Thursday, July 28, 2016

Defense of The VVitch: 21st Century Sexual Agency of Women Explored through Colonial Folklore and the Implications of Genre and Plot on Subtextual Commentary in Fiction


First, full disclosure for a general fondness for the movie that you can probably skip: I have an affection for ambiguous horror over slasher/jump scare stories; I like the creeping, unsettling slipstream/magical realism approach. It gets the brain juices flowing while still offering good existential dread/emotional tweaking. With that said, it should be clear that I watched the movie as a sincere supernatural story with an actual coven of witches living nearby. (This is in stark juxtaposition to my read of Pan’s Labyrinth, which I preferred to think of as a little girl having a severe psychotic break).

I also have a personal fondness for the setting. It reminds me of Lovecraft exploring the unwritten past, like walking back through a graveyard and finding it too old and too large for Providence. Scale, distorted or just raw enormity, is a direct line towards my fear centers. Nothing makes the present-day Northeastern United States feel big and empty like realizing it’s mostly woods and nobody lives there yet. The megalopolis that dominates the region is a long way off, still. The place is also depleted of indigenous people because of the plague that ravaged the ever-loving-shit out of the Algonquin population and it shows.

Also, the idea of a continent getting its first dose of Europeans is somewhat captivating to me because they (we) were going to become such a dominant force in the Americas that to be so outnumbered by an absence of others (if that makes sense) is an interesting setting when properly captured.

Okay, with that out of the way:

The Witch (styled VVitch) is, in a nutshell, the story of a family being exiled from their early colony for conspicuous faith and defying repentance. They got told by a group of hardcore Jesus people that they were too into Jesus, basically. They go off on their own, do a pretty decent job of establishing a farm, and everything goes to hell. The family is made up of a mother, a father, a daughter (Thomasin, arguably the main character), a son, a boy and girl (twins), and an infant. The baby goes missing, the disappearance is blamed on both a witch and Thomasin. Eventually, Thomasin is accused of being a witch herself (after insisting she’s a witch to tease her younger siblings), one by one everyone else in the family dies. Thomasin has a literal chat with the devil (it turns out he was on the farm in the form of a goat named Black Philip) and joins a coven of witches in the woods, dancing, and eventually taking flight, around a fire.

Among the family itself, there was conflict, but no antagonist/villain. This is important to note in both its realism (how many families have proper villains? As opposed to just disagreeing about everything?) and its implications for the story that the real enemy is a systemic oppression of women, especially a woman’s sexuality, is so pervasive it’s both invisible and all encompassing. Everyone in the family was ultimately doing their best, but they were very rarely at their best. They were also subject to their own circumstances, which I'd argue (very deliberately) sets up a lot of Thomasin's situation, more on that later, though.

Back to the family themselves: each character is dealing with two things, their unique issues and the pressures of isolation.

The mother is a psychological wreck from, among other things, acute stress (and justifiably so). There’s mention of previous children that either miscarried or died early on, which common for the era or not, is still cumulatively tragic. She also seemed to be in the throes of postpartum depression and trying to white-knuckle her way through it, which as anyone that's struggled with any mental health issue can tell you, is usually doomed to fail and/or leave scars. On the isolation tip, she's the only sexually mature woman around, and caretaker to literally everyone in her de facto world. She has no one she can rely on (outside of her husband making decisions and everyone doing their own share of farm tasks), and therefore must be relied upon, while also dealing with physically healing from having a new baby, still nursing that baby, her fifth that's survived, and thinking about all of them actually surviving/thriving wresting a life from essentially virgin forest.

Second, the father. He's not perfect, definitely prideful, but he’s a good man. Modern audiences are trained to encounter a character like him and wait patiently for the other shoe to drop, especially in an isolated setting where a young girl is moving into sexual maturity and his wife is distant and combative. Daughter or not, it’s not totally unfeasible to worry he was going to start creeping on his daughter. He does not. In fact, he was incredibly supportive for most of the family in the way each of them needed at different times. He, despite his own crazy rage/frustration/panic at their living situation, tended to err on the side of kindness and reason as things broke down. He is also carrying a burden of guilt. Their situation is his "fault" as they were sent away for his conspicuous faith from a colony founded by the conspicuously faithful--a nightmare scenario: if you're told to love God as hard as you can and judge those that don't, how do you react if you're sent into the woods for refusing to apologize for loving God as hard as you can and judging those that don't?

The older son: he's reaching sexual maturity hot on the heels of his older sister, the only woman around that isn't his mother. He's noticing her develop and clearly wrestling with both his faith, his knowledge that sisters aren't supposed to be ogled, and his adolescent curiosity about breasts/a woman’s body. He's also feeling the pressure to step up to be a greater source of help to his father despite constant reminders that no matter what's going on in his brain, he's not yet physically able. In every way but sexually, he's impotent, and sexually it's got nowhere to go (or even probably functioning yet). So he's just flailing and aiming himself harder at being a good son/second man of the house and then, shit, his big opportunity and his dad is nearly blinded? Plus, the twins won't listen to him, so what kind of "man" is he?

