Witches are More Popular than Ever—What Does that Say About Female Empowerment?
By Yessica Klein with Caz McGovern
Personally, I’ve always wanted to be a witch. Caz, my co-writer for this piece, feels the same.
The more Caz and I talk about sorority and female empowerment, the more witches come to mind. They are the ultimate underdog, shape-shifting entities who are hard to pin down—who knows what they have in their collections of spells and potions?
The kind of mystic, dreamy wonderings evoked by witchcraft and witch iconography are rooted in the powerful and the feminine. I mean it when I say I’ve always wanted to be a witch—I’ve dedicated years to researching pagan rituals and Wicca. I find it impossible to ignore the clear connection between witches and nature.
Witchcraft is based on worshipping nature. Celebrating the moon’s phases, for example, and understanding the intrinsic link between the moon and a woman’s menstrual cycle, and the phases of life – maiden, mother, and elder. Celebrating mother nature: the role of the feminine in the creation of life, and along with it, the feminine connection to the earth itself. Witchcraft offers a holistic approach to life, one that is not anthropocentric or androcentric. Instead, witchcraft accepts nature as the ultimate god and mystery.
If your business model is a Christian church, that kind of nature-loving approach is not profitable at all.
It also makes it easy to figure out why witches have been portrayed as evil and ugly for so long—they are a threat to established power structures. But more on that later.
In my witchy childhood daydreams, I didn’t want to be just any sorceress: I wanted to be Maleficent, an idea that came from my not-so-healthy obsession with Sleeping Beauty when I was four years old. Aurora, the princess, didn’t get to me at all. Nope, I was a devoted Maleficent fan—the gown with a long tail, the magic powers, the cool pet crow.
Who wouldn’t want to be a cool witch who turns into a dragon? And what about Aurora? Pfft—she barely has any lines, and it’s her own fucking story.
Similar to how vampires were the ‘it thing’ ten years ago, witches are now a centre point for consumable media. But this time, they are more than simple villains—we are talking about women who are powerful, deep, and incredibly complex. Witches are back—and they’re not green and evil anymore.
Pop culture has continuously evolved its approach to and representation of witches since the Middle Ages. I don’t doubt that more recent iterations have something to do with the increase in feminist movements, including #MeToo. Isn’t the witch, after all, one of the most direct metaphors for female empowerment?
Then there’s the link between witches and female sexuality: the naked dancing rituals evoke zero body shame (shame is mostly a Biblical theme). And as for the reports of sex with the devil: aren’t they just another way to (literally) demonize female sexual empowerment?
Remember Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Jewish folklore? According to Genesis 1:27, she was Adam’s equal: “So God created humankind in his image, male and female he created them”—but she refused to become subservient to him, leaving the garden of Eden and becoming—you guessed it—a demon, a vampire, a witch.
Eve, on the other hand, was created from one of Adam’s ribs: “And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man” (Genesis 2:22). She also fucks up—she listens to the snake, she makes Adam sin.
Made from man or equal to man, women are to blame when things go wrong—and witches or not, they’ve been persecuted for centuries. Especially by Christians.
Just ask the Catholic Church, responsible for the death of around 60,000 people, 75-85% of them women over 40 years old. The manicheist narrative—a religious or philosophical dualism based on a primeval conflict between light and darkness—helped to build up the old-school portrait of the witch: she is evil, she is ugly, she is old. She is sexual, she is hedonistic, she is crazy. ‘Witch’ has been a pejorative term for centuries.
I suspect that the reason witches are often portrayed as villains is intrinsically related to their power. A powerful woman is, of course, to be feared. And do you know what (historically) happens to people we fear because we lack the knowledge or empathy to understand them?
They become the hunted.
During the Salem witch trials, witches were burned at the stake for harbouring satanist powers. In reality, the majority of women burned at the stake were completely innocent. While the witch trials only lasted around a year, thousands of women were tried and found guilty of conspiring with the devil. Paranoia and misunderstanding go hand in hand with witchcraft—partly because the idea of power terrifies people.
“If she could be a witch, anyone could,” writes Jess Blumberg in Smithsonian Magazine.
That’s how fear is spread.
But there’s been a shift. For a long time, powerful (or independent, or strong, or misunderstood) women were a bad thing. Not anymore. If before witches were usually about the dark side of Manicheism, they are now much more complex—and Hollywood writers seem to have grasped the concept that women can harbour both light and dark.
I mean, surprise.
In pop culture, the witch makes her technicolour debut in bright green in the 1939 classic, The Wizard Of Oz (Victor Fleming). But it was with the ’90s goth cult film The Craft (Andrew Fleming, 1996) that witches became widely celebrated, continuing through to the lo-fi horror classic The Blair Witch Project (Dan Myrick, 1999) and the rom-com Practical Magic (Griffin Dunne, 1998). On TV, shows like Charmed (1998-2006) and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (1996-2003) also gained popularity.
There were exceptions, of course: much earlier, Bewitched (1964-1972) explored an interesting paradigm for the 60s sexual power dynamics. Rebooted in 2005 by Nora Ephron, it saw Nicole Kidman playing Elizabeth Montgomery’s iconic witch. It was followed by more reboots: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018-2020); originals: American Horror Story: Coven (2013); and fantastical reinterpretations: A Discovery of Witches, 2018.
Witches have also made a comeback in film: Italian cult classic Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) was remade by Luca Guadagnino in 2018, the Blair witch returned in 2016 with Blair Witch (Adam Wingard), and even Maleficent got her own story in Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014)—including a sequel in 2019, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil by Joachim Rønning. The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015) grossed double its budget at the box office, and the retro-looking The Love Witch (Anne Biller, 2016) gained a cult following.
To me, it seems that witches have presented a significant threat to the established status quo (the patriarchy?) for centuries, and now they’ve become tropes in pop culture.
Is that because we’re finally embracing sorority and realising the power we hold as women? Are witches the missing piece when it comes to destroying the patriarchy?
If pop culture reflects the ever-changing philosophies of our current society—and I know I’m being extremely positive here—then I hope we see the witch more and more as a deep and complex representation of the feminine.
As Jess Zimmerman and Jaya Saxena wrote in their book Basic Witches: “If you speak when you’re told to be quiet, take pride when you’re told to feel shame, love what and who you love whether or not others approve, you’re practising witchcraft.”
If you are supporting other women, being proud of your body and its cycles, and sharing your space with other women, you are practising witchcraft.
I hope that in this next chapter of pop culture history, witches might be written more by women voicing female empowerment and sorority.
Get your coven ready: witches are back.
Or, in other words: from rags to… witches.
Sorry, I had to. Happy Halloween!