Remembering 1990s Television as the Epoch of Witchy Teens
by Vanessa Nicholas
Youth culture necessarily brims with the supernatural because adolescence is liminal and vexing. It is an anguished, thrilling metamorphosis that is nevertheless bound by the limitations of childhood, when magic feels familiar and agency seems seductive. This is particularly so for teen girls, whose burgeoning sexuality can feel both powerful and cursed. Herein lies the appeal of the teen witch trope, which seems strangely rooted in the 1990s and its Goth-grunge aesthetic. The decade saw a glut of teen witch icons, particularly on television, including Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996) and Willow on Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997). It is arguable, however, that this popular culture trend was most potent and powerful in its implicit forms. The handful of heroines that defined the then-ascendant teen television drama were cast in the mold of historical witches, and ought to be entered into the canonical coven of 90s teen witches that emboldened a generation of feminists. From Angela Chase to Lindsay Weir, the small screen 90s girl was offbeat, rebellious, clever, curious and unkempt. In short, she was witchy and we worshiped her for it.
Angela, Lindsay and their counterparts, Joey Potter and Felicity Porter are recognizable as witches in part because of their social rank. In Season 1 of Dawson’s Creek (1998), Joey Potter, played by Katie Holmes, pretends to be an heiress from Manhattan in order to charm a preppy frequenting her family’s seaside café in Capeside. Her duplicity extends to her local friends, Pacey Witter and Dawson Leery, to whom she dismisses her love interest as “some rich kid who just stepped off mummy and daddy’s yacht” (“Kiss”). Her apparent discomfort with the alluring stranger’s wealth is a symptom of the shame she associates with her working class and its relation to her father’s criminal record, for which she is teased explicitly. Suspected and convicted witches in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe were typically the most economically vulnerable in their communities. Witch historians reason that the rise of capitalism disrupted medieval economies and distorted community ethics of charity, compelling poor farmers and villagers to accuse poorer neighbors of witchcraft in order to justify refusing them aid or assistance (Sharpe 40). We see this charity refused model play out in the “Beauty Contest”, when Joey overhears moneyed peer, Hannah von Wenning, ridicule her family and call her a charity case backstage at the pageant that she entered grudgingly for prize money. Aware that class is binding in the court of public opinion, Joey shields herself from judgment with cynicism.
While Keri Russell’s Felicity (1998) is evidently affluent, it is also clear that she has no social capital. At the beginning of the Pilot, Felicity confesses her romantic infatuation for an oblivious, popular boy in suitably alchemic terms: “Three years ago, I held a pint of Ben Covington’s blood” (“Pilot”). Felicity’s invisibility designates her a loner and classifies her as a possible witch. Moreover, she acts like a witch when she impulsively changes her college plans after Ben writes her a thoughtful yearbook dedication at their high school graduation. Her reflexive, emotional and prescient decision to follow Ben from California to the fictional University of New York confuses and angers her helicopter parents, particularly her father, a doctor that expects Felicity to follow in his footsteps by taking pre-med at Stanford University. Significantly, early modern medical doctors had an interest in the European witch-hunt because it helped to discredit the feminine folk knowledge that weakened their emergent profession (Merchant 155). Female healers and midwives were intentionally vilified as witches in order to validate the new medical profession and its male actors. If Felicity’s father is a metaphor for the forceful assertion of scientific thought in the early modern period, then Felicity’s decision to become an artist in Season 2 is a significant rejection of the patriarchy. Felicity saves herself by creating physical and psychic distance from her overbearing father.
While Joey and Felicity are burdened by their status as outsiders, their counterparts, Angela and Lindsay, deliberately renounce safe friendships and relocate to the unruly fringes. Claire Danes plays Angela, who introduces herself on My So Called Life (1994) with an admission of social experimentation: “So I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff . . . Just ‘cause it seemed like if I didn’t I would die, or something” (“Pilot”). She continues, “Things were getting to me. Just how people are.” Rayanne is presented as the misfit antidote to Angela’s conventional childhood friend, Sharon Cherski, in the series’ opening. As Angela and Sharon walk to class, Angela looks longingly out of a school window and spots Rayanne running from the building between periods with Enrique Vasquez. Angela eschews the social norms that she seemingly distrusts by dying her blonde hair deep red on Rayanne’s advice at the end of this sequence. Similarly, in Freaks and Geeks (1999), Linda Cardellini’s character, Lindsay, deserts the mathletes to hang out on the smoking patio with the school burnouts (“Pilot”). Where the signifier of Angela’s mutiny is her hair, Lindsay’s is her father’s Army jacket. Unlike Joey and Felicity, Angela and Lindsay cultivate social abjectness by changing their image. They thereby affiliate themselves with the early modern women who relished being alleged witches and exploited the abstract power that such suspicions afforded them (Purkiss 145).
