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.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SlphNI1l1i4%5D
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.