Long Reads

Why Practical Magic is the ultimate feminist film

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Kayleigh Dray

Practical Magic may be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but the bewitching film still feels as relevant as it did back in 1998. Here, stylist.co.uk editor Kayleigh Dray explores the film’s subliminal feminist message – and urges every woman to rewatch it at least once.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who will happily sit down and re-watch a film over and over and over again, and those who won’t.

Personally, I love nothing more than revisiting an old favourite. And, just as I seek comfort from my oldest and dearest friends, I tend to do this when I’m feeling hurt, or bewildered, or anxious, or downright furious.

Indeed, I have a sneaking suspicion there’s a film to cure any and all moods. If you’ve had a bad day at work, for example, you need a dose of Legally Blonde – and stat. If your heart’s been broken, try The First Wives Club. If you’ve accidentally sent a text to the wrong person (horror of all horrors), Mean Girls is the only way forward. Made a catastrophic mistake at work? Jurassic Park will remind you, in no uncertain terms, that there are worse things you could have done. That bridesmaids’ group chat gotten out of hand? Yeah, you should watch Bridesmaids (duh). Had a fight with your mum? Think Brave, or Stepmom, or Freaky Friday. Stressed about your driving test? Clueless. Been fired? Office Space, obviously (or, less obviously, Ghostbusters). Failed all of your new year’s resolutions? Bridget Jones’ Diary. Got the sniffles and feeling more than a little sorry for yourself? Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

The list goes on, forever and ever.

When I’m generally worried about the state of the world, though (and how it affects womankind), I tend to turn to the #girlpower films in my DVD library.

Yes, I’m talking about Practical Magic. Obviously.

Starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, the original film begins in the 1600s: Maria Owens has been sentenced to hang as a witch, but manages to liberate herself from her noose and escape. Heavily-pregnant and betrayed by her lover, Maria unleashes a curse upon herself and her family: any man they truly fall in love with will be doomed to die an untimely death.

Understandably, this causes major issues for modern-day witches, Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian Owens (Nicole Kidman). Their father dies because of the curse, and their mother dies soon after from a broken heart. They are sent to live with their aunts, Frances (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest), who teach them the art of witchcraft – causing them to be alienated and ostracised by the local townsfolk.

Eventually, Gillian moves away to travel the world, while Sally does her best to find the normality she craves. But when Gillian’s vicious boyfriend, Jimmy Angelov (Goran Visnjic), dies unexpectedly, the Owens sisters are forced to give themselves a crash course in hard magic.

With policeman Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn) growing suspicious, the girls struggle to resurrect Angelov – and unwittingly inject his corpse with an evil spirit that threatens to end their family line forever.

So far, so surreal. But when you strip away all the necromancy and Faith Hill songs (sing it with me: ‘I don’t want another heartbreak, I don’t need another turn to cry…’), you’re left with one fiercely feminist movie.

Don’t believe me? Let me break it down for you…

1) It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours

Let’s remind ourselves of the criteria, shall we?

The film has to have at least two women in it…

… who talk to each other

… about something other than a man

It’s not hard – and yet, to this day, few films manage to check all the boxes. Practical Magic, though, does it with serious aplomb: an overwhelming six of the film’s main characters are women, and they tend to talk to each other about magic, the undead, age-old family curses, dancing naked under a full moon and the like.

Men, meanwhile, are just supporting players who are lucky enough to come along for the ride. As one nosy townsperson puts it: “If any man dare take on an Owens woman, he’ll live briefly in the euphoria of her love before meeting an untimely death.”

2) It puts power firmly in the hands of womankind

Fantasies of women with superpowers, from Wonder Woman to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, have long been regarded and critiqued through the prism of feminist politics – presumably because men have always feared powerful women.

The witch, though, is the ultimate personification of that horror.

“Witches, sluts, and feminists are the trifecta of terror for the patriarchy,” historian Kristin J Sollee explains to The Guardian. “To me, the primal impulse behind each of these contested identities is self-sovereignty… witches, sluts, and feminists embody the potential for self-directed feminine power, and sexual and intellectual freedom.”

This is definitely seen in Practical Magic: women are the only ones who can practise magic (although they may choose to share their gifts, if they wish) – and every woman, Owens or not, has the power to unlock her inner witch. All they have to do is open up their minds, and be true to themselves.

