Here's Why I Write About Teen Girls And Witchcraft
It's about time we stopped being afraid of powerful, unlikable outsiders and started celebrating them instead.
The kindest description I can come up with for Young Laure is that she was, at times, a bit of a tricky creature. The most realistic description I can come up with for Young Laure is that she was, at times, a bit of a precocious git.
When I started secondary school aged 11, I was surrounded by girls who liked Take That and fashion magazines and lip gloss. I liked Nirvana and Stephen King. And lip gloss, admittedly. The girls I knew wanted to talk about boys and clothes. I wanted to talk about boys and death.
I vacillated wildly between wanting to be more like them and wanting to be nothing like them. I didn't fit. I was too abrasive, too blunt, too odd, too argumentative, and, goddamnit, my hair was too frizzy. I was just too much – too much or not enough. I didn't know how to be sweet and friendly to everyone and do my homework on time, and I definitely didn't know how to stop being drawn to things that other people thought at best made me weird and at worst made me "kind of psychotic". (I was a fun teenager. Ask my school friends. Some of them still like to hang out with me to this day.)
Of course I wasn't the only one. Of course there were others who didn't quite fit into the normal, popular, friendly mould. Even the ones who did weren't normal, popular, and friendly 24/7 like some sort of robot cheerleader group. They often felt as lost and isolated as everyone else. Weirdly, though, they still didn't like to talk about death quite as much as I did.
I liked things that pushed the boundaries of the known and the safe. I was wildly curious about subjects deemed unacceptable to explore, especially for a young girl, so I explored them in books. I wanted to see for myself the depths of human depravity, the lengths we go to for power.
I probably worried my mother a bit.
I was lucky, though. My mother was wise and brave enough to let me read whatever I wanted, try on different identities, make mistakes, and find out what I needed to for myself. She taught me feminism via the effective method of example, simply by being an unapologetically independent woman with, heaven forbid, Strong Opinions On Things. A rebellious streak runs through my family – my grandmother was in the French Resistance in World War II. That women are equal to men wasn’t something I remember learning. It just was. How could it be otherwise?
Annoyingly, I grew up to learn that the rest of the world did not, in fact, always share this viewpoint.
I’ve never been much of a joining in kind of a gal on social media, but when the phenomenon #YesAllWomen broke, I felt compelled to add my voice to it.
Because, well, yes – all women.
I remember the look I once got from a boyfriend on this topic. He asked me if I had hurt my hand – I think I must have been absent-mindedly flexing my fingers. I told him that I had been gripping my keys too hard on my way to his house, and laughed it off.
"Why are you gripping keys?" he asked.
"Makeshift weapon," I replied.
"Why on earth would you need a makeshift weapon? We’re not in the ghetto."
The first strains of Madonna’s "What It Feels Like for a Girl" chose at the moment to twirl idly through my head.
"Because," I said patiently, "I might be attacked. Lots of women do this."
He was baffled. He was a nice guy. He had no idea how utterly banal in its ubiquity the experience of being verbally or physically threatened is. It’s not something relegated to girls who look like victims (whatever that means) or girls who look like sluts (whatever that means). We are taught from an early age that it’s probably going to happen to all of us. Every girl knows about the keys-between-your-fingers thing. Every girl knows never to scream "rape", but "fire" instead. Every girl knows that saying something back to a man who has just yelled "I’d give her one" or "show us your tits" on the street might lead to something worse, so, more often than not, she just puts up and shuts up.
"Do you know when I first became aware of my own sexual power?" I asked the same boyfriend.
"I don’t know. Fourteen?" he guessed.
"I was 6."
Bafflement turned to shock.
It’s the looks that teach you. The drawing of a boy or man’s eye, the quick up-and-down on the street, the sideways glance. You learn to like and perhaps even crave these looks, because they give you power. This power is a weapon, but it is also a danger. Use it and bear the possible consequences. Don’t be too sexy. Don’t be too pretty. Don’t indulge your power because – in that most ominous of voices – you’ll incite The Men.
But because that power is often the only power that seems available to us, we do use it. Why wouldn’t we? Everyone wants to feel powerful. Everyone needs to feel powerful.
So how else, apart from her sexual identity, does a girl get to feel powerful…?
…Oh, hello, witchcraft.
What is the one thing the above have in common?
Why, there is not a male hero in sight.
If you prefer your pop culture with a healthy dose of Bechdel test–passing badassery, look no further than witches. Witchcraft is so heavily associated with feminine power there’s barely any room for the men. While there may be the occasional errant male villain or love interest to deal with, these are usually a sideshow plot to the main exploration of female relationships in all their unreserved, passionate, toxic, complicated glory.
In other words, witches? Massively relevant to your feminist interests.
Hello, The Crucible. Studying you in school taught me that in a restrictive, male-dominated society, girls can find their power by teaming up and playing on men’s desires and fears.
Hello, The Craft. Watching you as a young teenager taught me that girls can be far scarier than boys. Especially to each other – and especially when they want revenge.
These teenage girls turn the male gaze to their advantage, and then when that doesn’t work for them any more, they end it. They are more than the roles they have been given. They are more than ornamentation.
Do not piss them off. They are powerful.
Of all the fantasy powers out there in fictionland, witchcraft has always felt like the most attainable. You don’t necessarily need to be born a witch, or lie around looking edible until one bites you on the neck. You are not a victim – you are a perpetrator. You are not passive – you are active. You just need the right spells, the right words, the right tools, the right knowledge. Knowledge is power, so the power lies with you.
Witchcraft. Come for the cool clothes, stay for the feminism.
That’s what I did, anyway. So far I’ve had four books either published, or about to be. The worlds in those books, while quite different from each other, heavily feature witches as their main characters. Witches allow me to explore two subjects that (in case you haven't guessed by now) I’m pretty into, namely power and feminism. But there’s another related aspect I’d like to talk about, and that is the apparently controversial subject of difficult, complicated, unlikable women.
We tend to want our heroes and heroines to be aspirational. We covet their fantastical lives and enjoy being pulled along their grand adventures with them because we want to escape. I often want that too – as a reader. As a writer, well, not so much, it seems.
I write to explore our psychology, our relationships, our most secret, painful desires. I write difficult, unlikable characters, because they expose the truth about ourselves. In The Graces, my latest book, I’m not interested in giving you the Instagram version of the main character’s life. I’m interested in dangling what she thinks is the Instagram version and then ripping it to shreds in front of her eyes. Because that feels real. Our collective obsession with fantasy, and our worship of those we deem beautiful, warps our view of what life should be for us in an interesting and sometimes painful way.
Witchcraft has always been a byword for nonconformity. It was a neat way for society leaders back in the day to condemn anyone "other". Gay? Foreign? Rebellious? Got mental health problems? Shockingly uninterested in marrying and dying young in childbirth? Well, you must be a witch. The Devil is in you – kill it with fire. So it follows that witches are a fabulous way to explore nonconformity and "otherness" in fiction, as well as the appearance of perfection and the reality underneath it. Every character in The Graces is, I would hope, not quite what they appear to be, and the grass is definitely not always greener on the other side of the fence.
There's a quote from Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men: “She couldn’t be the prince, and she’d never be a princess, and she didn’t want to be a woodcutter, so she’d be the witch and know things.” I love this. I’ve never been the princess, either – I’ve always chosen the witch. If knowledge is power, then witches actively seek to empower themselves. Wanting power tends to be viewed in a negative light, but what if we made it positive instead? What if we embraced our difficult, ambitious, unlikable labels and made them our strengths?
Witches are powerful. Witches are curious. Witches are boundary-pushing. Witches are other.
I personally believe the world could do with more of them.