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EPA/Filip Singer

Hag, temptress or feminist icon? The witch in popular culture

You would have thought that Western society might have grown out of the habit of portraying powerful women as witches, but a trope that usually ended badly for women in the Middle Ages is still being used in the 21st century. Those who portrayed Hillary Clinton as a witch during the 2016 presidential campaign, or have given Theresa May a pointy hat and broomstick in Britain’s general election, may not be calling for them to be burned at the stake, but they do call down political destruction on their heads.

Witches have featured in fairy tales and fiction for centuries. In her earliest incarnations, the witch served as a warning. Stories about the witch-as-hag demonised and punished women for attempting to exert power outside the bounds of the domestic sphere. Beyond the fairy tale, women with “occult” knowledge (of folk medicine, for example), or simply poor, social outcasts (such as the infamous Pendle Witches hanged at Lancaster castle in 1612), were the victims of persecution and prosecution in 16th and 17th-century Britain.

Nowadays, though, the witch is often praised as a feminist figure, who pushes boundaries, breaks the rules and punishes patriarchal authority. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) and Disney’s Maleficant (Angelina Jolie) (2014) are two oft-cited examples of the feminist witch.

In preparation for an upcoming academic conference on “Gothic feminism”, I have been researching these contrasting representations of the witch. Which witch (sorry!) does our popular culture currently favour? And can stories about the witch really be reclaimed as feminist parables?

The witch was a recurring feature of horror film in the 1960s and 1970s. British folk horror films such as The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973) offer deeply ambivalent representations of the witch. In The Blood on Satan’s Claw, teenage temptress, Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) seems to be an anti-authoritarian heroine – the 1960s flower power movement transported to 17th-century England. But in the end she is killed by male authority figures after she oversees the rape and murder of one of her school friends. In contrast, The Wicker Man’s siren, Willow MacGregor (Britt Eckland), gleefully triumphs over the stern Christian policeman, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward).

Wildly feminist

The way witches are portrayed on screen has been refashioned many times over the decades. From 1964 to 1972, ABC’s Bewitched turned the witch into the subject of a suburban sitcom as domesticated Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) used her magic to serve her try-hard husband. The late 20th century favoured soft focus, “white” witchcraft, epitomised by the popular American television series, Charmed (1998 - 2006). More recently, the witch has taken on an explicitly Gothic guise. The big-budget TV series, American Horror Story: Coven (2013), Penny Dreadful (2015), and Game of Thrones (2011-) represent witches as glamorous and beautiful, but also suggest that their sexuality is deadly.

In cinema, Robert Eggers’ award-winning feature, The Witch (2016), returned to the folk horror genre in its stark portrayal of a Puritan family struggling to survive in 17th-century New England. The film’s bare aesthetic slips into nightmarish horror as it restages the American folk tale of the witch in the woods to a particularly gruesome conclusion.

The film received a lot of plaudits, particularly from feminist cultural commentators. A recent article on film website Little White Lies praises The Witch as a “feminist horror fantasy” that “celebrate[s] the inherent power of femininity”. Likewise, Wired magazine called the film “wildly feminist”.

Disempowering women

However, there is another side to the witch. Mary Beard, in a recent lecture, Women in Power, argued that stories of monstrous women and witches dating back to antiquity, such as the tale of the Medusa, are parables aimed at disempowering women.

Over and again, such stories seek to reinforce the male right to defeat female (ab)users of power, suggesting that women are not entitled to power in the first place – and there’s been much of that in the way both Clinton and May have been portrayed as witches.

The Witch acknowledges this history in its return to the folk horror tradition. Early in the film, a witch pounds the flesh of a dead baby into a paste. Yet at the end of the film, the teenage heroine, Tomasin, agrees to join the witches who had so gruesomely murdered her baby brother. Even though these hags cause the deaths of the rest of Tomasin’s family, their offer of “some butter” and a “pretty dress” seems far preferable to the harsh strictures of Puritan life.

What freedom and power is there in becoming a witch? Joining the witches is Tomasin’s last, desperate resort and it places her forever on the outside of a patriarchal social system in need of reform by and for its female members. More than this, Tomasin becomes one of the gruesome hags who have murdered her baby brother. In this respect, The Witch echoes old misogynist fairy tales, which often feature actual or attempted infanticide, as much as it revels in the witch’s power to destroy an authoritarian patriarch.

Eggers’ complex depiction is not a roadmap to female empowerment. A glimpsed-at moment of freedom (an aerial broomstick ride) for Tomasin occurs on the outside of acceptable social spaces – deep in the woods and far from civilisation. At the same time, the murderous witches continue to communicate centuries-old patriarchal fears about female power.

As scholars, it’s tempting to see our favourite genres and cultural products as proof texts for our politics – but Gothic horror, in particular, has always refused that role. Its monsters do not act as representatives for either the right or the left of politics, but instead slide troublingly between the poles. Given the current lurch to the right in Western politics – and the rise of anti-feminist sentiments – the ambiguity of the witch is perhaps even something to be wary of rather than to celebrate. Though she seems to be a powerful figure for feminists, we cannot forget the witch’s origins as a figure used to delegitimise powerful women and locate them on the outside of society.

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