(AKA The Do’s and Don’ts of Coven Dynamics)
by Jenny Mott
October 14, 2016 at 11:38 am
We’re halfway to Halloween, there’s a full moon this weekend, and I’m here to talk to you about Witches.
Hocus Pocus — The Witches of Eastwick
Loosely, here, the connection is A Coven of Three, made up of a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead (see also: Joe Versus the Volcano; that movie gets infinitely better if you pretend that Meg Ryan is a witch — but honestly most Meg Ryan movies get infinitely better if you pretend that she’s a witch). Really though, I just want to talk about mutual love and support between women.
The first thing they teach you at Gay Witch School (AKA Bryn Mawr College of Bitchcraft and Misandry) is the importance of community — sisterhood, supporting each other, open and honest communication — and nowhere can you find a better vessel for that relationship than in the coven.
A coven, ideally, is small group of people who love and support each other into becoming their best selves. Often, the people involved are female or non-binary, but cis dudes can do it too (though traditionally coven membership requires a lot more emotional self-awareness than the Patriarchy allows in men).
So, this week, I’m presenting the Do’s and Don’ts of creating and maintaining a healthy coven dynamic.
Let’s start with Hocus Pocus (1993).
Now, Hocus Pocus is a delight. It’s a classic, and it 100% holds up. For those of you who may have missed out, here’s the deal: Salem, MA — 1693 saw a lot of people (non-fictionally) murdered because the Puritan equivalent of Regina George was bored and the adults were ignorant, self-important, and prejudiced; among those (fictionally) killed are the Sanderson Sisters, who curse the town from their funeral pyre by swearing to return again.
300 years later: 1993. Peak 90s L.A. culture — imagine the sweet middle ground between The Lost Boys (1987) and Rocket Power (1999) — as epitomized by our protagonist, Max (AKA Jean Ralphio singing The Worst). Max doesn’t believe in magic, but both Dani (his little sister) and Allison (the Hot Girl™) totally do. There’s some stuff with a talking cat and the purity myth, but mostly there’s Bette Midler singing “I Put A Spell On You”.
Now, while the Sanderson Sisters may have some ideal #looks, they are not really an ideal coven. All groups of people are naturally going to fall into a hierarchy, and sometimes leadership can be a great thing, but Bette Midler is like the Donald Drumpf of her family, a totalitarian dictator over this small population of Carrie Bradshaw and Sister Mary Patrick.
Bette Midler is a great example of what Not to do when interacting with your fellow coven members. Even if it should happen that there is some great power imbalance and you are the chosen Supreme, you can’t just Jessica Lange your way around — you need to lead (not rule), and you need to do it with kindness. I grant that there isn’t a huge well of inspiration for the benevolent and all-powerful (witches or otherwise), but I figure as long as you’re steering pretty clear of Michelle Pfeiffer in Stardust, you should be set.
SPEAKING OF MICHELLE PFEIFFER!
The second part of this double feature is The Witches of Eastwick (1987). It’s possible that some of you recognize this as the John Updike novel of 1984, BUT don’t let that discourage you. The movie is FAN👏TAS👏TIC (in large part because it just throws Updike’s terrible-horrible-so-shitty-the-worst sexist ending out the window and leaves these women happy and fulfilled in the company of each other).
But, in case you’re familiar with neither the book nor the movie, let me sum up: Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and CHER are witches, casually, in New England. It’s as close as a movie can come to perfection without just being Practical Magic. Anyway, then Jack Nicholson shows up and tries to ruin their lives. SPOILER ALERT: He fails! Because their friendship is ultimately more important than any man and his devil penis!
The Witches of Eastwick does a fantastic job of showcasing a balanced coven — definitely a DO when thinking about coven dynamics. Each member has her strengths and her weaknesses and she finds counterpoints to those characteristics in her fellow witches (see also: Charmed).
However, striking the perfect balance can be tricky. Patriarchal society has certainly drilled some ideas into our heads about what “power” means, and so maybe we look at Michelle Pfeiffer in this movie — we see her soft hair and her fertility and we think: she is a doe, she is small and kind and must be protected; perhaps we see Susan Sarandon and her tidy apartment and her precision and we think: she is a spinster, she is dry and tired and poses no real threat; and then obviously no one underestimates Cher.
When we are conditioned to recognize power in Cher or Jessica Lange, it is because their power is great and destructive and often selfish — it is power as it has been defined in masculinity; BUT part of why this movie is SO GREAT is that Cher cannot defeat Jack Satanson alone. The masculine ideal of power is not enough — it is a flawed ideal; it is not power in its truest sense.
And that’s the rub — trying to hit upon one true definition of power necessarily excludes alternatives. Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer work so well as a coven because they trust and believe in each other to be what they themselves cannot; they each support and are supported by the others. They need each other, they complete each other, but more importantly: they love each other.
So when it comes to Coven dynamics, remember kids: true power lies in the love and support you feel for your fellow women/witches/non-binary pals, and not in oppressing your sistren into servitude.