Angelina Jolie will be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe later on in The Eternals, but before then, she will return to the big screen in Maleficent 2 as the titular anti-heroine fairy-witch. Jolie, who is known for her humanitarian efforts in addition to directing and acting, penned a piece for the September 2019 issue of ELLE about the struggles still facing women when it comes to obtaining an education or any form of independence in the modern world.
“What is it about the power of a woman free in mind and body that has been perceived as so dangerous throughout history?” she asks at the beginning, before breaking down history, in which (mostly) women were put to death for witchcraft for any ill that could be conceived: “Often destitute widows, eking out an existence as healers on the fringes of society, or younger women whose seductive powers could easily be attributed to magic.”
For a lot of us, our main reference point for actual witch trials is the ones that took place in Salem, which saw more than 200 people accused, 19 of whom were found guilty and executed by hanging (14 women and 5 men), with one man being crushed by rocks. In comparison, if we look at the peak of witch trials in Europe, from 1580 to 1630, an estimated 50,000 people were burned at the stake, most (some say around 80%) of them women in their 40s.
“Since time immemorial, women who rebel against what is considered normal by society—even unintentionally—have been labeled as unnatural, weird, wicked, and dangerous. What’s surprising is the extent to which this kind of myth and prejudice has persisted throughout the centuries and still colors the world we live in,” Jolie writes. “Women who stand up for human rights in many countries are still labeled ‘deviant,’ ‘bad mothers,’ ‘difficult,’ or ‘loose.’”
“Consider the estimated 200 million women and girls alive today who have suffered genital mutilation. Or the approximately 650 million women and girls worldwide who were made to marry before they were 18 years old. Thousands of women and girls are murdered by family members in so-called honor killings each year, as a punishment for exercising their own free will.”
“None of this is to dismiss or downplay for an instant the terrible abuses against men and boys,” she clarifies in the piece, “[b] ut looking across the world, we have to ask, Why is so much energy expended to keep women in a secondary position?”
This speaking about witches, wicked women, and empowerment isn’t just post-modern woo-woo. The comparison between those women slaughtered in bulk during the witch trials and modern women is something that feminist academics have spoken about before.
Italian scholar Silvia Federici is best known for Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, where she takes a Marxist approach to the witch hunts and examines that the witch trials are part of a capitalist methodical subjugation of women and appropriation of their labor. Writer Lindy West (Shrill) has an upcoming collection of essays titled The Witches Are Coming, which is all about the feminist rage of living in Trump’s America.
What Jolie and others are tapping into is the long-held historical image that a woman with a lot of power, without a man, is viewed as a dangerous thing. From Joan of Arc to Anne Boleyn to Bridget Cleary, independent women are told to stay in their place.
“There is nothing more attractive—you might even say enchanting—than a woman with an independent will and her own opinions.”
(via EW, image: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for The Critics’ Choice Awards )
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