As Aunt Frances puts it: “My darling girl, when are you going to realise that being normal is not necessarily a virtue? It rather denotes a lack of courage.”

3) It redresses history’s crimes against women

Historically, a lot of terrible things have been done to womankind – but none stand out quite as much as the persecution of the so-called witch. Think the hangings at Salem. Think the violent 15th-century European witch hunts. Think the horrifying instruments of torture – such as the dunking stool – used by men to bully witches into ‘confessing’ their sins. Think the fact that, in many parts of the world, these vile practises still occur today: 500 ‘witches’ are killed in Tanzania each year.

So what makes someone a ‘witch’ in the eyes of the patriarchy? A widow, perhaps. A woman who has chosen to remain unmarried. A woman who dares to – gasp – have a child out of wedlock. A woman who chooses to go against the status quo. A woman who refuses to bow to society’s expectations. A woman who speaks up, shifts perceptions and creates change.

Above all, she is a woman who can’t be controlled. And that, in some societies, is enough to sentence her to death.

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At the beginning of Practical Magic, the townsfolk vow to hang Maria Owens from the neck until she is dead.

“The fact that she was a bit of a heartbreaker didn’t help her case,” muses Aunt Frances, regaling her great-nieces with the incident from their family history. “Nor did it help that most of her lovers had wives on the hanging committee.”

Instead of waiting to have the block kicked out from under her, though, she jumps off on her own accord. The rope breaks and she lands on her feet, where she stares defiantly out at the people who condemned her, the broken noose still around her neck.

This symbol of death and discrimination becomes one of triumph – and we later learn that the aunts keep Maria’s broken noose hidden in one of the hollow stairs in their turret. They use the hemp as a protective talisman in times of trouble and, thus, it becomes a symbol of what women can overcome, if only they resist.

4) It doesn’t shy away from the fact that women are complex and sexual beings

All you have to do is look at Gillian Owens to see a woman who’s confident in addressing her desires. Indeed, when she pens letters home to Sally, she doesn’t waste time on pleasantries – she gets straight to the point.

“I’m lying in the sun,” she tells her sister, as the camera cuts to a shot of her dancing with a gaggle of tanned admirers. “I’m hanging by the pool, and I’ve got a million friends. You might say that life is perfect.”

She flirts with police officers, she initiates a sexual encounter with Jimmy Angelvo, she dates whomever she wants – and she refuses to let any of the narrow-minded townsfolk make her feel bad about that. 

“Lock up your husbands, ladies,” she warns them playfully. “I’m back.”

In short, she’s a woman who’s keen to seek out sexual pleasure for herself and no one else – a trait which is innately feminist.

5) It refuses to pit women against each other

For as long as we can remember, we’ve been taught that women don’t get along. Just think of all those women in the spotlight who have been dogged by catfight rumours, like the all-female Ghostbusters remake, or Sex and the City, or Ocean’s 8, or Snow White and the Huntsman, or, ya know, any film with a predominantly female cast.

Practical Magic, though, offers a new perspective. Sally and Gillian have plenty of sisterly squabbles, as do Aunt Jet and Aunt Frances. Kylie (Evan Rachel Wood) and Antonia (Alexandra Atrip) snap and berate one another, too. Instead of using this as a means to drive them apart, though, the film’s writers instead decide to celebrate the Owens women’s unique support system and hold them up as an unstoppable team. We see them resolve their issues, work through their problems, fight for one another and nurture their powerful bonds. 

Indeed, it is these same bonds that come into play at the end of the film… but more on that later.

6) It doesn’t shy away from the realities of domestic violence

One woman in four experiences domestic violence in her lifetime, and two women are killed each week by a current or former partner in England and Wales.

While Gillian’s relationship with Angelov begins with passion, excitement and high romance, it quickly becomes apparent that her new boyfriend is a violent and sadistic bastard. He is intent on controlling her every move, and refuses to let her leave his side, even to go to the toilet. The pressure becomes so intense that Gillian is forced to drug him with belladonna at night, just so she can get a few hours of sleep.

It begs the eternal question: why doesn’t she leave him?

“Do you ever just put your arms out and just spin and spin and spin?” muses Gillian. “Well, that’s what love is like; everything inside of you tells you to stop before you fall, but for some reason you just keep going.”

