Sophie Henry

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a quote on TV Tropes about how cultural depictions of dragons varied according to the economic state of the country in which those depictions were published. To put it simply, authors portrayed dragons in fiction as “good” when the real-world economy was doing well, and “bad” when the economy was ailing. The dragons of “Eragon,” for example, were idealized and heroic while the world economy boomed just a few years before the 2008 recession. In contrast, written during the midst of the Great Depression, Smaug from “The Hobbit” was a greedy and malevolent dragon. 

I was rather fascinated by this theory. Evidently, dragons are a potent cultural symbol for wealth hoarding, or CEOs, or the economy, or simply capitalism itself. As someone very invested in literature and fiction in general, I felt it natural to assume that a nation’s cultural imagination would ebb and flow alongside historical developments. What other symbols in popular media could this theory be applied to? Elves? Knights? Maybe witches?

Witches seem rather obvious in what they symbolize: powerful, independent women who live outside convention-bound society. It’s not too much of a jump to assume that if depictions of dragons vary according to the economy’s state, then depictions of witches develop alongside the progress of women’s liberation movements. I assume that after key milestones in feminist history, authors would want to write positive portrayals of witches, and those portrayals would easily become popularized in a more gender-equal society.

Thus, I thought it would be enlightening to finally put my knowledge of witch-related media to use for this “cultural analysis” piece. In the interest of (social) science and literary rigor, these are the criteria I am using for “witch-related media”:

  • The piece must be fiction. No nonfiction accounts of the Salem witch trials or historical narratives of witch burning are allowed. We are interested in authors’ imaginations only.
  • The witches must be relevant to the plot — either as antagonists, protagonists or key side characters. They cannot simply be a one-line occurrence. The removal of witches from the story should collapse the story entirely. 
  • The witches must be referred to as “witches” explicitly — women with magical abilities are not automatically considered witches.
    • I make one exception for Lost Constellation, where the “Huncher” character is very strongly witch-coded — she lives in an isolated cabin in the wilderness, derives her magic from nature and kidnaps children. She’s asked if she’s a witch, though she never directly accepts the label. 

Because I am only one person and because of my cultural background, the witch-related media I have selected include only: British literature, Japanese animated movies and TV series, one American video game and one American book. Therefore, my findings will be confined to three countries. I’ll be going through my list of “witch media” in chronological order, juxtaposing the “witch timeline” against a country-specific “feminist timeline.”

1606 — “Macbeth” — British theater

“Macbeth,” the famous play by William Shakespeare, did not create the concept of witches. But it certainly inspired a vast amount of British literature to come and cemented into the public consciousness a certain image of the witch: gifted with prophecy, capable of extracting magic from the fruits of nature, sinister, dressed in filthy trappings and connected to pagan powers. Working as a group of three, Macbeth’s witches reference the Three Fates from Greek mythology. In keeping with the rather unforgiving image of witches at the time (spiritual and political traitors to England), the witches are portrayed as evil; although they are not the primary antagonists, and indeed occupy more of a bystander role, they successfully tempt the titular Macbeth into self-destruction.

In 1869, Wyoming passes the first woman suffrage law in America.

1900 — “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” — American literature

“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” written by L. Frank Baum, is interesting to evaluate in the context of witch depictions and feminism. It’s easy to say that the cartoonishly evil Wicked Witch of the West, who Dorothy is made to labor for until she is killed by a bucket of water, reflects the conservatism and sexism of the early 20th century when universal suffrage for women in America had not yet arrived. However, this is complicated by the fact that there are explicitly good witches — Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, and the Good Witch of the North. Furthermore, the protagonist herself is a young girl. Although the Wicked Witch of the West is very much a traditional witch (capable of controlling animals and prone to kidnapping children for free labor), “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” breaks from established tropes about witches with the inclusion of (less prominent, but still important) good witches. 

In 1928, the Representation of the People Act 1928 extends equal suffrage to English men and women.

1950 — “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” — British literature

“The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” for me, provides a fascinating look into the inner life of its author, whose other works I’ve read. Much like “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” it would be easy to ascribe the book’s characterization of the White Witch as a power-hungry, tempting menace to children to the still-prevalent social conservatism and gender-based discrimination of the ’50s. From reading some of C.S. Lewis’s nonfiction works, I know that despite supporting some of the gains of feminism (the repeal of sexist laws that granted a husband control of his wife’s property, for instance), he was a little wary of the movement, a little anxious. In “Mere Christianity,” he discusses marriage — for a moment, I was pleasantly surprised to see him considering equality between wife and husband and even female headship of the marriage — only for him to affirm patriarchy as the natural order of things. In his autobiography, he cites the matriarchy within insect kingdoms as a reason why he was afraid of and repulsed by spiders. Still, half of the main protagonists of TLTWTW are girls — and they are remarkably well-written for the standards of the time. In fact, they play more of a pivotal role than their male counterparts in the story (Lucy is the one who finds Narnia in the first place, and she and her sister are portrayed as having the same leadership capabilities as their brothers).

To expand beyond Lewis alone, the complicated depiction of powerful women in this book mirrors the changing landscape of gender equality in Britain and abroad. 

In 1970, the United Kingdom Parliament passes the Equal Pay Act, which made it illegal for employers to discriminate based on gender as regards the terms and conditions of employment.

