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The witches of 2018 summoned an essential message

From Sabrina to Suspiria, pop culture spellcasters found power in covens

Courtesy of Netflix

“This isn’t a witch hunt,” Mel Vera seethes in the first episode of The CW’s new Charmed reboot. “It’s a reckoning.”

Charmed 2.0, which made headlines well before its premiere in October for allegedly being “more feminist” than the late ’90s original (a claim that fairly rankled the original stars), was primed for the political climate. The setup is similar but modern: the Vera/Vaughn witches, now written to be Latinx, grew up in separate homes with different parents and now battle demons in their college town — a potent allegory for predatory men on campus.

The language of “#MeToo” and gender politics permeate the rest of Charmed’s premiere season; Mel is a women’s studies grad student who regularly advocates for smashing the patriarchy, and sets straight another (male) student who wonders whether her campaign against a professor accused of sexual assault is tantamount to an old fashioned witch hunt.

The past year has been shaded by sexual assault survivors who not only came forward with their stories, but were actually believed, even as opponents hurled claims of “witch hunt”. Whether pop material sought to examine this idea, or something in the air saw creators anticipate the trend and work their magic through a particular lens, the use of coven and witch iconography explored the vulnerabilities and power of women in 2018.

[Ed. note: the rest of this post contains spoilers for The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, American Horror Story: Apocalypse, Hereditary and Suspiria]

Charmed’s fellow reboot, Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, is darker, both in tone and visuals, than the original. In order to solidify her burgeoning magical powers, Kiernan Shipka’s Sabrina reconciles her mortal high school life with relinquishing her freedom to the Devil himself. Throughout the season Sabrina constantly tries to manage her independence with both the blatant and covert desires of the men around her to keep power in check. There’s no talking cat around to make things easier.

Like Charmed, academia is Sabrina’s backdrop for examining the parallels between the occult and the patriarchy, and it’s not just the heroine who leads the fight. Her friends, Susie and Ros, exert their power in school by forming the Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association (W.I.C.C.A.), a loose call back to the 1960s radical protest group Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (W.I.T.C.H. ). Ros, who has inherited psychic abilities from her grandmother, challenges the school board about the banning of The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, coincidentally an author who explores supernatural themes in her work, while the non-binary Susie communes with the ghost of their ancestor, who has ties to the witch trials that occured in their town.

“I really connect to the idea that you find witchcraft through persecution,” a witch named Haleigh told The Cut for its piece on the rise of the occult. “I think that’s why a lot of people are drawn to witchcraft — they don’t fit in, they’re queer or a person of color or just a little weird.” Charmed and Sabrina both reached for this transcendent space.

Diyah Pera/Netflix

Suspiria and Hereditary steered the trend towards darker depictions of witchcraft. Whereas Hereditary uses the disability and death of a daughter to illustrate how the patriarchy of demon worship favours the son’s ascension to the throne of demon king Paimon, Suspiria tries to make a bigger statement about men being complicit in the downfall of women (and the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust) by grazing the notion of #MeToo in a way that doesn’t make any tangible statement. In this case, it’s one man — Dr. Josef Klemperer (played by Tilda Swinton, who occupies three roles in the film) — who is unable to save the women around him, most notably a coven of witches masquerading as ballerinas. “When women tell you the truth, you don’t pity them. You tell them they have delusions,” one of the senior witches accusingly says to the doctor.

Supiria sits somewhere in the middle of masterpiece and being riddled with plot holes — a critical limbo that American Horror Story routinely occupies each year.

The most recent season, Apocalypse, falls firmly into the latter category, weaving together tenuous threads from previous seasons, most notably the series’ powerful women. AHS’ matriarchs, Jessica Lange reprising her Murder House role and Sarah Paulson, playing several characters, returned with the Coven witches to take down the Antichrist and the peripheral, pathetic men who sought to bring about his reign. What is easily gleaned from AHS: Apocalypse, however, is that women’s power is undeniable and will probably save us all.

a group of witches from American Horror Story: Coven as they appear in Apocalypse 20th Century Fox Television

Witch media, whether successful or falling short, speaks with power to that idea — just look at the real world examples of women banding together in coven-like fashion. Someone like Emma Gonzalez, the youthful face of gun reform, recalls Sabrina’s W.I.C.C.A. members and the youngest Charmed sister, Maggie, a college freshman. Sexual assault survivors speaking out together turned Tarana Burke’s 2006 awareness-raising effort, #MeToo, into social parlance and energized the Times Up movement. The Women’s March and proceeding protests were formed in response to Donald Trump’s election, and the recent midterms set into motion the pink and rainbow waves of women and queer candidates heading to Washington.

The witches of 2018 film and television reveal and interrogate the power perpetually held, and often abused by, men. That could be a symptom of responsibility rather than patriarchy, but the two are so inextricable that it’s hard to parse. The only way to know for sure is to test the power in covens. That’s where our TV and movies come in.

As Mel says in Charmed when she finds out she and her sisters are witches, “It all makes sense! Throughout history, strong women were called witches [to keep them in their place], and they are [witches]! We are! We have to unite, to change the power dynamic, to right the ship, change the course of humanity!”

Scarlett Harris is an Australian culture critic. You can read her previously published work at her website, The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris.

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