as enjoyably silly as it is) showed the good and bad side of witchcraft, and how discovering your inner power can either empower or destroy. Lifetime even has a new television show about witches so moms can get in on the action, too. While not all movies and shows about witches are necessarily good, the concept of a woman being a witch and deriving her power from within presents us with the novel idea that a female-specific concept doesn’t have to be a double-edged sword. Periods are great, but people are still too prudish about them, so we have to go along with this idea that they’re flowery and have something to do with blue liquid (if commercials are to be believed). Having kids is a wonderful part of life, but it’s not what every woman wants or even something to which she can relate; it has forever felt like a societal imposition, a requirement to prove why we deserve to exist. Men can be awesome, but a woman shouldn’t be defined by a man — whether it’s her ability to find one, keep one, or what one can provide emotionally and/or financially.
Like those things, being a witch is also a definitively female trope, but at least it can be interesting — when it’s done well. And ‘American Horror Story: Coven’ is doing it well. Though Emma Roberts’ Madison experiences a horrific date rape, it’s not what defines her. She’s a snotty D-list actress who also happens to have crazy telekinetic powers; the date rape just shows us the kind of witch she is (and later, the kind of witch Zoe is). Witchcraft is the perfect example of the way women can reclaim power from something that was once used against them, a reflection of our societal understanding of that which is attributed to women, and that which belongs to us. Being a witch is all about finding the power within and learning how to use it to your advantage — and isn’t that what being a kick-ass woman is all about?