Robert Eggers, writer and director of THE VVITCH (2015), stumbles around words like “feminist” when talking about his film. In interviews he both suggests the movie is about feminist issues and freely admits that’s not what he was really interested in when he wrote it. I wasn’t aware of this when I watched THE VVITCH for the first time. I became aware of it when an internet acquaintance was waxing poetic about how THE VVITCH “turned out to be a feminist movie.”
My first thought was: maybe THE VVITCH would have actually been a feminist movie if Eggers had set out to make one on purpose.
My second thought was: surely people don’t really think THE VVITCH is a feminist movie!?!
So I did some research:
This article in Marie Claire even goes so far as to claim that teen protagonist Thomasin “longs for a life outside the home” (no one ever says this in the film; Thomasin actually seems to dread being sent away), and achieves feminist empowerment at the end by choosing witchcraft.
This appears to be some kind of desperate projection. I get that in current pop culture witches are a symbol of female power, but that doesn’t mean this story is one of empowerment. Thomasin is backed into a corner with no options and she “chooses” witchcraft because it’s that, solitary starvation, or the noose. If that’s your idea of empowerment then why did we even need liberation, am I right ladies??
Let’s back up a little so I can say: THE VVITCH is a good and decently scary film. It also has a premise I’m deeply into. In my other life as a Serious Artist (read: mostly unemployed playwright) I too have had occasion to make something that drew on firsthand sources about 17th century “witches.” These sources are fascinatingly weird. It’s a great place to start for a horror movie. It also feels like a recipe for the kind of flick I really like because by necessity there are going to be multiple three-dimensional female characters! It’s a low bar but one many films fail to surmount. THE VVITCH has two. Bravo! I suppose! But there’s a difference between accidentally making a movie where (some) women are people and making a feminist film.
In the last 30 years or so the image of the witch in popular culture has become a lot more empowered and empowering than classic concepts of witches. All my favorite witches are modern witches: Phoebe Halliwell, Sarah Bailey, Hermione “I-single-handedly-saved-the-world-and-get-no-credit” Granger.
The witches in THE VVITCH are not that kind of witch. The film explicitly informs viewers that everything in the movie is based on firsthand sources from the time period. In the 1600s, most varieties of Christian believed witches were the embodiment of satanic evil. The German text the Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1487, was reprinted dozens of times in many languages and formed the basis for the trials of many so-called witches. It codified what made a witch. Highlights include: driving men insane with lust (or just regular insane), keeping dicks in bird’s nests, murdering animals and children, and abortion.
THE VVITCH is a movie about the Puritan idea of a witch. The Puritan idea of witches is a symbol of pure evil and submission to the devil. Not empowered bitches striking back at the patriarchy. The witch in THE VVITCH is evil. She abducts and eats a baby and has deadly sex with a minor. She seems to be stoking the flame of Thomasin’s family’s suspicion on purpose. And none of it appears to be for any reason. It’s not to get back at them for some harm they did to the witch. The witches live in the woods, separate from the family. The family doesn’t bother them. We can’t know the witches’ reason for tormenting them because the witches have almost no lines or screen time. The witch isn’t a character in the film. She’s the monster. The bad guy. What lurks in the woods.
Fine! I’m honestly kind of into it. That’s a scary fucking witch: she is hungry so she eats what you love, she’s horny so she fucks what you love. The point is, this is not an empowerment story. It’s a story of societal oppression. A girl develops into sexual maturity in a deeply misogynistic society. Then her life is made worse by some creepy goats and a mean witch who kills her siblings one by one in ways that make it appear suspiciously likely that the girl herself is to blame. Her parents are predisposed to blame her anyway because she’s a woman-in-progress, and her uterus makes her inherently more sinful than other people. Still, maybe they wouldn’t have blamed her so much if she hadn’t been coincidentally standing right there every time a child got hurt. It sure seems like the witch in the woods is framing Thomasin for this shit. Not exactly feminist of her to drag other women down like that.
For the film to be empowering, it would have to empower. Thomasin never makes an active choice. She’s a victim at every turn, and in the end she joins the witches out of desperation. There is nowhere else she can go. Her family is dead. Thanks, witches.
Feminist art doesn’t necessarily have to empower. If this is a story about societal oppression then isn’t it still a feminist narrative?! It’s about how women are harmed by patriarchy! About how painful it is to be a woman in a society that considers women inherently valueless! About how culturally women are left no choice but to…turn evil, murder babies, and do general purposeless violence in exchange for the paltry ability to levitate a few feet off the ground?
I don’t buy it. Nothing the witches do seems inherently necessary to their ability to live away from Puritan society. Nor does it seem fun. Between bathing in baby blood, boning children, and floating naked outdoors in late fall (chilly!), being a witch in the world of this film doesn’t seem that great. What are the witches getting out of it?
I’m especially skeptical of the idea that it’s in any way Good to Be A Witch because of this scene.
In this scene, the Devil speaks to Thomasin from the body of her family’s terrifying goat Black Thomas. The Devil is a bit like a creepy uncle. Hovering in the background at family events, waiting until you’re alone, touching your shoulder in a way that’s not quite inappropriate…? He offers Thomasin power at a price. The price is the same one everyone else is asking of her: her body and her obedience. Just like in all the old Puritan texts, the witches in THE VVITCH get their power from the Devil. Not from themselves. Their witchcraft isn’t some inherent feminine power coming to the surface in rebellion against patriarchy; it’s bestowed on them by agreeing to stop bowing to one patriarchal power (society) and start bowing to another instead (the Devil).
Not only is Thomasin not empowered by becoming a witch, she actually becomes complicit in her own victimization. She’s fully aware that the witches are casual murderers and pedophiles, and that the Devil is their boss. She knows she’s just going from one overbearing father figure to another. Part of feminism is imaging alternatives to social structures where women are below men in a hierarchy. In THE VVITCH, there is no alternative. Just two different versions of the same thing.
Some reviewers describe Thomasin’s journey as one of embracing the idea that womanhood comes with outsider status. First of all, that is a BS assessment of society. Women are half the population and have designated roles within all subsets of society, even if those functions are often crappy. Second and more importantly: witches aren’t outsiders in this film. Thomasin’s journey from the farm to the coven is a microcosm of her family’s journey from the town to the farm. Which is, itself, a microcosm of the Puritan community’s journey from England to North America. They leave one sort of oppression only to immediately create a society that enforces a new oppression that’s not meaningfully different than the old one. Thomasin is no more free at the end of THE VVITCH than she is at the beginning. She’s just an insider in a different group.
I guess at least she gets to levitate naked now.
Does it pass?
- The Bechdel-Wallace Test: Yes.
- The Sexy Lamp Test: Yes.
- The Willis Test: Definitely not.
- The Ko Test: No.
- The Roxane Gay Test: Close but I say no. This movie is very white/straight/cis.
- The Carie-Burns Test: Nope. As far as they function in the film, the Witches aren’t characters, they’re monsters. the Devil, on the other hand, is a character. After mom is dead the last living characters who matter are Thomasin and Satan.