Teen Witches for the Apocalypse
We are the weirdos, mister.
- The Craft
When you’re a teenage girl, everything bad that happens feels like the end of the world. Nothing really belongs to you except your angst. Your body and mind are suddenly public, up for the taking, or for the selling. Of course you want to become a witch. Of course the idea of having, taking power to exert over yourself and others is seductive. You have a secret power, you carry it in your pocket, in your backpack; a moonstone, a tarot card. A charm against evil. And your will makes it so.
You’re also publicly derided, even by the people you’re trying to emulate. Ask any practicing Wiccan what they think of The Craft or Practical Magic and you’re guaranteed a diatribe. The figure of the teen witch sits uneasily alongside any kind of real spiritual practice. She’s wildly unrepresentative; neoliberal capitalism taking anything even vaguely countercultural, repackaging it for the masses and spitting it back out. She’s easy to laugh at, easy to mock. She’s false empowerment and positivism in an easily digestible package. She’s everything we wish we could forget about those so-called post-feminist days of the 1990s, more Spice Girl than Riot Grrl.
But she’s back. Despite her trashy, single-use image that suggests something to be outgrown or discarded, she keeps floating to the surface. This essay seeks to understand the forms she takes in her enduring quest for immortality.
You know, tomorrow looked a lot better yesterday.
- Sabrina the Teenage Witch
The 90s don’t seem that long ago, do they? I mean, I don’t really remember them the first time around, and some people reading this didn’t even exist yet. But they’ve remained a cultural touchstone for our entire lives, somehow also echoing through the early 2000s. It’s a weird kind of nostalgia for something that doesn’t feel like it’s completely dissipated, but doesn’t still really exist anymore, either.
Nostalgia’s an awkward idea in feminism. Why would we want to be nostalgic, when the feminist project surely turns irrevocably upon the quest for progress, the march away from subordination of the past and towards future liberation? Nostalgia is for those who have lost power, the ageing white boomers, the angry men in suits, surely not for anyone for whom the work of emancipation is an ongoing struggle. Kate Eichhorn comments on the uneasy relationship of feminism to nostalgia, pointing out that ‘Feminist nostalgia is not about longing for some thing, time or place but rather about longing for the very possibility of living in a landscape where the past held little promise, little revolutionary potential, and the future was the only place where possibility dwelled.’ It’s become obvious in our current time that progress isn’t linear, it isn’t even really a vaguely upward-travelling squiggle; sometimes it can feel like we’re moving backwards or simply stuck, bogged down in an eternal present. Nostalgia, then, isn’t really a yearning for a time of the past, but for a time in which a better future seemed possible, which manifests now in the almost perverse attachment to texts and talismans of the past. These objects remain in our present as a reminder of the promise of power we may have once felt that now seems wildly out of reach.
These objects have the power to propel us into another time and place, a reminder of the particular temporal now-ness of any movement, that quickly becomes the past in the slow march towards what we like to call progress. The objects we once placed upon our teenage altars now turn up in unexpected places: a tarot card at the back of a drawer, an athame in a shoebox, a moonstone tucked into the toe of a worn-out old Doc Marten. As they travel through the world, through our past and into our future, does their power still have any sway over us?
Or, as we get older, do we outgrow our teenage witch powers, foregoing them for something more mature? Do her images, texts, and talismans serve only as a reminder of our failures, of our politically useless nostalgia, of our inability to really enact change upon a hostile world? Elizabeth Freeman writes about the pull of the past upon the present, and the ways in which images and artefacts, even identities, can be redeployed and recycled in our present moment, mined for moments of unrealised potential.
Culturally, the figure of a witch brings to mind either a historical figure of female subordination subjected to repression, torture and death, or a radically wise healer-woman who desires (and articulates) a cultural transformation ‘that has not happened yet’. In the beginning of the modern era, the slaughter of her kind marked society’s transformation into a patriarchal regime that controlled women’s bodies and accompanied the transition to capitalism. In other traditions, she is a figure of the fight for sovereignty and enduring resistance to the destructive colonial project. She’s a strategic reclamation, a singular challenge to the triad of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.
