Season of the Witch: Conjuring Strength Through Power

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by Alyssa Rosenberg
October 31, 2013 2:06 PM
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Witches of East End

It's the season of the witch, both in the sense that it's Halloween, and that supernatural sisters are in the midst of a huge comeback. Meryl Streep's playing the Witch in a movie adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods. The latest installment of FX's American Horror Story is called Coven, and it's set at a New Orleans academy for up-and-coming young spellcasters. And witches are challenging plucky, post-apocalyptic heroines for primacy in the young adult sections of our local bookstores.

I'm happy to see our supernatural sisters making a comeback, and bringing with them a wide range of conversations about female power. I'm all for witchcraft as a narrative tool female characters use to counter the near-mystical status of the patriarchy. And I appreciate the way witchcraft acts as a particularly female expression of supernatural power, rooted in herbalism, cooking, and other domestic arts. But for all we need more serious representations of super-powered or supernatural women, I want to file a brief on behalf of the campier, less respectable, and much more emotional vision of witchcraft. These kinds of witches pop up in shows like Lifetime's Witches Of East End, the quickly-cancelled 2009 series Eastwick, and in the late WB show Charmed, which CBS is planning to reboot .

The witches in these sorts of shows aren't confident, established practitioners like the Supreme of American Horror Story: Coven, or teenagers for whom coming into their magic is part of the coming-of-age process. Rather, they're grown women who aren't necessarily used to having power. In Charmed, Prue Halliwell (Shannon Doherty) became a parent to her sisters after her mother died and her father abandoned the family. Piper (Holly Marie Combs) struggles with shyness, Phoebe (Alyssa Milano) with a search for a career and her relationships with men, and Paige (Rose McGowan) with being given up for adoption as a child, and her desire to live a normal, human life separate from her obligations as a Charmed One. In Eastwick, Joanna Frankel (Lindsay Price) was an anxious reporter, Kat Gardener (Jamie Ray Newman) a somewhat overburdened nurse, wife, and mother, and Roxie Torcoletti (Rebecca Romijn) a social outcast in a judgmental small town. And now Witches Of East End has given us Freya Beauchamp (Jenna Dewan-Tatum), a bartender anxious about her impending marriage into a wealthy, socially ambitious family, and her sister Ingrid (Rachel Boston), a spinsterish librarian.

When these women manifest or learn that they have magical powers, they don't just have to accustom themselves to the fact that they're witches. They have to get used to having power at all. Shows like these ask questions that are no less fascinating and important for being basic ones. If you have an ability that could give you a leg up in pursuit of a job or a man, is it all right to use it? If you could punish a judgmental future mother-in-law or a nosy neighbor and get away with it, would you? And while feeling disempowered or invisible are never pleasant feelings, if you suddenly acquire great power, does that mean any good things that accrue to you afterwards are the result of merit, or of your supernatural abilities?

It's exciting to watch Kat gear up to leave a bad husband, or Phoebe find a role as an advice columnist, or to see Ingrid help a friend get pregnant. But these shows often serve as an important reminder that gaining power doesn't actually solve your problems, and in fact, it can introduce you to entirely new challenges and responsibilities. Magic isn't a substitute for social skills or professionalism or personal responsibility, especially when the people you're dealing with don't know that you're a witch--or can't know. It's not just that great power requires great responsibility in the exercise of that power--as Ingrid puts it to Freya when her younger sister reads her aura in public, "Will you stop reading me? It's like you're going through my underwear drawer." It's that when all of your relationships are realigned by magic, you have to be even more sensitive and forward-thinking in your social interactions with the people who are affected by your abilities, especially if they have no idea why their relationship with you has been upended.

Witches Of East End , Charmed, and Eastwick also had the good sense to note that magic is a terrific way not just to give characters abilities and status, but to heighten their emotional states and to throw their conflicts and fears into sharper relief. On Charmed, Piper didn't just fall in love with a man who was in some way socially inconvenient for her. Leo Wyatt (Brian Krause) was the whitelighter, or protective spirit, assigned to Piper and her sisters, and the difficulties and disapproval they had in getting together, not to mention the ones they faced after they married and had children, made Romeo and Juliet's families look like pikers. In Witches Of East End, Freya's growing attraction to the ne'er-do-well brother of her fiance isn't just driven by animal lust (though with Daniel Di Tomasso in the role, there's a fair bit of that, too). Their meeting is foretold in the dreams that are a sign of the power Freya doesn't yet know she has, and suggesting that the chemistry between them is otherworldly gives as a terrific metaphor for its power. And the way Darryl Van Horne (Paul Gross) snaps the witches of Eastwick out of their social roles and routines illustrates how deeply the women were entrenched in their positions in the community.

Magic sometimes makes these problems bigger. Marrying the Source Of All Evil, as Phoebe does on Charmed, is a way to make your newlywed blues even rockier than usual, as can accepting a sculptural commission from the Devil, like Roxie did on Eastwick. But the need to exercise of magic to figure out a character's love life or career woes is also a way of reminding us what a heavy lift life can be even for those of us who are mere mortals.

And lest this all get too heavy, shows like Charmed, Eastwick, and Witches Of East End have the good and gleeful sense to remember that in between fighting the patriarchy, preventing the return of witch trials, and withstanding relentless assaults from the forces of evil, magic can also be a lot of fun, and even a little silly. Watching Wendy (Madchen Amick), Freya and Ingrid's aunt turn spray from the kitchen sink into an indoor snow storm, or seeing the Halliwell sisters clean up their foyer after yet another demon's rampaged through the house they share are delightful spectacles of everyday silliness and drudgery. Magic can be as mundane as a makeover or as grand as a final battle, and shows that are willing to acknowledge that full range of applications and emotions are a welcome break from the often-monotonous dark tone that dominates prestige dramas.

Witches Of East End , Charmed, and Eastwick will never be taken as seriously as more acclaimed dramas, and if the producers of the Charmed reboot have any sense, they won't go grasping after prestige at a cost of being entertainment. But that's exactly the point. These witches take their power and their responsibilities seriously, but that doesn't necessarily mean they have overly exalted visions of themselves. And they recognize that what makes magic compelling isn't just the ability that it gives them, but the wonder and delight it brings into the world, too.

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