The Witch and “Female Empowerment”

The Witch and “Female Empowerment”

Spoilers below.

Richard Eggers’s The Witch is beautifully shot, directed, and acted. As a debut film, it’s stunning. It’s atmospheric, it’s tense, it’s subtle. It examines the loneliness of frontier life mixed with the fervor of Puritan religiosity and the tormented uncertainty of exile, all of which produces genuinely terrifying psychological effects.

But most of all, it’s a treatise against female empowerment.

Eggers doesn’t think so. In this article from The Atlantic, David Sims quotes him: “‘It was not my intention to make a story of female empowerment,’ Egger said, ‘but I discovered in the writing that if you’re making a witch story, these are the issues that rise to the top.'” And it’s true that the history of witchcraft always, inevitably evokes questions about gender and power and patriarchy. But the history of witchcraft is not a history of empowerment. It’s a history of punishment for the women (and some men) who do not fit in.

I’m teaching a class this semester called “Magic and Witchcraft in British Literature.” We’ve read texts from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, including a unit on early modern British witches and witch trials. We did a simulation of the historical Pendle witch trials of 1612, read Heywood and Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches (based on the second generation of Pendle trials in 1634), and have just wrapped up Dekker, Ford, and Rowley’s The Witch of Edmonton, based on the 1621 trial of Elizabeth Sawyer. Although Salem is beyond the scope of the course, the rhetoric and procedures of the Pendle trials deeply influenced the rhetoric and procedures at Salem — which, in turn, gave language and turns of phrase to Eggers’s film.

My students and I have been engulfed in the 17th-century realities of witchcraft. And this movie handles those realities well. It’s clear that these characters believe deeply and fervently that witchcraft exists as a powerful and malevolent force. So does the film: there’s never any question about witchcraft. As in a folk tale — and The Witch is subtitled A New England Folktale — the film shows us from the very beginning that witches exist and they’re evil. There’s no ambiguity here. It’s not witch-as-misunderstood-loner. The witches are mad and demonic; they sexually assault children; they have familiars (a hare, a crow). When a witch enchants ten-year-old Caleb, the bewitching begins with sexual assault and ends with Caleb choking up a bloody apple before he dies in religious ecstasy, quoting Song of Songs.

In the film, the apple has symbolized England, the land of orchards and glass windows. These moments of nostalgia for the homeland provide some of the most compelling threads in the narrative, deft touches of that old American theme, frontier life. But, of course, there’s more to the apple than that. It’s the forbidden fruit, in European tradition. The dark woods become the inverse of the Garden of Eden, and at their heart lies a witch’s hut. The witch that assaults and enchants Caleb emerges from the dark, dank hut wearing a push-up corset and a scarlet cloak as red as the bloody apple Caleb later coughs up. But if it isn’t bad enough to see a grown woman kissing a young boy, Eggers makes it clear that this youth is an illusion: her hand on Caleb’s face is old and gnarled. What’s really monstrous here is not just that there’s a woman sexually assaulting a child. It’s that she’s old.

In fact, that’s the one visual cue that all the most horrifying moments of the film have in common: the revelation of a naked, aged female body, half-lit to highlight wrinkles and cellulite and soft, sagging flesh. The repeated message is that there is nothing more vile and appalling than a naked old woman. To Eggers’s credit, the camera never lingers on Thomasin’s naked young body when she sells her soul to the devil in the form of Black Phillip, the goat, and then wanders into the woods to join a coven of naked, writhing women around a fire. But there’s something monstrous about that, too, considering that the camera does linger on Thomasin’s clothed body as a way of showing Caleb’s troubled sexual awakening. Female nudity becomes, paradoxically, a rejection of the male gaze.

But it’s precisely that rejection that is figured in the movie as dangerous and evil. After all, how positive can any depiction of “female empowerment” be if said empowerment demands the murder of one’s entire family? Given the horrible deaths of her family, how we have to watch Thomasin’s mother descend into tormented madness, how Thomasin herself disappears from the film during that night that she and the four-year-old twins spend trapped in the goat pen, which ends with death and destruction (implying that she participated in their deaths) — given the enormous loss that Thomasin faces to achieve “empowerment” at the end, how could that empowerment really be worthwhile?

I’m bewildered because even when Thomasin conjures the devil in the form of Black Phillip, his pitch to her is vague and, frankly, terrible! Like Mallory Ortberg at The Toast points out,

So the devil at the end asks Thomasin if she wants to “live deliciously” and promises her butter dresses and world travel, but look at what he has actually handed out to the previous witches: a shitty hut alone in the woods and nothing! This is a piece of shit deal, man!

I mean, of course it’s a piece of shit deal; deals with the devil always are (just ask Doctor Faustus). But that Eggers seems to think that a young woman would agree to this deal in the name of empowerment displays a deep patriarchal distrust of female independence and power. When the prerequisite of power is murder, then achieving that power is not a triumph!

So I think The Witch is amazing, but I mean that word in its most literal sense. I’m amazed by the quality of the acting and the beauty of the cinematography and the depth of the research that went into it. I’m amazed by its portrayal of Puritan family dynamics when New England was still a frontier. And I’m also amazed by its fundamental message that female empowerment requires the utter rejection of civilization in favor of pedophilia and murder.

It’s a powerful movie. But it’s not an empowering one.