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“The Witch” touted as feminist film–and it is, b/c feminism is about baby-murdering old hags

February 29, 2016

Um, didn’t we see this scene before in “Carrie”?

Guess I’m the only one who thought Robert Eggers’ Puritans-in-New-England melodrama The Witch was basically an overblown, horror-cliche-ridden, turgidly dull, and even risible mess. Actually me and the rest of the audience with which I watched the movie–who actually laughed at the naked-witches-dancing-around-the-bonfire finale. The gal sitting two seats down from me didn’t exactly laugh. She exhaled “WTF!” (although in full, not the initials) and stomped noisily out of the theater swinging her oversize purse. Actually, most ordinary people seem to beg to differ with the critics who have raved about The Witch, which has undergone a box-office collapse after its opening weekend and gets a mere 53 percent Rotten Tomatoes audience rating.

Sorry, Robert, I saw Carrie decades ago: same blood-spattered, strawberry-blonde pubescent heroine (menarche’s major in both films–hence the oh-so-symbolic red fluid) in the thrall of a crazy Christian mom (and also crazy Christian dad in The Witch) because Christians who actually believe in Christianity have got to be crazy. Also, during the intervening decades: The Blair Witch Project, The Witches of Eastwick, The Exorcist (which, in its theme of demonic possession of children, is The Witch, except with priests who can actually battle the devil effectively),  Rosemary’s Baby, and The Wicker Man.

But to the critics who just love this movie, The Witch is…a feminist parable. Really! Because nothing says “smash the patriarchy” like watching your father get gored to death by a billy-goat and not doing anything about it (sorry about the spoiler).

Simon Abrams at RogerEbert.com:

“The Witch,” a feminist narrative that focuses on an American colonial family as they undergo what seems to be an otherworldly curse, is more like a sermon…And it is about women, and the patriarchal stresses that lead to their disenfranchisement.

Casey Cipriani at Bustle:

It’s always commendable when a male filmmaker decides not only to tell stories featuring female protagonists, but to also explore moments in history when women suffered through unfair and often violent oppression.

Katy Waldman at Slate:

But The Witch presents [adolescent heroine played by Anya Taylor-Joy] Thomasin’s conversion as a victory for her: Embracing Satan allows her to escape from the physical hardship, moral hypocrisy, and gendered violence that’s tortured her thus far.

Director Eggers himself:

In the early modern period, from the contemporary perspective, looking back, it’s clear that the evil witch is—it embodies men’s fears and ambivalences and fantasies about women and female power. In in that period, in this extremely male dominated society, the evil witch is also women’s fears and ambivalences about themselves and their power.

The Witch illustrates the pitfalls of making a movie about the powers of witchcraft when you live in an age that believes that seventeenth-century fear of witches (actually a fear that dates back to the Old Testament and its condemnations of sorcery) has something to do with “gendered violence” and “fantasies about women and female power”–and your Crucible-infected brain also thinks that witches were strictly creatures of seventeenth-century people’s hysterical imaginations, kind of like Communists during the 1950s. Thus Eggers stuffs his movie full of garish images–such as a she-goat’s spurting blood as it’s being milked and a raven pecking at a mother’s breast after her baby has disappeared–that strike viewers as merely over the top and silly. Try harder at being scary, please.

Too bad that Eggers, a New Englander, didn’t follow the lead of New England’s master of recreating Puritan society, Nathaniel Hawthorne. In not only his masterwork, The Scarlet Letter, but in such haunting stories as “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Maypole of Merrymount,” set in the seventeenth century, Hawthorne looked at the Calvinist religious universe through the eyes of those who firmly believed in its theological reality. They embraced a Christian theology that could generate not trust in God’s grace but despair: a belief that human nature was irretrievably bent to sin, that Christ’s atonement was for the few, not the many, and that God’s grace was ultimately parsimonious.

When looked at through those eyes, The Witch is a movie about damnation. It is a movie about the horror of losing one’s immortal soul and the power of Satan, who roams through the world seeking the eternal ruin of the men and women who live there. Acting through the occasionally glimpsed witch (who is not Thomasin) and the billy-goat, Black Philip, a ringer for Baphomet, the devil first destroys the souls of Thomasin’s family members by preying upon their various weaknesses, and then destroys their bodies. The virginal, beautiful, devout, and morally serious Thomasin is the final prize. She will live the feminist dream all right–as “deliciously” transgressive as any Slate writer could hope for–and then, very quickly, she will be a wrinkled and murderous hag. How liberated it is to be led naked by a billy-goat into Satan’s service! And to kill babies and small children!

That’s the haunting movie that Eggers could have made–about a family that separates itself from the communal church and tries to practice its own brand of Christianity that leads to destructive madness. But if your aim is simply to expose a “male dominated society,” you won’t be making that movie.

Posted by Charlotte Allen

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