Witches of East End is one of many current TV shows about supernatural phenomena. But unlike other shows that deal with otherworldly forces, Witches of East End—which is currently airing its second season on Lifetime—illustrates an important real-life history lesson: how one of society’s favorite ways to persecute women and justify violence against them has historically been to brand them as witches. The series reminds us how patriarchal cultures vilify women who are considered too capable or independent.
Of course, any savvy historian knows witches are not simply a conspiracy invented by men. There are women who practice Wicca and have a deep interest in Goddess religions. The reality of being a self-identified witch and the associations patriarchy projected onto that term, are however, two different things.
For thousands of years, the witch label in mainstream society has functioned as a gendered slur reserved for women who, through their extraordinary abilities or their defiance of traditional roles, have been perceived as enemies to the male-dominated order. Witch hunts like those in Salem, Massachusetts are often presented as a zany part of our past, but the reality of witch hunts was very dark: from 1480 to 1750, an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft.
What is remarkable about Witches of East End is that it is simultaneously manages to document the history of women being persecuted as witches, while illustrating how the patriarchal values that led to witch hunts are still alive today—they’ve just evolved. Witches of East End revolves around the Beauchamps, a matriarchal family led by single mother and witch Joanna (Julia Ormond) that lives in the fictional American town of Seaside. Her daughters Ingrid and Freya (Rachel Boston and Jenna Dewan Tatum) are also witches. Or at least, they have been, in the past. You see, Joanna has been “cursed with motherhood.” Every time her daughters die, she is cursed to give birth to them again, raising them from infancy to adulthood. Unfortunately, the two girls never even make it to 30, because the fact that they have magical powers is invariably discovered by the wrong people. For example, both daughters were burned at the stake in colonial America. This storyline of reincarnated daughters whom bigoted folks hurt and destroy over and over again is the perfect illustration regarding how our repressive society adapts through the centuries, finding new ways to abuse capable women.
The series has many illuminating flashbacks, but most of it takes place in the 21st century. Poor Joanna has now become absolutely sick and tired of burying her daughters young. Because their powers get them into trouble, this time around, Joanna has decided not to tell her children they are witches. While in previous incarnations Joanna taught her daughters how to wield their witchcraft, she now believes they cannot be safe if they know they have supernatural abilities.
Joanna, Ingrid, and Freya spend a little quality family time in a graveyard.
While the gendered slurs women have to deal with in the 21st century are more likely “slut” or “cunt” than “witch,” women who defy social norms are still stigmatized. If you dare speak out against such sexist double standards in North America these days, you won’t get burned at the stake, but you may well be called a “Feminazi” or get beaten up.
Centuries of experience with sexist harassment and intimidation are exactly what frighten Joanna Beauchamp into raising her daughters in ignorance of their identities as witches. Over time, however, Joanna’s daughters manage to discover their powers all on their own. They discover that they are capable of so much more than they were raised to believe.
Early in season one, we learn that Freya grew up being told her ability to read people’s auras and her tendency to have premonitions were all in her head. Joanna sent Freya to therapy in an attempt to convince her daughter that these powers were the product of an over-active imagination. Joanna may have tried to train the magic out of her daughters in order to protect them from what makes them different, but her attempts to do this drive her to extreme levels of deceit. Joanna’s plan does not make Freya “normal,” it makes her worry that everyone around her thinks there is something wrong with her. Is this not reminiscent of so many young women today who know they have much to offer the world but are called weird or unfeminine for believing in their ability to do extraordinary things? Remember, we still live in a world where many political pundits believe that women are too hysterical to be president of the United States.
Despite their mother’s efforts, the adult Ingrid and Freya eventually find themselves unable to resist using their magical powers. Their capabilities are innately part of who they are. Unfortunately, because they were never taught the foundations of magic as children, they now have a lot of catching up to do. Joanna’s choice to raise them as “normal” girls did not prevent her daughters from discovering their talents, but it did prevent them from refining and better understanding these abilities.
As Freya and Ingrid become aware of their powers, they experiment, but do not always know how best to do so. In a particularly memorable gaffe in season one, Ingrid resurrects her aunt Wendy, not realizing resurrecting one you love comes with a price; someone else you care for must die in return. Tragically, Ingrid’s lover dies as a result of the resurrection spell.
Later in season one, Ingrid also gets into hot water when she uses her powers to protect herself from sexual assault. When a male admirer becomes rough with Ingrid at a party after she rebuffs his advances, she casts a spell to break his fingers so he cannot grab at her anymore. Unfortunately, someone else happens to see this act of self-defense who then kidnaps Ingrid to take advantage of her powers as a witch. Yet living in a society where people do not respect or understand the girls’ powers makes them vulnerable in many ways.
Ultimately, Joanna’s mothering choice is a relatable cautionary tale because she does what so many mothers have done throughout history: she attempts to raise docile daughters who blend into society for their own safety. It is an understandable reaction to the enduring nature of sexist social norms, but the series shows us how flawed this strategy is.
Freya, dealing with some identity issues.
Joanna’s strategy falls apart when a magical shape-shifter puts the Beauchamp family in danger. Out of necessity, Joanna confirms the truth to her daughters that they are indeed witches. Freya in particular feels betrayed by Joanna for not being honest with her—remember, she grew up being sent to therapists, being told that her powers were a fantasy she made up and must work to overcome. While yes, the series illustrates how vulnerable the girls’ powers make them to being exploited, we see that living in ignorance of their gifts is not without serious consequences, either.
Ultimately, the answer to the many lifetimes of discrimination the Beauchamps—and all women—have faced is not to stifle one’s talents, but to try to transform society. The words may be different, but we live in an era that still tries to extinguish women’s power all over the place.
Related Reading: The Witch-tastic Ways of "American Horror Story: Coven."
Sarah Sahagian is a PhD Candidate in Gender, Feminist and Women's Studies at York University in Toronto. She tweets about feminism and whatever else she fancies. You can follow her @sarahsahagian.