By Emma Louise Backe
Two weeks ago, I published a piece on modern monsters and their meanings within contemporary pop culture. Though I dug through the remains of zombies, vampires and kaiju, I intentionally avoided analysis of witches—I wanted to devote an entire piece that would provide me with the space to unpack the cultural resurgence of witches this year. I’m not talking about Hogwarts students—I’m talking toil and trouble, dances with the Devil in the pale moonlight, bad bitches hex magic witches. American Horror Story’s third season, Coven (2013-2014), conjured up a cast of New Orleans witches grappling to manifest the Seven Wonders and subsequently catapulted witches into the pop culture limelight yet again. While I have argued that zombies and vampires speak to concerns about climate change, capitalism and germ warfare, these witches serve a very different cultural purpose. With new shows like Salem (2014) and Witches of East End (2013-) on Lifetime, witches are experiencing their own charmed moment of cultural zeitgeist, one that comes out of ongoing feminist politics. Within the past year or so, women’s issues have gained ascendency in the media and public attention—topics like sexual assault on college campuses, rape culture, #YesAllWomen and equal access to birth control (I’m looking at you Hobby Lobby) are being discussed widely, ushering in a new era in feminism and its visibility. As the general public becomes more aware and educated on women’s issues, witches have pulled up their stockings and reemerged as feminist icons.
Witches have historically been understood and treated as threats to patriarchal forms of power. Many historians who have studied witchcraft throughout the centuries indicate that the women who were targeted for being witches were often outsiders or women who did not fall into the tightly controlled gender roles of the time. The moral discourse surrounding witchcraft accusations often legitimized and reified gendered social hierarchies and political structures, as well as culturally entrenched beliefs about sin and depravity (Douglas 1991). Many of those throughout Europe and America who were accused of witchcraft were women who did not regularly attend Church (an inherently patriarchal institution), were unmarried or widowed, were economically self-sufficient, or dressed and acted immodestly by societal standards of the time. Witches were also often perceived as licentious, sexual creatures who seduced men, lay with the Devil, and could pollute men with their feminine fluids.
During the Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693), the first three women accused of witchcraft were the cultural others of the Puritanical New England town—Tituba, Reverend Parris’s slave; Sarah Good, who was homeless; and Sarah Osborne, who disrupted land inheritance claims of the time by retaining the land of her deceased husband, rather than ceding it to her eldest son. Most of the women who were tried and executed for witchcraft undermined the conservative gender roles of the time and disturbed social norms of a woman’s place in the domestic sphere. The widespread witch panic was also contemporaneous with the Scientific Revolution, which demonized female healers and condemned the practice of medicine by women. Throughout Europe and America, as Soraya Chemaly indicates, women “were charged as witches because they were successful. Take the case of Jacoba Felicie,who was tried in 1322. Her accusation read, ‘she would cure her patient of internal illness…visit the sick assiduously and continue to examine…in the manner of physicians.’ No less than six witnesses described how she’d successfully treated the when “doctors” had failed” (2013).
Before the Scientific Revolution, medicine often fell to female healers, who used a combination of herbal medicine and folk therapies passed down through experience and intuition from generation to generation. As Constance Classen notes, “In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, medicine gradually distanced itself from the domestic realm, and from the feminine senses of touch, taste and smell […] Healing was further taken out of female hands by the increased professionalization of the field, for women were forbidden to follow men into university” (2005:80). Indeed, “a newly developing male medical profession benefited economically from the demonization of female healers and midwives, many of whom were poor and derived their only income from healing. Not only was the division between ‘witches magic’ and ‘men’s medicine’ gendered, but also it was classed. Newly minted male-only university doctors in the employ of the nobility were happy enough to eliminate illiterate female competition for their services” (Chemaly 2013). Many women, therefore, who were maligned of witchcraft were also female healers, women who destabilized “masculine” standards of medicine. Finally, “women were persecuted for associating with other women, accused of forming covens or holding parties with Satan. Women who came together to celebrate holidays or to share information, trade herbs, gossip or otherwise, you know, hang out together were considered dangerous” (Chemaly 2013). If you target disruptive women and keep them from communicating with one another, you eliminate potential subversion. Witchcraft, then, can historically be understood in Western contexts as the vilification and elimination of female power in the face of rising male power within the public sphere.
