MAGIC and witchcraft are back in again. Nearly two decades after Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer put a spell on a whole generation of young women and girls, TV, film and books are alive with spellbinding tales of witchcraft and enchantment.
What's it all about? It's not exactly rocket science when one considers that times haven't changed that much in the last two decades since Charmed and Buffy spun coming of age tales for young women and tweenaged girls. Let's take a look.
An annual US study called the Celluloid Ceiling Report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that women directors in 2012 comprised only nine per cent of helmers working on the top 250 highest grossing US films, the same level it was 15 years ago. Only four women have ever been nominated for an Oscar for best director by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Kathryn Bigelow was the only woman to ever win it in the academy’s 85-year history. The Directors Guild of America’s most recent research for the 2012-13 season found that women directors accounted for only 14% of primetime episodic TV across broadcast and cable outlets in the US, down from 15% in 2011-12. In the UK, women film writers accounted for 13.4% or 25 writers in 2012, down from 18.9% of the total writers in 2011, according to British Film Institute studies. Men accounted for 92.2% of directors on UK films in 2012, an increase of more than 7% year-on-year. This translates into 165 male directors and 14 female directors.
Beyond the numbers, what does it all mean? The cup half empty scenario is that the creative vision of the world as reflected in the body of films and TV content available to viewing audiences is truly skewed. Or, given a generous cup half full take on the situation, this is a time when media outfits around the world are desperate for new content, a time when there is a massively untapped creative vision and a treasure trove of great stories just waiting to be told--by women.
Where will the stories come from? Not from another retelling of Little Women or Sense and Sensibility or any of the other classic and truly lovely stories that are safe pitches to the mainly XY decision-makers who are tasked with green-flagging projects. Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the mid-1990s, unearthed a voracious appetite on the part of young women and tweenaged girls for stories about magic, the supernatural and especially the art of Wicca. Studies found that the popularity of the shows was driven by a desire for young women and tweenaged girls to see themselves in less passive roles.
In TV, the season of the witch has truly taken hold, with witches having their magic ways in American Horror Story’s third season, Lifetime’s The Witches of East End, Syfy channel’s The Originals and Universal's Sleepy Hollow. A reboot of Charmed is being talked up by CBS. At the same time, Alyssa Milano and Rose Mcgowan, two of the stars of the original series, have weighed in, saying on Twitter it might be too soon for a reboot but a film version is another story. On the film side, Meryl Streep plays a witch that is not exactly sugar and spice in the longform version of Steven Sondheim/James Lapine's musical Into the Woods. And that's just the beginning. The Observer’s Sarah Hughes points out, “The young adult section of bookshops, shelves that recently groaned under the weight of tales of tormented vampires and lovelorn werewolves, are now stuffed with stories of witchcraft and magic, from Ruth Warburton's much-praised Winter Trilogy to Jessica Spotswood's Cahill Witch Chronicles.”
Why witches and why now? Warburton, whose latest young-adult novel Witch Finder will be out in January, tells Hughes: “Often the traditional ways of looking at relationships in young-adult fiction is that the guy has all the power and the interesting life and the girl goes along for the ride, but that's not the whole story." She adds, "Increasingly, we're trying to bring our daughters up to believe they can be the leader; they can have the adventure; they can do the cool stuff and one thing about witches is that they allow you to explore that moment when girls become teenagers and realise the power they have as women and how exhilarating that can be."
Why do we need witches to tell tales of power? Because we don't know how to tell stories about ordinary and extraordinary women without falling back into some of the time tested but more demeaning stereotypes of women as ruthless, neurotic, manipulating, gold digging or passive and victim-prone. Because most of the stories that get told about men and women are written by and directed by men. It’s not in and of itself wrong; it’s just skewed.
We need a creative vision of the world that is whole, not just coming from men, not just coming from women. That will only happen when women directors and writers and producers are telling more tales, magical or not.
Top: Into the Woods with Meryl Streep. [photo courtesy of Disney]
Bottom: Charmed's Power of Three (copyright Warner Bros/Everett/REX)