No current TV show worth its magical circle of salt doesn’t have a LGBTQ character somewhere in its plot, but queerness has always abounded in pop culture depictions of witches. In 2018 alone, we’ve seen lesbian witch aunts in the new Sky TV adaptation of A Discovery of Witches and heard that the upcoming Hocus Pocus remake will center on a lesbian protagonist; the upcoming Netflix reboot Chilling Adventures of Sabrina even features a pansexual warlock.
The formative link between queer people—queer women in particular—and witches is clear. Witches have long been considered women transgressing the parameters of femininity. “Witchcraft is linked to anti-normative behaviour,” explains Dr Monica Germana, a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster’s Institute for Modern and Contemporary Literary Studies. “Witches are often unmarried, childless women who don’t conform to the conventions of a Christian, family-orientated society.”
It’s not only their gender roles they outstep, but the physical characteristics of their sex: “The traditional witch’s features: the pointy hat, the boots, the claw-like nose, are suggestive of a phallic quality. Witches blur the boundaries of biological sex as well as cultural gender.” With their big phallic chins and stubble, the Wicked Witch of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Sea Hag from Popeye (1960) fulfilled the green-skinned witch trope that Germana describes as “a harpy… ugly and undesirable.”
By the 60s, following the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the masculinized threat posed by witches came in the form of their personalities—or as Germana puts it, “women in control of their own desires and power, which is terrifying to any member of patriarchal society, particularly men.”
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New witches emerged in TV and film, all occupying varying positions along the Kinsey scale. Mary Poppins, adapted for film from the lesbian writer PL Travers’ 1934 book, was played by Julie Andrews as, Germana says, “eccentric, not married and with no children of her own,” and TV series Bewitched (1964) featured long-rumoured lesbian actress Agnes Moorehead as the witchy-flamboyant mother Endora.
Over in the UK, 1966 film The Witches sees Kay Walsh plays a secret witch (a “lesbian dominatrix witch”, according to writer David Huckvale). With one hand on her hip, she tells Joan Fontaine’s innocent teacher character: “Witchcraft… somebody having a little dabble? Yes, I would think so. It’s a sex thing deep down—mostly women go for it.”
The 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks was aimed at children, so it couldn’t be as overtly sexual as The Witches. Still, its lead character Miss Price (Angela Lansbury) is a motorbike-driving spinster who can’t ride a broom side-saddle but can use her bed to take people to far-off fantasy lands. As scholar Chris Cuomo writes in Spinsters in Sensible Shoes: Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Miss Price “has a classic lesbian look… Villagers are wondering whether she’ll ever have a (male) romantic interest… Even her diet, which includes cabbage buds, rose hips, glossop seed, elm bark and stewed nettles and bran porridge, fits the contemporary and historical constructions of the puritanical, health-obsessed or vegetarian lesbian-feminist.”
Unlike Miss Price, who was eventually accepted by her chosen family, many fictional witches worked in isolation. Even Elvira, Mistress of the Dark almost meets her end in the titular 1988 film surrounded by ogling guys and angry villagers wielding long, hot torches. Ursula, the seductive villain of The Little Mermaid (1989) was also, save for her creepy eels and phallic tentacles, totally lonely.
The 90s brought better fortune for witches. The 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches cast them as harpies, but also gathered them together to plot for all children’s doom. The same goes for the three sisters of 1993’s Hocus Pocus. All these witches were hideous and bent on destroying kids for their own vanity—but at least they stuck together.
"There’s a queerness to female bonding, regardless of whether it’s sexual—it’s so deep, powerful, and exclusionary."
By the middle of the decade, witches coalesced around a new cause—they were set on taking men down. The conservative Reagan-Thatcher years were over and the economy was booming, bringing renewed spending power for women and queer people, and with it new modes of thinking. “In the 90s you had Riot Grrrl,” explains Franck, “a form of feminism that was really trying to destabilize difficult narratives of gender and sexuality.”
In this context, groups of witches were depicted around yonic cauldrons together to the total exclusion of men (see: The Craft, in which a coven of misfit schoolgirls conspire to control a male ex). Franck explains that paricipating in all-woman rituals together doesn’t always make for a queer setting, but lend itself to lesbian interpretations: “It’s about a safe female space that men don’t understand. Academic learning is seen as male, you’re reading books by dead white guys, it’s formal and an expert talks to you about your intelligence and makes you learn and recite. Whereas esoteric witchcraft goes through generations—it’s spoken, it’s an anti-patriarchal system.”
Willow and Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are of course, far more, explicitly lesbian, pioneering in both its depiction of one of TV’s first lesbian couples and its first lesbian witch couple. They first get together while using their combined magic to escape a bunch of sinister villains called The Gentlemen, but it takes The Trio, a set of Weird Science-style geeks, to destroy their relationship when Tara is murdered by a stray gunshot.
Charmed, the 1998-2006 series starting by following three witch sisters and a later half-sister played by Rose McGowan, wasn’t obviously queer, because, well, they’re sisters. But the exclusion of men is still notable. “There’s a sense of female bonding, no matter what, is deeper than male bonding,” Franck says. “In Charmed, when men came in, they could cause all sorts of damage. If they were accepted, they had to be accepted by the entirety of the female community.”
“There’s a queerness to female bonding,” she notes, “regardless of whether it’s sexual—it’s so deep, powerful, and exclusionary.”
Sabrina, of 90s show Sabrina The Teenage Witch, was also part of her own all-women coven. Her aunts Hilda and Zelda—though related—were flirty in a neggy, pre-relationship Monica and Chandler way. That’s not forgetting Sabrina’s third aunt, Vesta (Raquel Welch), who whisks Sabrina to Paris by way of the Pleasure Dome, a land of unbridled hedonism, pleading with her when she wants to go home: “You can’t go, I’ll be so lonely without you!”
The UK tried to play catch-up with all this witchy queerness in 2004 with Hex. The Sky TV show featured Thelma (Jemima Roper), the lovelorn “dyke in shining armour” to her witch BFF Cassie (Christina Cole), though the sex scene they shared was only ever Thelma non-consensually invading Cassie’s dreams. And though motherly female love should never double for lesbianism—both can and should exist concurrently—there was still something gloriously subversive about Angelina Jolie playing the witch-queen of 2014’s Maleficent, reframing Sleeping Beauty around the maternal bond the villain feels for Aurora, the girl she curses in a misguided attempt at protection.
With such a powerful re-adjustment of perspectives, Maleficent foretold of more old narratives to be looked at with a female gaze, with new lines of desire—including lesbianism and other kinds of female queerness—to be redrawn. After all, it’s not just Tumblr nostalgia for the late 90s that has summoned queer witches back to 2018, but a similar context that helped bring about that surge of witches 20 years ago.
Things might be different—politically, economically and socially—but the effects are similar. Women, queer people, and our allies may be struggling, but we can access new narratives and self-educate ourselves better than ever. Just like these fictional witches, we’re slowly understanding our power in self-sustaining collectives; able to heal through intuition and instinct rather than male logic and science.
As Franck puts it: “We have more access to quite complicated ideas about importance of narratives and we’ve been through a time when all this information about what was repressed, how some women were treated and how cohorts and connections of men stopped women’s voices from being heard, kept sexual assault and kept treatment of women hidden.
“That need to reclaim the witch and say ‘No, what if that was the wrong story we heard?’—that has come through.”