Not Another Witch Story (Yes, plz)
You can’t utter the word “witch” these days without one or more associations popping up:
- American Horror Story
- Harry Potter
- “This is a witch hunt” see–>Trump–>Kavanaugh–>Weinstein–>Time’sUP–>#MeToo
In a word, polarizing. Especially for those of us who practice a very private form of pagan spellwork. Like any other stereotype, mainstream media tends to oversimplify or exploit as it makes sweeping statements about poorly-developed representations of different kinds of people. So of course any time there’s a new witchy-themed form of public art, there’s always a group of us cringing in a corner of our sofas.
That being said, we deny ourselves some light-hearted fun when we take ourselves too seriously. Who doesn’t love rewatching The Craft every year? And did we not all collectively burst into crystal dust when Stevie Nicks had her appearance on AHS? Hocus Pocus only gets better with age. In short, there’s a line between giddy pleasure in playful representations of our favorite aesthetics and story themes and just liking things because they match our Google searches and Instagram photos. [Here is a very articulate discussion by Misha Magdelene of how annoying this lifestyle-witch movement among younger witches is to older witches, and also how that grumbly-ness is a product of privilege, ie something we can give up.]
Rebooting the Charmed Ones
I watched the original Charmed series for the first time two years ago and experienced both cringe-y and teary, heartfelt moments. I hadn’t watched it when it was on TV because I was afraid–even at my tender age, whenever that was–that it would be too cheesy. I didn’t grow up watching a lot of scripted dramas and tended to be quite snobby about the acting. But now that I’m all growed up, I am drawn to and seek out campy. So I love me a campy show, but I guess I’m a little tired of “witchy” always being represented that way. (For another article: my thoughts on The Witches of East End.)
Watching the original show, this fear was both validated and vindicated. I realize it’s just meant to be light entertainment with fun, girl-power moments. A show to watch with your girlfriends, mom, or sisters. And as one of three charmed sisters myself, I’m all about it.
But let’s be real. In some of those episodes the camp factor was just out of control. Cheesy effects, milked cameos, and one-liners offset the drama of the sisters’ story. In other words, not all the camp was intentional. Let’s not forget the whole formula of ending each episode with a real-life band making an appearance at Piper’s club, P3. (The episode with the Cranberries notwithstanding.) And yes, I hated it in the reboot of Twin Peaks, too.
I appreciated that the Halliwell sisters were women with careers, who then had to make sacrifices for their powers. Women’s lives are often marked by sacrifices, both material and personal. Prue was always late for important work meetings, and I couldn’t believe how long Piper tried to keep up running a hot nightclub and battling demons, saving innocents, and raising a family.
They were also very much products of the ’90’s/early 2000’s: they had fully-formed careers in their 20’s and a GORGEOUS Victorian they could still keep in San Francisco. It would have been interesting in the reboot to have kept the Charmed sisters at that age, but perhaps be a bit floundering or job-to-job the way Phoebe was, the way many of us are now. But rather than everyone pitying/criticizing her wanderlust and impulsivity, they’d all more or less be in the same post-recession boat. Like if the Broad City girls had telekinesis and could blow stuff up.
As the show progressed, the costumes, plot, and theme all seemed to be much more conventionally aware of the male gaze, even while other elements pointed to femmempowerment. Just listen to what this prick wrote last year about how the show “got sexier” after they killed off Prue: “The show went to great lengths to show the ladies off majorly. Indeed, the show would even have them openly noting how they were dragged into wearing revealing outfits constantly in wild circumstances. It was a key reason the show was a hit and each lady would show off a lot (including baring it all) in magazine spreads during its run.”
The problem is, he’s not totally wrong. There were always mixed messages in the original show. For example, Rose McGowan’s Paige Matthews had all the sass and flounce “a girl” could ever want, but I got tired of her choppy, insincere line delivery and number of times they had her character say, “Can’t a girl ____?”
I realize how contradictory that seems, given McGowan’s and Milano’s vocalization on the subject of Harvey Weinstein and abuse in Hollywood. But even an enlightened female actor will likely have had to play characters who don’t come off as “feminist” even when they’re supposed to. Maybe it’s just a question of 20 years-ago-feminist expectations for positive representations vs. today’s. Or maybe it’s because she was trying to keep her job.
Just like when you’re out with an old friend catching up, and drunk guys keep leaning in to interrupt, I found myself getting real sick of all the sub-par men who enchanted Alyssa Milano’s character. At first, I thought the actor who played Cole could not emote to save his soul. But then he turned out to be a demon, so that kind of worked, and then they let him really angst-out so you were encouraged to hate him. There was the very mediocre Nick Lachey, and the made-for-camp Billy Zane, with whom her chemistry was more like gay-best-friend than lover. It was like they just couldn’t let her be single. Just too hot.
As the series progressed, I missed the strong bond of the sisters, their discovery of their powers through that bond. This is hopefully one of the messages of any sincere witch-themed show: that we are strong, but we are stronger together. And we hear this almost verbatim in the 2018 version.
It’s a Feminist Show Now.
Combs is right to be pissed about the wording of the new show’s official description. The original show did succeed at coming off as feminist (even, as noted earlier, certain details pointed to the contrary).
