By J. Inscoe

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“This witch doesn’t burn.” On September 22, the now-infamous Harry Potter author Joanne K. Rowling tweeted a link to the Wild Womyn Workshop’s transphobic storefront. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d seen or heard “witch” used in feminist circles. But for Rowling, the “witch” served as a unique misogynistic symbol: as “Feminazi,” as “bitch,” and as “TERF.”


[In this tweet, J.K. Rowling writes that, “Sometimes a T-shirt just speaks to you… (From https://wildwomynworkshop.com, in case you know a witch who'd like one).” Pictured below the tweet is an image of a person’s torso wearing a black shirt. On white, ribbon-like background images is written, in bold, “This witch doesn’t burn.”]

The specific application of “witch” to anti-trans activists in the UK—circulated by a transphobic author known for her wildly popular writings on witches and wizards—rings strange to my ear. This usage shifts the term’s gendered meanings from one of a patriarchal power dynamic to one of biological essentialism mobilized to persecute trans folk. It is a shift exemplified in Rowling’s gender distinction between the “witch” (the magical cis-woman) and the “wizard” (the magical cis-man)—a binary that simply doesn’t reflect the history of persecution against witches of various gender and sexual identities.

For those apologists who see Rowling as the subject of her own personal witch hunt, know that Rowling’s rhetoric has consequences, and clearly she has become a contemporary voice in the minds of transphobic activists. Columnist Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post for instance asserted “There has never been a better time to read J.K. Rowling’s books.” Despite backlash from the trans community, as evidenced in one Guardian article, “Troubled Blood has hit the No 1 spot in the UK’s book charts, selling 64,633 copies in the five days to 19 September.” Much of that stems from the popularity of TERF activism in the UK, but we can’t ignore the immensity of Rowling’s own platform.


Witch Riding Backwards On A Goat, by Albrecht Dürer, 1501–2

I find the witch—and in general, the representations of the magical or demonic—rather queer. Take for instance the sea-witch Ursula (Pat Carroll) of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) who according to directing animator Rubin Acquine was modeled on drag queen Divine and acted as, writer Laura Sells’ argued, “a composite of so many drag queens and camp icons—Joan Collins, Tallulah Bankhead, [and] Norman Desmond.” See also the devilish HIM (Tom Kane) of Powerpuff Girls (1998–2005) fame, whose curled goatee, thigh-high boots, and wavering, high-pitched voice immediately signal the villain as gender (and narrative) trouble. These representations have a long, queer history which have been co-opted or erased in modern-day essentalist feminist rhetoric.

“Witch,” of course, has long held gendered connotations, drawing from the oppression of women in various patriarchal, religious contexts. Readers may be familiar with the phrase attributed to Tish Thawer’s The Witches of BlackBrook (2015): “We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn.” Justyna Sympruch called the witch a feminist “fantasmic Other.” Kristen J. Sollée’s Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive (2017) is perhaps the most comprehensive modern work linking feminism to the witch, finding between the two a history of gendered oppression at the hands of patriarchal society. One Guardian article on the text even asked, “Are witches the ultimate feminists?”

Yet reading work on the witch, one interprets them as essentially female. On the de-gendered use of “witch hunt,” political scholar Erin Cassese sees in the 1950s a political turn away from the gendered “witch hunt”—that is, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s (R-WI) “witch hunt” against suspected communists during the second Red Scare. What Cassesse and others gloss over in the second Red Scare is its overlap with the Lavender Scare, persecution of suspected gay men in government positions. According to writer Matthew Mills, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s Lavender Scare was severe enough that rumors of cross-dressing circulated late in his career: in Mills’ words, the “witch-hunter became the hunted.” Filmmakers have often encoded the witch-hunt against queer practice as an unspoken Otherness in their work. In television series like Bewitched (1964–72), enacted by queer actors like Agnes Robertson Moorehead (Endora) and Dick Sargent (Darrin Stephens), that sense of “something wrong” lingered in the representations of domestic space.

