In today’s pop culture world, there is an incredible push to tell more queer stories. But despite these efforts, finding narratives that speak to diverse groups remains a work in progress. We still see things like “first-ever gay character” (for the five-hundredth time) and characters that allow platforms to talk the talk but not exactly walk the walk. And if the walk does happen, the vision of a queer person filters through a normative lens. Instead of a story that speaks to the represented group, a find and replace occurs.
The same story that’s always told simply gets told again, but now under the guise of representation. But the question remains, to whom are those stories appealing? In truth, no one. The normative populations that might reject queer stories reject the stories anyway. The queer populations who look for representation feel glad for the attempt but often find the stories lacking in the end.
Sometimes, though, representative stories get told without true awareness of that representation. This is the case with the generally popular witch figure. Though there are surprisingly few queer witches in pop culture, the narrative of the witch is, almost definitionally, a queer one.
In this case, I use the word queer in its most diffuse form. There are many ways one can envision themselves as queer, be that through the lens of gender, sexuality, romantic affinity, or any other aspects of life that might put you on the queer spectrum. But queerness, though it has footholds in any one thing or another, reflects something about how one conducts their life. Would people who define themselves as not-queer raise a brow at any part of someone else’s existence? That, in my opinion, is enough to declare queerness. At its heart, the definition of the word is, after all, “strange; odd. Peculiar or curious.” In short, not the norm.
The witch’s narrative role is to eschew and sometimes destabilize the hallmarks of normative life. Many witch symbols are inversions of a more “typical” traditional existence, especially for women. For example, they fly around on their broom instead of sweeping the floor. They make potions in their cauldrons instead of cooking in them. They are often childless and unmarried. And it is precisely the sum total of these facets which call to the queer audience. Because to hold magic, to be a witch, is to be other.
This leads to a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, there are purposefully queer stories that fail to capture the otherness of being queer. On the other hand, there are witch narratives that capture this exact feeling, though unknowingly. Because of this ignorance, however, these stories also tend to fail queer audiences in other ways. Harnessing the latter narratives, reflecting on their lessons, and moving to tell them with a more purposeful aim could offer a key to unlocking greater meaning in our media.
An Eschewing of Norms
The popular narrative of the “Wicked Witch” highlights an interesting truth. Often, at the heart of wickedness is the idea that society, with its structure, order, and institutions, is good. Because how do we know what evil is? We look at what it opposes and understand that to be good. But when “good” equates to “normative,” then “evil” necessarily equates to “queer.”
Two of the best examples of this phenomenon come in the guise of Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent and The Little Mermaid’s Ursula. Together, they stand in opposition to two of normative culture’s greatest bastions: birth and marriage.
To be clear, many queer people desire marriage and children. The fight for marriage equality and parenting rights are among the fiercest battles queer people have ever fought (and are still fighting). And the wins in these areas are incredible. However, because of the difficulty of these fights, societally enforced shunning, and just the way queer culture has formed, these aspects do not always loom as specifically over queer partnerships as they do over non-queer ones. In more “normative” relationships, regardless of what the couples themselves want, the societal demand for these ideas exists.
It is almost hilariously resonant that the sum of Sleeping Beauty equates to the following: Maleficent is not invited to a baby shower because Aurora’s parents deem her “inappropriate.” And then she throws a dramatic fit that lasts over a decade. (Even though she probably didn’t want to go anyway.) Or that Ursula feels much more concerned about her appearance in the mirror than the farce of marriage she plans to undergo. (Not to mention her drag queen inspiration.)
Both these witches are primarily interested in their pets, their power, and getting back at the people who have wronged them for their otherness. Both of them commit the cardinal sin of trying to interject themselves between the heroine and her more-or-less-a-stranger love interest. Wicked, truly.
What could be more good, after all, than King Triton’s abusive destruction of Ariel’s property? Or Aurora’s birth betrothal and the desire of her father that she wed and have babies immediately? Or the way, even when King Triton does come around, Ariel gets literally hefted from her father to her husband? But what could be purer than birth? Or more important than marriage?
