It’s one of those nights where falling asleep to the usual evening playlist and temporarily entering oblivion sounds delightful, but since that particular pleasure does not appear, for me, to be in the cards right now, I thought I’d extend this mini-series on witchiness and continue to ask the question I raised a couple posts ago: What is “The Witch?” You see, I’ve done some film-watching and some reading lately, and I have an eclectic barrage of notes scribbled on the cardboard backings of notebooks and in the inside covers of novels, and if I really wanted to, I could probably sit here and practice my use of complex theoretical terms to hash out some ideas that might be ridiculous but might also be interesting. As I was watching Black Sunday after all – which I’ll probably write about at some point – I wrote down a lot of fancy words and ideas that I thought would be fun to share in a blog post. I like, sometimes, to be unapologetically verbose and excessive when I write, even though, stylistically, doing so defies contemporary conventions. But I think one always runs the risk of saying much while saying nothing at all – saying nothing really at least – and I wanted to address that possibility tonight. Because as a woman, as a feminist, I have a special sort of relationship to “the witch,” as she’s been conceived, and made manifest through brutal, torturous punishment, across space and time. And despite having scribbled a lot of thoughts that felt really insightful to me when I was writing them down, it occurred to me that perhaps, to a considerable degree, in contemplating the witch, I still don’t really understand her. Why does this figure exist? How do we reconcile contemporary horror movies with the needless decimation of subversive women and young girls in witch trials hundreds of years ago? Why am I so drawn to this character? And, most importantly, regardless of what I think I know, what don’t I know? These questions are the ones that interest me tonight.
I mean, I think there’s a part of me that gets the witch, so-called, because I’ve always felt, as a woman, a bit on the margins, myself, and that seems like an adequate starting point for writing this little manifesto. The witch, most always dangerous, can be beautiful or ugly, alluring or disgusting, but she is most always a woman on the margins, persecuted and – depending on the text that you read – deserving of that persecution. There is, in other words, a justification for demonizing her. She’s a shapeshifter with magic capabilities who lurks in the woods (sometimes) and poses infinite threat. She’s not necessarily an inherent loner, a person devoid of, incapable of human connection, but she’s always just a little different, a little weird, and sometimes her sort of uniqueness can twist and transmute in difficult ways, ways that place her beyond the borders of “that which is considered ‘good’” or “that which is considered ‘acceptably human.’”
What I think draws us to the witch – as women and as people, and this is probably what draws us to monsters, too – is that we’ve all felt like this at least a little at some point, like we were almost, if only for a moment, incurably weird and different. For better or worse, this is a nasty trick my mind has played on me most of my life, a reason that I particularly appreciate the witch. I think, for a lot of my life, I’ve felt like kind of a weirdo, the sort of proverbial square peg in a round whole. The irony of that situation is that I’ve met many others who have felt the same way. The self-situation outside the subject-object realm is a state of dejectedness that feminist theorist Julia Kristeva associates with abjection, or being close to the abject (I said I wouldn’t theorize, but well, here I am), and I think people who are drawn to the witch might have situated themselves outside the subject-object realm, or felt that acute externalization by society. As a recovering addict and alcoholic who has been diagnosed, at one point or another, with a good chunk of the mental illnesses in the DSM-V, I still feel like an incredibly strange individual, at times, but this situation was amplified, intensified – and far more painful – at earlier periods in my life. Which is to say, I think, that I get the witch, and that as much as I’d like to think I’m unique, I’m probably not. While this feeling of indelible uniqueness my not be universal, I imagine there are many other individuals who “get” the witch, too, for similar reasons.
I’m not green, I don’t have warts, I’m not trying to suck out the souls of children, and I’m not in league with the devil, but there is, when I read or watch at least some pieces of art about “the witch,” an iota of connection between myself and her, a feeling of camaraderie that whispers to the imagined “other” – to the witch – reassuringly, I got you, sister. If I were in your situation, I’d be casting spells, too. These women, who choose to live alone in the forest rather than ingratiate themselves into patriarchal society, are almost always relentlessly lambasted and disrespected in the name of their inherent “evil-ness.” I am coming to be more and more skeptical of the construct “evil,” which, upon studying monsters, seems like a comfortable way of justifying persecution and violence. Murder, torture, and dehumanization are never okay, unless (the flawed argument goes)….unless the subject in question is “evil.” If we can determine that he or she is “evil” enough to be denied human rights, then we can (and in horror, we do) do whatever we want to the entity in question. And that seems, to me, like the plight of a witch; ceaselessly, unquestioningly branded as the evil, vengeful hag, she gets thrust (I think) outside the sort of symbolic order, becomes an absence, a negation – a negation of humanity, specifically – and then her body becomes public property; patriarchy can dispose of her as it chooses, and if history is any indicator, patriarchy’s methods are not always kind.
