Motherland: Fort Salem has been touted as a witchy empowerment narrative, but how feminist can a show built on the military industrial complex be?
On one level, Motherland: Fort Salem provides an escapist power fantasy, presenting a better, more “progressive” universe than our current reality, one where the 45th president of the United States is a Black woman, and where the iconic image of Washington crossing the Delaware is replaced by an all-female crew of witches battling with magic. It introduces a world where the oppressive systems of racism, sexism, and homophobia do not exist, or at least not in a way that aggressively hampers the main characters within the universe itself. The feminist-empowering witchy focus of Motherland is one that has been emphasized by its creators and subsequent press coverage, and as a viewer, I found it was definitely appealing to see a variety of female characters with complex inner struggles and relationships, who are confident and joyful in their sexualities while also not existing to be objectified.
That being said, in the alternate-history canon of the Motherland, the foundation of its “witchy female empowerment” is explicitly bound to the power of the American military-industrial complex, and by extension, imperialism at home and abroad. The story throughout the first season was one that grappled with the complicated relationship the characters had with the military while also critiquing the corruption of the military-industrial complex itself. However, as I watched it, I found that it came close to, but ultimately shied away from, committing to any direct commentary on the system itself in favor of delving into new exciting plot points at the end of the season.
The dissonance between Motherland‘s attempts at criticism and its visuals that create a patriotic, reverent, and semi-nostalgic atmosphere emphasizing the glory of its dignified female soldiers is disappointing even more so than usual because it frames itself as a feminist, empowering narrative. With this in mind, I would like to go beyond the usual takes focusing mostly on the “witchy girl power” narrative, and look at it through it with the context of the serious real-life history it uses as its background and thematic inspiration.
In Motherland’s history, American witch identity is directly tied to politics and warfare, starting with the nation’s westward expansion efforts, and later on, imperial interests overseas as well. Witches are a historically feared and persecuted group, but in the U.S., witches have managed to escape persecution due to the Salem Accord, an agreement between witches and non-witches codified into the U.S. Constitution in which witches receive protection in exchange for using their magic to aid the military. The titular “Fort Salem” refers to the military academy where young female witches go after they are conscripted. Those who excel at Fort Salem go on to “War College” for further chances of gaining esteem, while those who perform poorly are destined for deployment in the infantry, becoming colloquial “war meat” for the seemingly endless wars waged around the globe against a terrorist group known as The Spree.
In real life history, the American Revolutionary War itself was partially a result of colonist frustration at treaties that forbade westward settlement in designated Native American lands (see: the Proclamation of 1763) . If the universe of Motherland reflects real life at all, with witches pledging to “win the wars” of the American military, then this implies that witches, allying themselves with colonists, played a role in the eventual active displacement of Indigenous peoples. The closest we get to addressing this history in the show though is when the main characters attend a pageant depicting the outcome of the Salem Witch Trials in this universe. The witch Sarah Alder, condemned to death for practicing witchcraft as well as for consorting with “savages,” uses her powers to free herself and eventually makes a deal with the colonial governments, and later the fledgling United States, to become the revered general and head of Fort Salem. Alder forms the link between the ambiguously-present-age of the show and its past history. More than three hundred years old, Alder is kept perpetually youthful due to the “Biddies,” young women who take on Alder’s extra age, becoming old women so that Alder may continue to live and serve the government — a form of magic that according to the creators, was granted to her by “Indigenous Tribal Federations” in exchange for land being ceded back to them.
The figure of Alder — a white settler witch who escaped persecution in Europe, was aided by Native American resources, and uses that magic in order to continue asserting U.S. military power in interventions overseas — is a character who feels very apt for the discussion regarding the relationship of witchery to imperialism. However, while Alder is condemned within the story — “no witch has more blood on her hands,” as one of the main characters states in the very first episode — it’s an opportunity that sadly goes unexplored. Not just because of the notable lack of Indigenous characters or presence involved in the story, but because the fault and corruption of the military, as portrayed in the show, is seemingly tied up with Alder herself. She’s portrayed as just an individual who makes controversial choices out of a sense of duty, and so Motherland avoids questioning whether the overall institutions of Fort Salem and of the United States are themselves broken.
In the ninth episode, our main characters learn that an attack they participated in led to the deaths of innocent citizens, and are horrified when General Alder blatantly lies on the news about the nature of the attack, claiming that the citizens were, instead, executed by terrorists. When the President finds out about this action, she arranges for Alder’s removal and replacement. But Alder uses forbidden illegal magic to “puppeteer” the president last minute and forcibly gives more control to herself. It’s a powerful moment for the main characters, who once again struggle with the concept that something like this could even be allowed to happen. Despite their disillusionment though, the insinuation is that Alder herself is an anomaly for being power hungry and out of control. If only she could have been replaced by a less abrasive general with more reasonable strategies, then maybe things would have gone smoothly. Alder, as an individual, is at fault for giving questionable orders and covering up her corruption, and Alder is the “bad apple” that must be challenged and questioned, not the structure of Fort Salem itself, which we’re told is full of otherwise good women soldiers and generals who, unlike Alder, are willing to do the right thing.
Motherland’s strengths are in its characters, who are the main vehicle through which the story builds itself. From a focus on the characters and their individual arcs, the end of the season is successful; it’s satisfying to watch the heroines get their moments to shine both in the dramatic sphere and in action, even as the background implications of their role in the military loom ominously in the background. It’s even compelling to watch antagonists, like Alder, do disturbing things that are informed by their personal beliefs and backgrounds. However, because the scale of the story is focused so much on individual characters, relationships, and choices, it doesn’t really leave much room to address the larger questions and themes that specifically and explicitly parallel the existing legacy of American military history, at home and abroad.
Because of these intentional and extremely unsubtle drawing of parallels to American history, it feels impossible for me to shrug off the implications of its world building as simple fantasy escapism. It is an interesting concept, but ultimately Motherland bit off much more than it can chew with regards to the themes it brings up. As a show premiering on Freeform TV (which, like many things, is owned by Disney), it makes sense that the creators would want to shy away from an exploration of the implications and consequences of its world beyond the protagonist’s disillusionment of Adler. Because for all of its attempted critique, the visual use of the military and violence in Motherland still is very much portrayed as impressive spectacle. The witches are badass, and watching the women fight in combat, wear elegant uniforms, do eerie levitation drops from helicopters, and slice grown men in half with magic feels powerful. It’s even emotional and moving to see the fallen witches saluted and honored as the American flag waves dramatically in the background of the solemn military funeral.
But the experience of watching the series and getting invested in its cool dramatics, all while seeing it sandwiched between peppy advertisements for the real life United States Air Force, makes me wonder how subversive Motherland, a show named after a term that itself contains historical connotations of nationalism, can ever really be.