How Should a Show About Witches Be?


This is a guest post by Kaitlyn Soligan.


If “Women in Television” has a unifying theme of the moment, it is this: Everybody Wants a Witch. American Horror Story, Witches of East End, Salem, and HBO’s new Jenji Kohan project The Devil You Know are only the latest instances in recent years of television venturing deeply into witchy woods, with decidedly mixed results. Besides a litany of recent shows devoted solely to Magical Women and Where to Find Them, witches also play various parts in the plethora of supernatural and fantasy shows on television right now; witches are featured in main or recurring roles on Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, and Grimm, among recent others. More general mainstream fare, including Outlander, Pixar’s Brave, and even the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron have fantastical elements and crucial plot points that include or revolve entirely around witchy women. It seems in Hollywood, you can’t talk about women without talking about witches.

Historically, witches have been everything from women who speak their mind to women who own property. Witches have been men who supported women or wouldn’t back down from an argument; witches have been those with a more fluid gender expression or characteristics that failed to fit neatly into an acceptable box on medical forms. Witches have been those with a race or ethnicity that differed in any way from that of those around them, particularly when they occupied the space they did as a result of forceful intervention and colonization. Witches have been the poor and disenfranchised and unlucky. Witches have been sexually powerful and enviable, wealthy and confident; occasionally, witches have been anyone who accused someone else of being a witch, when the tides quickly turned and luck was unsettlingly re-distributed. Witches have those with a faith that differed even slightly from the dominant one of the place and time, including, at intervals, Jews, Pagans, Wiccans, practicers of Hoodoo, and those with basic medical knowledge or an interest in science, among others.

Witches are in the very fabric and nature of gender and queerness and the margins we live in. So if “the season of the witch” just won’t end, how, exactly, should a show about witches be? How about this: Womyn-centric. Gender queering. Aware of race and ethnicity and faith and their role and lived reality in any particular time and space. Deeply intersectional and examining of those aforementioned spaces in the context of that intersectionality. And, without reservation and above all else: totally, joyfully bonkers.

Recent attempts to bring witches to the mainstream have succeeded and failed in almost equal measure. American Horror Story: Coven, created by an out gay man, had a sense of camp about it that harkened back to The Witches; it had something of the horrible feminine in those early images of Kathy Bates smearing her face with blood, of what women will do for power when power is ferociously limited by age and desire; it had some notion to examine race and its implications in magic and magical portrayals. Unfortunately, it also had an abhorrently mishandled rape scene in the first episode, and, whether for fear or incompetence, neither asked the right questions about race nor answered any at all.

Salem, while certainly a missed opportunity to examine the actual Salem witch trials, which were consumed by all of these questions and more, also has camp, gore, and a gleefully nuts sexuality going for it. Witches – both men and women – are everywhere among the good townspeople, who are painfully repressed and not particularly good. The devil is real and holding massive orgies in the woods. Two witches seduce a man, pin him down, and force-feed him a frog. One witch feeds the frog nightly from an extra nipple. Pure insanity abounds.

[caption id="attachment_20196" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Also, Salem is pretty gross. Also, Salem is pretty gross.[/caption]

 

What Salem and so many other shows that feature witches gets painfully wrong is race. The character of Tituba is weak and jealous, and, as one of the only characters with implications of queerness, leaves us with a jealous almost-lesbian who practices a weirdly racialized magic as the sole character of color on the show. While plenty of other characters are similarly messy or even mishandled, having the entire diversity of the cast rest on that one token portrayal makes Tituba’s mismanagement unconscionable as well as flat-out uncomfortable. Moreover, Tituba actually is a fascinating historical figure, and deserves some of the dignity of the woman herself, whose story is one of dislocation and survival in an extraordinarily dangerous time.

