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The Modern-day Portrayal Of Witchcraft & Its (many) Nuances.

In case you haven’t noticed yet, witchcraft has officially gone mainstream. Everyone from Lana Del Rey to TikTok influencers are dabbling in the occult, modern retailers like Urban Outfitters and Sephora recently faced backlash for selling self-proclaimed ‘witch kits’ and Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is on to its fourth and final season. Witchcraft has even made its mark on runway and high-street fashion. According to a 2018 Telegraph report, more Americans are now identifying as witches than Presbyterian Christians (an estimated 1.5 million.) It’s easy to see why – witchcraft offers an alternative route to traditional religion for women, which often places us in disempowering roles. 

Although witchcraft may have only recently found its way into the mainstream, the practice has been around for centuries. Some call Paganism the oldest religion, and many of our traditional holidays like Christmas and Halloween have Pagan/Druid origins. Witches have been associated with female power (and in turn feminism) since ‘disobedient’ women were burned at the stake in the 1500s. One feminist organisation in the late 60s even took on the name W.I.T.C.H (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) to lead protests against beauty pageants, Wall Street, the Playboy Club, and many more sexist institutions, all whilst dressed up in witches’ hats and capes. As one Chicago member told VICE, “W.I.T.C.H drew on the role of women on the edge of society.” 

One W.I.T.C.H group in New York even hexed Wall Street, not dissimilar to the recent hexings against Trump and other corrupt men in power. Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 opponent, was also accused of witchcraft , an age-old tactic to silence women in powerful positions. Obviously, men can and do practice witchcraft, but the term means something entirely different to women. As Madelaine Miller writes, “A better parallel to the word ‘witch’ is the word ‘whore’. A whore transgresses norms of female sexuality; a witch transgresses norms of female power.” 

The witch as a symbol for female power became commonplace during the 90s, with the emergence of witchy movies and TV shows like The Craft, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Charmed. This ‘modern witch’ portrayal was trendy, powerful, and aspirational. She embodied the ‘girl power’ spirit of the 90s. Unfortunately, this meant that she was almost exclusively a thin, white, and conventionally attractive young woman. Yes, I love and have watched all of the above examples multiple times but a) they certainly didn’t represent all women and b) most of these have problematic themes whilst only exploring gender politics on the surface level. 

The Craft: Legacy

The good news is that reboots are in this year, and everything from The Powerpuff Girls to Gossip Girl is set to get a new lease of life. The good thing about reboots is that they can atone for the sins of the original, and I have a lot of positive opinions on our witchy reboots. The Craft, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch have all been rebooted to include a much more diverse cast of witches in terms of race, sexuality, and gender. The original four witches of The Craft only had one non-white witch, whereas The Craft: Legacy includes Black and trans Latina actresses in the titular group of three witches. Portraying a diverse group of women was incredibly important to the fim-maker, she said:  “It’s really important for me to represent today’s youth authentically…including a trans voice was very important to me.” The cast’s Zoey Luna praised the film for not making her trans identity or race the defining aspect of her character – “They did it in such a beautiful way that I had been waiting for because Lourdes is trans, Lourds is Latina but that’s not her arc.” The new film also explores important issues like consent, sexuality, and toxic masculinity. Whilst the original version of The Craft is one of my favourite films, I was really pleased with how the reboot empowered our band of misfit witches in ways which the original did not.

Now that I’ve expressed how much I love the original, let’s move on to the problem I have with it – the whole movie centres around the idea of witchcraft as female empowerment, but then the witches all turn against each other à la Mean Girls towards the end. Very cliché. I am pleased to report that The Craft: Legacy doesn’t do this – the reboot follows the script of the original for a while (a bunch of teens band together to form a coven, the meeker one performs a love spell on a guy she’s interested in, he dies, her former friends turn against her) but then completely flips it half-way through as it turns out that his death had nothing to do with the love spell and entirely to do with a misogynistic warlock, who in the end, they all reunite to fight and hurrah! We have the fun and empowering ending we never got the first time around. 

Much like The Craft: Legacy, CW’s 2018 Charmed reboot manages to diversify the classic series (all three witches are now woc and one is queer) whilst exploring a bunch of feminist issues in a fresh and unique way. In the first episode, the sisters take down a demon masquerading as a sexual predator who literally steals the life force from powerful women (the nuances!) Later episodes add a fresh, feminist perspective to famous myths such as the myth of Medusa. The CW’s Charmed reboot manages to do all this whilst still remaining (relatively) light-hearted. This is a massive step forward, considering Rose Mcgowan wrote in her memoir of an incident where the entirely male crew of Charmed literally laughed the one female director they hired off the set. 

