Witches Are The New Vampires — and That’s A Good Thing

The recent surge of these smart and empowered characters on TV is cause for celebration

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Frank Ockenfels / FX

Jessica Lange as Fiona from American Horror Story: Coven

Witches are everywhere you look on television at the moment. This season’s American Horror Story has dedicated its entire storyline to them with Coven, Lifetime has a family of them on the Witches of East End, and witches carry major storylines on the new shows Sleepy Hallow and The Originals. What’s more, CBS has announced that it intends to reboot the much-loved series Charmed.

This witch trend isn’t exactly new, but a revival of the late-’90s craze, which took off with The Craft in 1996, a film that combined the teen-movie trend of that decade with the dark arts. But by mid-aughts, witchcraft had already taken a backseat to all things vampire. First there was the Twilight books, and then the films, followed by True Blood and The Vampire Diaries on the small screen. For nearly a decade, the undead ruled pop culture.

Now, witches are getting another crack at dominance. And I think that’s a good thing — particularly for the young girls and women who are the primary audience for these shows. Unlike the female leads in most vampire stories, women in witchcraft stories are typically depicted as strong, capable characters. They might not always be noble, but they’re certainly not weak or passive characters who sit on the sidelines while the men take charge. Fictional witches are well-rounded characters with rich interior lives, while the females in vampire stories are the supernatural equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In half a season of AHS: Coven, we know more about the private fears and ambitions of Jessica Lange’s Fiona and Sarah Paulson’s Cordelia, than we ever really learn about Bella Swan over the course of Twilight’s four novels and five movies.

Because though vampire stories like Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries have female protagonists, the stories tend to revolve around the ladies’ relationships with male vampires, with a heavy focus on romance or sex. All three series involve love triangles, with two men fighting over one woman, and True Blood especially is famous for its frequent and lurid sex scenes. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with love stories, but when female characters in film and television are slapped with the label “love interest,” their characters are often limited to just that and nothing more.

Stories about witches take a much different approach. Witches are concerned with their relationships with themselves, like Gabourey Sidibe’s Queenie on Coven adjusting to her place in the world, or with one another, like with the sisters’ relationships on Charmed. One quick and easy way to determine which stories put more stock in their female characters would be to apply the Bechdel test. (The Bechdel test is an informal way of determining if a film has a gender bias: do two women appear on-screen alone together, discussing something other than a man?) Witches discuss themselves, their powers, nature, oppression and, yes, sometimes men. But finding a scene where two female characters discuss something other than a man is laughably easy in a show about witches. In a vampire story, much less so.

Even the mere presence of so many female characters onscreen is enough to warrant some celebration. A study from the University of California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism earlier this year found that less than a third — a pitiful 28.4 percent — of speaking roles in films went to women. While another study, from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, found that television fared slightly better, women still only made up 39 precent of the characters on primetime programs. (The study didn’t look at speaking roles, just on-screen characters.) And there’s very little variation among the women who are featured; older actresses and women of color are underrepresented on many TV shows and films.

But witch-themed shows have not only added more women to our screen, they’ve added more variety to the women on-screen with major roles going to older and non-white actresses. Coven has Sidibe and Angela Bassett, while the Witches of East End, though uniformly white, features actresses older than 40 like Julia Ormand, 48, and Mädchen Amick, 42, in leading roles.

Of course, not all witchy characters are role models. Many are, after all, wicked characters. But young girls and women don’t need role models from television,  they need options. By adding more female characters to television — and more variety to those characters — teen girls have options about the kind of pop culture heroes they can choose to take in. Rather than simplistic and basic characters, witch tales offer complex female characters, who have interests beyond the men in their life. Which, no matter how you cast it, can only be a good thing.

1 comments
jrybadork
jrybadork

It seems that part of the challenge here is that the piece is restricting itself to a rather narrow band of popular culture history without acknowledging its limitations (e.g., a focus on American popular culture or a focus on the past 20 years). The bigger question, it would seem, would be to think about the way in which witches have been used by a variety of cultures (or we can limit it to the American context to make things easier) to speak to issues of women and power. Moreover, we must acknowledge how the portrayals of women in popular culture may have reflected particular issues at the time (Samantha Stevens of Bewitched, for example, was dealing with issues that were similar to but distinctly different from the Halliwell sisters on Charmed). Additionally, I think we need to be careful about applying the "empowered" label as well without first questioning where the power (literal and metaphorical in this case) of these women comes from:  what does it mean, for example, for a woman to be "empowered" in a (post-)post-feminist American cultural context? Both Bewitched and Charmed, for example, struggle with the notion of what it means for women to "have it all" (i.e., family and magic) and the very notion that we are still struggling with the question should suggest to us something about the fundamental anxieties present in a section of women in America. Put another way, the witches we see may be characters but to what extent are the problems that they find themselves with relegated to "female" problems?


Also, a point is made here about the contrast between women in vampire stories like Twilight and those involving witches without acknowledgement of the functions that the various archetypes fulfill in American culture. The tradition of vampire stories in America comes to us via Victorian Gothic and we have inherited the Byronic vampire--a different trajectory than one that is informed variously by Salem, the Bell Witch, and the modern paganism movement. Twilight's issue with Bella has, in some ways, less to do with the fact that the vehicle is vampire fiction and more to do with its author and its intended audience. (I'd also quibble with the notion that the female protagonist in these named series has a temperament similar to that of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.) The Vampire Diaries, which airs on the CW and is also targeted toward young women--and thus we must be mindful of what kinds of stories might be profitable on network television-- presents a slightly more complicated picture of female agency than I think is given credit. Additionally Sookie (True Blood) may initially present as nothing more than the object of competing males' affections but also complicates the notion that she is a passive participant in the proceedings in any way. In short, I think there is a vast difference between female protagonists in mainstream fare produced for a Young Adult audience versus those in media aimed at adults. For example, the characters of Lucy and Mina in the story of Dracula provide a further complication of the way in which females are presented in vampire fiction (not to mention that there's also a reboot currently airing on NBC) and there's always the story of Carmilla and her commentary on femininity.


So if we have a clearer idea of the roles that sub-genres have traditionally carved out for women we can begin a discussion of how the current offerings provide alternative options, simultaneously recognizing that more doesn't always mean better (see earlier point about the nature of "empowerment"). While I agree that providing young women (or even women in general) with options other than the awkward/clumsy love struck teen girl, we must again be careful about what we see on screen. Ryan Murphy has traditionally been somewhat cavalier about issues of race in his shows and American Horror Story: Coven is, in some ways, no exception. Although it is true that we see black women on screen, the culture of blackness is one that is, at times, portrayed as poor, strange, and animalistic. In short, although it may contain elements based on truth, American Horror Story presents a view of black culture in New Orleans that is very much tinged by a white upper-middle class sensibility. So while exposure is good, I question what kind of exposure we are getting. Likewise, what does it mean if we only accept older women on television who are "special" in some way? Should we be worried that women can have magical powers but cannot similarly have "real" power in the world? In general I'd take witches over princesses any day but I think we must remain mindful of exactly what we're seeing on screen.