HOW DO YOU SPELL FEMINISM?; FOR TV AND MOVIES, IT’S W-I-T-C-H-C-R-A-F-T

The witching hour has arrived. If you doubt it, just turn on your television.

For two years, ”Sabrina the Teenage Witch” has been blending magic and teen angst Friday nights on ABC. On the darker side, there’s the new WB drama ”Charmed” with three sisters – they’re gorgeous, of course – who inherit a San Francisco Victorian manor that sparks their witchly talents.

And on the big screen, ”Practical Magic,” the romantic comedy featuring the formidable quartet of Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as a family of witches, has been doing spellbinding business at the box office.

They may be kinder and edgier than Hollywood witches of the past – the Wicked Witch of the West comes to mind – but are they anything like the estimated 70,000 real witches affiliated with Wicca in the United States alone?

In a nutshell, real witches tap into the natural universe to promote the positive aspects in their lives, not the supernatural, Wicca members maintain. They use folk magic and spells to bless their homes or get jobs, not just for matchmaking. The Wiccan Rede says to do harm to none, and the threefold rule says that what you send out comes back to you threefold, so black magic doesn’t quite fit into that equation.

But while the National Council of Churches and the federal courts may recognize Wicca as a religion, Hollywood strictly relegates its practitioners to the realm of fantasy. Outside the horror genre, though, Tinseltown witches are slowly gaining a little Wicca credit.

” ‘Sabrina’ may be hokey, but it does portray witchcraft in very good ways,” says Francesca De Grandis, author of ”Be a Goddess!” She points to a recent show in which someone points out, ”even witches can’t tamper with life’s lessons.”

”I loved that, because no magical tool or religion should be used as an escape from personal growth,” says De Grandis. ”I try to teach religion of Wicca and spellcraft to attain personal growth (and a) sense of personal responsibility.”

That’s a far cry from Hollywood witches of times past when she – and invariably it was a she – is destined to be alone and lovelorn unless she abandons her magic, at least in the old days.

In ”Bell, Book and Candle,” Kim Novak not only lost her powers when she fell for Jimmy Stewart, she traded in a slinky, sophisticated wardrobe for a frilly hausfrau look and her fabulous primitive art inventory for seashells and flowers in her retail store.

Hollywood may have granted her supernatural powers, but it demanded a trade-off between female independence and old-fashioned, blissful domesticity. If a woman ventured out of her role as the pursued and cast love spells, disaster inevitably erupted.

Take ”The Witches of Eastwick.” Even in 1987, the witches’ innocent girl talk about what makes the perfect man leads them to into all kinds of trouble with the devilish Jack Nicholson. In ”The Craft” (1996), Robin Tunney bewitches Skeet Ulrich, who becomes obsessed with her and is a fatal object of jealousy for witch practitioner Fairuza Balk.The current ”Practical Magic,” based on a novel by Alice Hoffman, adds some humorous twists to those old conventions.

Still, Hollywood can’t entirely abandon its latent tendencies to combine evil and the undead with witchcraft. Take, for example, Kidman’s entanglement with an obsessed Bulgarian in ”Practical Magic.”

”None of which is very accurate (about Wicca), but at least the Mary Poppins side of things made it more real or more fun anyway.” says Glenn Turner, proprietor of Ancient Ways in Oakland and a practicing Wiccan. ”Today’s movies seem to emphasize this evil force in the world.”

Breaking the mold

The cinematic horror instinct that erroneously links witches with satanic practices is hard to shed as well. The image of the witch as a hook-nosed crone in black clothing and pointy hat has been perpetuated by children’s books and the media, says J. Gordon Melton, Institute for the Study of American Religion director for the past 29 years.

”That picture of witchcraft merged with Satanism in the popular consciousness,” he says. Those two separate practices continue to be linked on screen until the 1980s, when the neopagan movement began to protest.