Surprisingly, Lifetime’s Witches of East End’s sometimes diverse cast handled the intersection of race and magic well – to a point. One early character was an African American librarian who thought magic was a fun game of pretend and was the incidental victim of real magic gone wrong, as was a brief romantic lead who became a ghost (obviously). A later romantic interest for one of the main characters was a badass warrior witch that resulted in a few episodes that explored a magical, interracial same-sex relationship of equals, making those traits incidental and the relationship itself about commitment and ego and family. The cast on the whole was diverse in a laid-back way that really worked, until a storyline about an ostensibly Caribbean witch fell into a trap earlier laid by historical misrepresentation, AHS: Coven, Beautiful Creatures, and many others: magic was suddenly racialized, with the Caribbean witch doing dark “blood magic” with bones and powders that was nothing like the ostensibly “better” or cleaner magic practiced by the white leads.

[caption id="attachment_20197" align="aligncenter" width="500"]You can feel the sexual tension radiating off of this photo, and these two weren’t even the ones sleeping together. You can feel the sexual tension radiating off of this photo, and these two weren’t even the ones sleeping together.[/caption]

 

Aside from the sadly typical mishandling of representation, Witches of East End had some of the things one would hope for; certainly bonkers, sexual, funny, community and family oriented, it also had a messy, sometimes defiantly non-existent narrative structure that in and of itself queered television – if only by making it almost unfollowable, requiring the viewer to give up on the notion of neat boundaries and control.

It’s this new Jenji Kohan HBO vehicle that shows the most promise and gives audiences the most to hope for in terms of what genre-bending things a show about witches could bring to TV. Kohan has headed the excellently written and extremely diverse Orange Is the New Black, proving that she gets women and deliberately women-centric spaces in television. That show also did some cool things with narrative structure, partly as a way to bring an audience in through a typical white-girl-fish-out-of-water point of entry and then go to different, much more interesting places. That cast gave us the unbelievably fabulous Uzo AdubaThe Devil You Know offers similar cause for excitement. It’s full of less-knowns who’ve shown enormous potential, particularly Zawe Ashton, who was part of the weird and moving Dreams of a Life, a queer kind of cinematic endeavor in and of itself, and better-knowns like Karen Gillan, a movie star and genre favorite in her own right as well as a badass action star who shaved her head for a role. Most significantly, the cast includes Eddie Izzard, simultaneously a seriously phenomenal dramatic actor and one of the greatest stand-up comedians in the world, who once explained to a reporter, “Drag means costume. What I do is just wearing a dress.” And all of these moving pieces will be on HBO, the venue that brought us True Blood, which was, for all its problems, queer, dark, funny, extremely sexual, and absolutely, joyfully, bonkers.

Witches are an energetic reality; like ghosts, monsters, and loneliness, they wouldn’t have such a deep psychological pull if they weren’t. We examine these things because they obsess us and keep us awake at night; we examine these things because they are an unquantifiable, intangible, undefinable reality, but a reality all the same. Witches have been terrified victims, sexual beings, rich women trapped in penthouse apartments and more; all of this is so. But what witches do has been and is another matter entirely. Witches upend: dreams, homes, lives, whole villages and cities. They make us uneasy. They steal outright: babies from cradles, men from beds; they take quietly in the night: crops, a sense of security; they give: love potions, stories, endless wonder. They pervert and fascinate beyond measure.

Witches have been wild and untamable for all of recorded human history, and for as long as we’ve had the written word, from The Brothers Grimm to Arthur Miller to Bewitched to Buffy, hardly a storyteller hasn’t tried to tame them. It’s time to stop trying. Let loose the beasts. They won’t promise not to hurt you, but if rumors or true, they will show you a hell of a good time.

 


Kaitlyn Soligan is a writer and editor from Boston living in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes about that, and bourbon, at www.ivehadworseideas.com. You can follow her on twitter @ksoligan.

 

2 Comments

  • Bille Raymond
    Posted April 3, 2015 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    “Almost-lesbian”??? How can a guy or gal be “almost gay”? That doesn’t make any sense. :-O

    • Kaitlyn Soligan
      Posted April 3, 2015 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      Hi Billie! In this case, the character is almost set up a noir way – not explicitly romantically interested in another woman, but acting as the “jealous lover,” and engaging in magical acts that are sexual in nature. I can’t tell if the writers are trying to get around having to deal responsibly with sexual orientation by not explicitly queering the character, but the queerness is implicit and, honestly – this feels harshed to say – but at least inadvertently villainized and made wrong.