Magic appears throughout television, movies and literature as a tool of power and creative expression. However, the narrative of magic use contains a hidden depth of character insight and an expression of how gender affects power. With male-dominated magical storylines there exists a mess of cliches and arbitrary plotlines; magic becomes equal to any other weapon. But when the narrative delves into the workings of female magic use, magic becomes a tool of empowerment, feminism and character development.

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Magic is another guise of feminism. In most series, it exists to give power to those who would otherwise never have it. The motivation of male-driven mysticism seems to be in controlling the world around them, rather than delving deeper into one’s self. A wizard by action is seen as imposing his power on the world around them, rather than utilizing magic to find greater insight into himself or to develop into a better person. Women, on the other hand, often expand and grow with their magic. Women use it to govern future choice.

Historically, witches have been feared because of the “unnatural” power they wield—particularly in the way they live their lives contrary to societal expectations. Unmarried women were prosecuted as witches at a far greater rate than men, not because women were more likely to become witches, but because women with power were women with freedom. In truth, witches are suggested to be frightening because of their free agency. Witches exist in a freedom beyond the limitations of society.

Free Agency in Female Magic

The fear of free agency is also applicable to the act of sex—which is often a symbol of magic—as sex is one manifestation of the power of freedom. Women are viewed as sexual objects, historically. Thus, it becomes frightening for the sex object to both express its own will and have the power to enforce it. Some African tribes feared witches for their ability to “shrink heads,” a euphemism for penis-shrinking. Witches were often accused of sexual deviance to sustain their powers. This relationship between power and sexuality appears in fiction, as well.

The most formidable femme of the dark arts has to be Willow Rosenberg from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Her romance with the natural witch, Tara Maclay, began with their mutual experiments in magic. The initial scene between both Willow and Tara is very reminiscent of the aforementioned free agency. In season 4, magic substitutes for most sexual terms and euphemisms in regards to Tara and Willow’s relationship. Willow’s witchcraft is called a “phase” that she will grow out of—an obvious reference to Willow’s queerness and her choice of Tara over Oz, her ex-boyfriend whom she helped through the horror of the werewolf curse.

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Female agency in magic isn’t simply limited to choice, but also refers to growth. Willow started as the stereotypical wallflower: her unrequited love for Xander Harris (her lifelong best friend and the heart of the group) and insecurity stemming from her friendship with Buffy Summers drove her plot for three seasons. Willow was mousey and awkward, and constantly her own worst enemy–besides the constant bullying at the hands of Cordelia Chase.

Willow was reborn when she completed one of her most notable magical workings, the re-ensoulment of Angel. As Willow began practicing magic, her character’s independence and strength began to grow accordingly. To many fans, Willow’s powers were proportionate to her own agency. As a witch, Willow became free and empowered. Slowly, Willow began to dislodge herself from the hold that Xander had on her and found love in places she would’ve likely never looked without that freedom.

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Magic is a practice of influencing change not by any physical action, but by something profoundly spiritual or mental. Willow, being an intelligent woman and computer whiz, had the mental aptitude for its practice. However, it is everything that lied deep within Willow that made her strong: the femininity. How else would Willow, who’d practiced magic for a shorter time than the likes of Rupert Giles, Buffy’s Watcher and Mentor to the group, have more power than him?

Witches vs. Wizards in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER: Rupert Giles

Speaking of Rupert Giles, the enigmatic mentor and sorcerer, he is another case illustrating the gender dynamic of magic in fiction. Giles is one of Willow’s teachers in the dark arts, however he stands on the end of the spectrum as one of the weaker sorcerers in the series. Although he had been in practice for decades—and even had a stint as the Ripper in a gang of dabblers in the occult—he still pales in comparison to Willow Rosenberg and other witches in the series. The very moniker of Witch, when brought up in the presence of Giles, seems to create a chart of mystical pedigree with Giles so clearly rooted at the bottom.

Men who dabble, such as Angel and Giles, do not have as much power as characters like Tara or Willow, the witches. Most fans theorize that there is a correlation between sexuality and magical practice because Giles has dabbled in more than just magic. Yet, Giles is still among the weakest sorcerers in the gang. The only defining attribute to this weakness is his gender.