If there’s one show to represent witchcraft’s move into the mainstream, it’s Netflix’s immensely popular and hellishly entertaining Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. What can I say about this 90s reboot that hasn’t already been said? To summarise, Sabrina and her family are now full-on Satanists (oh, and Sabrina’s also the devil’s daughter) and she uses her immense power to fight Satan/the patriarchy. A few of the most memorable moments from the show include Sabrina and her witchy friends tormenting a bunch of transphobic/misogynistic football players at the centre of Greendale’s Hellmouth, Sabrina controversial run for Top Boy at her witch school (there was no Top Girl position) and Sabrina and her mortal friends starting a women’s association at their high school which they title W.I.C.C.A (Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association), which is a clear nod to W.I.T.C.H – and that’s just the first and second seasons. 

Whilst this is a decidedly supernatural show, the misogyny the witches face is still rooted in reality. There is one all too real scene, in which a member of the witches’ council suggests to Hilda that she sleep with him in order to get what she wants. In response, Hilda traps the creep in a spider’s cocoon. The most nefarious patriarch of the show (other than Satan himself) is Father Blackwood aka the head of the Spellman’s coven, who as the founder of the witch equivalent of a men’s right club, attempts to impose misogynistic laws on the women of the coven. In perhaps the most truly terrifying moment of the show, Blackwood places a spell on (his now wife) Zelda Spellman which reduces her to a Stepford wife (plus, she was conscious the whole time!) – The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the thrilling feminist revenge fantasy we’ve been waiting for.

The later examples may have moved forward in terms of representation and diversity, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the racism still active in certain methods and representations of witchcraft. Let’s start with American Horror Story: Coven, the horror series’ most popular season. The show centres around one group of almost entirely white witches who are the descendants of Salem and another group of black voodoo witches from New Orleans. Murphy’s weak attempts to handle the racial tension between the two groups ultimately fails and instead sympathizes with a psychopathic, truly terrifying (real) slave-owner. Not only is the viewer forced to watch many grueling, torture-porn scenarios committed against black people, but is also asked to offer said slave-owner forgiveness and redemption when she deserves none. Moreover, the one black witch of Salem (Queenie) ends up forging an unlikely friendship with her. Sigh.

And whilst the female-focused season claimed to have feminist intentions, the women of the show are almost entirely made up of sexist stereotypes from the typical bad girl to the aging primadonna whom would do (literally) anything to stay young. Adding to that, the female characters are constantly pitted against each other for the flimsiest of reasons. Aside from a moment where Madison (Emma Roberts) sets fire to a bus full of rapist frat boys (with her mind, naturally), the immensely powerful group of witches turn completely powerless when faced with the abusive men in their lives. By the end of the season, Madison is strangled to death by her creepy, zombie-esque boyfriend and is then turned into a literal doll for her even creepier housekeeper. Whereas, Fiona (the aging primadonna played by Jessica Lange) is doomed to spend an eternity bored out of her mind with only her ax-wielding, murderous boyfriend for company. Many of the black women are reduced to racist caricatures from Queenie, the human voodoo doll who works at a fried chicken shop, to revenge-driven voodoo priestess Marie Laveau the owner of a New Orleans black hairdressers. More time is spent on the white witches and their needless squabbles than is ever spent on these black witches’ character development. Even a grueling slave-driver is offered forgiveness whilst Marie Laveau (based on the real New Orleans witch) is mostly shown as a spiteful, vindictive woman. The season was praised by fans and critics alike at the time of release, I wonder if it would have been met with such acclaim had it been released today?

As one coven noted, so much of witchcraft is derived from the practices of POC – yet pop culture’s representation of witchcraft is still very much whitewashed. As the tradition goes with unconventional women in popular media, it seems that the witch is only acceptable as long as she aligns with conventional beauty standards. This problem isn’t unique, we see it in the majority of media.

Another problem with witchcraft’s mainstream success is the commodification of the practice. What once stood for the rebellious outcasts of society has now become appropriated by their oppressors. Look anywhere and you will see the proof: Urban Outfitters is selling crystals for $12, pretty much every beauty retailer is selling ‘witchy makeup palettes’ and even Starbucks released a Witch’s Brew Frappuccino. Big retailers like Sephora and Urban Outfitters aren’t likely to ethically source their products, and many practicing witches view the smudging of white sage as cultural appropriation. Does anyone recall the now infamous Sephora ‘witch kit’ scandal? The retailer came under fire for capitalising on the sacred beliefs of practicing witches. As one witch tells Refinery29, witchcraft should be scary, it should dismantle the system – not cater to it.

When witchcraft becomes all about posting aesthetic pictures of crystal grids and yoga poses on Instagram, the real face of witchcraft becomes almost non-existent. These Instagram posts from a practicing witch perfectly encapsulate the ways in which witchcraft has become commonplace and appropriated.

However, some witches choose to look to the positives. Witches can now proudly declare their religion without persecution, and essential witchy items like crystals and tarot cards are now more accessible to buy. Personally, I’m enjoying witchcraft’s newfound popularity (whilst, counting down the days until the new Sabrina season!) but I obviously cannot speak for everyone. And whilst I do not identify as a practicing witch, I can say that as a woman, I am 100% here for seeing more powerful, witchy ladies on TV and everywhere else.

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