The Role of Witches

Halloween is my favorite holiday. Typically, I spend the month of October, attempting a month-long marathon in the vein of FreeForm’s “31 Nights of Halloween” (formerly 13). So, originally, I had intended to make this post about that, focusing on some of my favorite Halloween TV specials and movies. However, in light of certain events, I decided I wanted to look at the role of women in Halloween culture.

The most obvious figure, is the witch. In Salem 1692, these were individuals who supposedly were in league with the devil. Over time, they have become almost exclusively women and, for a long time, almost exclusively evil. In 1939, the Wicked Witch of the West was the frightening antagonist with the green skin and hooked nose who was thwarted with help from Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. This beautiful ginger got a name and a sparkly pink dress and crown, while our anonymous friend looked severe and dour in the traditional dour black dress and conical hat.

In The Wizard of Oz, good and evil are both represented by witches/strong female characters (although protagonist Dorothy later needs to be saved by her men). In typical fashion, they are characterized by their appearance, but they both demonstrate a great amount of power. Almost 54 years later Disney released another good example of strong women on both sides: Hocus Pocus (1993).

In Hocus Pocus, the Sanderson sisters are three witches who cast a curse just before they are hanged in 1693 Salem. The curse enables them to be resurrected 100 years later to exact their revenge. Played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy, these witches are not so obviously “ugly”, and, in the case of Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, she’s actually quite beautiful. Instead, the “ugliness” is in their actions and personalities and in how they aren’t especially intelligent.

In contrast, there’s our protagonists, siblings Max and Dani Dennison, Max’s beautiful crush, Allison Watts, and 17th Century Salem resident-turned-cat, the immortal Thackery Binx. Although the protagonist is decidedly Max (and to some extent, Binx), he is often outshined by Dani and Allison’s intelligence and resourcefulness. Max is the one who starts the trouble, and while he finishes it with his bravery, the beautiful girls more often than not prove to be the more intelligent characters.

Hocus Pocus and The Wizard of Oz share some key similar traits in how they portray women, with good and evil females on both sides, and the evil ones less beautiful or intelligent. However, where The Wizard of Oz, also gives its strength and intelligence to the male protagonists, Hocus Pocus reflects the changing times by making the females the more capable characters.

In the years since Hocus Pocus, witches have more and more often been portrayed as forces for good: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992, 1997-2005), Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996-2003), Charmed (1998-2006, 2018-), Harry Potter (1997-2007, 2001-2011), The Good Witch (2008, 2015-) … the list goes on. The point is, women have been taking back that word. Because, let’s be realistic, what is a witch but a woman who has power beyond male understanding? Witches don’t need men and cannot be controlled by them (which is why some of them choose romantic partners that are not your standard human man: Willow and Tara, Scarlet Witch and The Vision (a cyborg created by an alien intelligence and hyper-sophisticated AI)).

Today, witches are again being threatened. See, it’s no longer just witches threatening the patriarchy. More than ever, women are standing up for injustices that have previously gone unacknowledged, but also/still receiving pushback. Women are looking for the same autonomy, power, and resources afforded to men; the right to feel safe and secure. While women have been restricted and vilified as witches, (wealthy, white) men continue to exhibit poor behavior and decision making skills without consequence. For centuries, women have been silenced, burned at the stake (physically, mentally, emotionally, socially). It’s never been okay and now that people are voicing that opinion it’s even more important that we keep standing up and saying it. Because these voices are having an impact, the opposing side is becoming more frantic and eager to silence them. While this message seems to be gaining ground socially, it seems to be stagnating politically. For the first time in my life, I am actively encouraging political participation. Vote, take a stand; things are never going to change when we have politicians who want them to stay the same. Find the power within yourself to be a witch; someone who cannot be controlled and expects respect and equality.

Consider what kind of world you want to live in: one where Dorothy needs to be rescued by a Scarecrow and the hero is a boy who summoned a trio of evil witches (NEVER light the Black Flame Candle), or one where Captain Marvel is supposedly going to be the most powerful character in the MCU and Wonder Woman and Patty Jenkins’s success is leading to the DCEU actively recruiting female directors for female-lead superhero films? (A historically male-oriented genre wants to explore powerful women without asking them to wear a sexy outfit.) This October, almost 55 years after its pilot aired, we’re even getting a female Doctor on Doctor Who! (Seriously, I could go on…)

 

So this year, rather than be a sexy witch for Halloween, be a powerful one all the time.

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