This article was first featured on AfterEllen in February of 2016.
As a fairly obsessive horror fan, I was a good girl and saw The Witch this weekend. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes (and I do agree with some folks who have said its ad campaign gives the impression of a very different film), but I loved it. The Witch is not a lesbian film, but it has me thinking about links between fictional witchcraft and queer women.
The historical image of the witch (as she is figured by Eurocentric lore) speaks to the lesbian experience in a number of ways. At her core, this witch is an embodiment of women’s sexual agency. She does not conform to the rigid, patriarchal heteronormativity that has dominated much of Western history. The pact with the Devil that she is presumed to make is often sealed with a sexual act, symbolic of deviance from sexual norms. Moreover, much of this lore is accompanied by visual representations of naked women dancing together, free in their sexuality and celebrating it.
Salem: Vaguely Sapphic the rest of the time
Before the celebration, however, comes self-discovery. Many pop culture manifestations of the witch see her first struggling with her powers as a teenager. It is no coincidence that this corresponds to puberty and sexual awakening. The pop cultural witch realizes she is somehow different from everyone around her. Maybe she can visually blend into her surroundings, but deep down she never will. And for a young woman, that is a horrifying prospect. If Carrie had gone to prom with Sue instead of Tommy, the horror classic would have been a decent mirror of many queer women’s experiences.
Films about witches tend to be women-centric. Like their folkloric counterparts, the witches of pop culture typically enter into a sisterhood or coven with other women who have gone against societal norms. Covens do not always depict sexual relationships between these women; in fact, very often they don’t. However, the nature of the fictional coven creates a sense of sexual openness amongst its women. If we might delve into some classic gender theory for a moment, we might think of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of homosociality, in which relationships between members of the same sex range more fluidly from the platonic to the erotic and are characterized by a sense of emotional intimacy.
Yet despite the emphasis on bonds amongst women, many pop cultural appearances of witches completely overlook the potential for queer relationships. Witchy women rely on each other for guidance and camaraderie but rarely seem to see each other as romantic partners. Romantic partnerships will ultimately be forged with men even if those men don’t seem particularly worthy or remarkable. In Practical Magic, for instance, did that guy even have a personality beyond an ability to flip pancakes? Was that really worth a life-changing romance?
There are exceptions, of course. Admittedly, as a horror fan, I like my witches darker and more dangerous than those that appeared in Buffy and Charmed (and even American Horror Story: Coven, which broke my heart when it backed off from being an actual horror story). I found Nancy from The Craft more appealing and relatable than Buffy’s Willow and Tara and Charmed’s Brenda and Carly. Honestly, if a lesbian relationship had occurred in The Craft I probably would have started realizing my own orientation much sooner, but I never cared about the relationships in those shows (or about the shows themselves).