Every week, Gwyneth Sleutel writes a Kick-Ass Women column. This week’s topic: the witch.
The witch is one of many monster figures in cinema. More so than its counterparts, like vampires and werewolves, the role of the witch is often gender related and accredited to the female sex. Another differentiating factor is that the witch is not only featured in horror. As kids we were introduced to the witch as a hunchbacked woman sporting an ugly wart on her sizeable nose, like in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or as bright green woman in The Wizard of Oz (1939): the revolting women whose evil powers must be dealt with. Later in life we get to know the kind and relatable witches. Think of the kids in Harry Potter (2001-2011), the teenage girls from Craft (1996) and Lena, the girl-next-door descendant from a witch family in Beautiful Creatures (2013). Not only their appearance but also their character is diverse. Witchcraft is presented as the monstrous manifestation of the adolescent female body that gains power from a telekinetic gift (Carrie (1967)), the witch however doesn’t even have to be there to wreak havoc (The Blair Witch Project (1999)). No matter in what form a witch appears, her ability to gain power from within herself is what makes her unique as a monster figure. This makes her powerful and unpredictable. This is the reason witches were prosecuted for having magical powers, and later for forming a bond with the devil. Her power is uncontrollable, but most of all threatening.
The feminist witch
In feminist literature the aversion towards witches is accredited to the male fear of strong women. Witches are said to disrupt the patriarchal order and threaten to destabilize the borders between the naturaland the supernatural. The witch’s power to threaten these borders and powers can be clearly seen in Robbert Eggers’ The VVitch (2016), shown at Imagine in 2016. In this film a strict religious family is forced to move to the edge of the forest after they are banished from their puritan Christian village. The moment they move into the farm their baby boy Sam mysteriously disappears, after which the family begins to believe in witchcraft. The VVitch takes place in the 16thcentury; the strict divide between sexes is immediately made clear in the opening scene of the VVitch, where women and men are separated when listening to the tribunal. The women in this film are skilled in the household while the men hunt and lumber.
Visual captivity and the female nature
A key role in this film is given to the teenage girl Thomasin who lives under the authoritarian rule of her father. As a victim of the patriarchal powers, she gets the blame for her father’s shortcomings and failures. Her little brother Caleb even looks at her in a longing sexual way, after which the camera follows his gaze towards her breasts. Other than her mother, Thomasin seems to become ever more aware of the oppression women live in. When Thomasin peeks though a slit in the doorway, her mother’s space is visually minimalized. Causing her to see her mother as a woman limited in her movement. Thomasin is also cinematographically trapped in the strong framework of the house and farm.
In the forest, however, the tables have turned. The witch glides to the forest at full speed while Caleb struggles to make his way through the wilderness. He is trapped in a female network where male movement is limited and in which he will not go unpunished for his sinful sensual gaze. In The VVitch the forest seems to belong to the witch and thus to the women. In feminist theory, nowadays most prominently in ecofeminism, a relationship between women and nature is declared. The woman is nature while the man constrains nature, as Simone de Beauvoir put it.
Female phallic weapons
In this forest other power relations are at play then in the puritan and patriarchal society, this becomes clear when the movie gives us a first real look into the forest. In a short fragmented scene we can see how Sam is stripped of his penis, after which a witch smears blood on her broomstick. If we look past the gruesome acts of this scene we can see the act of castration (in feminist theory the ultimate male fear), followed by the female appropriation of a phallic weapon, her broom. At first glance, she uses a male object to gain power. The fact that the phallic symbol is not a sign of male power in this forest can also be seen when William and Caleb go hunting. They find themselves eye to eye with a rabbit, the embodiment of the witch. As the rabbit stoically stares down the barrel, seemingly becoming a victim of male violence, the gun misfires. William is no longer in control of this phallic weapon and gets a shunt of recoil.
The male domestication of the female nature
William still remains to resist the threat of the forest. He continues to chop wood, even when the pile is immensely big. The chopping of wood becomes an attempt to tame nature, to control it. Just like the man appropriates the control over women. When at the end of the film the witches power seems almost uncontrollable, William drops his axe, he meets his end. Nature, or more specifically the forest belonging to the women, has defeated the man who tried to tame her. The patriarchal power is wiped out and makes way for the women to live as a witch collective. Thomasin joins the women for a new life in a matriarchal society.
A postfeminist witch
An entirely different approach to feminism can be seen in in Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2016), a comedic horror in which the witch Elaine seduces men using love potions in an attempt to find her prince charming. Simply said, it’s a film about finding love. But when we look past this façade we can see the main theme is actually power. In numerous scenes it can be seen how Elaine wears a mask of femininity by wearing hair extensions and elaborate make up. She then uses her female beauty and sensuality to gain power. This makes her a modern postfeminist witch.
“You sound as if you’d been brainwashed by the patriarchy”
A woman should give a man what he wants, she has to be pretty and love her man, according to Elaine. After which her friend Trish proclaims: “You sound as if you’d been brainwashed by the patriarchy”. Even though Elaine seems to conform to her role as the second sex, she is the one who confronts the other woman with their oppressed position. This becomes clear when, after we are shown various close up shots of Elaine’s eyes, we can see Trish’s man covering his wife’s eyes. Where Elaine’s free vision is emphasized, Trish’s is obviously controlled by her man.
Another elusion to the theme of seeing and not seeing in The Love Witch can be found in the gaze of the film. Even though the audience follows the female gaze of the witch, there are also a few moments in which a deliberate which is made to the male view. These are the moments Elaine’s love potions take their effect on the men. We see Elaine undressing from the male perspective. This seems to be a case of the male gaze, where the camera adopts a male view to sexually objectify the female body. But let’s not forget their view is altered by the influence of her love potion; it shows her how she wants to be seen. She guides the male view and becomes the ruler of his gaze. She controls him, he has become her prey.
In both the VVitch and The Love Witch the witch has a feminist character. An empowered woman generating power from within herself to rise above the crooked power relations and break the male privileges. Still these women are not only witches. Thomasin in The VVitch is a girl coming of age and Elaine in The Love Witch is a former housewife who now seduces countless men as true femme fatale. In the coming weeks I will show how these characters ( the child/teenager, the housewife/mother and the femme fatale) can be seen as real kick-ass women.
About the author
After completing her bachelor’s degree cum laude, Gwyneth Sleutel (1994) was selected for the professional track in Film Studies at the University of Amsterdam. During her studies Gwyneth did extensive research into the portrayal of women in cinema and became inspired by the combination of film and feminism, as movies offer us a unique insight into how our society functions and deals with issues regarding gender. During her master thesis she took a closer look at the development of feminist film theory in order to analyse the portrayal of the ‘mother’ in Dutch movies.
Her passion for cinema also shows in her work as a freelance filmmaker and her contributions to critical online media platforms. However, her heart lies with the script development of fictional film. After a few internships with a focus on dramaturgy and the practical development of movies, at the VPRO among others, Gwyneth is now working as a freelance dramaturg and script editor. In addition to this she is editor-in-chief for the faculty magazine Babel. Gwyneth will publish a weekly article for Imagine Film Festival, drawing inspiration from her talents as an analyst and critical thinking skills concerning the portrayal of women in cinema. Championing the idea that there can never be enough kick-ass women in film.