Why You Should Watch the 1980s Feminist Comedy The Witches of Eastwick Right NowComedy Features The Witches of Eastwick
“I don’t think men are the answer to everything,” says Alex, played by Cher, on the floor of her kitchen, flanked by Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer sipping homemade cocktails.
“Then why do we always end up talking about them?” replies Susan Sarandon’s Jane.
In light of recent discourse on Twitter surrounding the “Bechdel Test” (a joke from Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For), this interaction during the first act of 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick feels particularly salient. Bechdel’s “test” was a rule one character in the comic created to decide whether they’d see a movie or not (it has to have two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man).
Based on the 1984 novel by John Updike (whom you probably know from reading his short story “A&P” in, coincidentally, AP English in high school), the Witches of Eastwick film took a few departures from the source material and heightened its satirical tone for a brilliant blend of charisma, character, and Cher.
At its core, The Witches of Eastwick is a story about a trio of women embracing their feminine power and realizing both ends of religious dogma (heaven and hell) work to suppress women. The film opens with a quick montage of these three unsatisfied women, Alex (Cher), Jane (Sarandon), and Sukie (Pfeiffer), who lost their husbands through death, divorce, and desertion, respectively, and are navigating parenthood alone (save for Jane who’s unable to conceive, the reason her husband left her). Alex and Sukie pack the lunches, drop the kids off at school, and Jane is sexually harassed by a school official while giving the children music lessons.
Feeling trapped and stifled by the puritanical and patriarchal Rhode Island town of Eastwick, the three women find themselves wishing for a storm to put an end to a public official’s droning speech about a woman’s role in society: to serve men. Suddenly, the sky darkens, the clouds shift, and a torrent of rain starts to fall. The gathered mass disperses, and Alex, Jane, and Sukie reconvene at Alex’s house where Sukie determines they must have made the weather event happen by wishing for it simultaneously. Unbeknownst to them, the three women have formed a coven and their next collaborative wish is for a man—a man who couldn’t possibly exist.
Enter Jack Nicholson’s Daryl Van Horne, a self-described “horny little devil.”
The beauty of Witches of Eastwick is its ability to take the rom-com formula and flip it on its head: the meet-cute for each of the three women and Daryl Van Horne plays with established tropes. For Alex, it’s “enemies turned lovers.” For Jane, it’s the “tightly wound, nerdy woman is taught to loosen up and let her hair down, literally, to become a sex symbol.” And for Sukie, it’s “the person looks past your daily roles to see the real you.” But instead of meeting their own lovers, they become sister-lovers to the devil, in a polyamorous love square that only has one moment of real jealousy between the women before they realize their magical potentials through collaboration.
But the part of Witches of Eastwick I’m most keen to discuss is the ending. When the original novel debuted in 1984, its ending received some flak for abandoning satire for a more traditional ending: the three witches banish Daryl Van Horne and manifest men for themselves to marry. Meanwhile, the film adaptation finds the women all pregnant with Daryl Van Horne’s sons. Realizing Van Horne isn’t a suitable father/partner/human after he’s literally killed a woman, Alex, Jane, and Sukie band together to exorcise the evil entity (giving us a beautiful sequence in which Jack Nicholson barfs up cherry pits in front of a church congregation).
The denouement has the three women living in Van Horne’s mansion 18 months later, raising a brood of children communally. Jane’s thoughts drift to Van Horne and Alex quickly admonishes her not to think of him lest they accidentally conjure him.
“But don’t you miss him?” Jane asks. “I do. And you do, too. Admit it.”
“Okay. I admit it,” Alex concedes. “But do you want him back?”
To me, this moment embodies the most feminist notion in the film: you can love and miss someone who is objectively bad for you, has treated you poorly, and is literally the devil without choosing to have them in your life. Just like temptation in the Garden of Eden, it’s our free will to decide that determines our fate. Alex, Jane, and Sukie know they can raise these children right and miss their horny little devil while simultaneously recognizing he’s bad for them and their sons.
Yeah, sometimes we can’t stop ourselves from talking about the men who have affected us, good or bad. Whether we like it or not, they creep into our stories unless we consciously exorcise them. And even if we keep them, we can still recognize the patriarchy and their roles in it, as well as enjoy the sight of them losing their shit in church.
Brooke Knisley is a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has balance issues. Let her harass you on Twitter @BrookeKnisley.