Transformation and the problem of age in modern fantasy and fairytales

What do the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996-2003), the musical Into the Woods (2014), the film of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (2007), and Doctor Who‘s “The Shakespeare Code” (2007) have in common?

They all show witches who appear as young and beautiful as the coven from Supernatural in last week’s post, but are in reality a middle aged mother (desperately wishing to relive teenage glory years), hags seeking to restore their youth, or an alien who looks like a hag, disguising herself as a young woman to seduce victims. Nor are they alone. Women who use magic to attain a youthful appearance, or who are deeply threatened by women who are younger are recurring theme in modern fantastical fiction, and adaptations of fairytales.

This trope is almost an ugly duckling in reverse, and I think exposes an ongoing concern with the ephemeral nature of beauty, and concerns over the behaviour of women ‘of a certain age’. Unlike the Ugly Duckling however, these women rarely experience a permanent transformation, and are usually severely punished.

The problem with this trope is there are very few cases from history where witches used witchcraft to restore their youth (after all, botox and face lifts weren’t available in the early modern period). However the quest for an elixir of youth or the desire to restore one’s youth and beauty certainly did appear in Gothic literature, and the exchange of one’s soul for youth has been incredibly influential ever since Oscar Wilde penned his hedonistic Faust-tale The Picture of Dorian Grey.

In fact these witches owe far more of their trope to Dorian Grey, the stereotypes associated with female vanity, and ideas about the transitory nature of female beauty ( which is an illusion that amount to subterfuge where hags appear as beautiful younger women, like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Lamia in Stardust), than they do to actual early modern witchcraft cases. ), there are no direct parallels in the cases I look at in early modern England.

However there are other links that should be briefly addressed here. In Thinking with Demons Stuart Clark points to complaints about the use of masks in popular festivals as a Devilish, and were derided in language that mimicked critiques of witches’ sabbats.[i] For the witches in Stardust, the heart of a Star can maintain their youth, but it is not a permanent change, or solution. Like the elixir made from Harry Potter’s eponymous Philosopher’s Stone, this is a youth booster, not true eternal life.

It has been contended in the media that we live in a world which prefers women to be young, but any attempts to maintain female youth are through invasive surgery are treated as the domain of the foolishly vain. To say we, as a society, have a problematic relationship with female appearance would be an understatement.

In Films like Stardust the witches are contrasted with both the eternally youthful, beautiful and good Yvaine, and the gracefully aging Princess Una (whose many years of imprisonment by the witch Ditchwater Sal have not aged her apart from a single streak of white hair). While the witches in Stardust are portrayed as greedy, vicious, selfish murderers, while Yvaine and Una are generous, loving, and selfless.[ii]

In “Beyond Wicked Witches And Fairy Godparents: Ageing and Gender in Children’s Fantasy on Screen”, Rebecca-Anne C. Do Rozarion and Deb Waterhouse-Watson argue that “Crones […] are frequently penalised for the magical appropriation of youthful, beautiful bodies, as more adult fantasy films such as Stardust […] and Into the Woods […] show.”[iii]

I would argue that in the case of Stardust the punishment is meted out primarily be turning Lamia’s deteriorating youth into a recurring joke. In early modern plays, witches’ lust and stupidity (or the gullibility of their victims) could similarly be played for comic affect, as in The Late Lancashire Witches (1634).

I suspect there is quite a deal to say about our current obsession with youth and beauty (particularly in relation to women) in these portrayals of witches. An obsession we might likewise compare with early modern concerns over female sexuality and the susceptibility of women to the Devil’s influence (though I would argue that those concerns also play a role in our current obsession with female beauty).

In the previous post I suggested that witches on Supernatural were simply updated caricatures of early modern conceptions of witches – with a little occultism thrown in for good measure. They were the worst nightmares of early modern theologians come to life. The witches in Stardust, and other films present different nightmares: that young women are or will soon be hags; that ‘bad women’ lie about their appearance to deceive others; and that age is a punishment – particularly for women.

On the last idea, I was particularly struck when I recently watched Into the Woods. The film is of Sondheim’s musical, and in the witch becomes the meeting point for different fairytales: she is both Rapunzel’s abductor  and the source of Jack and the Beanstalks’ magic beans. Meryl Streep’s character declares early on:

The Witch: You see, when I had inherited that garden, my mother had warned me I would be punished if I were ever to lose any of the Beans.

In flashback we see how The Witch was transformed into the crazy-haired hag figure we see in the first two-thirds of the film. The Witch’s desire to break her mother’s curse and regain her beauty is both the driving force behind the narrative of the film, and an interesting comment on the relativity of youth and beauty (after all it is still Meryl Streep, she doesn’t transform into a girl of 20).

