Monday, August 6, 2012

Images of Witches in Popular Culture

Source: Microsoft 2010 Clip Art
Can I say that I love the above image?  I do so very much.  Yes, there are some cliché and unrealistic parts to it.  As we all know, real witches do not fly on broomsticks (at least not in the way depicted above).  But, look at what it is really depicted: an average older woman dressed comfortably with a knap sack and a kind face.  She doesn’t have the hat, but we all still know what she is.

I remember reading or hearing somewhere that witchy women are still taking offense to the image of the hag being used during Halloween or being attached to witches.  The question of why all witches must be depicted as ugly has been raised repeatedly.  In fact, last year I went to a costume party in my beautiful Renaissance Festival dress and my gorgeous maroon witch hat (pentacle proudly hanging from my neck).  I felt wonderful.  But one of the first people who saw me (a future uncle-in-law) said, “You know all witches are ugly, right?” 

My answer to his question was, of course, “no”.  Now, I often refer to myself as a witchy woman instead of the noun “witch”.  So, I can’t exactly point to myself and say that I am not ugly and I am a witch.  I prefer the term witchy woman for numerous reasons.  Mainly because there are other people who embody the term so much more than I do.  At times, I feel like a silly little witch-ling who is nowhere near knowing or being experienced enough to use that word.  After all, I came and went from this path often over the years, and didn’t really start to learn anything of substance until I started grad school 2 years ago.  Even then, I haven’t had a lot of time to devote to my studies.  So I like “witchy woman.”  It fits.  After all, I am woman with witchy tendencies.  Hopefully, one day I will learn enough to look at myself and know that that I can now use that title, but I’m not ready for it yet.

But back to the original question: Why do all witches have to be old and ugly.  I do think I know enough to answer that question.  My answer is: because they don’t have to be young and pretty.  These are powerful women, women of substance.  They don’t conform to social gender roles unless they want to.  The don’t play into the smoke and mirrors game that our culture tries to force onto to sell us beauty products we never needed in the first place.

Look around in everyday culture and all you will see is images of impossibly young, impossibly shaped women.  In addition to being way outside the norm as far as height, weight, and age, each one has gone through hours of sitting and letting professionals paint their faces with all kinds of colors to further their unnatural look.  And after all this, their images are further defined and removed from reality with Photoshop. There’s no room in a magazine, TV show, or movie for plain or ugly women.  There’s no room for women over 40 unless they’ve paid a lot of money for doctors to extensively cut into their bodies to make them look younger.  

Yes, you could argue that the resurgence in popularity of Betty White bucks this trend, but she managed to do something very unusual, she managed to be the token old white lady in every movie.  And what purpose does she serve in most of the movies she plays in?  Does she help mother the grand children?  Do they show her providing vast amounts of wisdom and the corner stone of a family long term memory?  Nope, she’s the court jester here to provide comic relief.  Think about it for a minute.  When was the last time you saw a 40-50+ year old actress who looked her age on a TV show or movie that wasn’t either a comedy or a historically-accurate movie? 

So why are witchy women complaining that the symbols surrounding us are not of unrealistically young and beautiful women.  We should be above this.  If the rest of our culture has no place for images of older women, why not let them have this?  When our children point out the haggard face of an old witch during Halloween, why not tell them “Yes, that is the face of real wisdom.  The face of someone who is powerful and experienced, and that has prevailed over many struggles.  It is what we will aspire to be when we get older.  And if we are lucky, becoming her is what we will achieve.”