From Wanna-Blessed-Be’s to Fort Salem, Why We Love Lesbian Witches

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Witchcraft and lesbians seems to go together like…witchcraft and lesbians. It’s a ubiquitous thing at this point that we associate witchy practices and vibes with lesbian and bisexual women. From the undertones of The Craft to Buffy to Netflix’s Sabrina adaptation and now Freeform’s Fort Salem. All feature witches in relationships with other women in such abundance that it almost seems to be a prerequisite of any sort of piece of media featuring witchcraft plots. And as someone who both identifies as a gay woman and loves me any sort of witch media, I decided to take a deep dive into what it is that drives women to seek safe haven in covens and corner Wicca shops.

Let’s start by going back, pretty far back. The concept of a witch, someone who practices magic, spans time and cultures. The more modern concept of what we would know as a witch, in the taboo sense, comes to us from canonical Christian teachings and a pretty famous and oft-quoted Bible verse: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” When I visited Salem about two years ago, the women running the tour of the witch museum pointed to a slightly different, but concurrent method of smearing witches that, ironically, had to do with some medieval Big Pharma.

According to the museum, women who practiced homeopathic medicine in the more rural parts of Europe were labeled as these Biblical witches all the rest of us are divinely ordained to kill. They did this because physicians and university students were losing business to these women. Whether or not it’s a fully true account, it does fit in with the Western world’s history of scapegoating women they identified as witches, as well as smear campaigns to push capitalistic endeavors. This tracks with historian and scholar Max Dashu’s decades of research on the topic, which you can read about in our interview with her.

Today, witchcraft goes by the more trending rebrand of Wicca. The word is simply the Old English version of the modern-day “witch” but the entire practice itself is a lot more than that. While most of us first heard this term sometime in the 90s, it actually goes all the way back to the 1920s where English practitioners of modern paganism coined the term for their set of practices and beliefs. It was a sort of patchwork of various Celtic, Gaelic, and Teutonic pagan beliefs spiced with a bit of Eastern spiritualism. Our understanding of witchcraft is also heavily influenced by the women’s spirituality movement of the 1970s. But let’s look at Wicca as it relates to media, specifically, lesbian media.

I, like many, trace the boom in the 90s fascination with witchcraft to the 1996 teen horror film The Craft, which followed four high school women who form a coven after realizing they all have magical abilities. The small group of friends are joined together by shared pain in life (domestic abuse, racially charged bullying, and other societal tortures) and shared feminism. While it’s not an overly lesbian story, it does deal with the complexities of female relationships and the spectrums they can run. And also witchcraft. It served as a huge boom for the more mainstream depiction of witchcraft, Charmed, which utilized some hefty Wiccan imagery and true-to-life Wiccan practices. Again, all about women, while male witches (warlocks) were considered to be the ongoing enemy.

But let’s get to where stuff gets gay. After season 2 of Buffy, Willow (Allison Hannigan) takes up learning witchcraft after being exposed to the world of “cyber Wicca” through a high school computer science teacher. In season 4, that practice starts to take a different sort of turn. The show blatantly used witchcraft not just as a euphemism for lesbian identity, but scenes of Willow and her future girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) practicing magic were coded as sex scenes or moments of romantic intimacy. Before the show was able to push for visible physical affection between the two characters starting in season 5, their practice of Wicca was an artistic stand-in for their relationship.

amber benson gif | Tumblr

Today, we’ve got a much gayer reboot of the 90s staple Sabrina where not only does she have a bisexual cousin but her Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) is off kissing other witches. And then there is Freeform’s newest supernatural drama Motherland: Fort Salem. The concept for which seems plucked right out of my teenage brain: the Salem witch trials lead to an alternate history where real witches form a military arm that protects the matriarchal United States from magical terrorist groups. You’re obviously not going to have that as a show in 2020 and not have at least one gay character. Raelle (Taylor Hickson) is something of a loner and outcast and also starts up a secret relationship with another witch, Scylla (Amalia Holm). There’s plenty of other examples: the scorned ex-girlfriend and spellcaster in All Cheerleaders Die, the reboot of Charmed which made one of the sisters an out-lesbian. Witchcraft and Sapphism go hand and hand.

A big reason behind that is the focus on sisterhood in witchcraft. Women have been ostracized and persecuted throughout history so there’s a lot of strength to draw from each other. Traditionally, a woman was labeled a witch when she did something to transgress against gender or sexual norms. Not only can many lesbian and bisexual women feel a kinship with these rebel women, but many women punished for witchcraft throughout the centuries committed the crime of having a relationship with another woman. There’s also the element of diversity and fluidity, as witchcraft is not defined by a single practice or set of beliefs, it allows for practitioners from all walks of life to create rituals and make the religion in their own image (Read our interview with iconic witch Ruth Barrett to learn about creating rituals). With so much freedom in witchcraft, how could depictions of those who practice it not be fearlessly out about their sexuality?

While the golden age of witchcraft in media may have been in the 90s and early 2000s, we’re living in a time where shows can be unafraid to be bold and overt with their inclusion of gay witches. It’s a pretty blessed-be time to be alive.

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