are all millennials witches?
i-D meets the author of 'Witches: the unvanquished power of women,' and asks about the literal and metaphorical return of the sorceress to public life.
The extent of their subversiveness remains unchanged, but witches are definitely not like they used to be. No longer do they sport hooked noses, and their warts have vanished under the effects of liquid nitrogen. They’ve traded their brooms for public transport, and they now practice spells on Instagram, with the heavy use of hashtags. in 2018, witches are both everywhere and nowhere. One thing is for certain: they’re not hiding any more. Quite the opposite: they claim their identity openly. To the extent where every month, a handful of them meet at the foot of the Trump Tower in NYC to take part in a very particular ceremony: in broad daylight, they join forces to cast a spell on the US President, while those who couldn’t afford the trip support their sisters by adding to the energy from behind their screens and on social media. On the other side of the pond, in France, the Witch Bloc thrives and takes part in every anti-government, feminist and anti-colonialist protest. Last year, their hit-chant was “Put Macron in the Cauldron”.
Their re-emergence is no coincidence: witches inhabit the imagination of a generation raised with the Saturday viewing trilogy of Buffy, The Craft, Charmed, or even Sabrina. Not to mention Harry Potter, which remains a sacred handbook. The latter has become the coming-of-age film for every millennial-in-the-making, the mystical tale upon which we’ve all at some point dreamt of modeling our teenage lives. And beyond the millions in profits generated through merch sales, the saga has also allowed new generations to put up a magical wall protecting them from a society which claims to be rational, but where reason has never derailed so blatantly. In her book Sorcières, la puissance invaincue des femmes (Witches: the unvanquished power of women), journalist and essayist Mona Chollet perceives the figure of the witch as a new weapon, the suggestion of a collective refusal, and a mystical recourse in the face of the dominant power. I-D got in touch with her to discuss magic, political struggles and the future.
Nowadays, the witch embodies a whole new shape of feminine power. The US elections seems to have played a crucial part in the rehabilitation of witches. Why is that? How would you explain the renewed fantasy and excitement surrounding the witch in 2018 ?
From a political viewpoint indeed, it seems as though Trump’s arrival to power has been a tremendous shock for American feminists and for feminists across the world. I believe that it stems from this return to an archaic power balance, absolutely shameless when it comes to economic, sexist, racial matters… Of course, we could also think that previously elected Presidents spent a lot of energy disguising the violence of their own power.
Today, in any case, there is something very brutal about the situation. On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton had already been called “a witch” on numerous occasions. The American public debate really appeared haunted by this image of a witch-woman seeking to enter the realm of politics. Some people seemed to say: “We’ve been ruled by a black man for 8 years, we’re not going to be ruled by a woman for 4 more!.” So maybe this recurrent use of the word “witch” to describe someone here, and the fact that Trump himself qualified her as such, sprung the resurgence throughout the USA of these groups named “WITCH” who fight continuously in favor of abortion rights, etc.
I remember being shocked by a banner saying, “American conservatives, crucifying women’s rights since the 17th century.” It was as though there was something absolutely obvious about the fact that we were still taken in by this form of archaic conflict, you know, as though these figures of men of power, violently misogynistic, and oppressive, generated in return forms of resistance which also were archaic in their own fashion. Stereotypes are being reinvested.
In parallel, pop culture has played quite a crucial part in the rehabilitation of this figure. Do you think Harry Potter and Sabrina the Teenage Witch have facilitated the process?
I think that Hermione indeed played a considerable role in favor of the witch, but this was a continuous process, there were also Charmed and Buffy, which took part in giving witches a new image. However, we can observe the limits of this phenomenon: namely, that they are always young and pretty women, and white, as though pop culture could recuperate this figure on a certain scale, but never entirely. We’re granted access to interesting witch figures, but only on the condition that they remain within the criteria of acceptable femininity, and that they’re cute. Nevertheless, they did help in the reinterpretation of a certain mysticism.
Astrology, moon cycles, plant-healing… the new generations do seem to be increasingly "mystical." Should this be read as a crisis of reason?
I don’t know if this is really a crisis of reason. What struck me when I was in the process of writing about this was actually the will to add alternative approaches and sensibilities to reason. I don’t believe that they are exclusive. It also seemed to me that this could be read as a reclaiming of reason, and more importantly as a way to redefine its meaning. When the world-view that we’ve been presented as “rationalist” leads to the destruction of the world itself, maybe it becomes necessary to entirely question this reason. I came across this idea in the works of many of the female authors I studied and quoted in the book, and particularly in that of Mary Ann Henley, who questions the medicalization of childbirth. She does so on very scientific grounds, with plenty of footnotes and sources for every piece of information. Her aim is not so much to defend natural childbirth as opposed to medically-assisted childbirth as part of a hippie-minded ideology. Rather, she strives to demonstrate that there is something ludicrous and counter-productive in the medicalization of childbirth, something absurd, irrational, and therefore claims another form of “common sense” when approaching the topic. Even Starhawk, who defines herself as a neopagan witch, discusses quantum physics. She says that today, the discoveries of quantum physics are converging with what witches are also saying. There’s even a claim for a witchcraft science! So it’s not so much about “renouncing reason” but rather about rethinking whether our perception of reason is not deluded.
Is the witch not also reconsidering what we define as “progress”?
This is also a tremendous mental shift: my generation and that of my parents grew up without any questioning of our ways of life. The awareness that this lifestyle which we saw as absolutely normal and self-evident was in fact totally destructive and unsustainable came quite late. And for those who have put so much faith in this notion of progress, who trusted it so much, it comes as a very violent shock to realize that we were in fact wrong about it all and that we need to completely redefine the notion.
Militant circles also rediscover the power of the witch, be they feminist circles, or anti-capitalist or anti-colonialist, etc. When did the witch become this totem for militancy?
