Burning Misconceptions: Witches Are Back In Pop Culture!
And yet, witches remained. From history books to legends, from fairy tales to current pop culture, witches are still present, though the prism through which we see them has made a radical turn in the last 50 to 100 years.
Historically speaking, witches have been around since the beginning of time. They were midwives, oracles, goddesses, crazy women living alone in the woods, women of science, women dedicated to helping others, sterile women, widows, gardeners… The list could go on forever. Truth is, any woman who had abilities and capacities men wouldn’t understand could be qualified as a witch. Women who possessed knowledge of herbal medicine for example (which was commonly used in midwifery and healthcare), were often seen as a threat to the male-dominated medical establishment. Their unconventional practices and alternative healing methods were misunderstood and quickly labeled as witchcraft. Likewise, the scientific and intellectual pursuits of women were often considered subversive, challenging traditional gender roles. Coupled with a lack of understanding of their work, people (understanding by that men in positions of power) were quick to accuse them of practicing dark magic and jump to very very inaccurate conclusions.
The fear of women's autonomy resulted in the stigmatization of those who dared to defy societal norms in their pursuit of knowledge and emancipation. It went as far as having people write books about witch hunting, such as the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (1486), by Heinrich Kramer, which was essentially an early medieval version of Regina George’s burn book in Mean Girls. In his work, Kramer explains how witchcraft is an inherently female form of depravation, motivated by a heavy hunger for sex and malignant power, but also how to efficiently get rid of them.
Now that we established that, who are the witches we know? What makes a witch a witch in our current pop culture?
Witches can be classified into multiple categories. The lonely and isolated ones, like Snow White’s stepmother, Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, (and so many more) all share the common trait that they are adapted versions of witches from fairy tales, mostly by either Charles Perrault (1628-1703) and Jacob (1785-1863) and Willhelm (1786-1859) Grimm. Taking into account that the witch-hunting period stretched from about 1400 to 1775 (with witch trials still happening as late as 1811 in Prussia) in all of Europe and North America, it is no surprise that they were deemed the perfect antagonists to oppose pure and innocent characters in fairy tales. The vilification of women was already quite common in people’s minds, and the tales were an efficient tool to indoctrinate children as early as possible to fear disobedient and independent women.
Moreover, in fairy tales witches are often portrayed as childless women, either wanting to hurt children, kill them, or steal something from them (mostly youth or beauty), further emphasizing the fear they already instill in them. This refusal for these characters to conform to either the Prostitute (a fuckable woman) or The Mother (a soft, comforting figure) stereotype, and as such, to traditional gender roles, gave men even more reasons to ostracize them, both figuratively and practically. Women who do not reproduce (whether it’s by choice or not) are deemed untrustworthy.
Mostly depicted as old, ugly, scary women, associating witches’ wickedness with ugliness also implied that attractive people are inherently good, thus reinforcing harmful beauty standards, suggesting that one's worth or character is determined by their physical appearance. In "The Wizard of Oz", Glinda tells Dorothy that « only bad witches are ugly », referencing her sister Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. Based on racist, antisemitic (big noses and long chin) and queerphobic (may I remind you that Ursula’s character design is based on the regretted drag queen Divine ?) stereotypes, witches are for writers the perfect subject to carry on hating on minorities.
But what about hot witches? The temptresses, the sexy ones, those who use their bodies to bewitch weak souls? The ones who use men to their advantage?
Characters such as Melisandre from "Game of Thrones" exemplify how certain witches use their bodies as potent weapons to achieve their ends. Melisandre, with her seductive allure and mysterious abilities, influences and manipulates those around her through the sheer force of her presence. She uses her sensuality and supernatural powers to achieve her political and mystical goals, sometimes striking fear into the hearts of male characters in the series. The apprehension directed at characters like her often mirrors a broader unease with the idea of women wielding their physicality as a source of power, once again challenging traditional gender dynamics and norms. By using sex and seduction, but not as men wantd them to (to birth children, of course!), men lose their ability to control their body and reproductive system. The same phenomenon can be addressed in "The Witcher ", in which Yennefer, considered ugly under common norms, exchanges her womb in order to become pretty. She undergoes a complete and painful transformation, making her desirable but also sterile, which she later regrets. However, she also gains immense powers in the process, as she becomes more confident in herself.
As said earlier, the witch is often a character with no child. But then how do witches get created?
In recent portrayals of witches, there has been a notable shift from the traditional, solitary witch to depictions of witches as members of a group, such as a family, a coven, or a larger community. This transformation in storytelling reflects a broader evolution in their portrayal. One significant reason for this change is a commitment from authors to give more depth and complexity to the characters by expanding on their backstory, or even by propulsing them from the antagonist to the protagonist status. This was already the case in 2003 with "Wicked", a musical retracing Elphaba’s back story before she became the Wicked Witch from the West in "The Wizard of Oz" in which we learn that she is the daughter of a mortal women and got her powers from a mysterious potion given to her mother by her estranged father. More recently in 2014 and 2019 with the live-action remakes of "Maleficent", we learn that Maleficent was actually a fairy condemned by the man she loved and who cut her wings in order to control her. In both their cases, the apparent evilness in them is actually untamed sourness towards the fuckers who deceived them when they were supposed to be the most trusted people in their lives.
What about families of witches? Do they exist?
The more current narratives have a tendency to represent witches as part of a community, a family, or a coven. This allows authors and creators to delve more into complex interpersonal dynamics, power struggles, and conflicts that add depth and relatability to their stories. Characters such as Sabrina Spellman from "Sabrina The Teenage Witch" and "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" is the daughter of a mortal mother and her deceased father apparently had powers. She’s brought up by her two aunts, witches themselves, and has to learn how to navigate both the mortal and magical world within the context of her witchy family (and coven in the reboot version). Likewise, Manon Blackbeak from Sarah J. Maas's "Throne of Glass" series is part of a powerful and complex witch matriarchal society, with strong family dynamics, and layers of family ties that make her one of the most interesting characters in the book series. Her apparent wickedness at first comes out as actual fierce love and loyalty towards her coven, The Thirteen. This shift emphasizes themes of empowerment, unity, and the reclamation of feminine power under masculine domination. By showcasing witches as a community, together, these portrayals celebrate the strength found in mutual support and cooperation, mirroring feminist ideals of women uplifting each other to achieve common goals.
Ultimately, the evolution of witches in pop culture mirrors the ongoing fight for gender equality and the transformation of social norms, pushing for more diversity, acceptance, and empowering representations of women and their magical worlds.
As of today, being called a witch might still feel like an insult to some. But as the word « queer » underwent a transformation and went from being a slur against LGBTQ+ people to a self-identifying term that is now proudly used, I hope witches all around the world all come together to reclaim the term as a rallying one*, a reminder to keep fighting for ourselves and the community, to put knowledge and respect first, and to never again be persecuted by people who fear the one they don’t know and cannot control.
*Witchcraft in the form of Paganism, Wicca, Voodoo and so many others are considered religion. We are here referencing the broader term « witch », or « W.I.T.C.H » as it has been used as a rallying one in the US in the 60’s as an acronym for Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, which was the name of several related but independent feminist groups part of the women's liberation movement. But this article was already too long so I had to cut that :(