Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Dangers of Being a Witch

I've been watching True Blood again.  I love the Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood series, but as with all media it's swarming with problematic elements.  I could go on for days about the problematic elements of both the books and the series, but because it's relevant I'm going to go into one in particular.

In True Blood there's a Wiccan coven that somewhat accidentally performs necromancy on a bird, which causes the vampires to be very distressed because, being dead, necromancers can control them, doing things like making them walk in the sunlight.  What results is some attempted coven-busting, with first Eric and then Pam attempting to threaten and break up this group who simply wants to practice their religion in peace.  Marnie--the owner of the shop this group meets in--winds up being possessed repeatedly by a woman named Antonia who was persecuted during the European Witch Trials by vampires.  She erases Eric's memory and causes Pam to begin decaying before eventually organizing a bunch of Witches to cast a spell to draw all vampires into the daylight.  There was a cliffhanger here and I'm itching to see how it ends, and yes, I'm aware that I'm really quite far behind in watching this, but I do feel the need to write about this subject.

First off, I think it's interesting (and somewhat cool) that a group of Wiccans, Brujos, and mediums are shown rising up and demanding that they have the right to practice their religion.  This is how the fight is being framed in the series; they're not portrayed as a bunch of power-hungry people or novice teenagers trying to be cool (which is the norm), they're retaliating against vampires who are specifically trying to deny them religious freedom.  The group is relatively diverse, has men and women, and isn't run by teens.  There is, however, one really harmful trope that's being pushed:  That Wicca, Witchcraft, traditional religions, and/or Paganism are ludicrously dangerous.

This is a relatively common trope, having been used in True Blood as well as Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Craft, and Blair Witch II.  And this is really problematic, not just because it's largely false, but because it in a rather not-so-subtle way becomes a "warning allegory" against Wicca and Paganism.  In these, becoming a Witch is portrayed as something that inevitably pushes somebody into just a ridiculously dangerous situation.

"But Jack," you may or may not be asking yourself, "Wiccans and Pagans certainly do run into these problems!"  Well, reader, you may or may not be right!  There are certainly magickal and spiritual actions out there that require risk.  One of the reasons most Pagans take care to learn how to do things like ward their space is because many of us do believe in the authenticity of sometimes-harmful entities and energies (demons, ghosts, fairies, muuet (the angry dead), the evil eye, I don't know, aliens?) and we view these things as worth protecting ourselves from.  In some traditions there are practices that are considered inherently (and importantly) dangerous, like questing.

Here's the thing, though:  The entities and energies I noted above--if we accept them as real--are not more drawn to Witches and Pagans than everyone else; we just conceptualize things differently.  For example, where a non-Pagan might see a streak of bad luck around their house as just bad luck, in the same situation I might consider the option that it's a muet or somebody's giving me the evil eye.  I've had obnoxious experiences with entities that decided to hog my Ouija board, but my very-Christian aunt also lives in a house she considers haunted.

The difference is perception of causation, and it's something that's really hinged on Christian privilege.  If you have two people who live in houses purported to be haunted, and one of them is a devout Catholic who has a home shrine to Saint Jude and another is a devout Pagan who has a home shrine to Hekate, these two situations are not going to be portrayed equally even though objectively they are.  The Catholic is more likely to be portrayed as an innocent victim being harassed, the Pagan more likely a person who willingly allowed evil into their life.

Why is this important to the way Witchcraft and Pagan-implied behavior is portrayed in popular culture?  Because although most reasonable people know that real Wicca is not the same as True Blood Wicca or Buffy Wicca, the trope still maintains Witchcraft as disproportionately a catalyst for disaster, one of the same issues that plagues real Witchcraft, drives people away who are interested in it, and causes people to do such useless things as warn people to be extra careful if they decide to convert.

It's also absolutely unlike how Christianity is portrayed in the same media.  When Christianity is negatively portrayed, there's usually an effort to make sure it's just extremist Christianity being represented with that negative portrayal and not Christianity as a whole (this makes sense because the viewer is assumed Christian).  To use True Blood as an example, there are plenty of extreme, rude, nasty Christians portrayed.  There's the Fellowship of the Sun along with various religious bigots and Christians engaging in very bizarre behavior.  At the same time, though, most of the other characters are assumed to be Christians (if you read the books, at least, it's clear Sookie Stackhouse is).  Christianity is allowed several different faces, with the majority of Christian (and assumed-Christian) characters being well-balanced and reasonable.  In short, Christianity isn't portrayed as dangerous; extremism is.

All of this sends a message to people who would be interested in Paganism, who have family and friends who are Pagans, and to current Pagans:  Pagans are messing with stuff that shouldn't be messed with, and we're going to pay for it.  It's like a modernized version of the Exorcist, a movie which has been used for decades to scare people from even the most basic of occult practices by presenting them as inherently dangerous.

And, well, that's just not true.