Something Wicked This Way Comes: witches in pop culture

By Sarah Bastos

Growing up as a kid in the early 2000s, the idea of witches fascinated me.

I always desired to be one because they were the only women on screen who were the masters of their fate. As a child, I was constantly told that my options in life were limited because of my gender but the idea of the witch changed what it means to be a woman for me.

Witches have been a lasting image in pop culture since Shakespearian times and were often used to depict women negatively. But in recent decades, they have become a symbol of female empowerment.

witches in pop culture2
Art by Karolina Piorko

In the late 1990s/early 2000s, there was an emergence of witches in pop culture who were not portrayed as villainous individuals, but rather as real women, like the Halliwell sisters of Charmed or Sabrina Spellman from Sabrina the Teenage Witch. These women were some of the few characters on the screen who were powerful and dynamic in their own right (without the guidance of a man).

Before the 90s, however, the word “witch” was a derogatory term, often synonymous, with the word “bitch” and it was meant to sway viewers to believe that women needed to be demure in order to be accepted in this patriarchal society. Even so, looking back at old films and television series, most of these so-called evil women didn’t do anything modern audiences would consider particularly nefarious.

Negative View of Witches
For instance, most of the Disney villains are women and witches as well. They are seen as more vicious than their male counterparts because ambitious women are dangerous while ambitious men are inspiring.

Maleficent, the antagonist of Sleeping Beauty, was only deemed as “evil” because she dared to call out those in power for their oppressive actions, but if she was a man, she would be called a hero.

This idea of witches being synonymous with bitchiness and wickedness goes way back to Shakespearean times with the creation of Macbeth. Traditional interpretations of this play point to the three witches in the opening act as the trigger for all of Macbeth’s evil actions. Audiences were quick to label Lady Macbeth and the witches as sinners rather than blame the play’s eponymous main character. Women with ambition and literal power were dangerous to the natural order of things.

This labeling of witches as negative entities continued until the 20th century with the production of the Wizard of Oz and its main character being a witch; however, this type of witch was different. The Wicked Witch of the West was considered ugly by Western beauty standards which added to the negative ideas of how women shouldn’t be. Women had to be beautiful and obedient and those who didn’t comply were witches.

This negative portrayal of witches reached its climax with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, where female sexuality was seen as the root of all evil. The main antagonist, Abigail, was accused of being a witch in part because she was in control of her body and what she desired. Although this play was set in puritanical times, it reflected the politics leading up to its creation. Women’s bodies have always been one of the most heavily regulated things in human history.

witches in pop culture
Art by Karolina Piorko

Positive View of Witches
After the 60s and the success of second-wave feminism, more progressive depictions of women began to be reflected in television and film soon after. For instance, the 90s was revolutionary in terms of female representation with the popularization of the witch trope in the media. Movies like the Craft exemplified the strides women made throughout this time period. On the surface, this movie seems just like a typical teenage chick-flick but it is more than that. The characters in the Craft represent the multifaceted nature of women who were often not taken seriously before this, especially in entertainment. Using teenage girls as representatives of this new female empowerment really changed our perspectives on who can have power. Teenage girls, one of the most heavily criticized groups, redefined the witch trope and what femininity means.

Charmed, created at the end 90s, combined traditional feminine traits like familial allegiance and beauty with more taboo ones like sexuality and financial independence. Despite all of the progress made during this decade, this feminism wasn’t all-encompassing, as most of these characters were white.

The 2000s brought diversity in roles and even more complex female characters via witches. This can be seen in the 2019 version of Charmed whose main characters are all women of color and in the popular Disney Channel Original Movie, Twitches.

Witches are more popular than ever, which can be a result of the turbulent world we live in. Misogyny is everywhere including in our executive branch. The reemergence of witches in entertainment is a way to empower women to reclaim their power to fight this endless sexual harassment and abuse prevalent in our society.

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