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Willow may not have been the earliest case of female empowerment through mysticism, but she is one of the most prominent. Historically, witches are feared because of the truth of what a witch is: a woman with powers beyond the physicality that men supposedly dominate. Willow’s case inverts this fear and transforms it into a source of strength. Willow takes the supposed evils of womanhood and uses them to build a backbone for good, before witchcraft was considered non-satanic and neutral in popular opinion.
Even so, the evils of witchcraft in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER are still present, as seen in one of the most infamous storylines in the sci-fi genre: the Dark Willow saga. This storyline reveals how actions aren’t the fault of witchcraft, but the witch. Willow reveals an addictive personality early on, which she constantly struggles with and admits in the canon comics SEASON 9 and WILLOW: WONDERLAND. For her, magic is a kind of addiction and it is never to blame for her actions—she is. This definition of Willow’s magic is feminist because it revolves around the agency of the practitioner’s choice and freedom to express—for good or for bad.

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Willow Rosenberg, post-magical empowerment during the Dark Willow Saga.

Marla Mason: Substantial Willpower and Self-Expression

On the opposite side, the Marla Mason series by T. A. Pratt features a lot of references to magic and gender, specifically because the main character is both the Chief Sorcerer of her city and completely low-level on the magical scale. Marla Mason is far from the mousy interpretation of Willow Rosenberg. She is strong-hearted, willful, arrogant, rude, and stubborn. Magic’s symbolism to a feminist trade expands in a unique way for Marla. Marla seems like she understands herself. Therefore the quest of self that is a heavy theme in feminism and magical plots seems lost on her. Yet, Marla still decides to practice magic and rather than her quest being of self-empowerment, it becomes a quest of self-expression.

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Marla learns magic so that she can survive. It isn’t a place she fit into. Unlike Willow Rosenberg, Marla is actually one of the worst sorcerers in the world, but by taking advantage of sheer pragmatism and her substantial willpower she curves the odds to her side. Marla carves out a place for herself to grow. She embodies agency. Marla’s magic becomes a construct of feminist ideals because Marla’s expression of magic does not fit the mold expected of her, but fits the mold she defines. A feminist doesn’t have one way of being a feminist, and though some ways may appear a more effective expression, no one form of feminism is superior.

Almost to capitalize on the female empowerment role of magic in the Marla Mason series: (Spoiler Alert), Marla becomes a goddess of death. Even better, she becomes the sole ruler of the underworld after her husband’s murder. This act becomes an avenue of self-actualization, another core tenant of feminist theory. Marla’s ascension features many acts of self-discovery and recompense. She inspects the mistakes she’s made in life. Then, she decides to embrace who she is and to become a better person for it. No other character in the series does this. Not even Nicolette, the Chaos Witch. Better, no one does this while also remaining unapologetic.

Witches vs. Wizards: The Self-Destructive Ego of Male Magic in the Marla Mason series

The Marla Mason series features egotistical, male magic-users. Yes, there are sorcerers far more powerful than Marla, but none of them capture Marla’s penchant for change. Male antagonists are defeated by their own hubris, whereas female antagonists wise up and evolve—women like the Chamberlain,who sees herself as a servant rather than ruler and would rather befriend Marla than end up a stain on the pavement.

The inherent feminist nature of magic is even challenged in one short story, Little Better Than a Beast. In the story, an ancient, ravenous Beast attacks the city of Felport and the first chief sorcerer comes to the future to help.  He challenges whether both the Chamberlain and Marla were even powerful—especially the Chamberlain, a black woman. His pride is put to the test when he witnesses women accomplish what he can’t hope to: defeating the Beast. His ego backfires on him, again, and he winds up tossed in a mental institute for sorcerers run by a woman.

The ego of male magic is rife in most fiction—which is something the Marla Mason series lampshades often. Sorcerers often head into battle cocksure and ignorant. They assume their power is unrivaled. They look down on weaker sorcerers when they’re actually as human as the mortals they overpower. Marla Mason makes it a personal statement to prove to sorcerers that a punch to the face is almost as effective—if not more—than their magic.

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Further, male magic’s dominance of the outer world is present in character epithets. Often, Marla has to clarify her name and title with the people around her. Marla Mason is called the Witch Queen of Felport, rather than the “less sexist” name, chief sorcerer. The denizens of Felport refer to her as a Witch Queen in an insulting manner, combining her gender and her “unwomanly” demeanor. This may be a part of the less frequent appearance of female sorcerers in the series. The majority of Marla’s enemies in the council appear as men such as Viscarro, a subterranean lich, who hates Marla with a fervor. What they have in common is their capacity to insult Marla with her gender and their agreement that she shouldn’t be in-charge. Yet, they still favor the more “womanly” and regal sorcerer, the Chamberlain.

