This guest post by Scarlett Harris appears as part of our theme week on Demon and Spirit Possession.
It seemed like one Halliwell sister or another was possessed by demonic forces every week on Charmed.
There was Phoebe and the Woogeyman, the Banshee and the ghosts of Lulu and Grams, as well as Cole’s demonic spawn; Piper was possessed by the evil spirit of Terra in “Coyote Piper,” as well as the Valkyries and Hindu goddess Shakti (who ever said possession had to be evil?); Paige was overcome by her boyfriend Richard’s dead fiancée Olivia’s ghost (phew!), the Evil Enchantress from her childhood fairytale fantasies, and by a witch doctor’s voodoo magic; while Prue gets turned into a fairy, an empath and embodies the deadly sin, pride. Not to mention all manner of innocents who get taken over—mostly—by evil.
It also seemed like whenever a possession occurred, the sisters’ clothing went the way of Prue in season 3’s “Look Who’s Barking”: to the dogs. While the Charmed Ones’ sartorial choices were minimal at the best of times (perhaps a side effect of living in one of the most sexually progressive cities in the world, San Francisco) this is not necessarily done with the male gaze in mind.
Being a show that focused on women’s lives, Charmed was screened on the WB network to a primarily young female audience, many of them raised by second-wave mothers. Stereotypes tell us that these young women were probably brought up to believe in free love and the burning of the bra, both of which the Halliwell sisters certainly subscribed to. And in the ’90s, “girl power” and “having it all” were the terms du jour which Charmed played in to. If you believe it shouldn’t matter what you look like to be able to do your job, Charmed offered that up in spades: the Charmed Ones could kick (mostly male) bad guys’ butts and look like they were heading to the club doing it. (Oftentimes they were, as Piper owned the club, P3.)
The episode “Blinded by the Whitelighter” explicitly addresses this lack of practicality in the Halliwell Manor’s presumably shared wardrobe: Natalie, Leo’s whitelighter colleague, puts the sisters through boot camp, which includes a demon-fighting makeunder with appropriate support for both their ankles and their breasts.
But back to possession. Charmed is not the first piece of pop culture to sexualize possession. Jennifer’s Body, Ghostbusters, and the modern remake of The Exorcist come to mind, whilst io9 rounds up another seven films that do much the same. This is probably because sexuality, specifically a woman in charge of her sexuality, is deemed evil or, at the very least, uncouth. We see it when it comes to famous women, such as Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, and even Beyoncé’s recent self-titled musical ode to married sex, and Charmed is no exception. When Phoebe is taken over by the deadly sin lust in “Sin Francisco,” she sexually assaults her professor and has sex with a policeman on the job, while Piper dances on her bar during her high school reunion when she’s possessed by an evil spirit. And almost all the evil women in the show are sexualized: the succubus, shapeshifter Kaia, the Stillman sisters in “The Power of Three Blondes,” the seer Kyra, etc. We seldom see the same—both in Charmed and pop culture at large—when men are on the receiving end of possession. It’s more likely to be framed in humorous or serious ways, such as when Leo succumbs to the sin of sloth or Cole’s numerous evil turns. Even when the spirits that possess the sisters aren’t evil per se, the Halliwells are still scantily clad; take, for example, Phoebe as a mermaid, genie, fairytale character, Lady Godiva, Mata Hari… so pretty much Phoebe in general! The show does take pains, though, to show the Charmed Ones being sexy and sexual in their normal lives, not just as the means to an end of an evil plan (in “The Devil’s Music,” for example) or becoming part of that evil plan themselves. It seldom shames them for their desires, either.
While Charmed doesn’t always get it right when it comes to sex, gender politics and morality, it makes an effort to show the sisters four in all elements of their lives, including sex. Maybe the myriad “sexy possessions” the Charmed Ones succumb to are part of a wider “protest statement” of the objectification of women? We can dream.