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Fangrrls on Film: Gender norms make everyone miserable in The Love Witch

Contributed by
Jul 27, 2018

Film criticism is a very dude-heavy industry. According to a 2016 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, men account for 73% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, resulting in men often shaping the narrative of what makes a "good" film or a "bad" film—what's worth seeing and what's not. And even the most well-meaning, wokest of men wouldn't necessarily catch the microaggressions or tropes that tend to define whole genres.

So, as our answer to years of male critics driving and basically shaping the movie industry with their opinions, Fangrrls on Film re-reviews films from a fangrrl perspective.

Anna Biller’s The Love Witch may have been released in 2016, but it is a loving and fanatically detailed pastiche of bygone eras of film. The costuming and set design recall the threshold between the mod 1960s and glam 1970s, and production techniques such as rear-screen projection give the film an Old Hollywood vibe. Visually, The Love Witch references everything from Hitchcock to low-budget Hammer horror flicks, and the story is in the grand tradition of witchy women seducing regular Joes, including Bell, Book and Candle, Bewitched, I Married a Witch, and Practical Magic. The Love Witch is as much about the history of cinema as it is a story about love, desire, obsession, and a strict adherence to gender norms that only serves to make people miserable.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson) relocates down the California coast after her husband dies in San Francisco—and she is certainly his murderess. Elaine is also a witch in a world where witchcraft is real, though witches are looked down upon in society. In the time-dysphoric setting of The Love Witch, witches take the place of the “dirty hippies” and rebellious youth scorned in the strait-laced cinema of the 50s and early 60s. So Elaine is outside of the outside, a “bad witch” who may be using her craft to nefarious ends. Elaine as an outsider is somewhat ironic, though, as she desires nothing but conformity. She strives for a feminine ideal of beauty and submission and seeks a male partner to satisfy not only her sexual appetite but also her emotional hunger for monogamous love. She just wants to be the uber-feminine lover of a hyper-masculine man. Is that asking too much?

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Yes. Hard yes. Elaine’s gendered idealism is so impossible to bear that she goes mad and ends up killing a string of perfectly nice dudes. But Elaine is not evil. Flashbacks show how the men in her life pressed upon her these ideals, from her father criticizing her weight to her husband, Jerry, praising her weight loss, thus associating appearance and approval, to her former coven leader, who initiated her into witchcraft with a sexual rite that looks less like ceremony and more like assault. The end result is that Elaine is obsessed with appearance to the point of narcissism—she is her own favorite painting subject—and she also craves male reinforcement of her self-worth. She believes submission is the key to winning masculine desire, and that if she is pretty enough and submissive enough, men will love her.

She also uses witchcraft to ensure male attention. The first victim of her love potion is Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a professor who literally abandons a conversation mid-sentence to trail after Elaine with heart-eyes. After a night of potion-fueled passion, Wayne becomes inconsolably emotional and Elaine is turned off by his neediness and sensitivity. He represents a certain kind of man, earthy yet intellectual, but he fails to live up to Elaine’s masculine ideal because of his uncontrollable, feminine emotions. He promptly dies and thus frees Elaine to try again with another man.

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Her next victim is Richard (Robert Seeley), the husband of Elaine’s friend, Trish (Laura Waddell). Richard is a nine-to-fiver whose predominant trait is being a good provider to Trish, and Elaine seduces him—potion-assisted—while Trish is out of town. But Richard fails her, too, because while she wants love and commitment, she doesn’t want it from someone who would cheat on his wife. Having slept with Richard, she loses respect for him and dumps him. He goes mad and kills himself.

By now Elaine has come to the attention of the hard-boiled detective, Griff (Gian Keys), trying to solve Wayne’s murder. Griff is exactly the kind of macho man for whom Elaine has been looking. And Elaine needs no potions to attract him, as he seems genuinely taken with her, to the extent that he initially doesn’t believe she could be guilty of murdering Wayne. They go on a date, stumbling upon a renaissance faire in which they participate in a theatrical wedding ceremony with Elaine’s coven, signifying their attainment of the traditional gender roles of husband and wife. 

Elaine’s happiness is short-lived, though, as Griff can’t overlook the evidence tying her to Wayne’s murder, and implicating her in Richard’s suicide. For this failure, for being unable to love her as she does him, Elaine murders Griff. Throughout the film she tries to embody the ultimate male fantasy, only to be constantly disappointed by the men’s inability to appreciate her. Griff is the worst insult to her effort, as he is not overwhelmed by love potion but is, simply, rejecting Elaine herself, and thus her fantasy of their life together.

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The Love Witch uses the tropes and language of cinema past to explore the notion of traditional gender norms. Elaine spends all her time perfecting her physical façade and seeking a traditionally dominant male partner. She is disappointed repeatedly because no one is just one thing, and even the hyper-masculine Griff isn’t just defined by his manliness. Ultimately his detective side wins out, thus torpedoing Elaine’s constructed fantasy of their life together.

Elaine attempts to fit everyone into her ideal of submissive femininity and dominant masculinity—an echo of mid-century gender roles—but all she accomplishes is several murders and her own failure. Her quest for love is unhealthy and childishly simplistic, adhering to harmful gender stereotypes we recognize as outdated as the old-fashioned production design of the film. The Love Witch is an ode to retro film, but it’s also a cautionary tale to leave those dated gender norms in the past.