It’s 2018, Witches: On the Promise and Pitfalls of TV’s Recent Witch CrazePhoto: Dean Buscher/The CW TV Features Charmed
October began with a witch stepping into her power.
This is not the iconography that has been most frequently conjured in relation to Christine Blasey Ford—at least not by the majority of the people who had her back as she stood up to the most powerful men in the country to demonstrate why a different powerful man was temperamentally disqualified from gaining even more power. For that majority, the iconography of sainthood has been the gold standard. But that wall clock making a halo behind Dr. Ford’s head as she was being sworn in before her testimony looked enough like one of the tarot’s many crowns, and the October that followed has turned out to be full enough of formidable, anti-patriarchal magic, that reading Dr. Ford into the pantheon of American witches doesn’t feel wrong.
How full has this October been of anti-patriarchal witchery? Well, on the pop culture/television front, the magic is so strong that it has not only invoked the magically (and psychologically) potent Power of Three… it has invoked it three times. First on The CW’s Charmed, with its sisterly trio of “charmed ones,” then on that same network’s Legacies, with its three female leads the witchy daughters of Vampire Diaries and Originals faves, and finally on Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which just to be extra extra, sashayed in with its own Power of Three x 3: Zelda, Hilda, and Ambrose Spellman; the Church of Night’s diabolical Weird Sisters; and Sabrina and her two magic-sensitive mortal girlfriends, Roz and Susie.
That is a lot of witch power for a single month.
Of course, witches are never totally absent from the pop culture landscape—every year, there are dozens of books, movies, videogames and comics that do their part to expand the American witch lexicon, and since the premiere of the original Charmed back in 1998, not a single television season has passed without at least one witch show on the airwaves—but there is something about this month’s trio of premieres that feels momentous.
Not just feels—is, and in the most literal sense. These witch shows are arriving now, in 2018, because witches are America’s oldest answer to how to shape women’s rage in the face of patriarchal tyranny into a narrative of agency and power and also now, in 2018, the patriarchy is once again ramping up its efforts to stamp down that agency and power. Thus, witches are back at the forefront of the zeitgeist.
I don’t actually have to tell any of you this. Not just because every other critic on the Internet watching Charmed and CAoS has already done so—Legacies, so deeply mixed up in the vampire and werewolf lore of its predecessors, seems to be getting short shrift—but because the shows themselves do so, every episode. The sociopolitical metaphor of witchiness as both cure and symptom of patriarchy turned to a fever pitch is not subtext in any of this fall’s three big witch hits—it is, instead, text. It is dialogue. It is entire plot lines.
On Charmed, it is the power of sisterly magic taking down not one but two literal rape demons in the pilot episode. (Actual dialogue: “When it comes to consent, I can change my mind at any time!”). It is middle sister Mel (Melonie Diaz) railing against the bitter, patriarchy-drenched irony of a man taking over her murdered mother’s position as head of their university’s Women’s Studies department, and then that same man (Rupert Evans) turning out to be the whitelighter assigned to guide the Diaz sisters’ witchcraft training. It is that same man, Harry, explaining to the sisters that when it comes to the mythology they belong to, “Being a witch is a fully pro-choice enterprise.”
Charmed images via Tumblr
On Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, it is Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) identifying the lie at the heart of the promise of the Dark Baptismal ritual, and refusing to accept a binary choice between power on the one hand, or freedom over her body and soul on the other… and then it is Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) scoffing at the idea that the Dark Lord would ever allow a witch to keep both. (“The thought of you, of any of us, having both, terrifies him.” “Why is that?” “He’s a man, isn’t he?”) It is Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and Sabrina starting a WICCA club (Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association: “Like a club to topple the white patriarchy!”) to support their bullied genderqueer friend, Susie (Lachlan Watson). It is every line the possessed Miss Wardwell (Michelle Gomez) vamps from start to finish: “Always brute force with you men, isn’t it?” and “When will the world learn? Women should be in charge of everything” and “I know you’re scared, Sabrina, because all women are taught to fear power. Own your power. Take it. Wield it.”
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina image via Tumblr.
Legacies is only one episode in, and saddled by its franchise with more romantic melodrama than its contemporaries, but even it is using its witches to dig into the anti-patriarchal cultural moment more than one might expect: Its subtext-turned-text already encompasses a witch rescuing a werewolf from being exorcised to death by a Catholic priest, two witches conjuring revenge against boys who lie, and a woman’s unbridled rage tearing the world apart.
Legacies image via Tumblr.
As much as toppling the white male patriarchy is the goal both implicit and explicit in the three series, though, the fact remains: These stories, centered as they are on righteous (and a few unrighteous) women stepping into their witchy power, still trap those centers within the fists of men who control the resources the women need to reach their potential. In the case of Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) and the Dark Lord on CAoS, this literal manifestation of the patriarchy wielding control over even the most powerful of feminine spaces—and its obvious parallels to the Catholic Church—is the very malevolent point, and the primary injustice Sabrina sets out to fix. In the case of Harry on Charmed and Alaric (Matthew Davis) on Legacies, this dynamic is either benign (Legacies) or used for comedic tension (Charmed), but it does not substantively change the fact that the dynamic exists.
Similarly, as much as it is a goal of these three witch stories in particular to empower viewers to believe that the endless rage those of us outside the white male patriarchy currently feel might be constructively channeled to dismantle the systems that are assaulting us, Charmed, Legacies and CAoS collectively fail to build mythologies in which witchcraft might be a learned skill, the powers of a witch available to any woman with enough will and/or anger to apply herself to it. With the possible semi-exception of CAoS’ Susie, a human with the evident power to speak with the ghost of her equally human ancestor, witches in the worlds of these three shows are born to it, and it is those birthrights that drive the bulk of each story’s narrative tension. Narrative tension is great, but this seems like a missed opportunity, when the cultural moment is so clearly anchored in the possibility that every woman in America might find power to wield, if only we knew how to step into it.
Then again, maybe that is our metaphorical witchy birthright, just being American women, in a country in which democratic power is still a real possibility. America is too young to have much of a magical legacy all its own, but thanks our consistent inability to ever truly break free of the puritanical violence of our colonizer history, we do have witches. I mean, obviously every culture in the world has witches, but America—we have American witches, women (mostly women) who are the memories or ghosts or spiritual descendants of colonial wives and sisters and mothers and slaves who dared too boldly to wrest some modicum of personal power from the rigidly patriarchal society they were trapped in, the ghost of which we’re still fighting today to dismantle. We’ve got those witches, and we’ve got that legacy, but we’ve also got hard-won democracy, and hard-won emancipation, and hard-won suffrage, and all of that is part of these three witch shows, too.
Which brings me back to Christine Blasey Ford, and the question of whether or not I ought to seriously make the argument that she entered October like a witch stepping into her power.
Well, I don’t know what Dr. Ford would have to say about it, but if she did tap into her witchiness, she did it the Sabrina Spellman way, sacrificing her personal world to the darkness of entitled male ambition so that a greater, more righteous power might be released to save a community.
How do I know? I felt it: That Saturday of the final vote, I found myself vibrating with so much rage-fueled energy while standing alone in the heart of the protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court that I whirled into a one-on-one engagement with a pro-Kavanaugh man earnestly holding forth to a scrum of hard-working white male allies, and while other protesters outside the scrum shouted me down for engaging in the first place, that man later joined the people getting arrested as part of the direct action the Women’s March had organized on the steps of the Capitol. I’ll never know why he did that, or what he got out of it, but from a distance, it felt an awful lot like I’d briefly stepped into some power of my own.
Charmed airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on The CW. Legacies airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on The CW. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is now streaming on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.