That being said, the reboot definitely has elements that make the sisters’ story seem more relatable. A greater representation of diversity, for one thing, and more awareness–okay, practically beating you over the HEAD with awareness–of gender politics and imbalances of power. The Halliwells definitely encountered sexism but it didn’t overshadow the main plot (maybe because they were afraid they’d lose male viewership?) Just like women’s lives do not (hopefully) revolve around their personal cast of sexist characters in their lives, I’m hoping the new Charmed gets on with its story instead of making sure they’ve checked off a series of PC boxes to make a female-driven story in 2018. As Tori Preston in her Pajiba review puts it, the Feminist catch-phrases like, “Remember–you can withdraw consent at any time!” become punch-lines, which is a shame. But she emphasizes, “If Charmed can integrate its political bent rather than just shouting out all the greatest catchphrases, it just might be a force to be reckoned with.”
But because I’m a snarky little witch, I have to just vent for a second while I dissect what they are doing with this story and characters, on their own, apart from their original counterparts.
Like kids on a playground, the characters are play-acting roles they’ve seen on T.V. and heard everyone talking about–and I’m not referring to the original show anymore. The reboot reenacts and portrays all the main players in the Theater of Sexual Predation Allegations: The Whistle-Blower, The Good Boy, The Aggressive Feminist Who Probably Hates Men, The Defensive Male, The Incorrigably Sleazy White Male.
No good deed goes unpunished, especially when a woman says a man in power did/has been doing something wrong. We all watched Kavanaugh break down like a toddler who didnt get his Tonka truck, only to win the nomination, and we all heard what the President and other sexist pricks have said about Dr. Ford. Thing is, we’ve heard all of that before, from so many other men in power. Some of us have heard it private, or through others, about ourselves. Marisol falling out of a window right after her “it’s not a witch hunt, it’s a reckoning” phone conversation. It hits close to home, as it is clearly meant to. It also hits right on the nose. She is a powerful witch AND the Dept. Head of Women’s Studies who blows the whistle on another professor. Just dump it all in there.
The Good Boy Award
…goes to the cishet who replaces her:
Giles. I mean…
“This cis male was retweeted by Roxane Gay.”
Ha, cute. Meant to butter us up. But seems there’s more to this White Lighter than meets the eye, and it’s not all good. As Hannah Shaw-Williams writes in an article for Screen Rant, the new Charmed sisters don’t get to find out their powers for themselves. They learn about everything when Mr. This Is What A Feminist Looks Like “kidnaps them all, ties them to chairs, presents them with the Book of Shadows and proceeds to explain their powers to them – condescendingly chiding them by saying ‘girls, girl’ when there’s too much crosstalk.” Apart from the mildly offensive banter, was this plot turn supposed to be abrupt and contrived in a funny way?
The Aggressive Feminist Who Probably Just Hates Men
“I read your article. I felt as if my penis were being torn from my body.”
“Oh, good, then you read it right.”
Biiiig eyeroll heard round-the-world. There’s little to-do about Mel being gay, but then she’s writing articles she hopes will be emasculating? I’m not saying the way she chooses to express herself is wrong (just an oversimplification on the part of the writers), but the way that partners with her queer identity feels too trope-y of mainstream representation of LGBTQ characters, e.g. “lesbians are man-haters.”
Again, agree with how much more sophisticated the original show’s introduction was of Leo, who appeared three episodes in, and almost half a season before he revealed his true identity. It built intrigue and helped the story build gradually as opposed to sitting everyone down, giving them the book of shadows and saying, ‘You’re witches. GO.” Oh, and then being condescending. One can’t help but wonder if there’s some sort of colonialist-criticism going on here, considering a white male captures three women of color and tells them about themselves and what they should be doing now.
The Defensive Male Gets His
Here’s your wish-fulfillment, but it’s not from magic! Instead it’s from Mel’s mighty fist landing on the nose of a pencil-necked whiny little gas-lighter who calls the campus sexual harassment testimonies from 3 women “he said-she said.” She doesn’t seem to get in trouble…in fact in the next scene she’s talking to two detectives handling her mother’s death (one of whom is her ex-girlfriend?) So yeah. Only fantasy here.
The Incorrigibly Sleazy Exonerated White Male In Power.
I was hoping for a little more of a surprise when the demon really turned out to be this guy. But a female-led ensemble cast in 2018 NOT talking about #MeToo? Would that be tone-deaf or a refreshing break?
Thing is, we can–or should be able to–see strong female leads dealing with the everyday sexism of the average woman’s life, the average woman of color’s life, without having to practically break the fourth wall to deliver a mission statement. But ah, the gap between what should and what is.
The optics are refreshing, the themes up-to-date if mercilessly so, and I just love seeing magic on T.V.
But I agree with some other reviews on message boards and social media that there is a lack of chemistry between characters that may resolve itself in further episodes, ie when the cast has gotten to work together a little longer. Hopefully further episodes will yield more evidence of real connection to help draw us into the characters’ individualities.
I also acknowledge that pilots are notoriously clunky and heavy-handed so I’m willing to keep watching and let them unfold the story and characters before dismissing it entirely.
Oh, Charmed. I want to love you as much as I love everything you’re so obviously standing for.
Let’s keep watching.