And though these are extreme examples, even in our modern-day society, similar cultural norms persist. And, in an attempt to extend relatability to a queer narrative, these norms often get pressed into purposefully queer stories. Even though it is precisely the shattering of them that appeals to queer audiences.
For instance, in Happiest Season, one of the few lesbian Christmas movies around, the story revolves around a proposal. And often, examples of queerness introduced in larger properties such as Star Trek include depictions of the idyllic nuclear family. Except for this time, it’s queer. Again, these portrayals of queer people are also important. But their purpose is often to appeal to non-queer people’s prioritized norms. The “white picket fence existence,” which society has so long denied to queer people, gets trotted out in media to make queerness feel more palatable.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder Maleficent and Ursula are queer icons.
Freedom from a Narrow View of the World
In a different kind of witch tale, The Witch, Thomasin’s story also reads intensely queer. Beset by an abusively stubborn father, stringent religious fervor, isolation, and the perils of being a woman, Thomasin is bound in every sense of the word by her blood family. She is forced to think of herself as wicked and deserving of shame as she is sexualized by her brother, forced into starvation and loneliness by her father, and judged by her mother. Removed from all comfort, she dreams idly of laughter. Thomasin lives in the proverbial closet, always watched by the panopticon of her family.
Meanwhile, the witches of this movie also partake in the same norm-breaking that Ursula and Maleficent introduce. They steal and kill babies, the most horrifying destruction of a normative union, mashing them up for their personal ends. They torment men. The witches leave no one who cleaves to any organized belief, in this case, primarily religious, untouched. In the end, only Thomasin remains standing.
This movie is less clear in the way it invites us to view its witches. But from the perspective of a queer reading, they are undoubtedly the heroes. The found family (which we will dive into later) is an integral part of the queer existence. The rejection of blood family, an institution of normative culture, has been a common queer rite of passage. Even for those whose given families do not outright shun them, a difference in worldview often makes finding a family an integral piece of the queer experience.
Although some might feel horrified by the carnage that comes at the end of Thomasin’s tale, the sleep she falls into is not one of grief but of relief. A familiar relief that comes at the end of a very long trauma when one finally tastes freedom.
“Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? A pretty dress? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously? Wouldst thou like to see the world?” The devil asks Thomasin.
A normative audience might see madness in the final sequence, after death, destruction, and loss. But as Thomasin sheds her shift, and the restrictions of a world that would bind her, and enters the fray of euphoric women, a queer audience only hears…
“Wouldst thou like to be queer?”
The Ways One Must Interact With Society
Wicked tells a tale of two witches: Elphaba, The Wicked Witch, and Glinda The Good. And there is a lot about this narrative that reads supremely queer. For example, Elphaba and Glinda’s duets are tantamount to love songs, ranging from the passionate “Loathing” to the romantic “For Good.”
The actual love story for both witches involves Fiyero, a literal strawman. A very “hand of God”-feeling character designed to make these witches’ narratives more normative. But despite this, the strong connection between Elphaba and Glinda makes up the heart of the musical. It is, after all, Glinda that Elphaba asks to run away with her at the moment of truth.
But what queer people can recognize most involves the division set up between them. Elphaba steps into her power or queerness, while Glinda keeps her heart hidden to please the society she wishes would love her.
Although she loves Elphaba she will not abscond from society for her. Elphaba, meanwhile, makes concerted choices to embrace herself, even if it means the derision of everyone around her. Elphaba is unable to stomach the cruelties of society and refuses to bend to its whims. To embrace herself and feel truly good, by her own measures, she must cast off the trappings of the world that won’t accept her. As Elphaba shrewdly notes in her defining song, “Defying Gravity, “And if I’m flying solo, at least I’m flying free.” Another evocation of the queer shedding of norms, society, and blood families.
Glinda remains closeted in a fashion or at least allows the norms around her to reshape her. This feels similar to how pop culture seeks to reshape queer narratives into their most “familiar” forms. Elphaba accepts that she cannot live this way.