1983 — “The Witches” — British literature

Witches are still an antagonistic, child-hating force in this children’s book by Roald Dahl. In keeping with his predecessors, it is difficult to say that his depiction of witches stems purely from sexism (he also wrote well-rounded female protagonists). His witches, too, in “The Witches” hold magical powers that are connected to nature — the usage of herbs, the capturing of rare animals for use in potion-making. Here, though, there is a major break with tradition. When, previously, witches were faced as a single opponent or as part of a very small group, Dahl’s witches are an international force that can occupy an entire hotel lobby. They are organized almost like a union (they even have a leader and an explicit goal), and they are dealt with as a collective rather than as a singular enemy.

In 1985, Japan ratifies the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. 

1989 — “Kiki’s Delivery Service” — Japanese animated film

Perhaps because the concept of witches was imported into Japan from the West, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (dir. Hayao Miyazaki) portrays no negativity towards witches, not even the slightest shadow of discrimination. Far from being terrifying villains on the fringes of civilization, witches are integrated into society. Kiki, the protagonist, is a young witch, who flies to a new city to start life as an independent. She makes friends, has an early-life crisis and learns to fly. Visually speaking, she looks like a traditional Western witch — black dress, black cat familiar, broomstick. Story-wise, she is the reverse — she is the innocent young girl hero, rather than the adult villain. 

In 1988, Julie Hayward is the first British woman to take a case to court and win under the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

1990 — “Good Omens” — British literature

“Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Predictions of Agnes Nutter, Witch,” written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, features its angel and demon duo far more than the titular witch (who is deceased for much of the story). However, Agnes Nutter’s predictions, and her witch descendant Anathema Device, play a vital role in saving the world from Armageddon. 

At this point, we can see a clear and dramatic cultural shift in the role of witches. From outcasts, antagonists, villains — to people within society, protagonists, heroes. Witches were originally thought of as pagan, as Devil-worshippers. In “Good Omens,” they work with angels.

In 1994, the Church of England ordains 32 women as the first female priests.

1995/97/2000 — “His Dark Materials” — British literature

The “His Dark Materials” trilogy, written by Philip Pullman, also features a large group of witches who work on the protagonists’ side, rather than as singular villains. There is comparatively little to say about them in this section, since they are not part of the main group of protagonists or the main group of antagonists, but it is noteworthy that Pullman depicts them as a unique culture, rather than as an integrated part of mainstream culture or a fringe group of a few “traitors” from the mainstream. Also, even if for only one line, he brings up the possibility of male witches.

Japan enacts the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1986.

1996 — “Revolutionary Girl Utena” — Japanese TV series

“Revolutionary Girl Utena” (dir. Kunihiko Ikuhara) is a unique entry in this list, considering that it’s the most explicitly metaphorical about witches. Technically, there’s only one character who is directly labeled a “witch” — but she bears many other titles. Spoiler warning: Witches are a socially constructed concept, made by people who think of the ideal male-female relationship as prince-princess, where the princess is passive and without agency of her own. At the very least, that’s one popular reading of RGU. The entire show is steeped in so much metaphor people can’t agree whether it’s about Gnostic Christianity or feminism. 

Either way, the “witch” is neither antagonist nor protagonist. She is at once a victim and a perpetrator. 

In 1997, 101 Labour female MPs are in Parliament.

1997 — “Harry Potter” — British literature

In continuance with the trend we can see starting from Roald Dahl’s “The Witches,” “Harry Potter” features a secret international society of witches (and wizards) rather than two or three individuals. Like with Pullman’s trilogy, witches have a distinct culture from the rest of humankind despite being large enough in number to populate a small country of their own. Rather than being situated outside or inside the main cultural institutions, witch society is the major cultural force in “Harry Potter.” Witch characters range morally from heroic to villainous. They have male counterparts, wizards, who are functionally equivalent in terms of magical ability. 

In 2007, U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi becomes the first female House Speaker.

2014 — Lost Constellation — American video game

In a callback to the earlier entries on this list, the “Huncher” is a stereotypical child-kidnapping hermit who lives in a cold and faraway forest. She provides the closest thing this game has to a main antagonist; although she does not fight the protagonist directly, the protagonist must use trickery to enter her house and take the talisman — the tattooed skin of her own twin sister — that advances the story. 

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This isn’t exactly a rigorous final thesis paper; I’d feel uncomfortable making any grand claims about the one true relationship between depictions of witches and fiction and the progress of feminism. I will say that it’s heartening to see such diversity in portrayals of witches in recent fiction. I think it means that our cultural imagination has expanded, and correspondingly, the range of opportunities for women across the world has widened as well. 

Compiling this list and seeing how witches have developed in fiction has been surprising, and enlightening. I expected, and did see, a transition from witches as a purely antagonistic and inhuman force to heroes and protagonists. What I didn’t expect, but now find makes perfect sense in hindsight, was the “integration” of witches into the mainstream cultures of the media they were featured in — and the works in which witches formed their own subcultures or clans. 

Another thing that strikes me about the development of the witch archetype as time moves on is how much more “human” they have become (especially when taking into account that a depressingly large number of early philosophers argued that women were sub-humans). The first witches in fiction were only ever one thing: a seer, or a child-taker, or a similarly shallow caricature. And now, witches are shown as full characters — capable of moral goodness and moral ambiguity — in worlds that are structured to include them and give them a space to grow, instead of in worlds naturally opposed to them. 

More women are writing now. In this context, that is something important to consider as well. It’s refreshing to have so many more perspectives than before. So many richer, more complex portrayals of old myths and monsters. Reinterpretations, remixes, reboots. I’m looking forward to seeing where the new generation of writers, more representative of the world population than ever before, takes the witch next.

Claire Fang | claire.fang@yale.edu