I guess the problem that I arrive at, then, when I kind of look at American culture – and other cultures, too – is that I think a lot of us women, and maybe all of us, are still “the witch,” to a degree. It’s funny, because I’ve called myself a feminist for a long time, but I never fully recognized and acknowledged the various forces of subjugation that had infiltrated my life and played a role in my own personal narrative, the story that defines who I am. Rather than suggest that subjugation makes me unique in any way, it is perhaps the sole common denominator between women; our specific experiences diverge, but the themes may be quite similar in some cases. As the historian of my campus’s English Graduate Organization (you’re intimidated now, I know) I was leafing through the books up for sale at our imminent book sale with some other female officers this afternoon when we stumbled upon an antiquated book focused on one line of inquiry: are women humans, really, and do they have souls? We laughed and cast the book aside, because asking if women have souls as a line of academic inquiry seems preposterous and hilarious in 2017, but that doesn’t mean the mentality has been obliterated. To the contrary, perhaps sexism, like racism, like other -isms, becomes more pernicious when it’s silenced, when it persists while remaining unacknowledged.
There are myriad and diverse reasons for shaming women, for dehumanizing them, in contemporary culture – dress, race, socio-economic status, assault or abuse survivor status, sexual orientation, sexual behavior, size, choice of clothing, and so forth – but all of these methods do the same thing that patriarchy has been doing to the witch for centuries: they are used to construct arguments of inferiority, arguments of sort of sub-humanity, that immediately thrust the woman on the margins, or even outside of the margins – as an abject figure, to be scorned and disregarded. When I started gaining weight, I read the comments sections of enough articles on weight gain to know how malicious people can be to overweight women. But this viciousness is directed toward women in a variety of situations for a variety of ludicrous, horrible reasons constantly and consistently, and yet the problem is denied, frequently and unapologetically, by men who belittle the female voice by using words like “bitching” (as in, Quit your bitching). In other words, we’re still “witch-izing” women in 2017, a reality that’s heavily and indisputably bolded, underlined, highlighted, and reified by Trump’s presidency.
It occurred to me today that to study witches honestly and truly, perhaps I should read up on the Inquisition or the Salem witch trials a bit. To neglect the history of turning women into witches as an excuse for socially sanctioned mass murder is a rather significant omission when studying the witch, even as a figure in literature and film. But I think – and for various reasons, I’ll avoid saying, “as women,” but will say, instead, as “individuals” – to truly understand the witch, we have to turn in on ourselves, examine our experiences, and use them to understand how witches are made, what it means to be a witch, how the process works.
This question is beautifully depicted in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, which I just finished reading for my independent seminar. The delightfully green “Wicked Witch of the West” is born Elphaba, an infant with a formidable set of teeth who, despite considerable instances of persecution and marginalization, fights against injustice directed toward others her entire life, until, ultimately, the fight warps her perspective, and we witness her, at the end of the novel, shaking and jerky, unsure what to do about Dorothy because the society that’s consumed her, the father that viewed her green-ness as punishment, have exhausted her. If the Joker says it takes one bad day to create an evil man, then Elphaba’s story suggests a far more complex framework of life events that combine, still, not to produce someone who’s “evil” – for, Elphaba is never really “evil” in the story – only, a little removed from reality, by the end, and indisputably flawed. Elphaba is a brilliant, passionate woman who breaks, and by the end of the text, we see the extent to which she’s broken, and she dissipates in a puddle of water – a phenomena with a variety of symbolic implications, I think.
Throughout much of the text there exists a narrative ellipses; have life events really formulated Elphaba, her sister, Nessarose, and Glinda, to be who they are, or are they operating under a spell that the Wizard executed through their school master, Madame Morrible? Though the Wizard denies this possibility when speaking with Elphaba at the end of the text, the initial narrative uncertainty reminds us that we can never cling too much on biography when describing how the so-called witch or monster is created, that perhaps we know less about becoming than we think – and in this state, less about becoming evil. More significantly, Elphaba has deep allegiances and conflicting turns of conscience up to the end of the text, when Dorothy tries to save her and inadvertently melts her with water. Especially considering a compelling dinner conversation about evil imbricated in Maguire’s narrative, he seems to really emphasize that he’s critical of “evil” as a construct, and that, at least with Elphaba, she always had too much depth and reflection to be thrust into some simplistic category that seems to signify “that which is ‘all bad’ and ‘no good.’” Most of the films and books I’ve read for this unit construct the witch or discuss what she is. Maguire seems to discuss what she is not: she is wildly subversive and she constantly overcomes setbacks and persecutions to fashion herself into a rather dynamic person, but she, Elphaba, the so-called “Wicked Witch of the West” is not evil, not malicious or “all bad,” and we’d do well to remember that fact when creating and analyzing our monsters.
Whether or not people can be evil, society certainly has that capability, and that’s what, perhaps, the witch is here to teach us. Elphaba, after all, is not an “essentially” evil creature created by society – someone who is inherently evil because of her experiences. She is, really, an evil “construct” created by society, a category created to justify certain behaviors and define what is and isn’t acceptable in a sort of patriarchal theater. Thus, Elphaba’s experience, and the witch in general, suggests, to us, that while the witch is rarely really a monster, and is rarely really evil, so-called, society can be monstrous and evil, and thus society – its larger structures, ideologies, and institutions – are where we should focus our attention. And, as members of society, it is perhaps most compelling to start with ourselves. Do you identify with the monster, the witch? Perhaps it would be interesting to ask yourself – if you do – why this is so? What do you learn from that identification? And, if not, well, congratulations: you may be officially less insane than I am. This is good news for you, but don’t congratulate yourself too much 😊. You never know when you might feel like the witch in the woods, or like the ostracized, subversive Elphaba.