Curses! Foiled Again! Witches In Pop Culture: PeaceBang Reviews “American Horror Story: Coven”

I named myself a Witch way back in fourth grade. It wasn’t just because I was obsessed with “Bewitched,” which I was (Endora was my girl — Samantha was cute, but didn’t interest me any more than Disney princesses interested me. Maleficent, now she interested me). It was because I was a witch and I knew it. I was in touch with the Unseen realm and I knew how to read it and even sort of how to manipulate it. I read everything I could find about witches and witchcraft and the paranormal. There wasn’t a lot. There was nothing in my school library about other cultures or shamanic traditions, for example, that might have shed some light on what I was experiencing. I did my best to educate myself with books of medieval studies, Puritan New England, alchemy and 1970’s pop material on psychic phenomenon.

I am a Witch and witches are real. I don’t do actual spells any more, as I never worked one that wasn’t effective, although they all came with unfortunate side-effects or unanticipated collateral damage. My witchiest years were full of “I Love Lucy” sitcom kinds of moments, which would find me moaning, “Oh my gosh, I just wanted to kiss that guy, I didn’t want anyone to get hurt so I could have that chance!” Or, “Now that I have all that energy coursing through me to get through that test/show/day of work, I don’t know how to turn it off!” Cue obnoxious Energizer Bunny inflicted on family, friends or co-workers.

With my full library of Wiccan resources, courtesy of the 1980’s Harmonic Convergence and subsequent opening of the broom closet for witchy types, I learned to work spells. I raised the cone of energy with pagan groups and studied with priestesses. I became more and more adept at managing energy. This was really thrilling for a long time, until I realized that the sad trombone of unanticipated stupid or even slightly dangerous side effects still seemed to accompany my magical successes, so I stopped before getting myself or anyone else into serious trouble. Today when I pray “Thy will be done,”  I have an intimate relationship to the words. The only spell I want to cast at this point in my life is to more mindfully align myself with Lady Wisdom, who has a traffic pattern and flow worked out that I feel I should not interrupt with my personal desires, no matter how altruistic they may seem to be. I do pray a lot: but only to enter into the spirit of peace, to receive clearer understanding or to connect with God’s will, which I understand as a kind of bus that I need to run to catch and board. I don’t know where it’s going and I’m not driving. But I need to get on.

Given my personal past, I was incredibly excited to hear last year that “American Horror Story: Coven” would deal with witches. Contemporary witches! Yessss! My people!  I knew it would be too much to expect that television writers would write about witches in an entirely responsible way, but I thought it reasonable to expect that the creators might at least deal well with women’s spiritual power. The producers announced that Jessica Lange, Gabourey Sidibe, Kathy Bates, Lily Rabe, Angela Bassett and Frances Conroy would have major roles! How could this fail?


Miss Angela Bassett gave me LIFE in this role!

Well, it did. It failed miserably. The show bit off far more than it could chew in terms of addressing America’s racist past and present, setting up a rivalry between the Black voudoun priestess Marie Laveau and European white Fiona Goode, “Grand Supreme” of the Salem Witch legacy. That was a disappointment, but not a surprise. It was an audacious theme to raise, and writers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk were unable to take it anywhere meaningful.

Where Murphy and Falchuk might have been expected to do better — much better- is in imagining the ways that women might use extraordinary powers. In the end, they could only really imagine three ways: To preserve heterosexual, patriarchal norms of beauty, to compete and take revenge on each other, and to manipulate sexual partners. Every one of the witches longed for heterosexual consummation, except for the sweet and dear Misty Dawn (Lily Rabe) who alone represented the accurate historic role of Witch as healer, knitter-together of shredded pieces of people and situations.  I will never forgive Ryan and Falchuk’s despicable treatment of Gabourey Sidibe, a very heavy African American actress whose character sought coitus with a minotaur, and whose body was positioned in humiliating ways throughout the season that the white, slim actresses were never, ever subjected to.  The season is a horrific testament to unconscious hatred of black bodies and fat bodies.

The woman-on-woman violence in this season sickened me. I watched through to the end of the series because I wanted to see if the writers would ever figure out that powerful women have concerns beyond getting the guy and out-performing each other for more (pointless) power and glory. The one female character who was not a witch was a sadist who delighted in torturing black men, a spectacle that Falchuk and Murphy inexcusably played for entertainment value by the final episode.

I wonder what I would have gotten from “American Horror Story: Coven” as a young witch. I’m sure I would have loved the fabulous costumes, the goth drama, and the first promising episodes. Would I have eventually recognized the deep misogyny and racism in the writing? Would I have continued to love the series because it at least recognized energy work and magic, in however distorted a way? I don’t know. I only appreciate that  magical young women these days have many more resources to go to than I did when I was first exploring the contours, possibilities, limits and responsibilities of my own spiritual power. Sister Witches, I’m sorry that “American Horror Story: Coven” treated our kind with such ignorance and disdain. Go out and write a better story.

tumblr_mxoc5zMbeG1s4jr0no1_500Best character from the season. In the end it was all about Myrtle Snow for me (Frances Conroy).

I totally want those hats.


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