Time to Throw Out The Broomstick

Today’s post comes to us from Thomas Kivi, a graduate student in American History at St. Louis University.  When he’s not wandering the library stacks, Thomas is an active singer-songwriter, and he has just released an album, Cornucopia, which is a collaboration with Women’s Studies graduate assist Sarah Pray.  Here, he thinks about the ways witches have long defined a site of cultural anxiety about female identity.

Today is Halloween, and so instead of worrying about terrorism or Ebola, I’m thinking about a more conventional  object of fear, the image of the female witch in mainstream American culture.  The witch is perhaps the American symbol of Halloween, and it is a startling example of female objectification. Think about this: the original fairytale of Sleeping Beauty was first popularized in France by Charles Perrault in the late-1600s, within the final decades of the witch trials in pre-Revolutionary America. Angelina Jolie—arguably the most voluptuous and powerful woman on the big-screen—recently played the leading role in Maleficent (2014), based on the evil queen from Walt Disney’s cartoon Sleeping Beauty (1959). Witches in Colonial Massachusetts were accused of something called maleficium. What does it mean that the modern witch now takes the beautiful, female form? Can you think of a story where a man is cast as a witch? Darth Vader maybe? But that is a more Freudian dilemma, having more to do with the oedipal urge to kill one’s own father.

Suddenly, I have the creeping dread of an Edgar Allen Poe poem. All I begin to see is the gendered nature of the witch. To dress up like Judy Garland from the Wizard of Oz (1939) is to play the innocent, uber-feminine antithesis to the hideously green, spell-bounding, broom-riding, fortune-telling witch. Dorothy is the model girl whereas the witch is the pure, gendered objectification of evil. She is not a person. People are not green. The witch’s death, therefore, is not the death of a woman but the inhuman shriveling away of wickedness itself. The dire contest between them in the Land of Oz is made plain by the final words of the melting wicked witch of the West: “who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” Dorothy and the witch are objectified by their relative beauty so as to conflate goodness with beauty, ugliness with evil. Will there ever be another ugly witch in Hollywood? I would say it’s not likely. These days, the Devil runs with sexiness. Sexy women are the scapegoat for man’s fantasies. The witch is now the temptress.

witch and dorothy

The most infamous episode in the era of witch hunts occurred when the Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts accused, sentenced, and executed 22 people to death in the early-1690s. Arthur Miller’s 1963 classic play The Crucible captures the epidemic of suspicion that swept Salem, popularized by the 1996 dramatic screenplay of the same title starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. But what has long been a lesson about the consequences of superstition and religious extremism fails to showcase the question at the bottom of it all: “Why women?”

After all, according to historian Carol F. Karlsen, that is as an important question to ask. In her 1987 book The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, the Emeritus professor of Women Studies at the University of Michigan wrote that between 1620 and 1725, 78% of accused witches were women. Half of the 22% of accused men were suspected of witchcraft only by association.  Witchcraft accusations often grew out of civil disputes in a day and age when meek obedience from women was the status quo, in a Puritan society where women were expected to be the motherly conduits of patrilineal wealth. Civil disobedience was divine disobedience. Karlsen contends: “No matter how deeply entrenched the principle of male inheritance, no matter how carefully written the laws that protected it, it was impossible to insure that all families had male offspring. The women who stood to benefit from these demographic ‘accidents’ account for most of New England’s female witches.” Once accused, Karlsen notes, women with no brothers or sons made up 89% of those witches tried, convicted, and executed.

So whether you’re all ghouled-up for a freaky costume party or dutifully taking the kids (and the dog) around the neighborhood trick-or-treating, Halloween weekend is a good (and right proper) time to think about the female nature of the witch. Few roles are as traditionally female. It’s just that these days, sexy, devilish nurses, maids and superheroes steal the show.


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