What Wicked does successfully show is that there is no right way. Each queer person must do as they see fit with themselves. And one can only take the steps they are ready to take. Coming out to the world requires sacrifice, and being a “Wicked Witch” is a heavy burden. Expressing one’s self when queer is always a fraught proposition.
The story’s true villain is neither witch but instead normative society. This facet of the witch narrative mirrors the decisions queer people make every day.
A Found Family
The found family is central to the queer narrative and also to a witch’s story. What is a coven, after all, but a found family plus powers? And what queer found family doesn’t dream of a little of magic? It’s no coincidence that many queer units of this kind have, at one point or another, dabbled in real-world renditions of spellwork.
One of the most well-known covens of all lives in The Craft. A witch story that is so queer until it’s not.
More than anything else, queer relationships grow on intimacy. A shared perspective, shared pain, shared joy, and shared love. There’s a level of trust required to be your most authentic queer self with another person. Because however much you may love or trust someone, the possibility always exists that they will simply not accept you.
Before they call a circle, the women of The Craft take turns holding a knife to each other’s hearts, and allude to this idea, saying, “It is better that you should rush upon this blade than enter the circle with fear in your heart. How do you enter?” Only to hear the reply, “With perfect love and perfect trust.” Although it can feel scary to share, finding people with whom you can share, a friendship that shifts into family, is a gift like no other.
In The Craft, three girls rejected by their peers find their missing link, their number four, and unlock a special kind of magic. And this magic, but really, this friendship brings them something they sorely lacked: power. And through that power, they finally take their own agency into their hands in order to make their lives better.
That’s the queer vision of the story, anyway. And, perhaps unknowingly, the first act of The Craft does tell it well, in both the original and the reboot’s versions of the tale. The original is grungier, while The Craft: Legacy feels cleaner around the edges. But regardless of which version resonates more, the narrative of four outcasts who delight in their otherness, who find love, acceptance, and found family in one other, escaping society into the welcoming arms of nature to hold hands in the forest and realize their strength, represents a queer experience that so many have lived.
It’s a beautiful story.
The Craft also stands out for its representation of witches of color and other marginalized witches. Rochelle uses her magic to fight against the horrible racism levied her way. And the reboot’s Lourdes and Tabby are Latinx and Black witches, respectively. Lourdes is also a transgender witch, a sadly rare queer witch in pop culture. These powerful examples of non-white non-cis-female witches are important reminders that the witch and the queer narratives need to work hard to be more inclusive. Neither one can unlock their true meaning until they include everyone who should be able to find themselves in these tales. As Tai Gooden writes in her piece, “We Need More Stories About POC Witches”:
Depicting witches of color in an authentic way goes deeper than seeing a relatable face. It is a possible avenue for people of color to further curiosity about their ancestors’ beliefs and rituals that became known as witchcraft. It is a chance for those who practice various forms of witchcraft to be represented in a way that challenges preconceived notions and harmful stereotypes about their identity. And it can show the full scope of witches, which extends far beyond White cishet women.
This holds true for witches, and it holds true for depictions of queerness.
But unfortunately, something that every one of these witch narratives gets unwittingly right about the queer experience, for all the wrong reasons, are the consequences that come for witches who step into their power. Due to often misogynistic and sometimes queerphobic perspectives, witches almost always get punished for daring to be themselves, both by the narrative and the authors. (Writers, by the way, should watch out for this facet of the story and prevent it in future witch tales. And when learning about queer narratives from witch stories, creators should also leave this one out.)
Wicked Witches like Ursula and Maleficent are often felled for their fight against the status quo. And even more often, they are felled by cishet white men (and complicit women) who aren’t competent. And more disturbingly, they are often cut down in phallic ways at the height of their power: Ursula by a ship’s mast to her childless stomach (read: uterus) and Maleficent by a sword to her empty chest. In the former tale, it’s dumb luck that gives Prince Eric the edge. In the latter, it’s arguably only the power of other witches, termed fairies, who are seen as good because they have given themselves to domesticity. (Although, they too are punished the second they dare bring out their powers for selfish aims.)
