Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Witches as a Symbol of Female Empowerment

I was talking to my mom last week about the Bechdel Test for the presence of women in television and movies.
1. Are there two or more women in it who have names?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

If "yes" to all of these questions, there is simply a female presence in that form of media. That doesn't mean that it is significant or meaningful or feminist... just that women are there. The video explains it pretty well. I looked through my personal DVD collection and found that 25 of my DVDs passed (some barely passed), while 30 failed. So, that's a pretty close to a 50-50 split, but bear in mind, I'm a feministy kind of person and have an interest in watching movies with significant female presence. All my action/horror/comic book hero movies failed the test.

Anyway, when I was talking to my mom about the Bechdel Test, she said, "Witches! The only women who talk to each other on TV are witches!"
And I think that's true to some degree. For about as long as ideas about witches have existed, they have served as a sort of symbol of female empowerment.

Of course, this symbol has been misused. Throughout the history of persecution of "witches," women who stand out have been dismissed and persecuted by being called "witches." This isn't even a dead practice. The late Reverend Jerry Falwell, the controversial, conservative, Evangelical behemoth, called NOW, the National Organization of Women, the "National Organization of Witches" in 2004.

When people are threatened or angered by female empowerment, or simply signs that women are a little more involved in society than simply being homemakers, they are equated to witches. Why? Because witches, both positively and negatively (depending on your opinion), represent women who have more than just natural abilities--they are supernatural. This kind of power is something that has to be tapped into; it is something learned, cultivated, and has the potential to increase over time. (Couldn't that kind of power serve as a metaphor for feminist-inspired female empowerment? I think so.)

And it seems like TV and movies have a hard time letting women be powerful, independent, and quirky without making them witches. Because naturally, if a woman (or girl) is powerful, independent, and quirky, that must mean she's a witch, right?

Alex (played by Selena Gomez) on Witches of Waverly Place is only the newest addition to TV's long tradition of powerful TV witch ladies. When I was growing up, I watched Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and when my mom was growing up, she watched Bewitched.
Okay, so I'm not going to come down too hard on shows featuring witches because frankly, I like them (and spent a good portion of 2nd grade pretending I was a witch...), but I will raise the question: can we have regular powerful, independent, and quirky female characters? The witch thing is all well and good, but it is possible for a girl to be empowered without having supernatural powers. Making powerful girls and women is a comfortable way of saying, "She's a powerful woman, which is kind of not really normal."
Few people these days (who are smart) want to admit that they think strong women are intimidating or abnormal. Making these kinds of women witches in popular media is one way to make that strength and independence in women into something recognizable and acceptable.
Well, I think that we should be happy that we have these symbols of female empowerment and feminism, and realize that they keep being used over and over means that people do admire strong women and that there is a market for them. However, when there are shows/movies that not only pass the Bechdel Test, but also serve as good representations of strong, independent women, we should celebrate and support them in the hopes that more people in the media will catch on to what we already know: strong, independent and quirky women and girls are the best!

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