Letter: ‘When Does Female Empowerment Transcend the Magical Into the Actual?’

A reader responds to a look back at the film Practical Magic, two decades after its release.

Sandra Bullock as Sally Owens in Practical Magic (Reuters)

Thank the ’90s for Practical Magic

Earlier this month, David Sims wrote about how Griffin Dunne’s ostensible comedy mixed horror, empowerment, and romance in ways that were unusual for the era.

I’m a colleague of David Sims’s at The Atlantic, and I consider him one of my favorite culture writers. After reading his recent piece on the film Practical Magic, I wanted to expand on his observations about the film’s theme of independent women and go deeper into what it means to me. To me, this film is personal.

My sisters and I used to dance around the kitchen making smoothies to Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” and try to light candles by the strength and will of our breath. I’d collect leaves and petals in a bowl in an attempt to cast young Sally Owens’s spell to never fall in love, and if a broom fell in the house, it would mean “Company’s coming.” Sims talks about how the movie bombed in the box office, but it became a cult classic among young Millennial women like myself. I believe that Sims’s take on the film can’t possibly encapsulate this female perspective, simply because he likely had a very different relationship to Practical Magic (and entertainment like it) than women like me did, women who needed to believe that there was something magical and powerful about us that men couldn’t touch.

I like to ask women, friends and strangers alike, if they were witches when they were younger. Responses usually range from an embarrassed or reluctant nod of the head to, “Hell yeah; I still am.” My own anxious youth involved plenty of Ouija-board seances and attempts to levitate friends who lay light as a feather and stiff as a board at slumber parties. Most important, I’d never miss an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch or Charmed. Witch-themed entertainment has been so attractive to young women because it seems to empower us. Onscreen representation of strong women is cinematically and socially vital. But after 20-plus years of magical women on-screen, every witch from the Owens sisters to the “Power of Three” (in Charmed) is about as powerful as a pink pussy hat. The symbolism is there, but is it enough?

Sims describes the film as one dominated by the theme of independent women. Power begets independence, and in the history of the Western world, at least, women are powerful for being either a saint or a sinner, a Madonna or a witch. Well-behaved women are revered by men and therefore given a place of honor in society, but it’s the witches who take power, demand respect. Which is likely why so many little girls fantasize about being witches, about having some control over the domain of their lives and over men. And this is also likely why, in the woke #MeToo era, witch revivals abound. As Sims points out, Practical Magic was a “clear harbinger of a gentrifying moment for onscreen witchcraft.” That gentrification is happening again, taking the theme of female empowerment through magical means to the next level. Charmed has been remade with a mixed-race and mixed-sexuality cast, and Sabrina has been reincarnated into a feminist bad bitch who justifies female rage in a horror-filled world. Even Broad City so aptly demonstrated the power of witches last season when Ilana overcame her inability to orgasm post-Trump and Abbi reconciled herself with her natural aging process.

It’s no secret that witch-themed entertainment is cathartic because magical powers maketh a strong woman who can beat a man. But that’s also the problem: If there’s one cynical thing that all these TV shows and movies have in common, it’s that possession of magical powers is often the only way for a woman to defeat a man. Without magical assistance, she’s just a normal woman, a bland supporting actress to the more important male story about men going to space or solving intense mathematical equations. So yes, Practical Magic is still relevant, especially when seen in the context of all the other ass-kicking witches casting spells and breaking balls across the silver screen. Because 20 years later, women still can’t cast a spell on mansplaining male bosses or flip over buses of rapist frat boys or orb away from the creep following us down the street. So my question is, when does fantasy stop and reality begin? When does female empowerment transcend the magical into the actual?

Rebecca Bellan
Astoria, N.Y.