There are still parts of the world that prosecute and burn witches. Women in Papua New Guinea still face violence if they are accused of sorcery or black magic. VICE reports that, “Those accused tend to be the more marginalized members of society, and while men are occasionally victimized, women are particularly vulnerable to attacks, comprising roughly six out of every seven cases reported” and it is estimated that “there were more than 50 sorcery-related killings in their provinces in 2008” (Coursen-Neff 2009). In Ghana, women (usually elderly widows) have formed “witch camps” and “witch villages,” as safe refuges for those accused of witchcraft in their communities. As many of the supposed Ghanian witches are widows, the accusation can be seen as a ploy by the family to take their property. “’The camps are a dramatic manifestation of the status of women in Ghana,’ says Professor Dzodzi Tsikata of the University of Ghana. ‘Older women become a target because they are no longer useful to society.’ Women who do not conform to society’s expectations also fall victim to the accusations of witchcraft, according to Lamnatu Adam of the women’s rights group Songtaba” (Whitaker 2012). The efficacy of black magic and threat of witches remains very much a lived reality within many cultures around the world, a hazard that often targets already marginalized women and perpetuates cycles of gender-based violence.Within recent years, however, Western feminists and women within certain cultural enclaves have appropriated the term witch, claiming it as a title of female empowerment and solidarity. The appropriation of the term witch can be understood within the linguistic project of Mary Daly, through Webster’s First Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language and the Crone Project, which aims to dismantle patriarchal ways of thinking and understanding women, and instead revisioning language from a female perspective.
As spectral evidence leave contemporary audiences spellbound, I believe we’re experiencing a different kind of séance. The recent television shows that feature witches come out of a particular cultural milieu, one that is increasingly aware and vocal about women’s issues. American Horror Story: Coven not only tackles the history of women’s oppression, but it also attends to ongoing misogyny, present controversies over women’s rights, as well as division within feminist communities at large.
During Coven’s very first episode, “Bitchcraft,” the writers take the dangerous sexuality of witches and recast it as a form of female empowerment. Zoe Benson discovers her witchy powers when she tries to lose her virginity, and accidentally ends up giving her boyfriend a fatal brain hemorrhage. Later on in the episode, when Madison Montgomery—a fellow witch at Miss Robichaux’s Academy—gets drugged and gang-banged at a college party, Madison exacts punishment on her rapists by killing all but one in a bus crash. When Zoe realizes that one of the rapists might live, she straddles him in the hospital and uses her sex as a weapon. She becomes the castrating woman, like Salome or the vigilante vagina of Dawn O’Keefe in Teeth (2007). While rapists and sexual offenders escape punishment or legal action, these witches enact their own form of justice, one that punishes the violation of a woman and appropriates a legacy of men fearful of the power housed within the female body.
Coven reconfigures history in other ways too. Zoe and Madison assume the role of Dr. Victor Frankenstein in “Boy Parts,” when they reconstruct and reanimate the limbs of the victims of the bus crash to create Kyle, a surrogate boyfriend/sex-toy for the two. Only women, in this story, have the power to transcend life and death. Coven also deals with women’s health issues. When Cordelia Foxx, Headmistress of the Academy, fails to get pregnant by medical means, she resorts to magic. Her desperation for fertility speaks to the debate over women’s bodies, especially regarding access to services like birth control and comprehensive reproductive health care. The Academy’s most assiduous antagonist, true to form, is the Delphi Trust, an organization whose sole purpose is to hunt down and eliminate witches. The Trust is comprised entirely of men and could easily be read as a corporate manifestation of the patriarchy.