In Wicked, no matter if you relate more to Elphaba or Glinda, there exists no true happiness or goodness for you. Narratively, although Wicked complicates many things, Elphaba remains “The Wicked Witch.” By the time the movie shifts into its last act, she has given in to rage and power-lust. Although she “repents” in time for the healing touch of heterosexual love, she still takes up the narratively evil position for owning her strength. Meanwhile, Glinda, though she has given her whole self to society, remains lonely and lost. Allowing Glinda and Elphaba to run away together could have offered the obviously best ending.
Though Thomasin’s story ends happier than most, from where queer people sit, had the narrative known it was telling a queer story, it could have engaged more with a happy ending for her. Though she joins a group of women in the forest, she is not welcomed or embraced by them as she ought to have been. Additionally, giving the devil the form of a man adds an edge of menace to the otherwise triumphant moment. There’s still a note of, “Has Thomasin traded one authoritarian, paternalistic figure for another?” If Satan had been a woman, the ending would have been exactly right.
Finally, the first half of The Craft reads like a formative queer daydream. But the other shoe must drop. After its first act, The Craft takes a sharp turn and turns the joy of its first act into a cautionary tale about wanting and taking too much for yourself. The initial wonder of both the original and the reboot evaporates before the witches or audience can fully grasp it. The women become the villains of their own story, having dared to seek justice and peace for themselves. Having dared to step into their own power. For this, they must be punished.
For those who are marginalized in any way, being told that they are wicked and that their fight for themselves is on par with the struggle of those who hate them is a reality. But this is a poor story to tell. Especially in the case of Rochelle’s spell against her racist bully, the idea that the consequences should come back around to her, or that she should feel any pity for her abuser, reveals that the narrative went wholly astray.
In the original, The Craft concludes with the destruction of the found family and punishment for most of its members. There’s a distinct note of: Wouldn’t it have been better for them if they just conformed all along? It feels important to add that the final image of Nancy Downs imprisoned in a mental institution reads homophobic and misogynistic in a way that would require another article to fully analyze.
Even in the reboot, which tries to correct some of these errors, there still comes a moment where the idea of ridding someone of their misogyny gets termed “not consensual.” A gross misuse of the word. After this moment, the witches conclude they should bind their powers because they have been too irresponsible with them. And at the end of the story, it isn’t clear whether they give up their abilities or not. But why should the witch have to lose their magic? Why is the witch’s level of responsibility the issue and not the cruelty itself?
In its focus on the consequences, though an apt reflection of a queer person’s experience with society, the narrative of the witch so often fails its queer audience. Where, in being a queer story that doesn’t know it’s queer, it simply falls short.
What We Can Learn from The Witch
Disney/Sony Pictures/Wicked/Columbia Pictures/A24
At the end of The Witch, in the glimmers of the lives Ursula and Maleficent lead, in Elphaba’s defiance, in the joy the first half of The Craft delivers, and in many other witch narratives, lives something incredible. These witch stories often speak far more powerfully to the queer audience than the other mainstream narratives they are allowed. Rom-coms about engagements, glimpses of girl bosses, and the always the momentary cameo of a family all fall short in the face of a norm-breaking, powerful coven.
Though pop culture presents witches as evil most of the time, they often represent a queer person’s dream life. But this representation generally comes not because the narrative seeks to tell a queer story but because queer people can recognize their stories when they see them.
From this, we can take away that there’s no such thing as “reading yourself into the narrative,” but instead, that the narrative should reconsider what story it tells. It’s worth celebrating the resonance that witch characters have to queer audiences, but essential to keep an eye on the intent of these stories. From the kind of bonds queer people seek to the ways they must engage with society to the freedoms they desire and values they hold, we can learn much from the queer appeal of the witch both inside witch narratives and out.