The Great Debate: Representation of Witches and Pagans in Media
What follows is an opinion piece I did for episode 100 of my podcast. It should be noted, there are no sources cited nor studies quoted. I did not do any kind of polling, in depth academic research, or anything resembling something fit for peer review. These are simply my views in regards to the ongoing, unceasing, perennial conversation on the representation of witches and pagans in the media.
Your mileage can, and should, vary, but I hope this at least inspires a conversation.
Love and Lyte,
Your mileage can, and should, vary, but I hope this at least inspires a conversation.
Love and Lyte,
There's a joke in the gay community that's a kind of clap back against evangelical warnings of a "gay agenda" - you know, the list of things the gay community is allegedly ticking off on their quest to fabulous world domination? The joke is that the gay agenda looks something like:
- Wake up
- Get ready for work
- Take kids to school
- Job and stuff
- Pick kids up from school
- Family time
- Destroy a heterosexual marriage with my gay powers
- Use gay powers to cause typhoon
- Read a chapter in my Elizabeth Gilbert novel
The obvious joke being that the gays are just like everybody else...with the minor exception of being solely responsible for the heterosexual divorce rate skyrocketing and tsunamis and earthquakes and whatever else the 700 Club is attributing to us these days.
The reality of daily life for groups of people - specifically minority groups of people - is neither as exciting as macro culture would have us believe, nor as eventful as the media would portray. Black people are not militant undercover operatives awaiting orders from whoever is claiming leadership of Black Lives Matter to go attack the nearest white sorority with rotten watermelons and gallons of kool-aid. Gay people are not wizards using the power of the rainbow to cause destruction and mayhem because Meryl didn't win an Oscar this year. And, despite how much it seems both Hollywood and our own Pagan community wish it, Pagans are not altruistic fireball wielding scions of an endless, unbroken line of persecuted magical practitioners spanning back to the dawn of mankind.
(And, possibly beyond if you go in for the theory that witches descend from an alien race pre dating mankind...or maybe that's simply what Scott Cunningham dreamed up after too many hallucinogens.)
Thanks to a resurgence in magical characters and topics in film and television, the conversation about the intersection of magical portrayal and pop culture representation of witches/witchcraft/paganism is returning in full force. Podcasters, bloggers, and pagans of all stripes are voicing both their disgust and approval of how Hollywood has decided to depict witches. Whether the witches are shooting fireballs from their hands alongside Snow White or living deliciously on a farm, it doesn't matter. The conversation isn't new by any means, but it's something I think needs to be addressed head on.
I can find no better example of the kind of conversation I see taking place on social media, message boards, blogs, and podcasts, than on episode 3 of a new Pagan podcast called The Priestesses. It's a well-produced show featuring a somewhat revolving cast of women (and one guy) who discuss all things witchy and pagan. They've been going strong since October of 2015 and as of this recording have already put out a prolific 13 episodes. I highly recommend adding it to your podcatcher of choice. And, yes, I told them in advance I'd be discussing their show and this episode in particular, and they were thrilled. The best podcasts inspire debate and further discussion, and their third episode incited a riot inside of me in the best way.
In their episode entitled 'The Priestesses Go to the Movies - Practical Magic' the hostesses discuss the perennial classic Practical Magic, comparing it to another witchy '90s film: The Craft. Many of the points discussed weren't new to my ears. In fact, they're not new to podcasting. For years podcasters have been lamenting over Hollywood's inability to portray witches and pagans authentically. I know New World Witchery, The Wigglian Way, Down at the Crossroads/Infinite and the Beyond, and even old episodes of Inciting A BrewHaHa (and many more) have all discussed the disconnect between a Hollywood witch and a "real" witch.
But, for the sake of discussion, I'll list many of their complaints here:
- The magic in films that depict witches, especially when those witches are seen as more or less belonging to modern Paganism, is unrealistic and problematic for new witches joining our community.
- The idea of someone being a natural witch or hereditary witch is problematic and promotes a unattainable idea that those people are somehow better or more powerful than those of us that got our knowledge and skills from books, research, or teachers.
- The use of "dark magic" promotes negative beliefs about modern Pagans and detracts from any positive portrayals of good witches doing more realistic magic.
