It’s the witching hour, folks. With recent reboot of “Charmed,” and a reimagination of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” a president with scandals and a controversial new member of the Supreme Court, one could say that the 1990s are back. With this backdrop, the increased presence of witches in popular culture appears to be a commentary on the need to dismantle the patriarchy; the witch as a symbol additionally seems to take this commentary a step further and represent women, literally taking the power denied them by society.
The way witches are presented has changed over time. During the Salem Witch Trials, according to Elizabeth Reis’s “The Devil, the Body and the Feminine Soul in Puritan New England,” women were viewed as weak because they had allowed themselves to be corrupted by Satan. Over time, this perception of witchcraft changed. In the 1960s, the show “Bewitched” featured a feminine witch, Samantha, as a housewife who had forsworn using many of her powers to make her husband feel more comfortable. This, of course, emblematized the popular image of the nuclear family that had grown to dominate the public consciousness in the 1950s. Don’t rock the boat. Dad is the breadwinner, and the wife stays at home. Instead of using her powers to claim an equal place alongside her husband, the cultural mores of the time meant that Samantha could not be portrayed having power and being in a domestic relationship. And of course, a powerful woman was a dangerous thing, so Samantha relinquished her powers, thus giving her husband primacy in the household.
The implication that a witch must give up her strength and independence shifted later on and “The Witches of Eastwick,” where the witches derived their power from a relationship with Daryl, a stand-in for the devil. This relationship implies that a woman’s power comes from the men that surround her, not from individual. This again upholds patriarchal structures by implying that for women the path to power is through a relationship with a man. This idea is plainly absurd but reveals that while ideas of powerful women were becoming more culturally acceptable, they still were indebted to a man for their power.
This seems slightly differently by the mid-to-late 1990s when “Charmed” began. This show redefined witches to be more familial and not dependent on men. However, these women were all white, heterosexual and not free to use their powers for their own wants and needs. Essentially, they lacked a complete freedom to do what they wanted, though they at least had power that did not explicitly come from a male source.
Recently, “Charmed” has been rebooted and the new main characters are not reminiscent of white femininity or feminism — unlike Prue, Piper and Phoebe, the witches and main characters of the original series. Rather, the new witches are multiracial and not exclusively heterosexual. The middle sister — Melonie Vera — is lesbian in an on-and-off relationship that is, thankfully, not fetishized. The sisters are also portrayed in a varied way that reflects their status: the youngest is an undergraduate, the middle sister is a grad student who actively supports the #MeToo movement on the university campus and puts up posters calling for the removal of a faculty member who is literally hellish, and the oldest sister is a scientist in a research lab on campus. These women are certainly not portrayed as domestic; even outside of their witchy powers, they are challenging the patriarchal structures that govern their society. It may not be radical for most television nowadays, but it is certainly a departure from how witches have been portrayed in the recent past.
The reclamation of female power and independence through a more holistic approach to the reclamation of this power — exemplified by the show’s embrace of a multiracial cast and willingness to abandon the heterosexuality of its predecessor — shows a more complete attempt to grapple with the problems of modern society and a critique of power structures. And all I have to say is — both to the three protagonists of “Charmed” and to the women who go about their days trying to dismantle patriarchal power structures is — I’m rooting for you, witches.