The depiction of witches in U.S. mainstream media has varied greatly over the years. Some witches are presented as haggard and conventionally unattractive women draped in black, stirring concoctions in ominous pots. Others fit into the classic childhood fantasy image of a witch with green skin, pointy hats, and flying broomsticks. And then there are the attractive, mysterious witches who blend perfectly into society while secretly wielding their dark powers against enemies. Though these images are all vastly different, there is one thread that tends to bind many of them together: a prominent focus on the White experience.
It’s pretty easy to name witchy TV shows and films with primarily White female protagonists. Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Hocus Pocus, the original Charmed, Practical Magic, and The Craft are a few that come to mind. However, Black, Latinx, and other non-White witches like Bonnie Bennett, Rochelle Zimmerman, Alex from Wizards of Waverly Place, and Angela Bassett’s stunning take on Marie Laveau in American Horror Story: Coven are far less common. They often show up as antagonists, serve as props to support White protagonists, or are pushed into the peripheral of the story in favor of centering their White counterparts.
For example, Bonnie’s story on The Vampire Diaries had all the elements for a compelling exploration of a Black grandma teaching her granddaughter about witchcraft. Instead, Bonnie’s arc became a series of misfortunes to prop up Elena—including her first “death,” which reeked of magical Negro trappings. Bonnie came back only to be used and ridiculed by others until she died again so the audience could see how sad it made her friends. She was given little room for agency nor thoughts of self-preservation throughout the series despite being a brilliant, brave, and powerful person. The Craft‘s amazing Black witch Rochelle had a stronger solo arc independent of her fellow witches, but it still wasn’t as prominent as her counterparts’ stories.
What makes the lack of witch narratives centering on people of color especially unfortunate is the fact that a lot of witchcraft’s real-life roots are derived from countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Some people managed to pass down their cultural beliefs through several generations despite being enslaved or emigrating to the United States. But a large majority were forced to either hide their practices or blend them into other belief systems (notably Christianity) and assimilate into White culture for survival. As time went on, their descendants lost connection to their ancestral belief systems.
When you take this into consideration, 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.
There’s also The Craft reboot featuring a cast with Lovie Simone and Zoey Luna, a trans Latinx actress. It’s not clear if Luna’s character will also be trans but inclusiveness and diversity is so much more than adding a cis Black person to the mix. Trans and non-binary witches exist in real life, so why not reflect that in media?
Meanwhile, the Charmed reboot got off to a rocky start, what with its starring trio being promoted as Latinas when only one actress (Melonie Diaz) identifies as Latina. Many Charmed fans were rightfully upset, while others were glad to see Afro-Caribbean actress Madeleine Mantock and Sarah Jeffery, who identifies as African-American, as witches. While thee characters’ backgrounds could have been shifted to more accurately reflect the actors’ identities, the impact of seeing three non-White witches lead a series is still important.
Hopefully, Charmed will lead to more narratives with Afro-Latinx leads played by Afro-Latinx actors in real life—preferably more original properties. And if shows really want to break outside of the narrow mold, it would be great to see Asian and First Nations witches on TV too. Controversy aside, the series delivers three fully realized characters with solid individual and collective story arcs.
While Sabrina is obviously the focal point of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, two of the show’s best characters are Ambrose Spellman (a warlock) and Prudence Blackwood. Both of these characters bring a distinct energy to the series. Each has their own stories and layers outside of Sabrina’s journey. Ambrose is witty, cool, and interesting with a great backstory. Prudence initially plays into the antagonistic role but is shown to have more depth as her origins unfold. She’s gorgeous, sharp, and fashionable, but her arc doesn’t come without issues that probably stemmed from colorblind writing. Prudence hanging on an invisible noose was doubly problematic because she is Black and a witch.
This is where TV could take a lesson from comics, novels, and other print materials. These mediums tend to deliver solid depictions of witch characters because the people behind the material reflect the characters. For instance, the successful release of Power & Magic’s Kickstarter-funded The Queer Witch Comics Anthology features a collection of incredible stories by women, demigirls, and bigender creators of color. Does this mean a White writer cannot create or write for non-White characters? No. But, having a diverse team brings the perspective needed to make sure the character’s story shows what they would realistically encounter in the world and their subsequent reactions.
This uptick in witches of color is hopefully the beginning of a new witch era. Yes, there are issues in terms of how their stories are told and strides to be made with widening the scope of inclusion. But the more that diverse witch characters becomes normalized, the greater chances that new stories will continue to dive into real-life history, shape new generations, and provide entertainment that breaks barriers.
Featured Image: Diyah Pera/Netflix