“Double double, toil and trouble….”
Fire burn, cauldron bubble. It’s that time of year again, when the air is cold, pumpkins are on every street corner, and you could say things feel a little spooky. Halloween means free reign to dress up: you get to be whatever you want. Your Instagram is filled with pictures of costumes: some scary, some sexy, some of human renditions of nearly anything under the sun (or should we say moon?). Always in the mix are the standards: vampires, ghosts, monsters, ghouls. My friends asked me what I’m dressing up as, but they should have already known the answer—I’ll be an ever-classic, black-clad, witch.
Through the good, the bad, and (often) the ugly, magical women have a long history of captivating our attention. The “ugly witch” trope was widely used in both literature and film to reinforce the image of evil from and by single, celibate, women. ‘Double double’ immediately reminds us of the “three sisters” of Macbeth, scary crones who wreak havoc with their spells and prophecies. “We’re not in Kansas anymore” is what Dorothy says when she realizes who her new enemy is: the green, mean, ugly and lonely Wicked Witch of the West. Every year High School students will read The Crucible, recalling the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory for McCarthyism. The play reawakens the hysteria associated with accusations of witchcraft, notably the image of women being burned at the stake under suspicion of being witches. Everywhere you look, witches were traditionally feared, persecuted and policed.
Replacing the “ugly witch” trope, my generation has grown up with beautiful, intelligent witches to look up to. Sometimes good, sometimes vengeful, and undeniably badass, pop culture witches make the allure of magical mystique acceptable, not criminal. These are women who use their brains and magic for good, to help their friends, to achieve their goals, to save the world! Sabrina, the teenage witch, made being a witch normal. Emma Watson as Hermione made it aspirational. Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, with films like Halloweentown, Hocus Pocus, and Twitches,Disney committed to highlighting young women who discover their powers, while also exploring their personal histories.It seems like contemporary representations of witches want us to believe that women are reclaiming the witch image, replacing it and making it all our own.
The perception of witches in pop culture cannot be separated from our deep-seated, problematic views on gender itself.
“Witch” doesn’t have to be a bad word, but we tend to keep it as one. If we want to talk about a good witch, we always qualify her as such. In Wicked, the popular Broadway musical that upgraded Wizard of Oz, glowing Glinda is “Good,”rendering the different, estranged Elphaba as “bad” and “misunderstood.” We love the Good Witch, but also love the girls in Coven, when we can hype up how badass, ruthless and wild witches can be. Despite more dynamic portrayals of witches in pop culture, most witches are still represented in 2D—one of either extreme.
Though we see more witches on screen, some of our favourite witches like Elphaba, Mellisandre, and even Hermione are often exotified, gendered, sexualized. The scope of their identity is still boxed in. As a culture, we love magical women, but only when they fit a specific mold, at a specific time, when wearing a specific colour. As a culture, we accept the idea that witches can be powerful women, but witches, like magic, aren’t real. Though the ugly witch trope is fading, did pop culture simply replace it with a different one? The sharp-witted, sexually alluring and independent witch, whomst we (as a culture) admire from afar, but don’t fully trust.
The perception of witches in pop culture cannot be separated from our deep-seated, problematic views on gender itself. I didn’t need to reread The Crucible to be reminded of the Salem Witch Trials. In 2018, hysteria and suspicion surrounding women, their competency, and their credibility still exists. Current events serve as a constant reminder that there’s no magic wand for representing women holistically—we all have to do it for ourselves. We have to do it for each other, and put an end to the mythology of “powerful women.” We are 100% real, 100% multi-dimensional, and 100% not down for more terrible tropes of good girls with magic wands.
This Halloween, an extra special shout-out to everyone clad in black and embracing the witchcraft.