Whatever singularity is attributed to these characters, they are all Euro-American and thereby identify with the white majority and wield its privilege. Moreover, Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, My So Called Life and Freaks and Geeks are racially homogenous. With the exception of Felicity’s driven friend, Elena Tyler as played Tangi Miller, there are no principal female characters of colour on these shows. This casts new meaning on the apparent historical precedent for the heroines in question: the white witch. Also known as cunning folk, white witches were distinct from the malefic and hag witch types in medieval and early modern Europe. Helpful and knowledgeable, they performed community services and were solicited to issue counter-magic against harmful witchcraft (Sharpe 56). Though the malefic, hag and white witch varieties are not racialized, they are often assigned or visualized in ways that reinforce white supremacism. For example, historian Bertrand Rosenthal rebukes modern scholars for asserting without evidence that the hysterics displayed by adolescent girls in Salem Village were incited by the voodoo and mystic religious practices of Tituba, a local slave (78). Not only does this account vilify non-Christian religious practices, it also reassigns the maleficence of young white women to a woman of colour. Additionally, in the 1939 film adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) the Wicked Witch of the West has green skin. The sinister implications of using skin colour to differentiate the Wicked Witch from Dorothy and the Good Witch of the North are substantiated by the novel’s own author, L. Frank Baum, who publicly advocated for the slaughter of Native Americans. In 1890, for example, Baum penned an editorial for The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer that may have inspired the Wounded Knee massacre: “Our only safety depends on the total extermination of the Indians” (Baum qtd. in Ray). These editorials inform critical readings the Wicked Witch of the West as a racist metaphor for Indigenous people, who were forced to retreat westward with the advancement of Euro-American settlement.
Given this history, it is notable that the Resident Advisor in Felicity and Elena’s dorm, Noel Crane, a Euro-American male, tapes a wicked witch cut-out to the door of Elena’s room on the occasion of the show’s first Halloween episode (“Spooked”). Whether or not it is purely coincidental that Elena is killed in a car accident in the show’s final season, the historical correspondence between witch beliefs and racist views in America makes it possible to understand Elena’s ultimate death in relation to Noel’s seasonal trimming. It is duly significant that Elena boldly enters the men’s room to confront Noel directly about the decoration. Considering Elena’s willful and even anti-social character, her protest seems hollow; however, it is possible that she is not reacting to being marked as a witch, per say, but rather to being marked a wicked witch. Her finer point, therefore, is that the clever and benevolent white witch is not necessarily white. Accordingly, Elena and Felicity establish their intellectual and moral equity early on in their relationship. After pairing up as lab partners, Elena frankly asks Felicity if she is suitably smart: “You’re good at this stuff?” (“Boggled”). Felicity coolly responds that she aced AP Chemistry. They negotiate principles in the same episode, after Felicity wins the campus lottery for a personal fridge and Elena suspects that Felicity’s luck is related to her romance with their Resident Advisor: “If a procedure as benign as a fridge lottery is susceptible to sexual conspiracy, what does that say about the whole system?” When Felicity discovers that Noel did indeed favor her lottery application, she gifts the fridge in question to Elena and resets their equilibrium. Their bond assumes supernatural dimension when Felicity time travels and prevents Elena’s death in Season 4.
The combination of intellectual rigor and moral obligation that Elena and Felicity share is also evident in Joey, Angela and Lindsay’s characters. Women who were accused of being witches in the early modern period were often fated by their irreverent voices and matchless minds. Historian Jane Kemensky claims that women in Puritan New England were judged as either Christian and virtuous or sinful and wicked according to their speech, which was rigorously regulated by the Church and its patriarchal dictates. She writes that the witch rhetorically surpassed the virtuous woman: “The virtuous woman read, but the witch read backward. The virtuous woman knew her Scripture, but the witch could cite chapter and verse of biblical text with facility that ministers found distinctly unsettling” (32). Felicity, Joey, Angela and Lindsay reclaim speech and language from sexist judgment by demonstrating that their brilliance and decency are codependent rather than mutually exclusive. Felicity’s dazzling capacity with words and language is quickly established, and in “Finally” Ben responds to her capacity to swiftly grasp and analyze Ode to a Nightingale (1819) by John Keats: “And you get all this just from reading it? You don’t even have to figure it out?” We also understand Felicity’s essential goodness in linguistic terms. Meaning, she speaks unreservedly and sincerely. So much so, that her words occasionally cause her harm. For example, in “Hot Objects” she records herself on a cassette tape for her friend, Sally, saying that she is having her first sexual fantasies. The tape is then accidentally played at a dorm party. In being uncommonly genuine, Felicity inadvertently exposes the unforgiving puritanism of her social group and thereby forges a kinship with the early modern witch.
