The Witch
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Credit: A24

The threat of female sexuality in The Witch, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Falling

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Jun 24, 2020

Throughout history, teenage girls have wielded power far greater than their young age would suggest possible. Standing on the cusp of adulthood, the threat of adolescent women in film and television is pervasive, regardless of time or place. This can manifest itself through magical powers, demonic possession, or causing anxiety simply by existing. The fear of female sexuality is potent, placing innocence and experience in opposition — the latter suggests a tainting of the mind, body, and soul. Accusations are coded with charges of witchcraft and hysteria often leveled at those going through puberty.

Robert Eggers' 2015 folk tale horror The Witch (generally stylized as The VVitch since the time period pre-dates the common use of 'W'), and the adaptations of Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock and Carol Morley's coming-of-age film The Falling all explore female sexuality and the impact it has on the small communities the girls live in. Overlapping themes link the narratives, revealing little has changed over the centuries and how easy it is to blame bad fortune on the whims of young women. Most notably each of these movies is set on the cusp of great change, whether it is the Puritans in the "New World," the end of the Victorian era in turn-of-the-century Australia, or the sexual revolution of late '60s England. Change brings resistance; giggling schoolgirls and eldest daughters make good scapegoats when society is shifting.

Credit: A24

The Witch is a 1630s-set New England folktale drawing on stories the audience will likely be familiar with, thanks to the well-documented and portrayed Salem witch trials. Banished from the Puritan Plymouth Colony over a religious disagreement, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her family build a new home on the edge of a foreboding forest, which only fuels their paranoia. As the eldest daughter, Thomasin is tasked with looking after her baby brother, who mysteriously disappears while she is playing a game of peek-a-boo. Trust is never regained after this incident, the guilt of which Thomasin must bear. She couldn't protect Samuel, but maybe she didn't try?

Reputation is permanently stained by an accusation of witchcraft — and could also result in death — even in a community that consists of one family. Shame is a festering wound found in every dark corner of the home, of which prayer is the only antidote. Her changing body causes friction, including her younger brother gazing at her chest to the uncomfortable dynamic with her parents. Samuel was taken by an external threat; however, Thomasin's mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) thinks the rot has come from within.

In trying to scare her precocious younger sister — who stomps around the farm with her fraternal twin — Thomasin makes up a story about signing the devil's book, but Mercy (Ellie Grainger) takes this story at face value, fracturing the family further. The disappearance and subsequent haunted reappearance of her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) damn the teenager further. Her parents had already decided to send her away, in part because she "begat the sign of her womanhood," and nothing could be more dangerous than that — aside from whatever predator lurks in the woods. Sexual repression is a factor, and instead of giving in to her parents when they don't believe her innocence in these matters, Thomasin ultimately eschews shame and claims her power. She becomes everything they feared she would. A self-fulfilling prophecy that sees her grab life by the horns, literally. God didn't answer her calls, so she has nothing to give in return.

Thomasin disposes of her clothing before she ascends with the other naked women that belong to her new coven — her liberation has come at a bloody price. Eggers referred to this movie as an "inherited nightmare," representing stories of the past when a witch was a terrifying entity and not a fun character to dress up as on Halloween. Not the green witch of Wizard of Oz but the one who could destroy a community from within. The curvy naked silhouette on the poster is wearing is the very essence of tempting female sexuality that Thomasin is punished for — and ultimately embraces. Her choices are limited either in becoming the thing she feared or perishing like her kin.

Credit: Amazon Prime

Nature plays a role in both Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Falling. The witchy elements are less overt, but teenage sexuality and repression are just as potent in these stories. "What spell did you cast in the roses?" is a question that lingers in the 2018 TV adaptation of The Picnic at Hanging Rock, which expands the backstories of the three missing girls (along with their teacher Miss Greta McGraw). The events of the sunny Valentine's Day picnic are still shrouded in mystery; the mini-series refuses to diverge from the ambiguous ending of the novel and Peter Weir's seminal 1975 movie. Instead, the same clues, including discarded corsets and one girl found alive after eight days, are offered up without a conclusion. Aspects of adolescence are still a conundrum that cannot be solved.

