On gender essentialism and magic in western canon

A silhouette of a witch on a broomstick crossing the moon.

I spent my childhood immersed in magical, fantastical worlds where spells worked and people could brew potions to change the world. As I grew up steeped in western literary canon and its version of magic and witchcraft and wizardry, I internalised a lot of the lessons embedded between those pages, some of which were harmful. Many of which remain unexplored when people really should be taking a closer look at how what we read affects us, and what diversity looks like.

Broadly — and I know there are exceptions here — western fantasy generally has cis women and cis men. There are no other genders, though sometimes women conceal themselves as men in order to accomplish various goals. It’s clear from context that this is about crossdressing for practicality, though, not as an expression of gender or sexuality. Even butch women are still very much women.

The myths that surround the use of magic are huge and way too complicated for a single post, but there’s a meme that appears again and again: The female witch. Does it look weird to specify ‘female’? Are you so used to thinking of witches as female that it feels like a redundancy? Think again: Men can be and are witches, men were killed for practicing witchcraft historically, and there’s no particular requirement that says men can’t be witches.

Or is there?

Setting aside the hooked nose, evil cackle, and pointy hat of yore, witches are very commonly depicted as female. It’s not just that they are women, though, but that magic is an extremely feminised power, and this is really seen in the influences of neopaganism. The maiden, mother, crone archetype is huge, and many people seem to attach extremely deep meaning to what’s between a witch’s legs and how it can house and control tremendous power. Much is made of ‘moon blood’ and magic tied to menstrual cycles, and virginity is sometimes treated as a magical prize, something to be guarded and used with care.

When works aren’t this explicit, there are still overtones of this highly feminised, very stratified approach to how magic works. Take a modern classic of the genre, where Harry and Hermione go to Howarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Girls are witches, boys are wizards. While Rowling has built a largely egalitarian world, and she doesn’t separate magic by gender in the same stark way that some writers do, that divide is there — in how characters interact with unicorns, for instance. A whole lot of western canon builds on the notion that witches are women. They might be good or evil, complicated or simple, helpful or obstructive, but they’re women. Male magic users are other, something else.

That power is sometimes explicitly tied to specific anatomical traits, but in others, it’s assumed — witches are women, all women are cis, therefore all witches posses these traits, right? But what about trans witches? How does a trans woman navigate the world as a magic user when power is tightly tied to genitals? Can she never be a ‘real witch’ because she doesn’t menstruate? Will she only be accepted into the ranks of witches if she undergoes complete medical and surgical transition (even if by magical means)? Will she always be viewed with distrust because of her gender? Will she be told to go practice magic with the boys? Is a trans man obliged to go practice magic with the women, segregated if he menstruates? Where do nonbinary people and intersex people fit in this world? As freaks, outcasts, aberrant accidents that are best hidden under the rug?

These are things that I don’t see a lot of people who construct these worlds thinking about, and it’s something that lots of readers don’t either. Narratives are so cisnormative that these questions don’t even occur to them. In some cases, narratives are actively transphobic, evoking the worst parts of trans-exclusionary radical feminism as it is made extremely clear that to be a witch is a feminist act, but that to be a witch, you must be a cis woman. If you can’t draw upon your moon blood or your body’s tides or your vagina or carry a child or whatever, you can’t ever truly be a witch.

There definitely are works that engage with these issues, either through constructing an inclusive magic system and explicitly including trans characters, or through reframing the way we talk about magic to make it less gendered. Hopefully there will be more in the future, but it’s an uphill slog when so much of the western canon around magic is so gendered, right down to the binaristic meanings of tarot cards and the existential terror attached to menstruation. I would like to live in a world where anyone can practice magic, where magic is egalitarian and not divided into men and women or loaded with gendered norms.

Kids absorb a lot. Even if writers aren’t consciously building gendered structures around magic, they are often drawing upon them and consequently reinforcing them. Young trans readers may not see themselves in fiction, and they also internalize the idea that they don’t belong in that world. There is no place for them. If they want to see themselves practicing magic, they have to force themselves to conform to the gendered norms an author has created. This kind of storytelling is natural and easy and reflexive, but that doesn’t make it right.

Image: Going Home, Tom Lee, Flickr