I am not the first to problematize the feminist witch. Rhiannon Mechan of qcommunicate cites the peculiar use of the witch imagery to affirm a white feminism in the West—as in TV series such as Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018–20)—at the same time people of color are accused of (and tortured, murdered for) witchcraft. Some modern Wiccan circles in the West still engage in gender essentialism, as in the controversy of the anti-transgender Pussy Church of Modern Witchcraft (PCMW).

Yet when I think of the religious persecution of folk based on accusation of the supernatural, I think about the particular ease with which the language of the witch fits the experiences of transgender, nonbinary, and other gender non-conforming individuals. The work on “witch-as-feminist” today elides the history of the cross-dressing witch with one of “natural-born” women resisting patriarchal stricture or utilizing masculine fashion to mask (or masc) their “real,” “natural” gender. It glosses the gender trouble of the witch as a “phallic woman.” It evades the queer sounds of the witch’s cackle and the possessed body. It ignores the work that transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming must do to negotiate their abject status.

Conjuring Queer

The late-20th Century psychoanalytic approach to representation understood the witch as one instance of the phallic woman. As Noa Azulai writes in her aptly named “Dicks in a Box: The Enduring Fear of Penis-Snatching Witches” (2019), “Cultural anxiety about maintaining traditional masculinity continues to identify ‘penis-stealers,’ only now they are not only witches but sexual-assault survivors, transgender activists, or simply a society that is ‘feminizing’ and ‘weakening’ America’s men.” The castration anxiety seems oddly familiar to the gender essentialist’s fear of modern-day “phallic women” who appropriate femininity in transgressive, murderous fashion. Stories of skin-stealing, cross-dressing, cis-women-murdering, trans-esque serial killers abound—in fact, one can look to Rowling’s new book, Troubled Blood (2020), as a modern example of this trope. Except the crossdresser encodes an alternate fear (on the part of cis-female TERFs), one of “masculinizing” UK women.

Azulai of course refers to the Malleus Maleficarum, the seminal text on the witch’s transgressions, though I find in this magical castration something particularly trans-feminine. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, the witch might invoke the devil to impose on presumably cis-gendered male individuals a “smoothly fashioned body... with its surface interrupted by no genital organ” (See Part I, Question IX). The text frames this feminization of man—again, juxtaposed against afab crossdressing—as transgression, just as feminist writers revel in this feminization as a symbol of feminine power. It escapes the imagination to think those assigned male at birth could possibly desire that fate.

If we are to talk about the “monstrous-feminine,” to use horror scholar Barbara Creed’s terms, we should also talk about the “monstrous-trans,” the ways in which monsters have acted as contested allegories for trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming folk. According to scholar Anson Koch-Rein’s (2019), the monster acts as an apt trans metaphor: the “wrong-body” of Frankenstein’s monster, the skin-suits of The Skin I Live In and The Silence of the Lambs. The trans feminine monster is the abject Other of work like Psycho (1960) or Sleepaway Camp (1983–2008), whose horror relies on the violence of gender. Hear Buffalo Bill’s baritone (“Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me.”) and the bestial hiss and snarl emanating from Angela Baker’s face—a mask replica of actress Felicia Rose’s face—imposed on the nude masculine body.

As a student of language and voice—and as a product of a Christian, Southern United States family—I am fascinated by the intersections between linguistics, gender, sexuality, and religion/the supernatural. In his 2013 The Devil Within, Brian Levack details the reported effects of demonic possession on the “demoniac’s” voice, including an alteration of the speakers’ vocal aesthetics. The possessed feminine body emanated a masculine voice, “deeper and gruffer than the normal voice… [spoken] from their bellies or from very deep in their throats.” (It reminds me of discourses on transgender identity as possession or gender dysphoria as psychic epidemic: the abject queer.)

