Essays, Gender, Movies, Race, Theatre, TV

“Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?” – How Fictional Witches Shaped My Identity as a Woman

October is here! The month of All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween, Samhain, of witches, ghouls, and delighting in the macabre. At WWAC, we are exploring the archetype of the witch and what she means to us. Starting us off, Stephanie Tran asks, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”

Glinda the Good Witch of the North, "The Wizard of Oz"

Glinda the Good Witch of the North in “The Wizard of Oz”

“Oh, I’m not a witch at all! Witches are old and ugly!”

With these two (paraphrased) lines from The Wizard of Oz, we get a society’s view of witches who are, of course, women and the relationship between morality and beauty in a nutshell. Who can blame Dorothy for thinking that immoral people are ugly? Good is good-looking, and bad is bad-looking. As a child, the idea made sense to me, in a fairytale way. Wouldn’t pure, strong evil have to manifest itself physically? The Wizard of Oz, fairytales, and other media all agreed that bad people were ugly and good people were good-looking. The good Enchantress’ true form in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is awe-inspiringly beautiful, and although the Evil Queen of Snow White fame takes a potion to transform into a hump-backed old crone, we can’t help but feel that the crone, not the queen, is her true form. So it’s a shock, but not really a surprise, when the Wicked Witch of the West is revealed to be a green-faced hag in an ugly black dress and hat. She couldn’t be more of a contrast with Glinda the Good Witch who glows with good will and youth, dressed in the pinkest, poofiest, most glittery dress a five-year-old could dream up. Millions of little girls might have identified with Dorothy, but they idolized Glinda.

The Enchantress, Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"

The Enchantress in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

It wasn’t until Harry Potter that I came across a witch who bucked the good equals beautiful, bad equals ugly tradition. Plain Hermione Granger was an introduction to a whole new world of witches of varying attractiveness, both bad and good. Witches, apparently, were not unlike regular people: they could be beautiful or ugly, but their morality had little to do with it. At age eight, that made more sense than the assumption that all good-looking people were morally good and all bad people were morally bad. There might, however, be a relationship between physical attractiveness and popularity. It was easy to view myself as Hermione, plain but smart, and cast popular classmates as attached-at-the-hip Lavender and Parvati. It seemed that the world of witches mirrored the real world in that aspect at least.

The two possibly titular characters of The Witch of Blackbird Pond were likewise not popular, nor said to be conventionally attractive. Kit, the protagonist, is admired by men and envied by women mainly for her fashionable and bright clothes and is initially repulsed by old and wrinkled Hannah, the town’s sole Quaker woman. A Quaker and a young girl from Bermuda, Hannah and Kit are “others” in their Puritan town, although Kit never quite reaches Hannah’s outcast status. This, I knew by ten, was manifestly unfair. Outward appearances and religious or cultural differences, I knew, were no reason to shun people. As one of a handful of Asian students in a grade of one hundred, I connected instantly to Hannah’s fringe status and Kit’s uneasiness as an outsider. Although my loneliness might have had more to do with my stubborn and out-spoken personality than my race, I couldn’t help but note that although the differences between Hannah and the town and Kit and the town were ultimately irreconcilable. It isn’t until Hannah and Kit chose to leave the town that they were truly happy.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond was also my first exposure to the idea of the witch as an “other.” Although Hermione incurred taunts and insults as a Muggle-born, I didn’t think of her as an outsider or minority as Hannah or Kit. Perhaps it was because I identified more with Kit’s impulsive personality or because Hermione wasn’t as singled out. Maybe it was because Kit, who didn’t dress or behave like a proper Puritan girl, or Hannah, who sported a brand on her forehead that marked her as a Quaker, bore physical reminders of their otherness while Hermione did not. Like Kit and Hannah, my differences were clearly physical. With my Asian features I was clearly not like my peers. Hermione, the actual witch, and Hannah and Kit, the supposed witches, demonstrated that while being different wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it could certainly make life in general society uncomfortable.

And what witch could exemplify that better than Elphaba, the main character of the musical Wicked? Although my first reaction to Wicked, which is based on a retelling of The Wizard of Oz, was outrage (how could the Wicked Witch of the West be good? “Wicked” was in her title!), I eventually realized that I identified with Elphaba. Like me, Elphaba was clearly, physically different, a fighter and champion for the oppressed, someone who strongly believes in justice and equality. Even better, she was flawed. It was far easier to connect with green, unfashionable Elphaba than it was to connect with the blonde, beautiful, and popular Galinda/Glinda. In Elphaba, I found a heroine who struggled with being different, who accepted her Otherness and acknowledged that it was an integral part of her identity. The musical was also realistic: although being other made Elphaba empathetic and kind, it also made her unhappy. Like Kit and Hannah, Elphaba was only able to find happiness by leaving the society that would never accept her.

Idina Menzel as Elphaba, "Wicked"

Idina Menzel as Elphaba in Wicked

Hermione, Kit, Hannah, and Elphaba all taught me that no one is simply good or evil, that the labels of”beautiful” and “ugly” were a judgement rather than a reflection of morality. From them I learned to accept myself, that being different wasn’t a bad thing, and that leaving one community for another where I could truly be myself was not a sign of failure. Regardless of what society said, I didn’t have to be beautiful or perfect or even completely, angelically good. Like Elphaba, I could acknowledge my flaws without beating myself up over them or thinking that they automatically made me bad.

Even if I still struggle with accepting myself the way I am, all the witches since that original Glinda have taught me to keep fighting the good fight, that loving myself for the things that make me different or Other is an act of rebellion. “Good” and “Wicked” are unrealistic, inaccurate titles and no one, including me, could be easily labeled one or the other. As a child, I accepted without question that bad witches were ugly and good witches were good-looking. But if someone were to pose the question “Are you a good witch or a bad witch” today, I don’t think I would immediately reject being a witch like Dorothy did or pick “good” so that I could receive the beauty that came with the status. Instead, I might do what Endora from Bewitched did when confronted with same question and reply, “Comme çi comme ça.” “So-so.”