Witches are one way to 'safely' present strong female characters

The current supernatural cycle of programming appears to be television's way of invoking strong female characters.

Witches are one way to safely invoke strong female characters

Julia Ormond stars in "Witches of East End." (Lifetime / Sergei Bachlakov)

In her book "Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy," famed theologian and radical feminist Mary Daly imagined a female-run hag-ocracy, a new world of Witches, Crones, Harpies, Furies and Amazons.

Or, as we like to call it, television.

Even taking into account the increasing preponderance of supernatural beasties, 2013 is most certainly the Year of the Witch. From starring roles ("American Horror Story: Coven," "Witches of East End") to supporting ("Sleepy Hollow," "The Originals"), a host of new witches have joined their already-established sisters ("Grimm," "Once Upon a Time," "True Blood," "The Vampire Diaries," "Supernatural") to perform acts of good and evil while exploring, with varying degrees of seriousness, the power of the feminine.

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Their appearance also illuminates an industry that recognizes the need for strong female characters but still doesn't quite know how to fill it without the aid of medieval courts or supernatural powers. The modern quartet of "Sex and the City" is now, more often than not, an actual coven.

Still playing catch-up with the cinematic success of Tolkien, Rowling and Meyers, TV is certainly in the midst of a supernatural cycle. Witches, one could argue, are simply the new vampire. But every monster has its roots — Dracula sprang from Bram Stoker's fevered vision of Victorian sexuality, Frankenstein's creature questioned our increasing dependence on science — and no other supernatural archetype is weighted with the same history of misdirection and murder as the witch.

After all, witches are real. Or at least the estimated 40,000 to 50,000 women (and a few men) burned, drowned or hanged as witches centuries ago in Europe and Colonial America were real. As Christianity struggled to maintain religious and political control, any woman who rejected or questioned its authority was most certainly a witch. And so too, apparently, were the many who simply did not conform to the silent, submissive role of a good Christian woman.

During the 1970s, many feminist scholars began recasting the witch as the ultimate victim of sexism. Those women who burned were now seen as wise women, apothecaries and midwives, even early doctors. "The Witch of Blackbird Pond," still required reading for many middle-school students, chronicles how both a young woman's ability to swim and an old woman's religious beliefs are considered signs of witchcraft.

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The evolution of witches on television, while not quite so serious, has been just as socially symbolic. Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery) remains TV's most famous witch. Loosely based on the film "I Married a Witch," "Bewitched" was a light-hearted comedy, but Sam's story mirrors the anxieties of its time.

Having married a very average mortal (seriously, could anyone argue with Endora when she encouraged her daughter to ditch the dreaded "Der-wood"?), Samantha spends the series vainly trying to suppress her powers so she can fit in with her husband's desire for a "normal" (read: traditional) family.

Nowadays, of course, Sam would come to her senses, grab Tabitha and offer Darrin an ultimatum: Love me for who I am or not at all. And quit asking me to make dinner for Larry and his wife. I'm a freaking witch!

A quarter of a century later, the concurrent successes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Charmed" used the supernatural as a metaphor for the forces unleashed by adolescence, making the witch both serious and multi-faceted. Good or bad, Disney PG or FX hard R, witches became figures of female empowerment.

"When witches don't fight, we burn," Jessica Lange's Fiona tells her young witches in training on this season of "American Horror Story."

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Witches are also a handy solution to other, more pragmatic narrative problems. They can be old and wise and still beautiful. They are allowed to commit acts of fury, sex and violence — still the hallmarks of "important" drama — that would be far less acceptable from a mortal female character. And they often come in groups, which is how television writers like women.

Men can be loners, damaged and taciturn. But anti-social or truly (as opposed to adorably) dissenting women still make us very uncomfortable — witness reactions to "The Walking Dead's" Lori or "Breaking Bad's" Skyler. On television, a female lead is still most often paired up with a man. Otherwise, she has a BFF, or, more likely, a posse. Even the post-modern "Girls" embodies Carol Gilligan's famous theory that women are hard-wired to behave communally.

But if you make them queens ("Game of Thrones," "Reign") or witches (see above), well, now you're talking. Now you can have women complicated and changeable. They can be friends, but not really, and can seduce, murder and shove the plot forward without worrying about audience sympathy. As with the anti-hero, a witch has to fight demons (often literally) and her essential nature to be "good." We don't expect her to win every time.

Just as Samantha Stephens did, today's witches embody the tensions many women feel — between independence and domesticity, the sexual and the maternal — while proving what many men have often feared: that women are a separate race, with a secret code and language. If not from Venus, then perhaps from Salem.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com


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