By Jenn Sutkowski | Mercury | Full Frontal
As a witchy gal prone to fits of fondling my crystals, reading tarot cards, and throwing bits of lace around, like so many other women of my ilk, I have a love/hate relationship with shows and films about witches. On one hand it is titillating and fun — these strong women creating magic I can only dream of, at once beautiful and then a deep caricature of themselves, not unlike the haunting visage of Ann Margaret, pitching her body to and fro in “Bye Bye Birdie.”* Because what’s a teenage girl blossoming into womanhood if not a witch-of-the-hips?
But then these programs about witches are infuriating, because they suggest a strong woman shorthand: that they turn brittle, unable to hold relationships, that they end up drunk and changed on power, that they turn wart-ridden and green with the toxicity of that power, or at best, envious of the pink and innocent, and at worst, hunger for the flesh of those innocents, like the nearly-blind witch in “Hansel and Gretel.”
With some exceptions, our best hope for rooting for these witches is when one enacts revenge against someone more evil than them, like against Jack Nicholson in “Witches of Eastwick,” or turn an annoying brother (played by Joshua John Miller, who was already creepy from being in “River’s Edge”) into a dog in “Teen Witch,” or is Fairuza Balk as a child (“The Worst Witch”) but not Fairuza Balk as an adult (“The Craft”). If they’ve flayed someone horrible, like Willow (Alyson Hannigan) does to Warren (Adam Busch) in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” because he’s killed Tara, but then ends up going to magic rehab, we like that, too.
In these films, basically the only thing worse than a woman with powers is a really bad guy. So are these films misogynistic after all? Do they suggest that the character of man is inherently crappier? Or do they tell us that a woman’s best-case scenario for beating an evil guy is by having powers that don’t actually exist? Sorry, ladies — you’re still screwed. To be fair, it varies from film to film. We’re humans. Everybody sucks. Happy Halloween! Time to explore our shadow selves.
Speaking of crappy guys, “The Wizard of Oz” and paying “no attention to that man behind the curtain” was revolutionary at the time not just because it popped into technicolor, or may have had someone hang himself (or a turkey) near the yellow brick road, but because it was so freaking weird. It’s still bizarre as hell. There’s nothing like it. But that wizard, and the fact that he’s all talk, is such a perfect denouement if we’re reading it as a film about women. Who’s the best witch in Oz? Well, it’s Dorothy of course — she had the power the whole time, clicking those fabulous heels. The Wicked Witch of the West is too wizened, and Glinda is an overly-pink confection of feminine innocence. Dorothy is literally wandering around with a fever and she’s doing it with grace and passion. And, she’s Judy Effing Garland.
Jenn Sutkowski should report that as she’s writing this a spider careens in from nowhere and climbs over her laptop. Greetings and salutations.
*“Bye Bye Birdie” is not about witches but it does contain Shriners and their fezzes are magic.
Printed and posted Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in The Newport Mercury.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.