Featured image: Jessica Lange as Fiona in American Horror Story: Coven
Witchcraft has long been associated with the paranormal and supernatural, and in Western societies has explicitly been gendered. For many, the prevailing image of the witch is an old, misshapen hag who rides a broomstick, curses her neighbours, and inflicts misery on all who cross her. Other societies differ in their treatment and perception of witches – in Africa, for example, the witch doctor is typically male and witchcraft is used to explain all events out of the ordinary. It’s interesting to explore whether mass media in modern Western societies continue to propagate this perception of the (female) witch.
It seems that witches are all over the television at the moment. While they served as popular symbols of the supernatural alongside dark sexuality and female power in the late 1990s, by the 2000s they had arguably given way to vampires, as conveyed in successful films and programs such as the Twilight series, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries. But female witches had played a significant role in modern media far before this quick on-screen popularisation of vampires. From this perspective, a worthwhile place to start might be the 1996 film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.
In the heavily religious society of late seventeenth century Massachusetts, young village girls engage in ritual chicken murder, drinking blood and wishing for the death of a fellow villager’s wife. Abigail (Winona Ryder) wishes for this death after previously enjoying an affair with the woman’s husband, fuelled by hatred, jealousy, and feelings of rejection. Eventually, Abigail and her acquaintances become outcasts, marginalised by their community after their plans go awry. Rather than presenting the female witches in this film as deformed and ugly elderly women, The Crucible seeks to emphasise the agency of adolescent girls who, in a climate of sexual jealousy, religious influence and societal pressures, take control of their own fates and attempt to control the fates of others.
That the portrayal of female witchcraft in modern mass media is complex and multifaceted is demonstrated by the 1993 American horror-comedy and Halloween favourite Hocus Pocus. Similarly drawing on the background of the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials, the themes of this film centre on jealousy and hatred and, above all, a desire for power. The film’s witches, three sisters, absorb the life force of children in order to fulfil their dreams of eternal youth. The agency and power of female witches in guiding their own destinies, therefore, is clearly a visible and recurring theme. Bette Midler, who stars as Winifred, clearly conforms to the dominant representation of the female witch as old, ugly, and wicked. The more sexualised portrayals of her younger sisters, Mary and Sarah, indicate a very different representation of the woman witch as sexual predator. They bewitch and seduce passers-by into walking, zombie-like, to the sisters’ household to become victims of their evil plots.
The uncannily terrifying 1990 film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel The Witches subscribes to traditional stereotypes of the female witch as physically deformed, abnormal, and frighteningly ugly, yet rejects and challenges the archetypal broomstick-flying, cauldron-stirring hag. Although the Grand High Witch herself is the epitome of grotesque monstrosity, her human disguise is rather more complicated: played by Anjelica Huston, her dark hair, bewitching eyes and sensual costume render her a sexually mysterious, if unnerving figure who engages male figures in flirtation and fantasy. Her accomplices are well-dressed, even attractive women, suggesting that witchcraft acts both to disguise and create monstrous notions of femininity.
The attractively modern portrayal of witches in the U.S. television show American Horror Story: Coven, in which female witches are powerful, sexually independent and ruthless, coincides with the legacy of the feminist movement, which challenged traditional perceptions of women as domesticated, virginal and delicate beings, assigning them a much greater agency than hitherto. The show compellingly characterises Fiona, a coven’s leading witch, as the anti-hero of a heavily female cast. She stands out for her cruelty, promiscuity and ruthless ambition. At the same time, her character is multifaceted and complex, her personal troubles and battle with cancer leading us to a deep sympathy.
Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) presents a somewhat unique perspective, for the witch here is unusual for her regal hegemony: she is queen. The competing roles of queen and witch are fascinating: as queen, the White Witch naturally holds dominion and authority over all who reside in Narnia. However, as a witch, she enjoys her own unique authority, not deriving from the status of queenship but from corporeal ability. It is too simplistic to render the White Witch evil or subversive: her character is complex, for while her white costume and icy demeanour confirm her as cold, ruthless and power-hungry, her own sense of agency and admirable decision-making suggest a being of other qualities: intelligence, resourcefulness, and leadership.
Although the stereotype of the female witch as a deformed and ugly old woman arguably remains dominant, the likes of American Horror Story: Coven indicate changing perceptions of the female witch as a powerful woman who is more complex than traditional stereotypes permit. Shifts in witchcraft portrayal indicate the exciting scope of possibilities for representations of the female witch in the media. This coincides with a new representation of women in cultural forms more generally: rather than being reduced to simplistic and sexually charged caricatures (whore or virgin, mother or prostitute, for example), female characters are complex and intelligent, negotiating their own decisions and enjoying power and autonomy.