Appleyard College uses buzzwords like "purity" and "refinement" to remind students how to behave. The all-white frocks give off an air of innocence and refinement, gloves can only be removed when the nearest town is behind them, and hats must stay on. The act of removing a corset in public is a rebellion. Later, when Irma Leopold (Samara Weaving) is discovered barely alive without hers, it is an added scandal to the already tawdry business.

Credit: Amazon Prime

The mini-series opens with Miranda Reid (Lily Sullivan) sneaking back into her room after running barefoot outside in her billowy nightdress. Her reason for this dawn dash has nothing to do with a secret lover; rather, she is taking a moment of solitude and freedom. Trapped by circumstance, the three senior girls who vanish each have a reason to disappear; Miranda doesn't want to marry, Irma's stepfather kissed her and now her mother calls her a slut (but in French because she's classy like that), and Marion Quade (Madeleine Madden) is in love with Miss McCraw (Anna McGahan). These feelings are reciprocated though nothing has transpired between the two beyond reading to each other.

Marion is also the illegitimate daughter of a judge and his Aboriginal mistress, and while she has been asked to stay on as a history teacher when she graduates, she has been told that there will be no interacting with parents. Mrs. Appleyard (Natalie Dormer) doesn't explain why, but Marion knows it is because of her race. Written by Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison, the TV adaptation also crafts a new backstory for the widowed Mrs. Appleyard, a woman who has a lot of secrets and is all too aware of the price of reputation.

Credit: LMPC via Getty Images

An ethereal atmosphere is part of the Picnic at Hanging Rock aesthetic in all its forms, which paints a picture using magical realism. Miranda is compared to a Botticelli painting in each version; the innocence and mystery of girls this age dominate the framing. When Peter Weir's movie was released in the U.S. in 1979, The New York Times called it "spooky and sexy," a quote used in all caps on the poster, along with other critics who described it as "seductive and unnerving," "sensuously appealing," and "visually ravishing."

The enigmatic thread is a major selling point because it depicts burgeoning womanhood as something that defies a simple explanation, which is also terrifying to some people.

Credit: Amazon Prime

Female sexuality is an undercurrent that runs throughout each adaptation; the interlocked limbs of the three girls in the TV show emphasize the intimacy of these relationships that cannot be understood by those on the outside. Group dynamics add to the fear of teen sexuality, blurring the lines of individuality and creating a coven of sorts.

Credit: Metrodome UK 

Director Carol Morley has noted that Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired her 2014 enigmatic portrayal of mass psychogenic illness in a high school setting. The Falling tells the story of a fainting epidemic that begins with one pupil and spreads. Sexual awakening plays a role in this event, beginning with a fractured friendship between Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abbie (Florence Pugh) after Abbie has sex for the first time. An unwanted pregnancy deepens the rift because Abbie can't stop telling people about her "situation."

Abortion was legalized in most of the UK in 1967, which Lydia points out to her friend when she suggests using magic to get rid of it. Mysticism and science overlap in the fainting episodes that take hold of the school (beginning with Abbie) — Morley also based this on an incident in a Blackburn school in 1965. Diagnosed in The Falling as "hysterical contagion, the wandering womb," teen female sexuality is put on trial when no other specific medical condition can be determined beyond the science of Hippocrates and the Ancient Greeks.

Credit: Metrodome UK

Reputation is once again a factor. Abbie is the rebellious one who wears her skirt shorter than the regulation length; she sports black knee-high boots to Lydia's white knee-high socks. Calling Lydia "Lamb," Abbie emphasizes her friend's innocence while also offering her a lesson in what it feels like to have sex by putting her finger in Abbie's mouth. She wistfully compares an orgasm to blacking out or dying; her newfound knowledge of womanhood makes her a danger to the rest of her class.

Lost innocence is at the heart of The Falling, which includes Lydia's troubled family life. Abbie is the canary in the coal mine who experiences desire and suffers the consequences of seeking control over her body. The psychogenic episode that follows her demise is a collective response to the fears her specific situation provoked.

A feeling of suffocation in an insular community is a catalyst that threatens the delicate balance in The Witch, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Falling. In each narrative, the further the teenage girls edge closer to womanhood, the more society attempts to hold them back from the power they possess. Despite the tragic consequences that befall each group, the lure is too strong to ignore and an element of triumph frames the conclusion of each story. Freedom is a victory, even when reputation has been sacrificed — no matter the decade.

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