Lorena Bobbitt. Monica Lewinsky. Tonya Harding. In the wake of mainstream attention to (some) women’s pain in the post-#MeToo era, these demonized and misunderstood women from the recent past have been re-examined with a more empathetic and sympathetic lens in documentaries, feature films and op-eds. But the roots of the “evil woman” trope go back centuries, all the way to myth and legend. So what better vehicle to deal with them head on than a series that’s all about the mythological?
The Charmed reboot, much like the original series, deals with magic, mystical entities, and malevolent forces. But it goes a step further than its originator in one respect — it explicitly links ancient patriarchal myths about women to contemporary social issues. By eschewing subtlety, Charmed allows for a reevaluation of “evil” female figures that have become so normalized we tend to forget their origins.
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Modern Charmed is about Latinx half-sisters Macy Vaughn and Mel and Maggie Vera in a college town navigating their newfound witchiness after their mother dies. It follows the same monster-of-the-week premise as the the Charmed of my youth, which often depicted mythical and powerful women from history. In the original series, mythical women often possessed the Halliwell sisters themselves, thus forcing a personal connection. In contrast, Charmed 2.0 makes space for empathy and understanding of demonized women on their own terms, not simply through the plot device of having them take the form of one of the sisters.
For example, Charmed reimagines the story of Greek goddess Medusa, her rape at the hands of Poseidon being particularly relevant to the show’s message. In this version, a college student who had her private images shared around a frat house without her consent inadvertently summons Medusa with her pain and humiliation. Just as the Charmed ones are poised to vanquish her, Macy comes to the realization that the people Medusa turned to stone are looking away from her. Only after bearing witness to Medusa’s — and, by extension, every woman and survivor’s — pain can we be free from the cycle of abuse and trauma.
“You were cursed to cover up the crimes of a powerful man so that no one would ever see your pain,” Macy says. “We will do everything in our power to right these wrongs done to you and so many others.” This is unmistakably the language of #MeToo and of activism against gendered violence. Is it subtle? No. But that’s the point.
Manic Pixies and Perfect Victims
OG Charmed featured women saving the world while trying to balance the demands of human womanhood. The remake builds on that by bringing social issues directly into the narrative. Mel is a women’s studies grad student, names like Roxane Gay are constantly dropped, and storylines crafted around issues that are frequently in the news feature prominently.
Take an early story arc, in which a friend of youngest sister and college student Maggie is attacked on campus by a demon moonlighting as a professor. She is then possessed by a different demon who preys on virgin women. If that’s not a metaphor for sexual assault on campus, I don’t know what is!
In an episode that skewers the idea of the “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl” and the men who fetishize her, a female pixie lures “woke” white male film majors to their deaths. Before the Charmed Ones defeat her, they come to realize that she’s killing these men at the behest of a demon who literally stole her heart to control her. Though the pixie cannot be absolved of the deaths she caused, she is an allegory for women who end up taking the blame for the predatory actions of men in their lives.
The Personal is Political
The identities of the Vaughn sisters further inform the way they react to the female adversaries they face, as they realize that they themselves belong to socially demonized groups. The 1990s version of the show was similar to contemporary Buffy The Vampire Slayer in that demons were a metaphor for the other to the exclusion of depicting actual social difference. There was only one regular cast member of color, Daryl the cop, and the sisters were all heterosexual. This time around, the Charmed Ones are quite literally the demonized minorities we didn’t get to see in the original or the fantasy genre more broadly.
This is even more pertinent in the case of eldest half-sister Macy. Throughout the course of the season, Macy comes to find out that her parents resurrected her from stillbirth by using demon blood, thereby making her half demon. For this reason, Macy is the one who consistently identifies with these demonic and demonized women in order to save the day. Instead of exorcizing her demonic heritage, she comes to accept this part of herself, knowing that it makes her a better witch to be able to identify the motivations of their foes. And this demonic legacy doesn’t stand in for real-life difference — it stands beside it, adding another layer to the narrative.
By using magic and myth to tell stories that are explicitly about social issues rather than simply letting them be allegories, Charmed refuses to let the audience forget what it’s about. You could argue that its approach lacks subtlety — that it’s too on the nose, too earnest. But maybe right now, subtlety is overrated.