Wishes and Witches
Over the weekend I discovered a new animated series on Disney+. And by “discovered” I mean “There were plenty of people who already knew about it and they got along just fine before I showed up but saying ‘discovered’ makes me sound special and like I did more than wield the remote based on something I read in some comment section”. Anyway, I am now an official fan of The Owl House. It’s mostly (but not quite) filling the Star vs. The Forces of Evil-shaped hole in my soul, but it’s only in Season 1, and those always start off with soft pitches so the stakes can be raised as they go along. I am eager to see where they take the next season.
The official hero of the show is a girl named Luz who, rather than go to life-skills camp, follows an owl into the magical realm of The Boiling Isles, where she falls in with renegade witch Eda Clawthorn. It’s a cartoon, with the core demographic under the age of 12, so of course the hero has to be a kid. But when it comes to the right to wear the mantle of “compelling hero”, Eda could give anyone a run for their money.
The fact that Luz is Latina gets most of the buzz in terms of representation, but I think those people are sleeping on how important it is to see a woman over 40 as a strong, capable, physically nimble, nigh-uncatchable, independent character with her own tragic back story and character arc. Granted, she’s still a witch. Because witch or mother are still the only two roles a woman over 40 is allowed to have. But Eda manages to subvert them both by being both. Witches are usually painted by the male gaze and vilified, regardless of what their intentions are or what they’ve actually done. The word calls to mind a shriveled hag, whose soul is equally bent and corrupted by bitterness. Eda is none of those things, but she also acknowledges her age and the social dismissal that comes with it. She goes over the top sometimes more than necessary simply to prove that just because she’s over 40, that doesn’t make her frail or invisible. Sure her hands fall off sometimes. “That happens sometimes when you get older”, she says, drily. But she just pops them back on and carries on with her spell. For her, being a witch is synonymous with personal power, independence, and freedom. She even expressly risks arrest to avoid joining a coven, which would force her to choose to commit herself to merely one form of magic. This is a woman who has to hold her own against the world, and is more than capable of doing so.
However the “you vs the world” dynamic can be a very lonely path to tread. Which is why it doesn’t take much convincing for Eda, after sharing a misadventure or two with Luz, to decide to take Luz as her apprentice witch. Luz’s infectious affability begins to endear her to the hard-edged Eda, who now has someone more to protect than herself and her way of life. I also appreciate that the writers didn’t make her curmudgeonly, surly, or an avowed bad-ass resentful of anything emotional because EMOTION IS FOR THE WEAK! Eda doesn’t look down or resent Luz for her squishy, touchy-feely, hug-the-world attitude. She just doesn’t know how to respond to it. She definitely comes off more as simply someone who has spent a lot of time on their own because they prefer it that way, and may have lost some degree of social skills in the interim.
I can relate. Even before the pandemic.
More than being a mentor, Eda finds herself significantly invested in Luz and her growth as a witch, and by the end of season 1, is sort of a surrogate mother to Luz. Eda recognizes that her love for Luz makes her vulnerable. But she never regrets it, and never pretends to. Nothing about Eda is a front or a facade. Even when it costs her nearly everything, she still thanks Luz for being in her life, even if she isn’t quite sure how to label their relationship or her feelings for Luz.
Besides the “over 40 female” representation, there is another aspect of Eda’s unique persona that I think bears mention in the arena of representation: Someone living with a chronic illness. In Eda’s case, (SPOILER ALERT) it takes the form of a mysterious curse that periodically transforms her into a gigantic, terrible beast. She is able to control her transformations with medication, for a time, but knows that there is a possibility that she could succumb to the condition permanently. On some level, this probably fuels her carpe diem attitude but also her reluctance to form relationships. Not only could she lose them as she loses herself, but she could potentially do them violent harm in the process. So often whenever someone is presented as having a malign physical condition in stories, they are meant to be an object of sympathy or a device to make you see how noble and self-sacrificing the main protagonist is, or giving them an impetus to take up some quest to find a cure. If they are the villain with a disease or condition, their obsession with finding a cure, no matter what the cost, can be the motivation and also allow the viewer to sympathize with them, thereby making them artificially more complex. Eda isn’t searching for a cure. She’s already accepted that this is part of who she is, and is just trying to manage it. She doesn’t know what caused it, and therefore doesn’t have much hope of finding a cure. Luz falls into the find-the-cure-for-person-I-care-about trope, but not until the very end of the season when she basically stumbles upon an item of magical healing.The curse has a story-arc shifting importance, and while it isn’t Eda’s sole defining feature, it definitely shapes and informs who she is and the decisions she makes.
I appreciate that there are actual stylistic cues that Eda is over forty that go beyond “obligatory crows feet at eye corners, but otherwise a totally girlish body”. I am so tired of not being able to tell at a glance who is the mom and who is the daughter in an animated scene. It’s not just about height, people! I love that Eda is boney, not just angular. I love that instead of crows feet, there’s just a tiny line that hints a bagginess under her eyes. And I love, love, love that she is allowed the revolutionary privilege of HAVING SMILE LINES at the corners of her mouth. Seriously, y’all don’t understand how happy that made me. At the ripe old age of “late 30’s”, I’m beginning to develop those, although mine are probably more frown-related. I’m more than a little self conscious about it. I’m not where I want to be with my creative career, and when society constantly reminds women that they are of little value after 40 and you’re lucky to get a first chance at 20, let alone a second chance mid-life, every tiny wrinkle is a reminder of how fast your time and your chances are slipping away. So when I saw golden-eyed Eda being so powerfully, unapologetically herself, unafraid to go after what she wants, with the same lines around her mouth as I have, I thought “You mean...I could be a witch like her?”
THIS IS THE MAGIC AND THE VITAL IMPORTANCE OF REPRESENTATION.
When I saw those tiny little lines, suddenly I felt like I was in good company. I felt like I wasn’t alone and what I wanted to do or be wasn’t foolish. But more than that, but I knew from the moment I saw them that a real woman had put them there. A woman, Dana Terrace, had made that creative choice and was empowered to put it in an animated series. Like a hobo reading a secret symbol on a gatepost, I knew this was a place where I could find a kindred spirit. One doing what I want to do: telling stories where everyone belongs, where everyone finds their place. Stories about witches and non-witches, and magic and normal, and neuro-diverse and neurotypical and everyone above, beyond and in between.
It’s important that kids see, not just all kinds of kids in their favorite shows, but all different kinds of people, of all different ages. Because kids don’t stay kids forever. And no sooner do you get one stage figured out than the clock rolls on and you find yourself in an entirely new situation. Life doesn’t end at 18. Happily Ever After isn’t The End. Kids become teens, become young adults, become middle aged adults, become elderly. And it’s important for them to see that every stage you can be in, every age you can be, is important. And not just because of what you can add to someone else’s story. You are never too young to be the hero, but you’re also never too old. Kids these days are crippled with anxiety and impostor syndrome (heck, I’m still both those things) and it would be great if someone could give them the message that “this thing you are right now is an ok thing to be. And so is the next thing you will become.”
The witch archetype and the kooky aunt tropes aren’t new. But they never get old either. The occupation of witch has proven to be a very roomy one in recent decades. And I can’t wait to see how Luz and Eda make it their own next season.