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Blood Engines, the first novel in the Marla Mason series.

Wixen: A Case for Hermione Granger and her Growth in the HARRY POTTER Franchise

HARRY POTTER is another franchise that empowers gender through magic. Though the story revolves around Harry Potter, a wizard raised by non-wizards, his growth seems secondary to that of his female companions. Hermione Granger’s character arc sees heavy growth when compared to Harry Potter’s and she certainly experiences more agency.

Hermione Granger, a muggle born witch, stands out frequently as the most intelligent and gifted of her age. Though Hermione’s genius is suppressed by Harry Potter’s fame and she is made to appear as his sidekick, she is far more skilled and knowledgeable than him. Without Hermione, Harry Potter’s journey would have come to a swift end. Then why is Hermione’s power a second-note to Harry Potter’s mediocre talents? Even Ron Weasley, Harry’s best friend, fixates on Hermione as a sidekick in the GOBLET OF FIRE. Ron doesn’t allow her to date Viktor Krum. She must leave him to affirm her place as one of Harry’s allies. Powerful witches like Bellatrix Le Strange and Minerva McGonagall take a back seat to their male counterparts. Not because gender implies power, but because of their gender and societies’ expectation.

We see magic in HARRY POTTER as a question of intelligence. Evidence supports that Hermione, the only girl, is the most gifted of the generation. Hermione’s story arc even develops from a know-it-all with no friends and a “downy” appearance and into a formidable soldier and the survivor of a vicious hate crime.

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Hermione Granger during her first year of Hogwarts.

Gender Roles and Magic in HARRY POTTER

The gender neutrality of magic in HARRY POTTER doesn’t subvert the idea that magic is a mechanism for female empowerment. Gender neutrality suggest all Wixen are equal, except that isn’t always true. For instance, when Molly Weasley defeated Bellatrix LeStrange, there was an implication of impossibility to the scenario. Molly was a housewife with very little combat training against one of Voldemort’s top assassins. The battle ended in less than a paragraph in the novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows and Molly won. By word of J. K. Rowling, Molly’s victory hinged almost exclusively on her capacity as a mother.

A mother’s love throughout the series is pivotal. It is the inciting force that leads to the downfall of Voldemort and the start of the entire series. Love is also the important magic which saves Harry Potter and friends in battles against Voldemort. Therefore, a mother’s love—purportedly the most powerful form of love—is the most powerful force in the series, which reinforces the notion of magic as a tool for women to seek empowerment.

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The case that magic is a tool for female ingenuity, empowerment and other elements of feminism does inspire scrutiny. Distinguished readers might recall an old philosophy that magic is cowardly. Readings suggest this is because of the lack of “work” associated with it. Though, these excuses quite usually indicate the overwhelming superiority of magic over the male “dominated” skills involved with brute strength. Magic’s negative connotation in fiction and its reflection of female empowerment reflects old anti-woman stereotypes. These anti-woman stereotypes involve beliefs that women are inherently cowardly and frail, that women will resort to trickery to get ahead. A weak man becomes feminine when he uses trickery. But whenever trickery is expressed by an imposing masculine figure, it becomes a virtue.

Further, the traits of magic in masculine men are a suggestion of divinity rather than evil. The woman is a witch; she must die, because powerful women are frightening. The man is a prophet; not because of virtue, but because of societal privilege. Suggestions of divinity manifest as the “Chosen One” trope, defining the male character’s power with the will of nature. When we see Willow Rosenberg as Dark Willow, the darkness of her magic defines her forever. Her story revolves around the singular incident when she “killed” her girlfriend’s murderer. When we see Harry Potter use the Cruciatus curse in THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, we don’t focus on the use of evil magic. Instead, we see Potter suffering from the loss of his godfather.

Magic in fiction roots itself in women and how they explore themselves through magic. They practice it like an art form, by using themselves to grow more efficient, and more defined with it. Men can use magic in stories, but it’s a tool rather than a spiritual expression. Their powers might grow throughout the series, but it usually bears little weight on their personal quests. Rather, it is their actions in the quest, their battles and wars that form their growth. For women, it is through magic that agency and expression form.

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