Joey’s namesake is Jo March, the bibliophile heroine of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868). Joey’s correspondence with this literary reference is vital to our understanding of her as a witch because it intimates that her strength of mind and character was foreordained in text. Like Jo, Joey shrinks from stereotypical femininity, which she regards as frivolous and superficial. As a consequence she is suspicious of female friendships and acts like one of the boys, whom she considers either equals or subordinates. Indeed, Joey tends to overpower her male peers in wars of words and battles of brawn alike. For example, in “Detention” Joey’s presentation on the history of the Japanese Empire is interrupted by Grant, a jock who fixates on the role of concubines: “Did you say that six hundred chicks were all in service to one dude?” She responds by challenging his choice of words, “Well, I didn't say chicks, but yes.” As Grant continues to berate her, Joey simply asserts that he is unable to understand her presentation. Later in the cafeteria, Grant attempts to regain his male power by sexualizing her speech: “I love it when chicks tease me, it turns me on.” Soon thereafter, Joey floors Grant with a punch to his jaw. In accordance with the historical witch, Joey’s quick, acerbic dialogue and hostile physicality, including her slouch, eye roll and punch, alienate others and invite derision. Her defensive posture and academic prowess may seem discordant; however they are both over-compensations for her sex and class, which she regards as the only hindrances to her ambition.
The “Resolutions” episode of My So Called Life begins on New Year’s Eve: “What I was thinking, as like a New Year's resolution, is to stop getting so caught up in my own thoughts, 'cause I'm, like, way too introspective . . . I think.” Angela is often quiet and observant, but her voiceovers and discourse reveal her as inquiring and philosophical. Angela’s intellectual capacity is less attached to her grades and application to schoolwork than it is to her existential statements and profound candor. For example, in the show’s pilot she explains to a concerned teacher that she has quit working on the yearbook because she perceives it as a phony pursuit: “It’s like . . . if you made a book of what really happened, it'd be a really upsetting book.” In “The Substitute”, Angela seeks out an impactful substitute teacher to ask about his sudden dismissal: “I hear you left your family, abandoned them . . .what’s the truth?” His response, which begins with him calling her Amanda, is a barrage of vagaries about freedom and societal expectations that verges on paranoia. He closes by telling her that she ought to drop out of high school and save herself. Her face twists as she recognizes that he is a scared and aimless man, rather than a brave and crusading educator. She articulates this shift by correcting one of his words, and one of her own: “It’s Angela . . . The thing is that I kind of admired you.” By putting her regard in the past tense, Angela rejects her teacher’s authority and situates herself in the tradition of those witches that understood the Bible better than their priests.
Of course, these characters are not immune from the influence of men, and dim but attractive heartthrobs constantly appeal to their charity and test their moral clarity. Lindsay is the consummate smart girl, a former mathlete whose academic achievements decorate her bedroom. Though she renounces school and seeks acceptance from the slackers, she cannot abandon her profound sense of decency and continues to apply herself to serving her family and friends, including Daniel Desario. Crushing on the bad-boy is fundamental to the teen witch identity and its liminal place between the virginal white witch and the maternal malefic witch. Unsure of her own sexuality, Lindsay expresses her desire for Daniel by misdirecting her mind and heart to improving his grades. After failing to adequately prepare Daniel for a math exam in “Tests and Breasts”, Lindsay cheats for him and gets caught. Felicity and Angela also risk their own academic standing by devoting themselves to disinterested male peers. For example, Felicity rewrites an English paper of Ben’s without his consent and lands them both in front of an academic tribunal (“Cheating”). While Angela does not get caught doing Jordan Catelano’s homework in the parking lot, she has already compromised one of her central doctrines: honesty. We thus know that her relationship with him is doomed. When Angela is paired to work with Jordan in English class, she inadvertently recognizes their incompatibility on paper: “I couldn't’ believe that Jordan Catelano was actually trying to diagram my sentences. His sentences were really short” (“Father Figures”). While such narratives could be construed as morality plays that warn girls not to misplace their virtue, they also illustrate the unique problems of the teen witch who is outgrowing the simplicity of childhood.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this complex and inspired archetype was displaced at the beginning of this century by its opposite, the wealthy, popular teen drama queen. This shift is attributable to reality television. From Survivor (2000) to The Bachelor (2002), The Simple Life (2003) and Laguna Beach (2004), this new television form elevated personalities that were curiously basic, dumb and selfish, and the latter three shows helped spurn an interest in wealth. Scripted television followed suit, and The O.C. (2003) and Gossip Girl (2007) take special credit for idealizing the tragic rich girl archetype that assumes the cultural position initially carved out by Angela, Joey, Felicity and Lindsay. Alexis Bledel’s Rory Gilmore is remarkable as a hybrid character whose evolution maps the transition from witchy 90s girl to bitchy millennial. At the start of Gilmore Girls (2000), Rory is a reclusive but ambitious bookworm living with her single mother at the edge of Stars Hollow, a fictional New England town seemingly named to make imprecise allusion to the occult. Rory’s inimitable brilliance and drive seem to fix her place in the lineage of the crucial 90s girl; however, in her college years, which begin in 2004, Rory’s privilege consumes her when she temporarily drops out of Yale to live rent-free in her grandparents’ plush pool house.
