In the history of popular culture, from folklore to streaming television, witches have served as a metaphor for and a reminder of the way society views women. Witches and women alike are to be feared, distrusted, and questioned. But once women reclaimed the witch, both became powerful and deserving of respect. Beyond that, they — and we — became something else entirely: human. Before their panel on the topic of pop culture witches at San Diego Comic-Con, SYFY FANGRRLS spoke to a veritable coven about witches, women, and the mysteries of both.
While misogyny and othering exists across the world, this specific focus on witches tends to be unique to whiteness. “It’s a very western thing. Spirituality and mysticism, it’s not as like ‘burn her’ as in the western world, and I think that comes from powerful women," said Tomi Adeyemi, author of Children of Blood and Bone. "Like we actually burn women, whether they can create fire with their mind or not.”
The hatred clearly isn't due to a fear of magical powers. As Sabrina the Teenage Witch creator Nell Scovell said, “Even in the most famous story about witchcraft, Harry Potter, he’s a boy. He’s the boy who lived."
The whole group had a simultaneous realization, voiced first by Ruth Connell, who plays Rowena MacLeod on Supernatural. “That’s never occurred to me, that he’s a witch. I wonder if [his gender is] why it’s not seen as weird."
“Well there’s wizards and witches,” Adeyemi said, “Hermione is the brightest witch of her age and is the only reason they don’t die in every single book, but Harry is the hero. You take Hermione out and they’d be gone. Who knows if it would have caught fire if Harry Potter was a witch? The terms are very gendered, and I think that matters.”
Juliana Crouch, a practicing witch, knows the history of witchcraft and society's treatment of witches and women alike all too well. “So much of the creation of the evil old crone witch came from Christianity and Paganism trying to diminutize women and take away our power because, in essence, we are very strong and very powerful and sexual and spiritual.”
The conversation quickly steered toward pop culture's most beloved witch of all, Samantha Stevens from Bewitched. “One of the things I love about Bewitched was this idea that these women in the story had all the power, and it sort of reversed the usual trope," said Ben Blacker, co-creator of The Thrilling Adventure Hour who cites this idea for his upcoming Hex Wives. "Endora would come in and say, ‘This human is beneath you. This guy is garbage. You have power. You deserve someone powerful.’”
As Blacker noted, at its core, being afraid of or hating witches comes from the same place as hating anyone else — the fear of the other. In her book, Adeyemi writes about people with magic as metaphors for black people today. “It’s about having someone teach you to hate what makes you magical and try to literally take your magic away from you, take your power away from you,” she said.
As Adeyemi knows, that magic can be taken away from us not only by society at large, but from within.
“When I was growing up, Harry Potter made me love magic, and I was writing stories about magic, but I wouldn’t write stories about people who look like me," she said. "Because I had internalized that idea that black isn’t beautiful. Like, I’m writing about dragons and portals but I couldn’t imagine a black person doing it.”
“Throughout the book, it’s literally your magic is what makes you special, it’s what makes you unique, and even though the whole world has taught you to hate it, once you realize that those are lies and you take your power back, you become an unstoppable force.”
But, as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility, and with that — as well as a deep need to fit into everyday society as women and marginalized people know, something necessary not only to comfort but safety — comes learning how to harness the power that makes us great.
“The important thing is not only having the power but controlling the power. We’re all capable of manipulating and overwhelming people or trying to persuade people, but how do you do that in a responsible way?" Scovell said, something that was the focus of many episodes of Sabrina.
But the control isn't limited to women ourselves. The flip of this is the lack of control men have over women, especially powerful ones.
“Whether she’s burning down entire cities or just sitting there like ‘You can’t affect me, I can affect you,’ that’s terrifying to men," Adeyemi said.