As women superheroes continue to capture the imagination of viewers, an unlikely new group of TV heroines is emerging from a genre more often associated with evil: witches.
Series such as A Discovery of Witches from streaming service Shudder, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix and upcoming offerings like Freeform’s Motherland: Fort Salem portray witches as intelligent, romantic and emotional characters who mostly use their power for good. Further, the shows reach an audience of young women looking for strong characters in an age of female empowerment.
“Witches get a bad rap,” Jan Diedrichsen, general manager of SundanceTV and Sundance Now, said. “One of the reasons [the witch genre] has endured and evolved is that witches are smart and powerful, and they use their smarts to wield their power.”
Indeed, the evolution of witches on television comes as female superhero characters from Wonder Woman to Captain Marvel have become a big part of the pop-culture zeitgeist. While those characters project physical and mental strength, a witch’s power is more steeped in learning and intelligence.
“Women always think we have a powerful sixth sense that’s stronger than men, so the mental power from witches tends to resonate well with female viewers,” Los Angeles-based TV critic and writer Mekisha Madden Toby said. “I would argue that the increase in shows featuring good, strong witches coincides with the women’s movement and women just wanting to be in power and have more control.”
Shows of Strength
In A Discovery of Witches — based on the popular book series by Deborah Harkness — the series’ protagonist, university professor Dana Bishop (Teresa Palmer), is at first reluctant to use witchcraft, but eventually harnesses those powers with her intelligence, employing them to keep an ancient manuscript from falling into the wrong hands.
“The old stereotype that witches were evil — and the evolution of the genre from the Wizard of Oz on up — has shown that witches can be good and can use their powers for good,” Diedrichsen said.
The series set audience streaming records on both Shudder and Sundance Now within two weeks of its February launch. It also had a successful run on BBC America, where it retained most of the audience from its lead-in — the Emmy-winning Killing Eve — on Sunday nights over eight weeks in April and May, Diedrichsen said.
“It’s an exciting way for audiences to see a female character be in power,” Diedrichsen said.
Freeform will look to reach a younger female audience with its new series Motherland: Fort Salem, set in an alternate U.S. where witches cut a deal with authorities some 300 years ago to end their persecution in exchange for military service. The show depicts witches as protectors of the greater good, rather than as evil destroyers, Freeform president Tom Ascheim said.
“Mythology for a long time has done a lot to create stereotypes, and much like with Siren — where we reimagined mermaids as not voiceless, legless love objects — we’re trying to do the same [reimagining] thing for witches with this series,” Ascheim said. “It’s a feminst tale about a reimagining of witches not as foes, but as strong, vibrant and, in this case, strong defenders of what is an alternative version of America.”
Conjuring Up Diversity
The new wave of witchcraft-themed shows are also diverse and inclusive. From A Discovery of Witches and The CW’s reboot of Charmed — which both feature lesbian charaters — to Netflix’s Siempre Bruja (Always A Witch), which stars an Afro-Caribbean slave transported to the 21st century, to Starz’s recently green-lighted series Brujas — which follows the exploits of four Afro-Carribean/Latinx witches — these shows are expected to broaden the genre’s audience, according to Toby.
“The new face of feminism is way more inclusive in terms of who’s speaking out and who’s included, and these shows are reflecting that,” Toby said.
As for the future, Diedrichsen said AMC Networks has already green-lighted two additional seasons of A Discovery of Witches and will continue to look for new opportunities within the genre.
“We look for great storytelling, and if we can find a great genre show we’re 100% on board for it,” Diedrichsen said.
Added Toby, “Witches, like vampires, will always be in vogue, and viewers — especially female viewers — will be attracted to them.”