Once portrayed as hags who never want to grow old, modern witches in tv and film are having the time of their lives.
Hollywood has long shaped our collective perception of the witch: crone-faced, screechy-voiced women placing curses, poisoning people, and stealing children. But the 21st century has seen a shift in the legacy of the witch. Mostly gone are the Salem backstories and patriarchal warnings against the unruly woman in culture. As female-centered spirituality has become a more mainstream form of self-care, witchcraft and related nature-based practices have become almost commonplace in real life. The connection between female empowerment and harnessing magic is no longer reserved for that one lady in the neighborhood with cats, caftans, and yard art. (Even though we stan her too!) Because of this, the representation of witches on screen has also shifted, introducing more sexy, positive, innovative, and normalized depictions of witches.
The first iconic portrayals of witches on screen came from the 1930s, with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Wizard of Oz. In Snow White, the evil queen is so obsessed with being the “fairest of them all” that she magically disguises herself as an old crone in order to trick the young, beautiful maiden into eating a poison apple — a misogynistic message that being a beautiful, powerful woman is a zero-sum game. Witches have long been driven mad by aging, obsessed with stealing the youth of those around them, often eating children or sucking up a youthful essence. It’s still a popular trope used in the iconic camp of Hocus Pocus (1993) and in modern-day reinterpretations of Snow White, like Charlize Theron’s evil queen in Snow White and The Huntsman (2012).
The Wizard of Oz offered viewers an antithesis to the evil witch with Glinda the Good Witch, a heavenly fairy godmother archetype. The rivalry of good witches versus evil witches is echoed in modern-day cult classics like The Craft (1996), A Simple Wish (1997), and Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1990 and the 2020 remake), and the entire Harry Potter series. It’s even translated to television, where witches throw down amongst themselves, inspired through magic to do good, or turned evil by its power. This push and pull shows up in the constant inner battle of Willow in Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997), and in the evolving landscape of how and why to channel magic on Charmed (1998). It’s an addendum to the original patriarchal narrative of unruly women being witches by their very nature, but also questions if women can handle the great responsibility of morality.
The representation of witches on screen has shifted, introducing more sexy, positive, innovative, and normalized depictions of witches.
At a certain point, witch portrayals took a turn for the camp. Slightly more feminist in nature, these TV shows and films turned the real-life consideration of witchcraft into a joke. Bewitched (1964) endeared mid-century audiences to the idea of the witch, but they did so by making her a beautiful housewife in a constant struggle to subdue her powers and submit to her consistently annoyed husband. Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996) continued the more comedic spin on women embracing the dark arts while navigating the politics of female empowerment. A powerful witch will always have trouble finding love with a mortal man because her inherent power has thrown off patriarchal power dynamics.
Some work has gone into modernizing these older imaginings of the witch. There has been a recent effort to rehabilitate the reputation of the Wicked Witch of the West with Gregory McGuire’s Wicked series of books — and, of course, the juggernaut musical based on them. Maleficent (2014) attempted to give the title character, the original villain from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, a heartening back story that saw her turned vengeful after being tricked by false promises of love to cut off her prized wings. While still a sexist tale, the film’s reimagining of Maleficent does suggest that women have a deep well of power by harnessing their connection to nature.
Another problem deeply woven into the mythology of witches perpetuated by the media is the disparity in how white witchcraft and Black witchcraft are presented. While they are inherently different practices born out of completely different histories and lineages, white witches are allowed a more playful, misunderstood narrative, while witches of color are often othered as practicing darker, more deceitful magics. While it is more common for Black witchcraft to be more centered in Hoodoo, Voodoo, and root work by way of family traditions, the fact that it is made more sinister on screen speaks volumes to this double standard.
This disparity can be seen in Angela Bassett’s portrayal of the infamous New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau in American Horror Story: Coven, who is placed at odds against the coven of white witches, as though she wasn’t worthy of their same prestige unless brought to the table directly by them. (In a similar vein, Queenie, another character in Coven, portrayed by Gabourey Sidibe, had her power manifested as a “human voodoo doll.”) In these depictions, these witches of color aren’t just given way less dynamism than their white counterparts, they’re seen as magical wells that exist to be tapped by white people when they get into trouble. (See also Naomie Harris’s Tia Dalma in Pirates of the Caribbean and Kat Graham’s Bonnie in The Vampire Diaries.) Their witchcraft is rarely seen as an extension of their own autonomy, but it’s a tool to aid white power. Newer witches of color like Jaz Sinclair’s Rosalind and Tati Gabrielle’s Prudence in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are allowed to have their heritage and their magic represented in more nuanced ways that show them as characters rather than caricatures.
This leads us to the more modern, far more compelling interpretations of the witch as sometimes hedonistic, sometimes altruistic, but always driven by the intimate connection between the divine feminine and nature. Practical Magic (1998) is a female-empowered witch-centric narrative that is as campy as it is true for presenting real Wiccan practices. It features peak Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock performances and tells a story of witchcraft that unifies women, connects them to nature, celebrates their inner power, and refuses to let men dictate any of the terms. It presents witchcraft as a refuge and a birthright, not unlike how it is embraced by modern witches today.
The 2015 film The Witch shook audiences not just with its finesse of the horror genre, but also with its playful twist on evil. When The Devil, embodied by a black goat, sinisterly whispered, “Dost thou wish to live deliciously?” I practically begged his female target to answer “Yes!” When the young woman does answer the satanic call, she finds herself in the woods, naked around a fire, levitating in ecstasy. It’s a thematic parallel to 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick, in which Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer conjure the devil in the shape of Jack Nicholson, to similarly ecstatic, sexual but ultimately dangerous ends because their spell linked them to a man and not the earth.
The most fun manifestations of the witch on screen have come in recent years, where witches can contain multitudes. The gothic horror of American Horror Story: Coven (2013), the retro stylization of The Love Witch (2016), and the macabre cool of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018) all allow witches to be complicated and messy, mirroring the way modern women have insisted on doing the same. These on-screen witches are malicious towards their enemies. They feast on the joy of their power. They engage with sex magic and dangerous spells. They tinker with imbalances of power to get what they want. They harness nature as a deity. While there still are inklings in these depictions of controlling men, vying for youthfulness, and good witches fighting bad, these dynamics are presented through the female gaze. These are women using their powers, good or evil, to enjoy themselves and thrive — representations that take the iconography of the witch out of the hands of patriarchy.