In 1993, protests were mobilized against the Disney comedy ”Hocus Pocus.” The same thing happened three years later with ”The Craft.” The Wiccan community objected to the movie, which began with four girls transforming themselves through friendship and self-belief, but detoured into betrayal and even attempted murder. Still, enough of the rituals pictured spurred an interest among teen and young-adult audiences.

In addition to witches, the success of TV shows like ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the fanaticism surrounding ”Xena: Warrior Princess” all fall under the concept of ”fanteria,” a term coined by Youth Intelligence, a New York-based company specializing in youth-oriented market research, branding and trend forecasting.

The fantasy-reality fusion can be described as ”a move away from sci-fi and dim reality to attainable fantasy combined with a need for sensory experience,” explains Kirsty Doig, a Youth Intelligence vice president. ”It pushes the boundary of the mundane so it’s no longer just mundane life.”

That might explain why the young television witches, while still female, enjoy relatively normal romantic relationships and normal problems outside their extracurricular activities of casting spells and assisting vampire slaying.

Quest for power

So is the fantasy element liberating for women, or counteractive?

”We could question the way they’re providing for young women to feel powerful and wonder if that’s really the best way,” says Margaret R. Miles, dean and vice president for academic affairs at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, who laments the lack of symbolic resources available to help young women develop an interior life.

Miles, who sees film in terms of ”cultural moments,” believes young women ”feel powerless in our cultural moment, and the attraction of some kind of power, which witchcraft represents, is enormous for them.”

De Grandis, however, sees the spate of witch-oriented TV programming as airing ”typical teen-age concerns not being addressed by parents and peers.” She often receives ”very moving” letters from teen-agers who ”are sincerely looking for ways to cope with problems that young adults face.”

The media, says De Grandis, has given them permission to explore other options.

” ‘Sabrina,’ ‘Buffy’ and ‘Charmed’ are just one example of just a whole world-view change,” says Melton, who has studied Wicca. ”These newer shows are already created with the feminist movement in assumption. They are not so much as a result of girl power, but a result of girl power being advocated.”

Witches change with the times

”The Wizard of Oz” (1939): The most familiar and arguably best Hollywood witch may be the one from Western Oz. Margaret Hamilton’s green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West overshadowed Billie Burke’s beautiful Glinda in ”The Wizard of Oz,” even though it took the good witch, not the charlatan wizard, to send Dorothy and Toto back home to Kansas. You’ll be seeing them both again soon when Warner Bros. re-releases a special edition Nov. 6 to commemorate the film’s 60th anniversary.

”I Married a Witch” (1942): Throaty Veronica Lake weds Frederic March in a comic act of vengeance; he’s the descendant of the Puritan who had her burned at the stake in the 17th century. This film inspired the television series ”Bewitched.”

”Bell, Book and Candle” (1958): Kim Novak beguiles Jimmy Stewart in this romantic comedy. Too bad love made the anthropology major-turned-retailer swap her primitive art store for a flower shop. Her bongo-drumming male witch brother – a rare acknowledgment that male witches actually exist – was played by Jack Lemmon.

”Bewitched”: The nature of television itself makes the nature of witches much kindlier, like the late Elizabeth Montgomery’s nose-twitching Samantha Stephens in the TV series that aired 1964-72 and in apparent perpetuity on Nickelodeon.

”The Witches of Eastwick” (1987): Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer play three sexually frustrated friends who get much more than they bargain for when they all succumb to the charms of the devilish Jack Nicholson.

”Hocus Pocus” (1993): Disney was behind this film, featuring the unlikely but somewhat inspired grouping of Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as witches who terrorize children on Halloween, prompting Wicca protests.

”The Craft” (1996): Neve Campbell, Rachel True, Fairuza Balk and Robin Tunney – outcasts due respectively to their looks, race, reputation and outsider status – strengthen friendship bonds through Wiccan rituals of sisterhood. Unfortunately, they degenerate into narcissism, recklessness and even attempted murder. The movie ends up being another cautionary tale when women become too self-assured.

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