Covens and Cauldrons: The Evolution of The Witch in Pop Culture
With three clicks of her ruby slippers, Dorothy utters those unforgettable words “There’s no place like home”. This film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz didn’t just reaffirm the importance of family—it solidified the image of the witch. The concept of the evil witch had long existed thanks to the Malleus Maleficarum, but it was with the Wicked Witch of the West—green skin, beak nose, and warts—that we began to equate evil with ugly. In the same movie, Glinda the Good Witch’s benevolence materialised in cotton candy ball gowns with stars and sparkles galore! In the following decades, these depictions of the witch would become a mainstay in our popular culture, taking on a number of society’s ideas about womanhood. She would be a housewife, a teenager, and a sister. But what did these characterizations truly reveal?
“With a wiggle of her nose or a snap of her fingers,
Samantha would… zap her husband into the basement…”
Bewitched hit TV screens in the 1960s. Coinciding with second wave feminism, it signalled a change in the depiction of women on TV. We’ve all heard the story: witch meets mortal man; witch falls in love with mortal man; witch marries mortal man and becomes a nice sweet, suburban housewife—at least that’s what Darrin Stephens thought when he married Samantha. Bold print shift dresses, sweater sets, button-down shirts, and curled locks—Samantha looked the part but could never quite conform. With a wiggle of her nose or a snap of her fingers, Samantha would magic away her chores, or zap her husband into the basement during arguments. This golden haired witch subverted her husband’s authority by sneaking in magic at every opportunity. While Samantha’s struggles to pacify Darrin may seem trivial when compared to the demands of the women’s movement (reproductive freedom, access to contraception, and equal pay), Bewitched represented the very real tensions that existed in American households during the 60s and made the female body the focal point of the sitcom.
Image courtesy of Screengeek.
Fast forward to the 90s and The Craft came along. Wicca—the religion of witchcraft—was highlighted for the first time in western pop culture in this supernatural horror that told the story of a high school coven whose use of magic for personal gain results in deadly consequences. Our protagonist, Sarah (played by Robin Tunney), is a teenager haunted by the trauma of having lost her mother at a young age. Sarah moves to a new high school and is quickly befriended by the school outcasts; with Sarah they complete their coven. The girls begin to test the limits of their power, and their wardrobe is quick to follow. Once timid and plainly dressed, the girls now wore crosses, smokey eyeliner, mini skirts, leather biker jackets, and lots of black. Their cool, sexy style made ample use of 90s grunge. Unfortunately, the coven turns on Sarah, threatening and tormenting her with visions of insects, swarms of snakes, and rats. She only gains the strength to fight back after “invoking the spirit” with guidance from her deceased mother.
This same theme of overcoming loss is depicted in the fantasy comedy Practical Magic and TV show Charmed. Both stories, first seen on screen in 1998, told the story of witches who—having lost their mothers to tragic circumstances—find solace in sisterhood. Where The Craft presented the witch as full of angst and untamed, the sisters of Practical Magic and Charmed—rocking velvet, lace, and lots of florals—presented the witch as a siren. Their allure was expressed through their effortlessly feminine style that held a tinge of danger. All these women shared a deep but strained bond that was renewed by magic—and romance, of course! In Practical Magic, Gillian (played by Nicole Kidman) falls victim to the abusive Jimmy Angelov; in Charmed, Phoebe (played by Alyssa Milano) falls in love with the demonic (not a euphemism, he really was a demon!) Cole. Jimmy is eventually vanquished while Cole is brought over to the light side—at least for a while. Both men threaten the bonds of sisterly love, but sisterhood triumphs! Heaven forbid that such a message should be conveyed without the aid of romantic love with the opposite sex.
Image courtesy of E! News online.
“She was confused and
frustrated, and just trying to fit in.”
The trials and tribulations of love took a back seat for Nickelodeon’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996-2003). Midriffs, crimped hair, and spaghetti straps—this genial spellcaster harked back to the lightheartedness of Bewitched. Marketed for tweens, Sabrina was just a normal (half mortal, half witch) teenager. She was confused and frustrated, and just trying to fit in. Her strength of character was located in her refusal to bow down to peer pressure. Jump to 2018 and in our desperate search for “authenticity”, Netflix has rebooted the story with an adaptation closer to the original Archie Comics. No longer saccharine sweet and perky, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is moody and devilish (literally). A retro take on Little Red Riding Hood, Sabrina now dons a crimson wool coat, Peter Pan lace-collar dress, and black ribbon headband as she frolics in the deep, dark forest. While Netflix’s version of Sabrina may seem like a complete 180, Sabrina is still that headstrong teen trying to make her own way in the world: she goes against her Aunts and the Devil himself by refusing to go through with her “dark baptism”.
Image courtesy of The New York Times.
But the witch in pop culture doesn’t end her spiritual journey with a baptism. If she’s really powerful she gets to become the Supreme!—and no, that is not a Diana Ross reference. American Horror Story: Coven had plot downfalls but reigned triumphant in fashionomics! Myrtle Snow, The Grace Coddington of the coven; Cordelia, Givenchy-chic; Marie Laveau, Foxy Brown turned Fury; Misty Day, Stevie Nicks-obsessed bohemian witch; Madison Montgomery, Hollywood starlet gone off the rails; Zoe, Comme des Garcons draped fledgling; Nan, pilgrim-chic; and the blunt “human voodoo-doll” Queenie was just… real—real jeans and real kicks. And let’s not forget the hats! Fedoras, Top Hats, Garbos—the witch’s hat was reinvented. Every witch in Coven was unique in her own way, but what we really saw on TV was the democratisation of the witch—or at least the appearance of it. Ryan Murphy’s tale about a coven from New Orleans made every woman into a potential witch (a bit like when Buffy awakened all the slayers). While it may have been performative, while it may not have resulted in inclusivity, accessibility or upward mobility—it was a starting point.
The witch in popular culture has taken many forms: the rebellious housewife, the wild teenager, the sisters looking to reconnect, and the novice without a clue. Some say the witch is having a moment. We say: where have you been? The witch is the moment. The witch in pop culture is a mirror of the women’s movement past, present, and future. The witch is a badge of honour. The witch is a woman with power.
Written by The COMM.
Featured image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.