The pop-cultural teen witch of overplucked eyebrows and torn fishnets doesn’t fit this ideal at all. Freeman’s concept of temporal drag, of mining the past for images, brings to light the performative nature of this teen witch aesthetic. Throw on the outfit and the attitude and you’ve assumed a kind of power regardless of whether you have an altar at home and a strong commitment to celebrating the Solstice. The teen witch image lacks political clout, she’s something to be mocked, shallow and meaningless, rather than a serious symbol of liberation. But in some ways, she’s also the perfect symbol of this ineffable idea that we can control our lives, our environment, our bodies, without consequence. The very shallowness of her image belies her ongoing, surviving presence in our films, our fashion, our collective consciousness.
The thing about magic? There's always consequences.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Spike)
It’s interesting to note how, in these popular cultural texts that valorise and celebrate witchiness and women’s power, morality is more often than not the real winner. Power is circumscribed, you can never use too much of it, and certainly not for personal gain. You’ll get addicted to magic (Buffy), or learn an important lesson about non-consensual love spells (Sabrina, The Craft), or about the dangers of going against nature by resurrecting someone from the dead (Practical Magic). Having real magical power is a birthright, reserved for the socially acceptable, conventionally attractive, white-middle-class woman who strays from the path, learns a lesson about the limit of her powers, of going against nature, and returns to the fold, content to henceforth only work magic for the good of others. She’s coerced into bringing a comfortable kind of resolution to our screens, her agency limited to that which has been deemed appropriate by her elders or guardians, sometimes mother figures, but often also an unseen, all-powerful (and often male) council of magical law enforcement.
The teen witch grabs power and refuses to let go, refuses to let it only belong to those who already have everything. Like the coven in The Craft, disempowered girls who wish desperately to be a different class, different race, or simply to be beautiful, the teen witch takes control and is duly punished for it. She sees those who are born into a certain power and demands it for herself. Because she is desperate, angry, because her power spills over and out, contaminating everything around it, she becomes toxic. She poisons herself with her own magic, she loses her mind.
Like the witch of the Middle Ages who was blamed for spoiling the crops, the teen witch curses those who refuse to take her power seriously. She’s single use, but like a Mount Franklin water bottle, she is never really discarded. She controls the weather, leeches into our soil, chokes our wildlife. We used to burn witches at the stake for making the weather change, but it turns out we all had that power, and we all used it for personal gain, and now we all have to pay. She’s in all of us, moods fluctuating with the changing of the seasons, the acidity of the soil, the transfiguration of oil into capital; hexing us into toxicity.
The witch is and always has been a political agent for change. She’s a radical fighter for smashing the gender binary, resisting colonisation, capitalism, and biopolitical control over women’s bodies. With her elders and peers continuing an enduring historical lineage of resistance and survival, it’s no wonder the teen witch can seem like such a disappointing, impotent representation of something much more urgent. She’s embodied nostalgia for a time that doesn’t seem so far away, yet is rapidly vanishing in our rear-view mirrors. She invites this nostalgia because she reminds us of a time when we felt like we had a future.
We think that we have outgrown these teenage witches, but they emerge as spectres of a world we have almost lost. She’s a figure of shame as well as of liberation - the shame of our past mistakes, bad fashion choices, and misuse of resources. We’re nostalgic for her because she reminds us of a time when we felt like we could do better than we are, when we were awkward and embarrassing, but the future stretched out before us nonetheless. We remember her mistakes when we awake in the dead of the night. We continue to place our faith in her talismans, her image, her incantations, but the teen witch reminds us that everything eventually comes back to you threefold.
1. Kate Eichhorn (2015), ‘Feminism’s there: On post-ness and nostalgia,’ Feminist Theory 16:3, 259.
2. Elizabeth Freeman (2010), Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).
3. Justyna Sempruch (2004), ‘Feminist Constructions of the ‘Witch’ as a Fantasmatic Other,’ Body and Society 10:4, 113.
4. Silvia Federici (2004), Caliban and the Witch (New York: Autonomedia), 14.
5. Rachel Moseley, (2002), ‘Glamorous Witchcraft: Gender and Magic in Teen Film and Television,’ Screen 43:4, 41
Miranda Johnson is an arts writer and worker from Perth, Western Australia. She completed a Master of Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2015, and Honours in Art History from the University of Western Australia in 2013. Miranda is currently co-Director of Moana Project Space. Some more recent writing can be found in Feral Feminisms journal, Fall 2016 issue.