weaponized femininity: witchcraft in 2018

 Photo by Sara Murray

Photo by Sara Murray

Upon hearing the word ‘witchcraft,’ most people probably think to the past. Witches have a long history shrouded in mystery and cruelty. In the old testament of the Bible, witches were condemned to death in one neat sentence. In early modern Europe, it was legal to imprison or execute people on the suspicion that they were engaging in sorcery. This practice was carried over to America by the European explorers, and led to perhaps the most famous instance of witch-hunting: the 1692 Salem witch trials in Massachusetts. The hysterical affair ultimately ended with 20 executions, 14 of which were women.

Today, the word ‘witch’ is taking on a different meaning. Witchcraft is on the rise, and this time, in a more positive light. Modern witchcraft can be defined as a kind of spirituality rather than a religion; it is often a highly personal practice, although it can also be performed in covens. Perhaps the most common branch of modern witchcraft is the Wicca – a neo-pagan belief largely founded on ancient Celtic tradition.

There are many modern branches of witchcraft, but most, like Wicca, seem to mingle ideas of self-help, spirituality, nature and philosophy. Nylon Magazine’s resident witch, Gabriela Herstik, runs a segment called ‘Ask a Witch,' in which she instructs aspiring witches to ‘practice yoga, spend time under the moon, and buy some crystals.’ There is no mention of Satan, and contrary to the stereotype of cruelty in witchcraft, most witches would not so much as perform a love potion without their subject’s consent.

Witchcraft is on the up in pop culture as well as in private practice. Urban Outfitters sell a guidebook on modern magick for good witches. Rapper Azalea Banks describes herself as a practiser of brujeria, the Spanish word for witchcraft. Singer Lorde has also stated that she is ‘basically a witch,’ whilst many see her jerky dance style as an attempt to cast a kind of spell on her audience. Earlier this year, Lana Del Rey joined the worldwide witch community to cast a binding spell on Donald Trump, preventing him from causing harm in the world. Later asked about her tweet, Lana admitted to being ‘a mystic at heart,’ and joked that she ‘ does a lot of shit.’

Why, though, are so many modern women choosing to identify with witchcraft, a practice associated with the past?

Constance Grady for Vox argues that the reclaiming of the ancient art acts as a continuation of ‘weaponised femininity.’ This was a brief phenomenon around 2012-14 characterised by women leaning into traditional feminine stereotypes in order to subvert them:  take the notorious ‘eyeliner so sharp it could kill a man’ feminist make up tutorial, for example. This narrative was largely criticised for its aggression towards men; Grady argues that witchcraft is a revised continuation of the same sentiment, but with a flexible application that doesn’t depend so heavily on the male gaze. Certainly, modern witchcraft is far less hostile; it makes a point to be highly inclusive of different genders, sexual identities, orientations, races and classes. Anyone and everyone is invited to participate in this modern subversion of witchcraft. It even seems partially symptomatic of social movement and the feminist agenda.

However, whilst this reinvention of the meaning of witchcraft can be an empowering move for some, it is worth remembering that the persecution and murder of accused witches is far from over in many cultures. In Papua New Guinea, witch-hunts are still a common occurrence in the highland regions. As recently as 1971, the local government passed the Sorcery Act, which condemns the use of ‘black magic.’ Despite repealing this law in 2013, the practice of witch-hunting is worryingly spreading to more urban areas of the country. Rooted deeply in ancient tradition, the hunters, often groups of young men, believe they are ridding their villages of evil. Punishment for sorcery includes torture and death, and an estimated 20 victims are killed every month, although statistics are difficult to collect as many instances go unreported.

Perhaps the Western resurgence of witchcraft is conscious of the continued persecution of accused witches elsewhere in the world. Or perhaps, it is simply an aesthetic that lends itself to popular culture in a way that can further the reach of social activism. However, it is important to remember that the cool-girl vibe of the modern witch is not just built on past persecution and suffering by women, but stands parallel to the continuation of traditions we often think are entirely absent from our present world.

amanda de cadenet

 Photo via Amanda de Cadenet

Photo via Amanda de Cadenet

We know the models. We know the actresses. We know the women who make it in front of the camera. But what about the illusive figures behind the lens whose names are, often times, out of plain sight and consequently out of mind? Multimedia platform Girlgaze is working to transform this almost-anonymity of the female-identifying artists that bring some of our favorite visual art to life. Their mission is crystal clear, encouraging women to "break the boundaries and determine their own identity, sexuality, and beauty" within photography (and any form of art, for that matter). This may seem like a large undertaking, but it's one that Girlgaze's founder and CEO, Amanda de Cadenet, handles with a poise and dedication that has rubbed off on many of today's young girl creators. With Girlgaze's first book, Girlgaze: How Girls See the World, releasing this fall, and de Cadenet's own book, It's Messy: Essays on Boys, Boobs, and Badass Women following suit, we wanted to know more about what makes this founder and self-made woman tick. Read our Q&A with Amanda de Cadenet below!

What is the most important message you hope to spread through the work done at #girlgaze?

That the female point of view is valuable and must be included and celebrated.

On a global scale, how does celebrating the creative work of girls online impact how we interact with with creative content as a whole?

Celebrating the work of girls anywhere as often as possible contributes to a larger portion of the world being exposed to the female point of view

What is the most rewarding aspect of being a part of a platform like #girlgaze?

There are so many rewarding things but if I had to pick one it would be that I get to see and support so many creative girls flourishing 

Are there any artists/photographers who have particularly stood out to you recently? Why do they inspire you?

Zoey Grossman, who I had the pleasure of being photographed by recently. Flora Negri. Heather Hazzan. Bree Holt. Carlotta Guerro. Because they're all goddamn great photographers with their own perspective and unique point of view, especially regarding their images of women and girls.

For creative women who have yet to get a big break, what advice do you have for them?

Be tenacious. Don't be afraid to reach out to people who you admire or who you would like to work with or for. Although annoying at the time, the girl who emails me 50 times will be the most likely to get my attention.

What does the future hold for #girlgaze? 

Oh we have so many awesome projects, partnerships and opportunities you'll have to stay tuned. Sign up for our newsletter, follow our Instagram.

How can others get involved in the work that you do?

There are many ways to be involved. Our new digital platform www.girlgaze.tv launching in October will be sharing all that information. Joining our community is the first way to stay updated with all the job opportunities and projects we have going.