Similarly Michelle Pfeiffer, while acclaimed as one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood, is not ‘young’ in the traditional sense either. So perhaps the concern here is really with that mid-life period, where women are no longer nubile girls, but not yet crones either. When botox injections, cosmetic surgery, and cosmetics can deceive the eye, I suppose a concern with appearance (not unknown in the early modern era either) and magic’s transformative powers in that area seems a rich vein for fictional witches to exploit. The other side of this trend is that in which vanity leads the wicked woman to be jealous of young women’s beauty (see Evil Queen in the various adaptation of Snow White),[iv] and attempt to use magic to destroy her, with sometimes drastically ageing consequences, as in Mirror Mirror.

While this might seem just desserts for a would-be murderer, it is the motivations of ‘femme fatales’ (including the non-witches) in fantasy films that often strikes me. As with the recent (scintillating) portrayal of the wicked stepmother in Cinderella (2015) by Cate Blanchett, and Angela Lansbury’s earlier turn in the same role in Ever After (1998), women ‘of a certain age’, are viewed as predatory, and a little bit desperate. And not only for themselves, but for their daughters. There is often a sense that these women see the clock moving forwards, and while they cannot (as Lamia and other witches do) move time backwards, but they can ensure that their daughters do not waste their own youth (and/or beauty). In an aside, one of the more amusing comments on this portrayal was an assertion on Hollywood Life that this was the most evil portrayal, because Blanchett emphasised the Evil Stepmother’s envy and jealousy.

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Since I originally posted this article the witch Melisandre from Game of Thrones (2011), has also been revealed to be a hag masquerading as a much younger, attractive and sexually rapacious woman. Unlike others in this post this was not a punishment meted out to the character, but rather her natural state. It also coincided with her most vulnerable moment in the show, when her purpose and power seemed in doubt. In my Conversation piece on Melisandre I described her as a priestess as much as a witch. The revelation that she is in fact a hag whose appearance corresponds with ideas about witches played off her moment of doubt in her faith.

So as I attempt to wrap up what has rapidly become something of a ramble, let me say that there has been quite a good deal said on the topic of female age, and our societies apparent disposal of women over a certain age. The portrayal of women over 30 in fantasy or modern interpretations of fairytales often show these women as aware of their fading youth, and enraged by it (if they are not saintly mothers, or the heroine. And yes, we are definitely in Madonna/whore territory here – see Stardust, above).

These women who rage at middle age is perhaps best epitomised by the mother who literally steals her daughter’s body in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Season One episode “Witch”:

Catherine:  How dare you raise your hand to your mother! I gave you birth. I gave up my life so you could drag that worthless carcass around and call it living?

As always, Catherine is punished for her crimes with what she wanted: to return to her glory days as cheerleader, albeit forever trapped as the moving eyes of her own cheerleading trophy.

I suppose the question I am really posing here is: what is our problem with women and the ageing process that it recurs so frequently in recent portrayals of witches?

I hope you have caught on by now that I don’t think this is a recent development, after all older women make up a significant percentage of early modern witch trials in some jurisdictions, and men have been concerned about women’s use of cosmetics to falsify youth and beauty for millennia. I would argue that little has altered to our perception since Snow White was first penned that women who are vain cannot be good, or that old chestnut that true beauty comes from within (though being physically attractive is usually also a requirement, even if it involves its own transformation).

As with the recurrence of the coven of sexy young women who are avaricious and stupid enough to become enslaved to the Devil (see last week’s post), I don’t see this trope fading away. So expect to see more vain women trying to use magic to either transform themselves, or eliminate their younger competitors. As long as we still associate age with ugliness and female envy, there will probably be witches on film who rue the loss of their youth, and are prepared to do anything to get it back.

[i] Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, 1996??: 22

[ii] The only other notable female character, Victoria, is also portrayed as vain, greedy, and self-interested.

[iii] Rebecca-Anne C. Do Rozarion and Deb Waterhouse-Watson “Beyond Wicked Witches And Fairy Godparents: Ageing and Gender in Children’s Fantasy on Screen” in Imelda Whelehan and Joel Gwynne eds., Ageing, Popular Culture and Contemporary Feminism: Harleys and Hormones, (2014).

[iv] As with Lamia in Stardust, these witches are portrayed by famously beautiful actresses, Charlize Theron and Julia Roberts.

This blog post was originally uploaded at http://witchcrafthistory.blogspot.com.au/

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