In contemporary visual culture, the representation of the witch has evolved quite significantly over past decades. In the twenty-first century popular culture, film, and television began adapting to an altered understanding of the witch, as popularized by shows such as Charmed and movies like The Craft or Practical Magic. This evolution created a noticeable dichotomy between earlier depictions of witches and their contemporary reworking. An image often associated with an earlier representation of witches can be epitomized by defining features such as a black pointed hat, conventionally unattractive and old. As these images adapt to contemporary media, they become increasingly associated with the ideals of feminism and feminist rhetoric. Through a comparison of Robert Egger’s film The Witch and Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Coven, a contemporary understanding of the witch and its connection to feminist ideals is produced. While one portrayal offers a more radical feminist critique, the latter can be understood through a commercialized feminist approach.
The Witch (stylized as The VVitch), directed by Robert Eggers in 2015, is the story of a family in 1630’s New England who have been rejected by their Puritan village and forced to occupy barren farmland. The film manifests earlier ideas of witches and their role in the 17th century through the witch that inhabits the surrounding woods, however, it also engages with a feminist understanding of witches through Thomasin, the daughter. Thomasin faces persecution from both her father and her mother, who begin to believe that she is a witch.
This film offers a contemporary reworking of witches with radical feminist ideas through Thomasin’s rejection of her family and her acceptance into what appears to be a group of other witches. Her identification with these women works in producing an image of feminism that is expressed through the reliance on other women and the rejection of the patriarchy. Although The Witch engages with feminist concepts, the narrative occurs during the seventeenth century, and thus cooperates with a particular radical feminist discourse based around witchcraft.
Historically, it can be discerned that the image of the witch has not always been associated with feminist philosophies. Through the persecution, or alternatively the ‘witch hunt’ of early society, women who were suspected to be witches were often sentenced to death or ostracized. The contrast in how female witches are viewed today comparative to the early 1600’s is reliant on the perspective of men and women, specifically the shift from men to women. The male perspective contributes to the discussion of witches in both early and modern society. Expressed by Willem de Blécourt in The Making of the Female Witch: Reflections on Witchcraft and Gender in the Early Modern Period, “the overall male hegemony and subsequently the subordination of women in European and North American society was (and sometimes still is) articulated through witchcraft discourse” (289). Such a discourse operates as a subversive technique in altering the male perspective of witches and consequently the reproduced images of witches. Within The Witch, Thomasin is portrayed as being controlled by her father and engages with the patriarchal practice of being married off for compensation. Towards the end of the film, Thomasin’s acceptance into a group of witches is representative of her overcoming the male hegemonic practices.
In The Witch in History: The Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations, Diane Purkiss discusses the role of men and women in the aforementioned persecutions, stating that many of the accusations were brought forth by women (8). While this could conclude that the female’s perspective was often at fault for the perception of other women as witches, Blécourt argues that “it is ‘a commonplace of women’s history that “patriarchy divides women,” that is, patriarchy functions so as to encourage women to enforce patriarchal norms against other women in order to strengthen their own precarious positions in that order” (295). The Witch portrays Blécourt’s idea of division through Thomasin’s mother who accuses her of witchcraft. This implicates the patriarchy in the creation and initial understanding of witches while women were responsible for reclaiming and redefining its occupation in a visual context. However, “in some areas men were also at risk to be socially constructed as witches[…], their witchcraft was usually of a different, less malevolent kind and hardly susceptible to prosecution” (Purkiss 293). Similar to the idea that women were not the only ones implicated as witches, the modern witch iconography and how it has come to be is described by Purkiss as not merely being the product of patriarchy:
Women also invested heavily in the figure as a fantasy which allowed them to express and manage otherwise unspeakable fears and desires, centering on the question of motherhood and children. I look at the way the idea of a maternal body, which is both an object of desire and a source of pollution, becomes the basis for an understanding of the witches magic as that unseen and infinitely extended aspect of her body which can do harm beyond her apparent bounds. (10)
Through Thomasin, a ‘fantasy’ is captured, one of overcoming the patriarchy through her connection with other women. Thomasin becomes representative of not only the feminist witch but also combative of the anxieties towards women—a reflection of feminist ideals. Alternatively, as described by Justyna Sempruch in Feminist Constructions of the ‘Witch’ as a Fantasmatic Other, the witch operates as “the woman ‘in her inevitable struggle against conventional man’, the ‘universal woman subject who must bring women to their senses and to their meaning in history” (114). As such, the figure of the witch as a fantasy for women allowed for the image to develop feminist connotations in its contemporary reworking. Although a shift in perspective initiated a feminist association, the witch’s identity being based in Pagan rituals also provides a feminist background.
