Lewd Women and Wicked Witches: A Study of the Dynamics of Male Domination
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Salvation is a miraculous and unpredictable exception. Elizabeth Reis has analyzed the Puritan conception of the soul as feminized and femininity as inherently weak, foreclosing women as especially vulnerable to Satanic temptation. Moreover, this positions women as the weak link between Satan and the larger human community, which in this patriarchal conception must default to men. Women were socialized to see each other and, most importantly, themselves through these lenses.
The trial transcript comes to represent a tragic, collaborative story-telling project about how this specific person was damned. Lyndal Roper demonstrates the specific mechanisms through which this might take place in her psychoanalytic readings of trial records. In an androcentric world, women are Satanic. In a white settler world, Native people are Satanic. In a Calvinist world, all religious difference is Satanic. This is how William can feel justified in exiling his own family from the plantation; their theological differences mean that to stay within the church would be to damn his family.
Saving women from their various cultural conditions has long been a missionizing rallying cry, one we can see echoing back through time and in our contemporary political moment. We can also reverse this: the contest over women is the contest over the human soul. I take this digression to highlight that, in the film, Thomasin is one of these women being fought over.
She is contested property between her father and the Devil. Given a forced choice between two patriarchal systems, she chooses the pimp over the father. I choose this language deliberately: within the early modern worldview, witchcraft was not only a crime of violence and apostasy, but a diabolical pact which enslaved women sexually to the Devil.
They are hidden in cottages in the woods, eating animal entrails, unclothed, with only evidence of one dress to be seen, and even that may be part of the glamor the hag puts on to torment Caleb. But does Thomasin even really get to choose the Devil? Perhaps she believes she has done so because this is the only way she can explain to herself her previous, violent actions. Does she have a psychological break after being driven to kill her mother, literally killing the last vestige of her family?
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However, this is not an inherent association, and certainly not one that would have held for either men or women in the early modern period. The genealogy of the feminist witch can be clearly delineated though the development of political feminism. Accused witches have loomed large in the history of feminist movements in the West. The thread that bound women accused of witchcraft historically and first wave suffragists was their shared victimization by patriarchy. That is, first wave feminists, generally staunchly rooted in Christianity, decried the witch hunts for the lack of reality to the accusations.
Women were not witches; men just thought they were and were horrifically wrong. Hence: feminist Witch. Second-wave feminists had three main sources to help them answer this question. The first main source was burgeoning interest in historical occult traditions. New religious movements, such as contemporary Paganism gained popularity in activist circles.
Publicized by Gerald Gardner starting in the s, Wicca, as it entered the counter- cultural scene in the USA in the s, understood itself to be the true religion of the witches. Gardner claimed initiation into a lineage coven in the s.
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Western esotericisms such as Wicca and Paganism may offer specific methods and tools to focus magic,51 but every woman already has these powers, just by nature of her being. In this sense every woman is inherently a Witch. This image has been promoted through popular culture in countless ways. Concurrently, non-Satanic, non-baby-murdering witches have become common cultural currency independent of past fairy-tales. Long-running television series, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, feature Witch protagonists directly linked to Wicca.
As a result, there are a wide variety of feminists who self-identify as Witches. This updated take on the feminist Witch is not only compatible with more recent depictions in entertainment because they share second wave feminist images as a mutual source; it is also directly inspired by those popular depictions themselves. Where things get messy is in moments where the contemporary elision between witch and feminist is projected into past worldviews, as is the case in receptions of The Witch.
So really what is happening within many reviews of The Witch is a projection of current ideas about witchcraft onto past ideas of witchcraft, which were themselves projections onto women.
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These feminist projections obfuscate the real tragedy in the film, that Thomasin is ultimately forced to become the worst thing she can imagine. Being fiction, interpreting Thomasin as liberated by her pact does not bear the same moral weight as reinscribing as Pagans actual women who suffered witch accusations, women who identified, to their painful deaths, as Christians. They may be different words than those forced on women through the historical witch trial process, but that does not make them any more authentic. If the feminist project is creating conditions under which women can finally speak their own truths and be heard, then these projections impede it.