I find this same in-between-ness, this abject and unnatural voice, in what singers may recognize as the voce di strega, or the “witch’s voice.” The voce di strega refers to, in Anthony Frisell’s words, “[o]ne of the unusual, transitory phases which the falsetto voice goes through, on its way to becoming the mixed voice… so named because of its harsh, strident, unmusical sounds,” otherwise known as a “witch’s cackle.” On its way to the soprano voice, the “raw sounds [of the witch’s voice] gradually mellow and become totally transformed from ‘ugly and undesirable,’ into tones of superior quality and beauty.” To butcher the specific vocal range of the voce di strega, that linguistic in-between-ness rings familiar for those of us fighting the acoustic limits of our bodies.

We are the witch’s cackle. We are the “phallic woman,” the enchanted “man.” We are the gender monsters. To folk like Rowling and the broader community of trans-exclusive radical feminists, gender is inextricably linked to an immutable, natural sex. But if gender is inherently natural, inherently normal, then queer-folk like us? We’re paranormal. Supernatural.

Trans/figuration


Yvie Oddly on RuPaul's Drag Race Season 11, Episode 5 (2019), "Monster Ball"

"Witch” doesn’t just symbolize feminine resistance to patriarchal structures, but rather signifies a variety of meanings salient to those discomforted by their assigned gender: transformation, sexual freedom, and the mere possibility of a magical (monstrous) life. “Witch” represents, as Spectrum South’s Kelly M. Marshall asserted, “a reclamation of power” for marginalized gender diverse peoples. As writer Lewis Wallace noted in 2017, the past decade has witnessed an increasing identification of trans, nonbinary, and intersex individuals with witch subculture and neo-paganism, particularly in the South. Williams writes, “queer and trans people are often pushed out of our communities of origin, and even the more progressive wings of Christianity are only barely starting to engage with trans issues. Magic and witchery are easy to claim, and they are also associated with a resistance to Christian hegemony.” Especially for those of us in the South, the symbol of the witch offers a chance to break from deeply entrenched cultural restraints. In the words of journalist Moira Donovan: “What is being a witch if not owning the right to be yourself?”

As a trans person, I feel that I, to use the title of Sonny Nordmarken’s (2013) autoethnography, am “Becoming Ever More Monstrous.” I see it as my body shifts in ways affirming and alien; I hear it as I transfigure this raw voice into magical practice. Increasingly, trans folk reclaim the monster metaphor, with gender diverse individuals expanding the vocabulary of the monster as a powerful, abject figure resonant with their identities. (Shoutout to those concubi—a neologism for a vers or gender-nonconforming succubi/incubi meaning “to lie with”—who helped inspire my writing here.)

For queer folk haunting the boundaries of gender today, it’s the season of the witch. See, for instance, Ru Paul’s Drag Race’s “Monster Ball.” (This writer is personally still possessed by the chilling Yvie Oddly). In literature, especially the graphic novel, see Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy (2017), Ariel Slamet Ries’ Witchy (2014), Joamette Gil’s anthology series Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology (2016), as well as Niki Smith’s The Deep & Dark Blue (2020).

For those of us who see in gender trouble a spectre of the monstrous—some, as jaded childhood Harry Potter fans—She-Who-Will-Be-Named’s transphobic views and gender-essentialist notions of the witch are deeply troubling. Because of the essentialist usage of “witch,” the act of “burning the witch” becomes deeply linked with the recent outcries against a cancel culture. Rowling certainly subscribes to it, as evidenced by her signature on the Harper’s letter this July. But of course, any trans, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming person can tell you that the “open debate” on our rights is moreso open season.

 

J/J./Jae Inscoe (they/them/theirs) is a PhD candidate in UMBC’s Language, Literacy, & Culture program. They are currently completing a dissertation on legendary radio broadcaster Paul Harvey to examine the white male conservative radio broadcaster voice in the 20th Century United States. When they aren’t working toward their transition goals (Eris Morn and Emrakul) they care for their two feline familiars, Naga and Cuga.