Eventually, Angelov’s behaviour escalates even further: he punches Gillian in the face for laughing at him in front of someone else, tries to burn a brand into her and attempts to strangle her, all in a bid to prevent her from ever escaping his clutches.

Thankfully, though, Sally is there to stop him – although she does so in a very… well, in a very final way.

A few weeks after Angelov’s death, a detective comes to town asking questions – not out of any real concern for Angelov’s wellbeing, but because another woman has been found dead, burned with the very same brand that he had attempted to put on Gillian with his ring.

This reinforces Sally and Gillian’s read on an earlier kidnapping: Angelov never intended to let Gillian live. And it hammers home the point that “leaving an abusive partner can be very dangerous”.

“Women are at the greatest risk of homicide at the point of separation or after leaving a violent partner,” says Refuge.

Of course, Angelov might be dead – but his spirit quickly becomes restless. There’s no denying that his refusal to let Gillian go, and his eventual possession of her, is an accurate metaphor for the many practical and psychological barriers to ending a relationship with a violent partner. 

7) It does away with that boring ‘white knight’ fallacy

How many times has Hollywood seen the conventionally handsome man rescue the damsel in distress? Too many. At first, it seems as if Practical Magic is no different: Gary rushes in and flashes his police badge at Angelov’s ghost, Angelov dissolves into thin air with a scream of anguish, the sisters tearfully thank Gary for his help.

However, it later transpires that Gary… well, that Gary hasn’t actually done anything. If anything, he’s made things even worse: Angelov’s evil spirit remains, stronger than ever, and it’s squatting inside Gillian like a toad. Not good. 

As Gary (henceforth to be known as Useless Gary) has long since skipped town, it’s up to Sally to come up with a plan of attack. And trust us when we say that she lands on a truly genius plot…

9) It empowers women to join forces and smash the patriarchy

That genius plot I mentioned earlier? Sally realises that she can’t save Gillian without expanding her sisterhood to include the entire town’s worth of women – and she unabashedly activates the phone tree, calling upon them for help.

It’s not long before the house is filled with women – and, strangely enough, there’s something of a party-like atmosphere, in spite of the serious nature of their task. The women trade stories of abusive men, times they have stood up for themselves, and instances when they have felt the power of their own latent witchcraft. 

As Aunt Jet says: “There’s a little witch in all of us”.

But it’s not just Sally’s friends who have come to her aid: the cruel women who have long bullied her for being different are there, too. “Well, you know, ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to see inside this house,” one says, but it’s clear something has shifted – and it’s all thanks to the unifying strength of womanhood.

Together, the women hold hands and form a circle. Together, they demand Angelov leave Gillian’s body. Together, their hearts beat as one – and, together, they smash the patriarchal curse that has plagued the Owens family since the 17th century.

“Can love really travel back in time and heal a broken heart?” asks Sally, in a voiceover. 

“Was it our joined hands that finally lifted Maria’s curse? I’d like to think so.”

All in all, it’s a firm reminder that we’re far stronger together than we are apart – and we should lift women up, support them, help them wherever and whenever we can.

9) It’s the original ‘sister saves sister’ film (sorry, Frozen)

As mentioned above, the coven comes together and harnesses a supernatural power – but, in the end, even this is not enough to banish the abusive Angelov. It’s up to Sally to call upon her and Gillian’s sisterly bond, and remind the world of the blood oath they made when they were children: to grow old together and die on the very same day.

“Don’t die on me, Gillian Owens, please. ‘Cause - we’re supposed to die together, remember? The same time. You promised me that. And this is not that day.”

“My blood,” she says, slicing open her own hand. She then turns the knife on Gillian’s palm: “your blood.”

And, after clasping Gilly’s bleeding hand in her own, she cries: “Our blood.”

It’s enough: Angelov is destroyed by this show of sisterly solidarity, Gillian’s life is spared and the sisters are finally reunited. 

And it’s fitting that, while the film more than hints at Sally’s future romance with Gary (aka the man who respects and loves her for all that she is), it focuses on her beautiful relationship with Gillian in the final scenes.

“At Halloween, we jump off the roof and fly.”

Why? Why do Sally and Gillian take centrestage, over Sally and Gary?

Well, because this film is all about the powerful relationships we share with the women in our lives – and it reminds us that there are many different kinds of love to cherish and nurture.

And if that ain’t a feminist film, I don’t know what is.

Images: Rex Features/Practical Magic


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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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