The twins are more representational than anything else, essentially innocence encountering the early indoctrination of a society that’s built a certain way, love it or hate it, to survive the world it inhabits, while still enjoying the freedoms of childhood. An interesting note here is while they are the first to speak openly about witchcraft and demons, it remains a terrible but playful notion for them, whereas, for the parents, it’s as real as predators and severe weather. More on that later, though.

Finally, Thomasin. And my god, what a nightmare situation she's in. She's a young woman coming into sexual maturity in a world that literally demonizes sexuality in women and, as she can see with her mother, essentially treats them like service staff+baby chambers. She's feeling the call of agency, to living a life of her own and not just doing something for someone else. She also has been taught from day one this is sinful. She's smart, too smart for her situation (exhibited in how she fucks with the twins for a laugh and it bites her in the ass later).

Even out here in the woods totally alone, a strong woman is branded a witch ("other") and called evil, cursed, etc. by a society that's still reaching her through the greater context of her life, somewhere between rape culture and ideological state apparatus (as much as I’ve pushed back against Althusser, he came up with a very useful concept, here).  She's trapped in this sort of circular, self-fulfilling prophecy where she's destined to become a witch.

This is where the supernatural genre nature of the story and the subtext come together.

Black Philip (the goat) is either an agent of, or actually is, Satan himself. As a reminder, Satan as a concept means adversary much more than "source of evil." Modern conceptions of witchcraft and satanism have more to do with existing outside of society and its expectations than muahaha-evil (that said, this element still kills the entire family in one way or another, we’ll circle back to that, though). To that end, Black Philip and the witches represent a revolutionary element, anarchic (dressed in black as a goat and his mostly-unseen-human form) and raw (the witches are naked), determined to burn down the system that is holding these women back. I'm not saying he's a good guy but he, like everyone else in the movie, essentially means well. Which again, is so interesting and an important point to note about good genre fiction: when you change the circumstance, you alter the values of the point of view to allow for a moral reframing that, while unlike our own, is still subject to it because it came from our modern moral framing.

He (Black Philip) systematically removes everything and everyone that could possibly leave Thomasin trapped in her current societal role, one she's chafing under already. Each of the other family members had to go because 1. They were willfully taking part or representational of their culture and 2. she'd be obligated to care for them (of her own free will/out of kindness just as much as being pressured by society to step up in a new maternal role once the mother was dead) and remain entrenched. The father dies directly at Black Philip's hand (well, his horns) and dies last because simply put, he had to be there to keep her alive/safe until it was time for him to go. There were times where he was directly protecting her from her mother. He was also the last thread tying her to her world and, his benevolence and good intentions or not, a stark representation of what power looked like and what she could never have: agency. She could never do what her father did, striking off on his own and, while being an outcast, still respected enough to be a trade partner. His exile was essentially an offer of sovereignty. No woman could expect that in colonial New England, certainly not as a punishment.  

In that moment, with all of her ties removed, Thomasin, of her own accord, walks up to the goat that killed her father and asks it to speak to her. And it does.

It offers her all sorts of luxuries that seemed more likely to represent the sort of life a man could attain on his own but a woman couldn't in the colonial NE more than the luxuries themselves. When she said she wanted that, she wasn't saying she wanted “butter” or “a pretty dress,” (Black Philip’s offers) she was asking for the life that allows them as possibilities. He asks her to disrobe, which she does, facing the first man she’s met that isn’t a family member (note, despite all this, and despite her resistance, men will still represent a source of power for her because she can’t help but be a part of the world she was raised into some extent herself) so to both undertake an act of exposure both acknowledging and owning her own budding sexuality while also doing so in the presence of a strange man who is almost definitely The Great Adversary, and doing so after told it was the path and not a demand for sexual satisfaction on his part, was a major act of independence and reclaiming of her own sexuality. Ultimately too, in the end, it’s up to her to enter into a contract with this man. This is crucial. She is not being sold. She is selling herself, her soul, which means she finally had total ownership of it in the first place to do so. She was finally her own woman. While this may be trading one system of oppression for another (albeit a more fun, freeing one), it’s a choice she makes and not one that’s made for her.

Now, the overlap of genre, plot, and subtext do come to a bit of a final head, here. If we acknowledge the representational elements of the movie (Thomasin as oppressed feminine sexuality, Black Philip as revolutionary thought, the witches as freedom and agency) are we inexplicably tying them to the double-moral framework mentioned earlier--modern and colonial?

One of the witches (who we only see half cloaked in shadow anyway) is clearly seen bathing herself in blood at one point, clearly implied to be that of the stolen baby, to empower herself to take flight on a broom. Thomasin’s siblings also each die gruesome (mostly off-screen) deaths. Given the connection between setting and subtext, is the movie subsequently stating that women of agency and sexual liberation requires catastrophic change? Or is it making a moral judgment on that agency and liberation? Or is this merely an artifact of genre? Or a weakness on the part of the screenwriters? Or an ambitious close reading gone too far?

I’m going to have to keep chewing on that.