One of the climaxes of female solidarity occurs in episode six, “The Axeman Cometh,” set during 1919, when the witches of the Academy lure the axe-murderer into their coven and stab him to death. When the Axeman returns to the Academy in “Go To Hell,” and Kyle offers to take care of him, Madison grabs the axe and cuts open the Axeman’s belly. Misty turns to Kyle, saying, “We really don’t need a man to protect us,” and the witches proceed to stab the murderer to death, again. Bloody girl power.
The most compelling and malicious characters in the show, though, are all women. Each female character is given a complex backstory and emotional life. Even the women with vicious tendencies, such as Fiona Goode, Marie Laveau and Delphine LaLaurie, pulsate with charismatic, vindictive energy. They are never wholly good or bad characters, but are rather given the full personal depth few female characters are afforded in media. If we are to use the Bechdel Test to judge television shows and movies, American Horror Story: Coven accomplishes the Test’s stipulations and validates the viability of a dynamic female-driven show that is intimately concerned with the magical machinations of women. What the Bechdel Test gestures toward is eliminating the artificial stereotypes of women where they are used as props—burn those heresies at the stake.
But American Horror Story: Coven also acknowledges the internal controversies that exist within the women’s movement. Just as Fiona Goode and Marie Laveau (the Vodou Queen of New Orleans) spend most of the series at odds with one another, there are divisions amongst feminists along the lines of race, ethnicity and sexuality. Audre Lorde and bell hooks, amongst other queer women of color, have called upon contemporary feminists to acknowledge the differences that can exist in feminist agendas and ideologies across cultures and races. Many indigenous feminists around the world have also called for indigenous feminisms, a plurality that attends to the multitude of lived experiences and histories that inform a group’s understanding and approach to feminism.
Yet despite the variety of feminisms throughout the world, the most insidious form of patriarchy manifests when women turn against other women. Many of the accusations of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials were women testifying and criminalizing other women. Similarly, there is fierce competition between the students at the Academy over who is to be the next Supreme, and the witches turn against each other, often with deadly results. This competition and ill will between the witches is mirrored in contemporary debates about women’s issues, where women recoil from identifying themselves as feminists–or even proclaim themselves anti-Feminist –or declare that America is post-sexism. There are women in the media who claim we have broken the glass ceiling and achieved parity, so that more vocal advocates of women’s issues are seen as heretical in comparison. Only through uniting around common goals of equality can progress, or magic, be made.
In the finale of Coven, Cordelia—as the newly initiated supreme—decides to eliminate the secrecy of the Academy and expose the presence of witches to the wider world. It’s a risky decision, but one that resonates with the contemporary condition of women’s issues. Only by coming forward and making their stories of prejudice, discrimination and oppression known will the witch-burning end. Witches invite women to join hands and discover their power.
American Horror Story: Coven (2013-2014). Ryan Murphy Productions.
Chemaly, Soraya (2013). “What Witches Have To Do With Women’s Health.” Slate.
Classen, Constance (2005). “The Witch’s Senses: Sensory Ideologies and Transgressive Femininities from the Renaissance to Modernity.” Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Cultural Reader. Ed. David Howes. Bloomberg Academic.
Coursen-Neff, Zama (2009). “Where Violence Against Women is Rampant.” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zama-coursenneff/where-violence-against-wo_b_161339.html
Crone Project. http://croneproject.com/
Daly, Mary & Jane Caputi (1994). Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language. Harpercollins Publishers.
Douglas, Mary (1991). “Witchcraft and Leprosy: Two Strategies of Exclusion.” Man, New Series, Vol. 26, No. 4. pp. 723-736.
Friedman, Maggie (2013-Present). Witches of East End. Lifetime Television.
hooks, bell (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. South End Press.
Küntzle, Julia & Paul Blondé (2013). “The Unhappy Fate of Ghanaian Witches.” VICE.
Lichtenstein, Mitchell (2007). Teeth.
Lorde, Audre (1977). “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press Feminist Series.
Miller, Laura (2005). “Who Burned the Witches?” Slate. http://www.salon.com/2005/02/01/witch_craze/
Salem (2014). WGN America.
Whitaker, Kati (2012). “Ghana Witch Camps: Widows’ Lives in Exile.” BBC News Magazine. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19437130