Significantly, Gilmore Girls ends with Rory on the cusp of joining Barack Obama’s campaign as a political reporter, signaling the progressive optimism that his candidacy represented (“Bon Voyage”). If Obama corrected Rory’s twisted path, maybe he would save us all. Sadly, however, American culture continued to curdle and the horrific effect of this decline came when reality television’s famously gilded racist misogynist, Donald Trump, defeated a real-life white witch, Hilary Clinton, in the 2016 American presidential race. While some academics, including literary critic Diane Purkiss, are cynical about the feminist impulse to venerate historical witches (9), the public response to photos that surfaced on social media of Clinton hiking in upstate New York after the election evidenced that the witch can be a useful and therapeutic totem of female power: “If you walk into the woods and say her name three times, Hillary Clinton will appear for a selfie and some encouraging words” (Brown). At this cultural impasse, perhaps we all ought to convene in the woods and conspire our rise from the ashes.
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“Boggled.” Felicity, created by J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, performances by Tangi Miller and Keri Russell, season 1, episode 3, Buena Vista Entertainment, 1998.
“Bon Voyage.” Gilmore Girls, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, performance by Alexis Bledel, season 7, episode 22, Warner Bros. Television Distribution, 2000.
Brown, Michael (boyinquestion). “If you walk into the woods and say her name three times, Hillary Clinton will appear for a selfie and some encouraging words.” 29 November 2016, 1:41pm. Tweet.
“Cheating.” Felicity, created by J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, performances by Keri Russell and Scott Speedman, season 1, episode 5, Buena Vista Entertainment, 1998.
“Detention.” Dawson’s Creek, created by Kevin Williamson, performances by Katie Holmes and Mati Moralejo, season 1, episode 6, Columbia Tristar Television, 1998.
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“Hot Objects.” Felicity, created by J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, performance by Keri Russell, season 1, episode 3, Buena Vista Entertainment, 1998.
“Kiss.” Dawson’s Creek, created by Kevin Williamson, performance by Katie Holmes, season 1, episode 2, Columbia Tristar Television, 1998.
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“Pilot.” Felicity, created by J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, performance by Keri Russell, season 1, pilot episode, Buena Vista Entertainment, 1998.
“Pilot Episode.” Freaks and Geeks, created by Paul Feig, performance by Linda Cardellini, season 1, pilot episode, Sony Music Entertainment, 1999.
“Pilot.” My So-Called Life, created by Winnie Holzman, performance by Claire Danes, season 1, pilot episode, Vivendi Visual Entertainment, 1994.
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Ray, Charles. “‘Oz’ Family Apologizes for Racist Editorials.” Authour Interviews from NPR, 17 August 2006, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5662524.
Reis, Elizabeth, ed. Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America. Scholarly Resources, 1998.
“Resolutions.” My So-Called Life, created by Winnie Holzman, performance by Claire Danes, season 1, episode 16, Vivendi Visual Entertainment, 1994.
Rosenthal, Bertrand. “Dark Eve.” Reis, pp. 75-98
Sharpe, James. Witchcraft in Early Modern England. Pearson Education, 2009.
“Spooked.” Felicity, created by J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, performances by Scott Foley and Tangi Miller, season 1, episode 4, Buena Vista Entertainment, 1998.
“Tests and Breasts.” Freaks and Geeks, created by Paul Feig, performance by Linda Cardellini and James Franco, season 1, episode 5, Sony Music Entertainment, 1999.
“The Substitute.” My So-Called Life, created by Winnie Holzman, performance by Claire Danes and Roger Rees, season 1, episode 6, Vivendi Visual Entertainment, 1994.