The following post was co-written with my colleague Nina Funnell. It was originally published by US website Feministing.
Pointed hats, black cats, broomsticks, cauldrons: Halloween is a night for celebrating witches. It seems timely then to reflect upon our relationship with these complex figures in fiction, and our culture’s recent attempts to rewrite the witch figure as good, wise and strong. It’s a depiction which directly contrasts with traditional narratives where witches are presented not only as evil outcasts and temptresses, but often also as victims.
In the traditional fairytales witches are typically depicted as socially-undesirable interlopers seeking to cast wicked spells and destroy youthful innocence and beauty. In these tales, which often revolve around binary opposites, the heroines are pretty, young and chaste. The witch, meanwhile, is ugly, old, and may seek to seduce. A perversion of the idea of “woman as nurturer” these women engage in attempts to harm or kill children (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) and may even engage in cannibalism (Hansel and Gretel). Unlike the virtuous protagonist, who often aspires to little more than marital monogamy, the witch is presented as unmarried and non-maternal – a direct threat to the traditional family values upheld by the protagonist.
Variants of these stories, and of the role of the wicked witch-like figure appear in many cultures. In Native American folklore, for example, the tale “Basket Woman,” features a giant hag who creeps up on children when they are naughty or up past their bedtimes. After hitting them on the head with her walking stick, she collects the bodies in her basket, and later boils them in her pot for dinner.
Intended as cautionary tales, these stories provide clear messages about obedience, adherence to traditional gender roles, beauty and virtue, and the dangers inherent in being an ambitious woman who seeks any form of power.
And in the era when many of these tales were written, the dangers weren’t just theoretical. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, approximately 100,000 supposed witches were put to death across Europe. Women who rejected the rule of the church and other prevailing male power structures of the day were especially vulnerable, and older, unmarried, poor women were most at risk.
At one stage during the 17th century in France, the moral panic became so intense that people also took to burning cats (said to be a witches familiar) and for a period, pets-on-pyres took off as a morbid form of entertainment.
Throughout the early 20th century, witches continued to be painted as monstrous outcastes and villains. They also continued to function as a cipher for moral lessons about female power. In the opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dorothy is chased by a woman on a bicycle, who later reappears as the Wicked Witch of the West, now mounted on a broom. With the passing of time, much gets lost in translation. However for an audience in 1939, a woman mounting a bicycle was a well understood symbol of female independence and ambition. There was, at the time, an intense moral panic over women on bicycles, since the mode of transportation enabled women- and poor women in particular- freedom of movement and independence. The bicycle was such an important symbol of female empowerment that suffragette Susan B. Anthony once commented that bicycling has “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.”
In fact men were so concerned that women might be enjoying their bicycles a little too much, that special grooved saddles were invented to prevent against the possibility of clitoral stimulation. It’s no mistake then, that the virtuous Good Witch of the North, floats around in a bubble: no mounting necessary.
Following on from Glinda The Good Witch, the 1960’s sitcom Bewitched, presented us with another blonde, attractive ‘good’ witch, through the character of Samantha Stephens. Here the witch was domesticated and sanitized, and although Samantha had powers, she viewed them as at odds with her identity as a wife, and would only resort to using them in order to please Darrin, her mortal husband, or to create domestic bliss.
Towards the end of the 20th century, however, we notice a sudden and radical shift in how witches are portrayed. As the Girl Power zeitgeist of the late 90’s took hold, suddenly youthful female power was celebrated, not feared. It’s no coincidence then, that at this exact point in time witches also suddenly receive more sympathetic and even favorable treatment within popular culture.
Shows such as Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch burst onto the scene, depicting witches as young, attractive and fashion-conscious. Through the character of Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer also presented witches in a positive, empowered light.
Harry Potter then introduced us to the highly principled and studious Hermione, perhaps the first witch to be held up as an exemplary role model for young women.
All of these later texts allowed girls to tap into different girlhood fantasies through the lens of supernatural powers. Suddenly girls were able to consume these texts and imagine what it might be like to outsmart your teachers (Harry Potter), defeat enemies (Charmed, Buffy) or even rotate through thousands of outfits with a simple snap of the finger (Sabrina). Through these likeable characters, girls could imagine what it might be like to have the power to control their own worlds.
Importantly, in these modern texts witches are no longer isolated outcastes, but crucially, they are connected to other witches through their covens. No longer victims, these witches all survive until the end of the story.
More recently still, Maleficent and the musical Wicked have both retold existing stories about witches (Sleeping Beauty and The Wizard of Oz respectfully) only this time around, the witches are painted as sympathetic, complex protagonists. No longer a cliché caricature, the witch has been embraced as a complex, multi-dimensional character.
What’s clear is that as social attitudes towards female power and independence have shifted over the centuries, so too, our depictions of witches have also evolved.
This Halloween there will be those who chose to dress like fairy-tale inspired crones, others who prefer the wholesome good witch look, and other still who prefer to dress as the sultry enchantress.
Regardless of which witch mounts her broomstick and patrols our suburban streets October 31st, what is clear is that our fascination with this evolving figure is enduring.