I think it happened in stages. It was already true in the 1970s. We could even go back to the late 19th century with Matilda Joslyn Gage, an American activist who was interested in the history of witchcraft and who identified as a witch, and who by the way became a character in The Wizard of Oz because the author, her son-in-law, had drawn inspiration from her. But it’s in the 1970s that the symbol became claimed collectively, particularly by the WITCH collective in the USA, even though at the same time in Italy feminists were chanting “Tremble, the witches are back!.”
In France, it’s probably in the 1970s, with the Sorcière magazine, that the movement peaked, or, at least, that it came back in a very clear way and engaged in a truly reflective reclaiming. It can be interesting to read the memoirs of one of the founders of WITCH. She recalls that at the time, the members of the collectives had set up a Halloween march in NYC, but that they knew nothing about the history of witches. They had acted on impulse. In her memoirs, she ponders that in hindsight, they were truly absolutely ignorant. Starhawk worked on witch-hunting in Europe in a book for which she began researching in the 1980s, long after she herself had decided to be a witch and to publish the Spiral Dance, which is a spiritual handbook. There was an obvious attraction tothe figure of the witch that was very instinctive, and that predated its analysis and consciousness. Later, Federicci’s book, Caliban and the witch, was also reinvested by the feminists and given a new political dimension. In the end, witch militancy is quite recent, it only really arose in the 1980s and 1990s.
Are the feminist movements that define you as a “witch” today still a part of the same legacy?
They are, but they are very varying modes: some have no spiritual practice, others claim the figure of the witch as a political symbol, others still combine both of these trends. On the other hand, there is also the trend of self-improvement, which repurposes this figure in a completely apolitical way. And all of these approaches can interact in a quite startling way.
Do you notice a commercial appropriation of the witch? I’m thinking particularly of the self-improvement industry which has also invested this figure.
It’s hard to say. It’s true that there are a load of small Internet shops selling food supplements, plants, brews, and all of these kinds of things, so yes, in a way. In any case, every self-improvement trend comes with a mercantile dimension: and the figure of the witch allows one to sell cosmetics and potions. It's a form of recuperation, which isn’t necessarily done with cynical intentions. It’s such a natural thing, in our world, to be selling products. I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a hollow and narcissistic edge to this approach of the witch. But I don’t want to be too prompt to criticize, because even though it might appear somewhat superficial, women constantly have to defend themselves against very negative and depreciating gazes, and we carry so much self-hatred and body-hatred. So I wouldn’t cast the accusation of “narcissism” too quickly. I feel like there is a lot of repairing to do and like these accusations would hinder this task, even though I personally disagree when the witch takes questionable shapes and is reduced to crystals and essential oils.
Did Instagram, Twitter and social networks in general allow for the birth of new witches? Did they provide them an opportunity to step out of the shadows?
They have, yes. In any case, they’ve served as a meeting point. Shared hashtags allowed for the building-up of a movement, of a community. This is may be how witches moved out from secrecy. There are groups of witches that curse the Trump Tower on a monthly basis. Those who can’t take part can cast the spell from their Instagram accounts. They take a picture from the shrine from where they cast the spell and post it on the social networks. The spell travels via hashtag across the world and in reaction, Republicans organize praying sessions to counter the witches’ curse. It’s unbelievable if you think about it. So yes, Instagram is a part of the witches’ artillery and the platform has become quite a powerful tool and a feared weapon.
On this topic, the #metoo movements and their international echoes have been perceived as curses by some of their enemies…
It’s true that in the wave of fright unleashed by this speaking-out, one could be under the impression that the words of women were spells. There are certain parallels with the history of witch-hunting that have struck me since the beginning of the #metoo movement. Specifically the fact that, as was the case in the past, female victims have very little or no means to obtain justice when they need it. The power that they have to face, which crushes them completely, makes them become a terrifying threat. Even though today we don’t burn women in public squares, exactly like in the times of witch-hunting, we see victims and oppressors switching roles. It’s what happened recently with the Kavanaugh case in the USA. The victim exposed herself publicly, she received death threats, torrents of insults and no justice came out of it. Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court. A few days, the Republicans suggested going after the accusers in court. In England, during the Renaissance, when someone was accused of being a witch her accuser would always insist on her great power. The oppressed is perceived as a powerful and terrifying threat, while the oppressor is seen as a victim: it is a total inversion.
Can the mysticism and magic embodied by the witch, and that young generations are claiming these days, become weapons for a counter-power?
I don’t believe much in magic as in transforming your friends into toads, I doubt that this would work. But maybe this magic is a way of reconnecting with the natural world, to focus sometimes, on other aspects of our lives. I don’t know whether it’s purely political, but it can definitely influence the ways we approach politics. By revitalizing a certain self-esteem, a confidence, these mystical practices become political.
The individualistic aspects and the self-improvement trend tends to generate strong reactions, sometimes violent ones. As though they were incompatible with a political approach. But I’m not so sure that this is the case. In 1992, Gloria Steinem published The Internal Revolution, which is about self-esteem. As a feminist militant who had led great collective campaigns, she had had to face very harsh critics. But she saw no incompatibility between having a personal project and a collective aspiration, as both appeared necessary to her. She felt neglected and censored for too long, and as though she had to reconnect with herself in order to fight even harder. She would often reference Gandhi, who was very troubled as a young student in England and tried by any means to erase his Indian identity to become a perfect British gentleman. It’s only when he gave up this self-hatred and acquired confidence and faith in his identity that he became a revolutionary leader able to lead the struggle for his country’s independence. I also believe that there is quite a direct link between the reconquering of one’s self-esteem and the ability to lead a political struggle. To join a collective project.
This article was originally published on i-D France.