Witch Cuts All Ways An intractable problem in conflating historical witchcraft fears with contemporary feminist identities is that any reclamation continually abrades against patriarchal stereotypes. We share in the enterprise of projection, even if our moral projects are at odds.
Is it any better to force someone into the form of a hero than a demon, if it is not who they understood themselves to be? How can dissolving real women into abstracted symbols that serve our own ends truly be a feminist project? The issue is not with contemporary feminist Witch identity as embracing a powerful cultural symbol, but with the projection of that identity onto real women accused of witchcraft in the past.
The Witch is an interesting intervention in this moral quagmire because it starts from historical perspective. The point of the film is not to renovate the early modern demonological worldview, but to lay it bare and express it on its own terms. It is significant that many of the most vocal public voices advocating for the film as a helpful representation of feminist Witchcraft are not Pagans, but secular feminists.
During the Satanic Panics of the s and s, Witches of all stripes, and those mistaken for them, were targeted together. Collapsing early modern diabolical witchcraft into contemporary Pagan Witchcraft capitulates to Christian stereotypes both current and historical.
In fact, Pagan efforts to distinguish their communities from Satanists are sometimes met with disdain from Satanists themselves. In their efforts to explain themselves as harmless, Pagans sometimes contrast themselves with Satanism, which is assumed to be dangerous, allowing cultural stereotypes about Satanists to go unchallenged. While there is much diversity across Satanic groups, generally Satanists do not worship Satan directly as a deity, but rather honor him symbolically as a role model for independence and self-actualization.
Satan is a symbol of defiance, independence, wisdom and self-empowerment, and serves as an affirmation of natural existence. Collectively, they find power in the fear that ideas of witchcraft create in outsiders, especially Christians, but these witch-identified groups also insist that these stereotypes are deeply mistaken.
c Willem de Blecourts The Making of the Female Witch Reflections on Witchcraft | Course Hero
All these communities indulge in the ambiguity of the witch image. There is power in embodying the witch stereotype; there is power in deconstructing the witch stereotype. The ambiguities of identifying with early modern witchcraft, even in newly revised and reversed forms, cut to the unstable heart of the matter: are witches baby-murdering, nightmare devil- whores, or are they independent women who are here to help? The center of contemporary Witchcraft identity is always moving between fear-inducing mimesis and subversion.
In order to see Thomasin as empowered through her initiation into witchcraft, viewers must go beyond the worldview of the film and impose a different cosmology. As feminist Witches are often aware, promoting Witchcraft as empowering also comes with risks.
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Self-identified Witches are not the only ones deploying the image. Witchcraft continues to loom large as an enemy of righteousness in conservative evangelical rhetoric. It also is enjoying a resurgence in political speech, most glaringly invoked during the election debacle, as a slur against Hillary Clinton, as a way of punishing powerful women for their public visibility. The criminal profile itself was heavily skewed to fit women, was often sexualized, as in the pact sealed with demonic sex portrayed in The Witch, and the trial procedures themselves involved many aspects that today equate with sexual violence and assault.
Women transgressing out of the subservience of male-headship and into public space are disciplined by being taunted as witches. Both positions shore up male privilege through implying that challenges to it are caused by disordered others. Even with reverse-moralizing flips, the witch is still an inherited misogynist nightmare that is easily redeployed within patriarchal frames. Can you subvert misogyny by leaning into it?
It is telling that a film about inescapable patriarchy has resonated so strongly in our current moment, just as it is no coincidence that it has much in common with horror films bracketing the 70s, which themselves emerged out of gender turmoil and anxieties about the patriarchal family. In its deconstruction of pressures placed on women by patriarchal theocracy, The Witch is clearly a feminist film.
The issue of whether the ending is a happy one may seem trite in the face of this larger point, but in the competing conclusions there is much at stake for the relations of contemporary feminists to the past. On one hand, as a stereotype she is rife for reclamation. As a monstrous woman, she is literally a predator of the patriarchy.
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It is precisely because she struck such terror in the hearts of early modern men, and conforming women, that she becomes available as a symbol of resistance against these oppressive structures. Further, as offering a template for feminist alterity, the witch is no longer understood as the terrorist she was to the early moderns. In contemporary Pagan and feminist revisionings, she is the opposite of everything Christianity once ascribed to her.