This list shouldn't be new to any of us that have spent time at festivals or in the various corners of the witchy interwebs. I mean, go down the list. Who has not met someone online or in person who laid claim to powers so outlandish you couldn't help but simultaneously giggle and feel a little sad for the person making the claim. What attention must they feel they need to go out of their way to try and convince people that they are super witches? And, yet, those people exist. They have followers and believers and, in turn, create even more people making claims of being super witches.
Who here doesn't know someone who makes the claim of being from an unbroken genetic line of secret witches or the reincarnation of Cleopatra's bartender? Who among us hasn't met someone who claims to be a reincarnated Salem witch or a born again priestess of Avalon? Who hasn't heard actual Pagans using the term "black magic" both as warning and as a badge of honor?
Today, though, is not an indictment on those folks, nor is it a calling out of hypocrisy and a cry for better personal research on the part of the individuals comprising the Pagan community in 2016. Shocking, I know. But, we've had 99 episodes where I did that, at least in some regard. No, today is about cognitive dissonance and the Hollywood witch. Of course, I could discuss cognitive dissonance and the fairy tale witch or the folklore witch or the mythic witch. It really is all the same when you get down to it. What is a real witch and what is a witch inside a story?
An interesting thing happens when you try and research witches. If you go to Google or Wikipedia - the place where all terrible research begins - and you search for the word 'witch' you're going to need to clarify some things. If you're on Wikipedia, you're going to be asked whether you meant Witchcraft (meaning the use of supernatural abilities in myth and practice the world over since time immemorial), or possibly you mean Witch-hunt (meaning the search for practitioners of witchcraft, a search that still occurs in parts of the world today, though we can parse out what they mean by "witch" at a later time), or perhaps you're asking about one of the modern pantheons of witches as depicted in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series or the Witches of East End television series. See, the Internet knows something that our community seems staunchly opposed to accepting: the word 'witch' doesn't always mean the same thing.
Sometimes the word refers to pointy-hatted women who ride brooms into the night sky and sing hypnotic songs to children in order to lure them to their deaths, other times it means a scapegoat for adults in the developing world that kill men, women, and children who they perceive as some kind of threat, and...still other times it means the lawyer next door who makes her own herbal tea and carries a piece of carnelian with her when stepping into the courtroom.
It's important to note this need for disambiguation, because it is important to be cautious with language. Words morph depending on context, and it is important that we allow them to wear different clothes sometimes; to go off into the world and be their own entity. Otherwise, our language stays stagnant and we don't get to invent new ways of conversing.
But, let's go back to Hollywood and the witch in media. I'll be direct: I think it is perfectly fine for Hollywood to have Hollywood witches, as I think it's perfectly fine for fairy tales and folklore and myth and literature and all other forms of storytelling to have their own witches. Are you really going to tell me that Harry Potter would have been a much more interesting story had the saga taken place at an English boarding school and the magic been relegated to burning some sage and lighting some candles? Absolutely not. In fact, the magic isn't even really the story. It's a component of the story, but the themes of good and evil, trust in authority figures, heroism, courage, friendship, these did not need magic to be told; though they were all the more effectively discussed because of the magical world the characters inhabited.
Superheroes and science fiction and fairy tales are all ways for people to talk about the big issues in a way that makes it entertaining and compelling and fun. There's that famous G. K. Chesterton quote you've probably seen in your social media feed (attributed to Neil Gaiman in 'Coraline') that goes, "Fairy Tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." Folklore turns schoolyard bullies into dark knights of an invading kingdom and you into a white knight riding in to save the kingdom on a reborn Phoenix. Comic books turn terrorists into the pants-peeing cowards that we all believe them to be and even allows us to watch as Captain America punches Hitler in the face. The witch is just another literature trope, a Hollywood character, alongside vampires and mermaids and prostitutes with a heart of gold.
This fetishizing of realistic witches and pagans in media is, itself, unrealistic. It forgets that television, movies, and books are telling stories, not presenting the world as it is. (Discounting documentaries, of course, but not the History channel. Whatever the History channel is has about as much to do with actual History as the Disney channel has to do with realistic portrayals of teenagers moonlighting as pop stars with the help of a blonde wig.) The lawyer with a carnelian in her pocket for courage and clarity of speech isn't entertaining, and thus whatever greater story that might have been told would get stunted with an early cancellation due to low viewers. The story isn't about the magic, it is about the human condition. That's all stories, actually, magical or not.
