Witches on screen: good for fashion, bad for feminism?

Witches on screen: good for fashion, bad for feminism?
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Whether they're wicked, charmed, teenaged or otherwise, witches have captivated the popular consciousness for centuries. 

We've burned them at the stake, worshipped them as goddesses and turned them into Halloween costumes. And for the last several decades, witches have been a large presence on our screens — in movies, on TV and even on stage — and their looks have inspired everyone from teenage goth girls on Tumblr to major fashion designers. Witches are mysterious and glamorous, and have taught us how to give our style some serious hex appeal.

"Sabrina the Teenage Witch"Source: Giphy
"Sabrina the Teenage Witch"  Giphy

In the days leading up to Halloween, many of us will spend cozy nights indoors with friends, watching seasonal favorites over red wine and candy corn. It's that special time of year to binge on witch-themed flicks like Hocus Pocus and The Craft, and while these films might feature sassy and stylish sorceresses, what are they really saying about these witches? What kind of culture do these movies foster? While they might be fantastic for fashion — inspiring the masses to don wide-brimmed hats, black lace, leather and dark lipstick — they're not necessarily good for feminism. 

Because every story about witches is, at its core, a story about women and power. Witches are women with power, and the way they use that power in our favorite movies and TV shows says so much about the place of women in society. 

Since the Dark Ages, men have been calling women witches as a way to discredit and vilify them. Have they also used our now-favorite fictional witches to push that very same agenda? Because like it or not, your favorite witch flicks subliminally reinforce a misogynist, racist and classist social structure. So even though there are indeed fictional witches out there using magic wisely to empower women — the Hermione Grangers, if you will — Hollywood witches by and large reflect the patriarchy's misogynist views on powerful women. 

"Hocus Pocus"Source: Giphy
"Hocus Pocus"  Giphy

Take Hocus Pocus, a Disney box-office bomb that barely recouped it's budget but became a cult classic. Every Halloween, we watch Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy enchant a small town, put a spell on an auditorium full of parents and try to murder a couple of kids. Who didn't covet Parker's low-cut corset and long blonde locks as she hovered over Salem singing "come little children, I'll take thee away"? It's a spooky, saucy, stylish romp for the whole family.

But look closer. The film is about three witches who have seemingly obtained their power through some kind of deal with the Devil. After all, Winifred's book (or "booooooooook"), the source of her knowledge and power, was gifted to her by a man. The Sanderson sisters are depicted as evil shrews obsessed with patriarchal ideals of youth and beauty and will do anything to possess them. They have sacrificed "goodness" for power, but even that power is meaningless unless augmented by beauty. They are summoned by a virgin and then foiled by three children serving as paragons of innocence. 

The Sanderson sisters are depicted as evil shrews obsessed with patriarchal ideals of youth and beauty and will do anything to possess them. 

You might be rooting for the witches as they run amuck amuck amuck amuck, but they aren't even the heroes of their own movie — the heroes are 9-year-old Thora Birch and a talking cat!

And then there's The Craft, the pinnacle of '90s goth girl style, which still holds cultural sway today. In May, Dazed ran a piece on the creation of the film's signature style: "Still as relevant as it was in 1996," wrote author Brooke McCord, noting that "much of The Craft's lasting appeal can be credited to its timeless cult wardrobe. From Nancy's PVC coat, dog collar, crucifix and rosary combination to Rochelle's tartan skirt, white polo shirt and braces look." 

"The Craft"Source: Giphy
"The Craft"  Giphy

There are dozens of listicles dedicated to praising the movie's many looks, with tutorials on how to achieve that witchy style. The Craft is highly responsible for the surge of interest in witches and witchcraft that characterized the late '90s, in addition to Practical Magic, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more. 

But like with Hocus Pocus, if we look beyond The Craft's desirable aesthetic, what is the movie saying about — and more importantly to — young women? 

In the film, Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and Rochelle (Rachel True) play three social outcasts: Bonnie is covered in ugly scars, Nancy is white trash, and Rochelle is the lone black girl at a primarily white Christian prep school. Their status as social outcasts is repeatedly hammered home by the film, as is the injustice of them being so marginalized, and yet the plot itself reinforces this marginalization. These girls practice witchcraft, searching for agency in a world that treats them as second class, but are only able to access true power when they are joined by an upper middle class white woman, Sarah (Robin Tunney), who is powerful because her mother was a witch: She is a natural witch, an heir to power, an obvious — if possibly unintended — metaphor for white privilege. 

When the three socially marginalized girls use their power to subvert the system (and murder a white male attempted rapist), a possible extremist feminist act that could be seen as empowering), they are punished and disempowered while Sarah, their white savior, remains powerful.

Sure, it's an exciting and dark teen thriller, but the messages buried within it tend to be very powerful, like the spells these witches cast. It's interesting to note that both The Craft and Hocus Pocus were written and directed by men, like so many genre movies attempting to empower women are — even movies like this summer's all-female Ghostbusters, which was directed by a man.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"Source: Giphy
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"  Giphy

There are, thankfully, plenty of onscreen witches who are feminist role models. Harry Potter's Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) manages to make a boarding school uniform look cool while fighting for social justice. The style of Buffy's Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) was the height of late '90s nerd chic, all while saving the world from evil and breaking barriers as one of the most memorable out lesbian characters on television. 

The Owens sisters of 1998's Practical Magic (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) embodied a long-skirted, Stevie Nicks-like fashion sensibility, and helped each other heal their family's legacy of ancestral pain (the original witch in their family accidentally places a curse on any man who dare love an Owens woman) through the power of sisterhood and took justice into their own hands, subverting the patriarchy by overcoming an abuser. 

More recently, The Witch was a spooky portrayal of a young woman coming into her own inside the stifling rigidity of 17th century Protestantism, and star Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin managed to make her Puritanical wardrobe effortlessly chic — haven't you heard, bonnets are back.

Just because the witches of Hocus Pocus and The Craft might be well dressed, unwitting tools of the patriarchy doesn't mean we can't enjoy their antics, but we should be encouraging a culture in which we are critical of media. Stories are powerful, like spells and hexes. They transform us as surely as Winifred transforms Thackery Binx into a sanctimonious talking cat.