Kristen Sollée & the Contemporary Witching Hour

“My mom is a witch.” Kristen Sollée, author of Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive (2017), relays the early encounters that piqued her interest in the occult and its feminist implications to me over drinks in a bar so close to the JMZ overpass that the ceiling rumbles with passing trains. For as long as she can remember, Sollée’s mother practiced “manifestational methods,” acts that bridged witchy clairvoyance with Italian folk magic – for example, she would advise her daughter that “burying a statue of St Joseph upside down in your front yard” would help sell their house. Sollée’s mother didn’t always identify with the term “witch”, however. Rather, she referred to herself as simply “intuitive” up until recently, when she heard about the work her daughter was doing. This shift in identification mirrors a larger cultural change in how social movements and capitalists alike have come to reckon with and reappropriate the figure of the witch.

Witches, Sluts, Feminists is a breathless, wide-ranging, and acute account of the figure of the witch in all her ugly, excessive, deviant glory. In her book, Sollée diagnoses the resurgence of the witch in feminist discourse, and attests to the witch’s relevance as an “evergreen” symbol of female oppression and resistance. As she recounts, this figure historically represents all that is feared, loathed, and enchanting in femininity. The witch, Sollée writes, embodies the double bind of womanhood:

Women are frightening for being unattractive, sexually unappealing, and past their prime, and yet, they are frightening when young and attractive because the witch is also charming, bewitching, beguiling, and sexually irresistible with her mysterious feminine wiles.

The fate of the witch – burned, drowned, ostracized – is a cautionary tale for women who refuse to submit to an impossible paradigm of normative embodiment, a way to discredit female autonomy and control “deviance” along gender lines. It should be no surprise to anyone that the unbridled misogyny that fuelled the witch trials is still alive and well today, albeit has taken on new forms. Sollée likens contemporary rape culture in particular to the “physical and emotional terrorism against women” rampant during the witch trials: “Slut-shaming and rape culture are poisonous blooms from the seeds of misogyny sown centuries ago,” she writes.

Maybe I live too close to Bushwick, but these days it seems like everyone and their roommate is a witch. The sudden onset witch-consciousness – a collective recognisance, if you will, of the link between witches and feminism – fell into step with a larger cultural shift referred to sometimes as “fourth-wave” or “internet” feminism. But, like all good things (including feminism) witches were vacuumed up by neoliberal capitalism, de-fanged, and spat back out as a brand. We barely had a second to bask in the glory of witchy feminism before Forever 21 started selling “Witch, Please” shirts, and Cosmopolitan started publishing “How to Cast a Spell On Your Man”-type drudgery.

I ask Sollée whether the figure of the witch can still be a powerful symbol of feminism and resistance, despite its sanitization and appropriation for capitalist ends. “The corporations can’t own the witch – they can pervert aspects of it and market it in a way that’s totally divested from its original intentions, but [different forms of] witchcraft are nature-based practices that are thousands of years old – you can’t change the cycles of the moon or the seasons or the way humans interact with them.” Sollée hopes that maybe the young people who “get their tarot deck at Urban Outfitters” might be prompted by this superficial introduction to the occult to dig deeper, to pursue the ideas and histories latent in the commodity. “But maybe not!” Sollée admits. “Sometimes it’s just total perversion in the worst possible way. I’m trying to be positive but I also want to recognize the really problematic ways that capitalism and neoliberalism have attempted to harness these really powerful movements for their own devices.”

The whitewashing of the history of witchcraft is another way in which the figure of the witch has been corrupted for hegemonic ends. The sanitized, corporatized image of the witch goes hand in hand with her association with white feminism. “We still have this image of the witch as a white woman,” Sollée says, adding that this conception is not only exclusionary but also false. “Witchcraft traditions exist in every single culture around the world, and the leading neo-pagan practitioners – people working with ancestral magic or a variety of traditions from Voodoo to ceremonial magic – are particularly queer women of color. Online the biggest hubs for learning about these traditions tend to be [led by] women of color.”

Speaking of selective historicizing, something strange has been going on with the use of the term “witch hunt” in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Abusers – nearly all white, straight, male, and rich – have been likening their experience of being held accountable for sexual abuse to a “witch hunt”. I wonder whether this skewed, anti-historical use of the term is strategic or pure idiocy. “It’s strategic,” Sollée answers, “because the vast majority of people are misinformed about what a witch hunt really was. The real witch hunts were when marginalized people were blamed for a whole host of evils that they absolutely did not commit and in fact, they themselves were often subject to.”

Construing the murder of thousands of innocent people (disproportionately poor, disproportionately women) with holding people who systematically abuse their power accountable is a strategic form of self-victimization on the part of abusers. Ever the optimist, however, Sollée is inspired by those who are using this misappropriation as a “teachable moment.” She cites Lindy West’s New York Times op-ed “Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You” as an example of how it can be “politically useful to flip it and say, yes, it is a witch hunt, and I’m a fucking witch.”

The politics of language are of particular concern for Sollée. Although she herself hails from an academic background (she has a Masters degree, and teaches at the New School), her book is no academic tome. “This idea that there’s only one way to access knowledge, that it has to be granted by some paternalistic system, is bullshit.” Her choice to write in an accessible style was a deliberate one – it’s an experiment in alternative historicization, a way of combating classist and patriarchal standards of knowledge-making and sharing. “I think it’s really important that folks that don’t have an extensive traditional education can have access to this information, this history.”

The history, in all its forms, is crucial. Sollée stresses the importance of recognizing and learning from the historical reality of the witch trials, which includes the fact that they were a way to “systematically oppress poor women, women who were healers, who were neuroatypical, who were over the age of fruitful childbearing years.” More than anything, Sollée notes, “the witch hunts were, at their core, a fear of so-called “deviant” sexuality.” She adds that the idea of the woman as “corruptor” can be traced all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve, and is still palpably present today. “Yes, we’ve made some progress towards gender equality, but there’s still such a fear of women and women’s bodies and anyone that [doesn’t fit neatly into] the gender binary or whose sexuality is not normative – it’s all the same fear.”

In Witches, Sluts, Feminists, Sollée looks to Anne Llwellyn Barstow’s book Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts for further ties between the history of the witch and her relevance in this contemporary moment. “Women – and other oppressed groups,” Barstow writes in a passage quoted in Sollée’s book, ”sometimes try to outdo their oppressors in scorning persons perceived as outsiders, in hope of being accepted, or tolerated themselves.” The complexity and value of solidarity becomes evident here. “One of the silly arguments people make,” Sollée tells me, “is that the witch trials had nothing to do with misogyny because women accused other women.” She notes that this was not only a form of internalized misogyny, but also a mode of survival. Today, as then, those most complicit with the mechanisms of oppression are also those most alienated from their own communities, from the structures of solidarity so crucial for emancipatory projects.

Sollée’s project is a historical one, but not traditionally so. She believes that a better understanding of one’s place within intersecting conditions, traditions, and historical narratives is crucial to the quest for equality. Sollée advocates for the power of (affinitive) lineage, of legacy; finding one’s place within feminist, anti-racist, post-colonial histories, acknowledging the emancipatory work (and struggles) of those who came before, is a form of empowerment in its own right.

There is no denying that the figure of the witch feels like a particularly apposite symbol today, but not only in that she speaks to an inheritance of oppression. Perhaps the contemporary call for the witch has more to do with a yen for all that was scorned in her to begin with: healing ingenuity, corruptive curiosity, affinity with the grotesque and the strange, deviancy, excess, sluttishness, magic.