There is an irony in the cognitive dissonance between wanting more realistic magic in media and desiring purely positive portrayals of characters called witches. Why? Because good-hearted Pollyanna characters are as equally unreal as wand-wielding, green-skinned, flying beings of folklore and film. Now, I understand the qualm here. This is the basic in-group/out-group discussion that minorities the world over have regarding portrayals in the media. It goes on a bit of a pendulum. First, it's "Why aren't there any _____ people in media?", then it's "Why aren't there more positive portrayals of _________ people in the media?", then it's "Why aren't there more realistic portrayals of ______ people in media?", and then we end up somewhere in the quagmire of "Why is this specific character in this specific show a villain?" Or possibly "Why can't a _______ person be a villain?"
I always think of the Showtime television series "Queer as Folk" as the great testing ground for many of these questions. What they're all trying to get at is "Why can't I see members of my specific minority portrayed as powerful, complex people rather than a list of humorous or negative stereotypes?" Queer as Folk was perhaps the first gay television show that dealt with very real issues pertaining specifically to the gay community, up to and including sexual pain, pleasure, STI risk and the importance of getting regular checkups, but it went beyond that. It made characters with complex emotional backstories with complex reasons for interacting with the world and one another. Nobody was purely good nor purely evil. And...that's life.
And that's fair. Everyone deserves to see themselves mirrored in pop culture. If you're, say, a young black girl, you want to have the choice of growing up to be Annalise Keating or Olivia Pope or Hermione Granger...you know...powerful black women. But, none of those characters is a purely positive person. Hermione is the closest to an altruistic individual, but even she at times was selfish or judgmental or wrong. And...that's ok. We need that. Humans aren't perfect, and stories are meant to teach us lessons about ourselves. They're there to teach us about good and evil, truth and lies, or even plain old courage and believing in yourself.
We don't want "real" characters. Real life is boring. It's bills and soccer practice and laundry and obligatory sex and insurance. We want flawed characters. Relatable characters. When we say we want to see ourselves in literature and media, it doesn't mean we want to see a documentary of what a Pagan housewife does on a day to day basis; it means we want to see someone from our subculture interacting in whatever world we're viewing. I want a gay witchy superhero. (They've got one, actually. Marvel's Wiccan, the son of the Scarlet Witch, and he and his boyfriend are super adorable and very kick ass.)
Whether you're worried that Hollywood witches are giving newbies the idea that they must claim some bullshit hereditary line in order to be accepted or whether bad witches give modern Pagans a bad name isn't an indictment of Hollywood. It's an indictment of us as a community. Saying "well, yes, some people could possibly do bad things with magic, BUT NOT ALL WITCHES ARE EVIL!" Is simply being a Pagan apologist. It's not having enough faith that the real world of witchcraft and Pagan practice stands on its own without needing to constantly clarify the difference between what people see after the words "once upon a time..." And what they'd see if they walked into their local witchy shop. And, in a way, it's a kind of hypocrisy. We all have those movies or books that got us interested in learning more about modern Pagan practice. There was a time that you watched Practical Magic or The Craft or The Wizard of Oz or Harry Potter or The Worst Witch or Buffy the Vampire Slayer and thought enough to go to your local bookstore and peruse the New Age section for the first time.
It's the same kind of self-loathing that makes us all at some point look down our noses at new Pagans who cling to their Llewellyn books, all the while hiding our collection of Ravenwolf books so nobody dares question our witchy street cred.
These? I'm holding them for a friend. I swear I only read books with unpronounceable names written in the blood of pure white doves in the original Latin.
We have to accept when Hollywood is talking about us and when they aren’t. We have to accept that some of the words we use to describe our community, and us as individuals respective of that community, are the same words that writers use to describe characters of lore. And, we have to be wise enough to know when the conversation isn’t about us. Though, we need to have enough discernment to know when it is. Should a film or book or other form of media come out that attempts to discuss the modern Pagan movement in its actual, real-world context, then, and only then, is it time to perk up and get out your red grading pencils to decide just how offended we should be.
However, until such time as that occurs, perhaps let’s ease up on the need to establish witchy street cred and have it validated by Hollywood.