Far From Salem
As Halloween approaches, I ask myself: how far have we come since Salem? The Salem witch trials is a ready example of the brutality inflicted on witches (subversive women), and their enduring cultural relevance. A trip to the British Museum’s exhibition on witches made it abundantly clear that witches are as old as storytelling itself. And, that they indeed live on even in the most contemporaneous of stories.
So, what makes a good witch? Well a witch is almost always a woman, often grotesquely over sexualized with several breasts or at the very least her long hair flowing free (riding backwards on a goat is optional). She is either transformed or transforms others (often both) take Medusa or Ursula the evil sea witch in The Little Mermaid (image below). And, she has illegitimate power of some kind. Unlike goddesses, witches have power from an illegitimate or unknown source and hence use their powers for evil – often harming men and latterly younger more ‘pure’ women.
Historically, witches have been used to warn against disrupting the status quo whether that be religion or politics. The portrayal of these monstrous women doing monstrous things is an Omen of change it says ‘look what ills will befall you if you disrupt the natural order’. And the natural order is still very important. Through centuries of mythology about witches and the harm they inflict on society, we’ve become somewhat immune to the deeply misogynistic worldview that they represent. It suggests that women should be kind, nurturing, pure and submissive – that’s the natural order and it must be maintained. Women who aren’t all or some of those things run the risk of being seen as a witch.
It’s a real fear. Particularly if you look at prevailing anti-aging messages. They tell women to fear aging, to fear ‘becoming haggard’ loosing their femininity and ultimately becoming less human, monstrous. And those that transgress, who go under the knife or opt for the needle are cheaters, tricksters magicians (Rene Zellweger) coveting beauty or youth that is not legitimately theirs – like countless evil witches in Disney films.
As for sexual transgression, you don’t have to look hard to see that the expectations of men and women is still very different, from Slut Shaming to honor killings diversion away from the sexual status quo can still be costly. So as the one night a year approaches where we’re allowed, nay encouraged, to be witches, I’ll be wondering how to put a bit more clear water between us and Salem.
- Article by Lizzie Jones, Flamingo