Witch Hunt: Lesbian Witches in Pop Culture

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.

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 lesbian 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).

At the same time, depictions of lesbian witches in TV shows and movies that aren’t horror work toward normalizing lesbian relationships and social differences for audiences who need these representations. For mainstream (here meaning non-horror) audiences, Willow and Tara’s relationship presented the possibility of young women dating at a point when the topic was still fairly taboo in youth-oriented media. When faced with a choice between her ex-boyfriend and her current (female) flame, Willow chose the girl, something which I remember seeming impossible when I was a teenager. I don’t have to be a Buffy fan to appreciate that.

In further praise of a show I didn’t actually like, there’s a good takeaway from Tara’s eventual rejection of Willow’s supernatural power. If we interpret witchcraft in such media as a marker of inherent different from society, Willow’s witchery removes the couple from the safety of normality. They can’t be a “normal” couple with “normal” lives if one is a practicing witch. Here we may find echoes of a question many lesbian couples continue to face: do we live in celebration of our difference or try to fit in? Do we sanitize our homosexuality to make it palatable to the straight world? 

But enough of the campy primetime drama-romances with supernatural elements. Let’s talk about lesbian witches in horror.

Wait.

Where are they?

The witch has a firm place in the horror genre. Indeed, if we can claim a character type, I’d say that she belongs foremost to us horror fans. But when we go looking for lesbian witches in the genre, they are sadly scarce. Lesbian vampires? Check. There is a strong history of linking lesbians to vampirism in horror cinema, with Dracula’s Daughter kicking off the trope all the way back in 1936. The Hunger (1986) remains a prominent and stylish example of the vampire who likes women as much as she likes blood. Lesbian slashers? Haute Tension (2003) has you covered. Lesbian insect-themed horror? Watch Sick Girl (2006), in which Angela Bettis plays the cutest lesbian oddball with an intense love for bugs you’ve ever seen. Lesbian characters endangered by dark forces? Plenty of those. But lesbian witches… eh, not so much.

A female version of Sedgwick’s homosociality exists in many witch films, but despite all that erotic potential, when it comes to explicit romance and the act of sex, horror’s witches are still reserved for men and male demonic entities, much as the witches of Euro and American folklore were thought to have sex with the Devil following their naked same-sex romps. Here is where my beloved genre lets me down. You’ve got a whole cabal of women, sometimes naked together, but none of them are ever into each other. Fictional magick is often used to get the guy, not the girl, and at the expense of the witches’ sisterhood. And as a horror fan, I’m kind of annoyed by that.

Fun fact: Clea DuVall’s first film role was in a horror film, Little Witches (1996). Not-so-fun fact: It’s kind of an awful movie.

I’m not, of course, saying that The Witch should have had any such subplot. Without spoiling the film, I’ll say that it was exactly what it needed to be and anything extra along romantic lines would have ruined it. I’m a stereotypical horror fan and “part of the problem” in that I don’t mind graphic violence but am skeptical about romance in the genre. But the film did get me wondering why, when witch stories are on some level about women’s sexuality, lesbians are conspicuously absent from so many of them.

However, I do want there to be a good lesbian witch movie or show someday, one that’s either as darkly fun—but still dangerous—as The Craft or as serious and visually gorgeous as The Witch. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

 

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