The 2013 television show American Horror Story: Coven concentrates on a group of women who have developed powers and while they attempt to prevent society from knowing about such powers, they face obstacles such as ‘witch hunters’ and other supernatural forces. Throughout
the show, the focus remains on the group—referred to as a ‘coven’. Although the narrative is fiction, the idea of a coven of women is based heavily in the Pagan practice of Wicca. In Becoming a Woman Through Wicca: Witches and Wiccans in Contemporary Teen Fiction, Christine Jarvis posits a link between the spirituality involved in Wicca and its relation to feminist principles. Similar to the plight of feminists, Jarvis details the treatment of Wiccans and explains that there is “a history of violence and repressive attitudes towards paganism from mainstream religions that may account for the relatively low profile maintained by most Wiccans.” (44). In American Horror Story: Coven, this is explicitly shown through the confidentiality of the coven for fear of the public’s perception of witches. Jarvis identifies a link between feminism and Wicca’s rising popularity, she explains:
The feminist orientation of contemporary witchcraft may explain its appeal to teenage girls. In spite of the difficulty of quantifying participation in witchcraft, evidence from internet sites and general media sources suggests that the participation of teenage girls is growing[…] this has been criticised by orthodox religious groups[…]and by witches and pagans themselves, who sometimes dismiss this phenomenon as commercialised and sensationalised. However, her interviews with teenage Wiccans revealed they were largely ‘serious and well informed’ girls who took a critical approach to wider social and environmental issues and adopted a broadly feminist orientation towards the world. (45)
While in part, reasoning for Wicca’s popularity amongst teenage girls is linked to feminist principles, many also adopt such principles through the exploration of spirituality. Although American Horror Story: Coven is comparative to Wiccan tradition, it can be hypothesized that its production of both the practice of witchcraft and feminism is commercialised. However, Jarvis also explains that there’s “a degree of conformity in the presentation of young witches in these commercially successful products[…] they do provide scope for ‘negotiating issues of consumption, feminism and alternative lifestyle’ and that the fantasy elements in the story provide opportunities to ‘subvert emerging and prevailing social norms” (45). As such, American Horror Story: Coven, when considered a ‘commercially successful product,” enables its audience to associate the image of the witch and discuss it through a feminist discourse. More importantly, its viewership can “negotiate issues” of feminism such as its representation and its connection to Paganism.
Through Paganism, the feminist association to the witch is significantly rationalized. Christine Hoff Kraemer in Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Paganism explains the importance of gender and sexuality within Paganism and its core beliefs. She clarifies that “gender and sexuality are central theological issues for many contemporary Pagans; in fact, many Pagans came to the movement due to issues with gender or sexuality in the religions of their birth or in the wider culture” (390). Much like feminism in contemporary culture, Paganism is a practice unconcerned with gender and sexuality. Where American Horror Story: Coven and The Witch fail in its portrayal of the witch is in its depiction of exclusively women. However, even flaws of exclusivity are amongst both feminist and Pagan divisions. More importantly, Paganism, much like that of feminism, addresses such flaws and even “challenges gender essentialism” (Kraemer 392). Kraemer further explains that Paganism “had a tendency to equate feminine divinity and its associated positive qualities solely with the bodies of biological women,” as a result “Pagans began to explore the possibility of queer and transgender deity,” similar to contemporary feminism (392). Although American Horror Story: Coven does not engage with gender diversity within its coven, it represents varying class structures, ethnicities, (dis)ability and religions amongst its members. Kraemer also articulates that “feminist scholars have praised contemporary Paganism for offering images and practices that empower women both as individuals and as community leaders” suggesting that the image of the witch was more or less adopted by feminism as a powerful motif (390). Similar to Purkiss’ understanding of the witch as a fantasy created by women, for women.
The image of the witch, through the understanding of its inception and its relative construction, has appeared to be both a product of and adopted by the practice of feminism. Of course, it is not iconic in terms of representing feminism but it cooperates with such theories enough to generate a relation to feminist rhetoric. Through the dissection of the film The Witch and the television show American Horror Story: Coven, a varying portrayal of the witch can be understood in terms of radical and commercialized feminism. While The Witch produces images of rejecting the patriarch in extreme measures, it offers a radical feminist critique in its complete distrust of male hegemonic practices. In contrast, American Horror Story: Coven creates a palatable version of the feminist witch, one not as ‘radical’ in comparison but consequently not as inclusive in nature.
De Blécourt, Willem. “The Making of the Female Witch: Reflections on Witchcraft and Gender in the Early Modern Period.” Gender & History, vol. 12, no. 2, 2000, pp. 287-309
Jarvis, Christine. “Becoming a Woman through Wicca: Witches and Wiccans in Contemporary Teen Fiction.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 39, no. 1, 2008, pp. 43-52.
Kraemer, Christine H. “Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Paganism.” Religion Compass, vol. 6, no. 8, 2012, pp. 390-401.
Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations. Routledge, 1996.
Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, creators. American Horror Story: Coven. 20th Century Fox, 2013.
Sempruch, Justyna. “Feminist Constructions of the ‘Witch’ as a Fantasmatic Other.” Body & Society, vol. 10, no. 4, 2004, pp. 113-133.
The Witch. Directed by Robert Eggers, performances by Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson, A24, 2015.
Images in this online exhibition are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.