Library Dissertation Showcase

Smoke and mirrors: women as witches in American cinema

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2020

The fictional witch has always been a stand in for deviant women. The witch can be used as a device to warn the audience of what happens to a disobedient woman under the patriarchy. She may be accused and sentenced to death, or, alternatively, she may show women what happens when they step into their power and reclaim their lives. If it is accepted that films act as expressions of the society they were created in, then exploring aspects of them such as gender representations, race, and sexuality will highlight how that society is organised and how it functions. In this case, the archetype of the witch reflects how society treats and thinks of women who do not conform. Since the witch acts as a mirror to this, she is bound to change and evolve with the women’s liberation movement and the evolving waves of feminism. These are in turn influenced by the socio-political history of the era they were a product of. In some cases, this may be in retaliation to the movement, and in others in celebration of it. This could explain why there are such polarising representations of witches. Despite this study’s focus on the 1980s and 1990s, it is still relevant today. Certainly, in modern Hollywood, there has been a backlash against the #MeToo movement with various figures calling it a “witch hunt” (Mumford, 2018). This ignores both the historical trauma that people faced from witch hunts, as well as the modern trauma of witch hunts going on across the world. Therefore, by looking at the past representations and realisations of the witch, the hope is that this knowledge may be applied to today’s current socio-political climate, for instance, the backlash to the #MeToo movement.

Unfortunately, the breadth of witch films is too much for this study to cover. Therefore, this study focuses on American cinema, as this is where a majority of modern parallels exist. These parallels include cultural movements such as the #MeToo backlash, or the resurgence of populism (Gawthorpe, 2019). Also, American literature on feminist thought explores how patriarchal ideologies and structures are encoded within American cultural products, such as Hollywood films. Whilst America may not have the history that many European countries do in regard to folklore and witch hunts, it is still a large cultural producer regarding the witch. It also has its history with the Salem witch trials which have influenced its culture with The Crucible (Hytner, 1996). America is also still fascinated with The Church of Satan (founded in 1966) and modern Wicca practices. As previously mentioned, the breadth of witch films is still vast, so this study, following parameters set by Greene in her study of American cinematic witches (2018, 6), focuses on films with a witch as a main character. The films this study uses as case studies are The Witches of Eastwick (Miller, 1987) and The Craft (Fleming, 1996). Both films are within one decade of each other allowing for better comparison as they will still relate to one another. The Witches of Eastwick was released post-second-wave feminism and highlights the reaction that American society had to the successes of second-wave feminism, as well as the disappointment its supporters experienced in the stagnation of the movement. In comparison, The Craft embodies certain third-wave and postfeminist thoughts and attitudes that many younger feminists had at the time. It expresses a reflection that occurred during the movement on what the second-wave had achieved and what it had left behind.

First, this study examines academic research and theories on witches and their relation to feminism. The basis for this is Heather Greene’s 2018 study on the history of American cinematic witches. The overall analysis of archetypes provides a foundation for further analysis, as well as other theoretical texts to be incorporated. For example, feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex discusses the ‘othering’ of women in patriarchal societies. This ‘othering’ exemplifies Barbara Creed’s work on The Monstrous Feminine which shows this process in horror films. This groundwork allows for examination of the case studies including historical perspectives on witches and women, and a brief exploration of the evolutions of feminism. Secondly, the study analyses The Witches of Eastwick with reference to work by Kathe Davis and Ien Ang. Davis highlights the conservatism expressed in the film, and others point out the Reaganist backlash against feminism’s progress. This may be a result of a return to religious values that caused the Satanic Panic highlighting that religion functions as an agency in determining social norms with regard to gender equality and attitudes towards second-wave feminism (Inglehart and Norris, 2003, 50). Ang highlights that, despite this, audiences were not passive victims, and could determine worth out of these images regardless. Finally, the examination of The Craft focuses on its conflictual brand of younger feminism. The 1990s held two forms of feminist thought – one believing the fight for equality had been won (postfeminism) and the other believing that there was still work to be done (third-wave feminism). The former was adopted by capitalism into a certain brand of ‘Girl Power.’ The latter, analysed the previous waves to improve, leading to such introspection as Bell Hooks’ work, “Women are enriched when we bond with one another, but we cannot develop sustaining ties or political solidarity using the model of Sisterhood created by the bourgeois women’s liberationists,” (45, 2015).

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