Long Reads

Witchcraft rebooted: What the return of Sabrina and Charmed says about feminism

Our favourite childhood witches are returning to TV in 2018 and #witchesofinstagram is the hashtag of the moment. Sarah Assenti explores the connection between rebooted witchcraft and fourth wave feminism.

Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch are being rebooted, we’re getting a new series set in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer world (this time starring a black actress as its lead) and The Craft’s Robin Tunney has hinted she’d be into a sequel. Witchcraft is firmly back on the menu.

Are entertainment execs just tapping into our obsession with 90s nostalgia? Perhaps. But it’s likely that this recent boon in witchcraft is partly due to the fact that modern witchcraft and spiritual practices are more relevant to young women’s lives than ever before.

When scrolling through the slew of crystal chat and Instagram-ready altars on #witchesofinstagram, you might not see the connection between witchcraft and the challenges facing feminism in 2018 - but look again.

Wicca and Paganism promote gender balance within the divinity system, recognising gods and goddesses equally for different elements and attributes – an appealing prospect for teens growing up in a patriarchal society, who are constantly exposed to news stories about abuses of male power.

The fourth wave of feminism we’re riding right now is more inclusive and intersectional than its forbears, uniting women in the wake of #MeToo and a Trump presidency. We are finding a closeness with one another through sharing our stories and taking part in both online and IRL activism.

Witchcraft, too, fosters a sense of connection (both to people and nature) and, in Charmed and Sabrina, covens made up of family members depicted strong bonds of sisterhood. It isn’t hard to see the appeal of belonging to a powerful, spiritual girl gang. 

1998 The cast of "Charmed." From l-r: Holly Marie Combs as Piper Halliwell, Shannen Doherty as Prue Halliwell and Alyssa Milano as Phoebe Halliwell.

“For the newly anointed “generation witch,” empowerment is central to her appeal,” says Kristen J. Sollee in her 2017 book, Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive.

“While engaging in [feminism] for gender equality, more and more millennial feminists are engaging in ritual, trying out tarot, studying herbalism and following the primordial cycles of the waxing and waning moon.”

Sollee’s book suggests that the word “slut” and its iterations are used against young women today in the same way that being labelled a witch was undesirable – and often deadly – throughout history. But now that both witches and feminism are back in the pop culture spotlight, “Witchcraft practices that might once have spelled death for women are now life-affirming.”

As they transition into teenhood, it’s not unusual for girls to reject more traditional religions in favour of exploring Wicca, Paganism or Neopaganism. The idea of casting spells and belonging to a coven provides an opportunity for both rebellion and belonging.

“Beneath all that glossy packaging hums the same idea that has tantalized girls for millennia: the fact that to be a witch is to be a woman with power in a world where women are often otherwise powerless,” writes Anne Theriault for The Establishment.

Theriault posits that growing a herb garden in your kitchen or wearing a vampy dark lipstick can be small but powerful acts of arming yourself with knowledge and challenging traditional feminine beauty standards. Even when Sabrina was a 90s goofball comedy and not the darker, more sinister-looking Netflix reboot, power was always a major part of the show; power to challenge bullies or to excel at a pop quiz.

Our favourite witchy 90s shows (especially Buffy) roundhouse kicked gender stereotypes, gave us young, powerful female role models, and explored topics which were still taboo at the time, such as teens exploring their sexuality. 

In the world of literature, Naomi Alderman’s novel, The Power, a fictional dystopia where teenage girls rule the world, bewitched readers and critics alike, becoming an international bestseller in 2016. Central to the story was the imagined possibility of what women could achieve if they had the upper hand physically against men.

Similarly, just last month, a tweet by Danielle Muscato went viral after she asked her female followers what they would do if men had a 9pm curfew. Responses flooded in, with heartbreakingly simple suggestions like walking alone at night or going to a bar and leaving a drink unattended. 

At a time when feminists are pushing against imbalances of power that feel ingrained into the fabric of our society, any kind of power and agency – even the fictional variety – holds a magical appeal. 

Images: Getty, Unsplash