Janet Montgomery of “Salem” Explains Mary’s Sexuality

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It’s no secret that WGN’s scripted series Salemnow in its second season, is a little bit naughty. A show set in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts about witches is sure to elicit a few spells and seductions, but when it comes to the women of this Salem, there’s plenty of kissing, panty-dropping, fingers up the skirt, and one time—even a broomstick dildo. AfterEllen was able to join in on an exclusive call with Janet Montgomery, the actress best known for her standout roll as Mary Sibley in this action-packed drama. Mary is what we may call the “witch in charge.” There are others: Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle), Queen of the Night and currently bathing in blood to renew her burnt skin, Countess Marburg (played by new cast member Lucy Lawless), baby witch Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant), and Mary’s loyal mistress Tituba (Ashley Madekwe).

Mary’s the kind of witch that gets exactly what she wants—because she’s had to adapt and be a survivor her entire life. In Salem, life as a woman is far from grand, even when you’re wearing the finest jewels and married to the most influential man in town. Mary has a sordid history with Captain John Alden (Shane West), they even share a child together that’s been kept hidden from the witch war all this time. This brings us to Tituba. Throughout much of the first two seasons, we’ve seen Mary and Tituba working as co-conspirators in their spell work—their powers combined a force to be reckoned with, and we’ve also seen them at vicious odds, lying to and betraying one another out of petty witchery. Mary’s relationship with Tituba has been a hot spot of intrigue.

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Is Mary bisexual? Or is this sexualized aspect of her relationship with Tituba a mere, but relevant and important part of what it means to be a witch? “It’s interesting—that question. What I’m trying to play on with witchcraft is that the language of witches is often sexual,” Janet said. “It’s often based in a sexual nature. The relationship with Tituba, there’s a sisterly relationship there like family, there’s also the fact that they’ve grown up together, and so, they’re like best friends. There is a sexuality in their relationship though, and I think that comes from just the way witches would speak to one another, whether it’s physically or through language.”

The primal, emotional, feminine roots of witchcraft are in part some of the foundational aspects of witchcraft in general—where we bridge and bond our intuitive nature to vibrate at a high frequency and increase our strength through that kind of sisterly support. Of course, in Salem, there is both light and dark magick working dually to leverage power, so bonds are often broken, misused or made into life-or-death deals.

Janet brings up a valid point later on in the group call—where she discusses the very reality of women being persecuted all over the world, especially still, even today. She’s asked a question about her being British and how that affected her experience with our American mythos of witchcraft in Salem. She notes how it has no affect, mentioning she’s “done her research” and then connecting the rich history of Salem to worldwide persecutions of women, like that of the European witches who came centuries before Salem.

“It happens even today, at the mercy of the media. They can create witch panic,” Janet said, conjuring up images we’re familiar with, but should never be comfortable with. Think about women on magazine covers—women caught in circumstances that create a blurred lens as we the viewers assign blame, accuse, point—at the hands of a tabloid item only painting one stroke, be it true or false, of the story. Remember Pamela Smart? She’s the woman the film To Die For was based off—only the movie painted her as a hyper-sexualized woman creature out for young boys, sex and orchestrating murder—instead of focusing on the deceased at her trial, newspapers highlighted what she wore in court each week as if her walk to and from prison was a catwalk. People hated her because she was “too pretty” or “too sexual” in certain photos. Not even Charles Manson has such a severe prison sentence.

What Janet Montgomery illustrates through Mary Sibley in Salem, is how even a woman at the top of her game can be burned at the stake, stoned at the square, accused and punished, followed out into the woods to be torched. But she’s going to have a smile on, in her Sunday best for good measure—because they’re looking, they’re always looking. And Mary’s the queen of knowing how to use that to her advantage, no shame about it.  Salem is not only historically relevant, it is also example enough of women through history have and still continue to fight against all these ridiculous odds stacked against us. Can you imagine a “Select Man” acting as Magistrate over your town, telling you he’ll bed you, marry you as property, and then command you to be his serving wife, so long as you aren’t a witch? Sexuality is a different experience in the world of Mary Sibley. It is not an identifier. It’s an act of nature, of discourse. It’s an art of telling, and sharing, and feeling—of manifesting power between and within, of channeling and protecting.

“It’s something I’m playing on with all the witches, too. You can see that this season sort of with Anne Hale—the way they communicate, you can’t really pinpoint it. I think sexuality doesn’t necessarily come into it. I don’t think I would ever say she’s straight or bisexual—she’s just very sexual,” Janet said with a laugh.

Janet dishes that we can expect an inevitable reunion with her and John Alden (the moment we’ve all been waiting for!) plus more one-on-ones with Anne, who is about to come into her witch powers even more so, despite her struggles to accept and cope with the changes she hates. As for Tituba, we know Mary and Tituba will remain constants.

“People like to see them at odds—you never know if Mary’s going to kill Tituba or what,” Janet said, laughing again because, well, it’s so true. We love to see Tituba ringing Mary out, or Mary threatening every hair on Tituba’s head. Why? Because sexuality is cosmic here, and their connection is part of their design—they survive together.

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Here in Salem, sexuality is as fluid as the unidentifiable goblet of goo that goes into a binding spell to bring a man back to life, to make a dead man talk again, or to identify a witch lurking in the shadows. Here, sexuality is a part of endurance, it ensures witches and women exist—and thrive. It gives up just a taste of the entire picture. Here, being straight is not the answer just as much as being bisexual doesn’t solve the big questions either. Mary Sibley wakes up in the morning and declares herself a witch—a witch who must hide, but remain clear-headed among the men who suspect her of disobedient behavior, who must protect her secrets and her powers, but let weaker witches in with a kiss and a promise to shadow them so long as they obey her. Mary Sibley is neither yin nor yang, black nor white, dark nor light, gay nor straight. She is a woman surviving.

Tune in this Sunday on WGN for a fresh episode of Salem.

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