Monday, April 28, 2014


Today, we make a quick return to Cultural Mondays.  Recently, I watched the first episode of WGN's Salem.  I had sort of hoped (why, I know not) that maybe the show would be done with some degree of historical accuracy, maybe even present some sort of political perspective to the Salem witch hunts.  Needless to say it did neither.

WGN apparently is living in the late 1600s.  I guess they represent the moderates who while they find Cotton Mather and his Puritan buddies a bit much, are not to enamored with those monstrous witches either.  

In the real world, the one we live in (or our ancestors lived in), there were real women and a few men who were tortured and executed during the witch hunts in Salem.  However, none of them were working with the devil, none of them had some sort of super powers that they used to control people (something which WGN apparently doesn't know).  In fact,  Satanism is not part of the Wiccan religion.  There is no such being in the Wiccan religion; only in the Christian traditions.  Don't tell WGN.  And don't tell them their show is also racist.

As Zack Handlen writes at TV Club:

Salem uses real life to prop up its shallow theatrics, and the result is too distractingly tacky to be enjoyed as pure foolishness. The premise isn’t simply that witches are real—it’s that these witches are, in fact, controlling Salem just as their accusers believed them to be, and their aims are far from noble. The closest the first episode gets to moral ambiguity is the implication that nearly everyone, from the supposedly pure to the thoroughly corrupted, is up to something less than wholesome. This doesn’t excuse the fact that the show’s seemingly sole minority character is introduced performing the sexiest backwoods abortion in the history of television, or a dozen other sins besides.

The real witch hunts were actually not about any of that supernatural stuff anyway.  They were about controlling women, about land grabs and enclosures, about the birth of capital. 

But on WGN its about the witch Mary and her plot to orchestrate the Salem witch trials to her own advantage and to use them to essentially destroy the community so the witches can take over.  Who can blame the Puritans for being upset.

Did I mention that the obvious hero is  a guy named John?  A white male savior of sorts.  A man who went off to defend "his country" against the Indians (and the French), who was captured, has some good things to say about Indians, some bad things to say about Puritans, is mad that "his" woman didn't wait for him, but still loves her (I think), and who even thinks nature isn't so bad.  Kind of a liberal, I would say.

Meanwhile, back to the real world again.  Silvia Federici author of the great book "Caliban and the Witch - Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation,"  makes the point that the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th century were instrumental to establishing a new capitalist order through 'the development of a 'new sexual division of labour subjugating women's labour and women's reproductive function to the reproduction of the workforce.'  The Church, the State, the early capitalist's were the enforcers. She says the witch hunts were not some oddity of history, but were central to the formation of capitalism.  To get there, the power of women had to be broken.  The witch became the, 

...embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeha woman who poisoned the master's food and inspired the slaves to revolt.

 In her account she highlights:
...the development of a 'new sexual division of labour subjugating women's labour and women's reproductive function to the reproduction of the workforce,' [...] 'the construction of a new patriarchal order based upon the exclusion of women from waged work and their subordination to men' [...] and 'the transformation of the female body into a machine for the production of new workers.

Federici doesn't once mention toads coming out of the mouths captive old husbands  as WGN shows us.

The witch hunts were no joke.  In a review of Federici's book, Alex Knight writes and I will quote here at length:

During the 15th – 17th centuries the fear of witches was ever-present in Europe and Colonial America, so much so that if a woman was accused of witchcraft she could face the cruellest of torture until confession was given, or even be executed based on suspicion alone. There was often no evidence whatsoever. The author recounts, “for more than two centuries, in several European countries, hundreds of thousands of women were tried, tortured, burned alive or hanged, accused of having sold body and soul to the devil and, by magical means, murdered scores of children, sucked their blood, made potions with their flesh, caused the death of their neighbors, destroyed cattle and crops, raised storms, and performed many other abominations” .

In other words, just about anything bad that might or might not have happened was blamed on witches during that time. So where did this tidal wave of hysteria come from that took the lives so many poor women, most of whom had almost certainly never flown on broomsticks or stirred eye-of-newt into large black cauldrons?

Caliban underscores that the persecution of witches was not just some error of ignorant peasants, but in fact the deliberate policy of Church and State, the very ruling class of society.

...The Witch Hunt initiated a period where women were forced to become what she calls “servants of the male work force” (115) – excluded from receiving a wage, they were confined to the unpaid labor of raising children, caring for the elderly and sick, nurturing their husbands or partners, and maintaining the home. In Federici’s words, this was the “housewifization of women,” the reduction to a second-class status where women became totally dependent on the income of men."

The author goes on to show how female sexuality, which was seen as a source of women’s potential power over men, became an object of suspicion and came under sharp attack by the authorities. This assault manifested in new laws that took away women’s control over the reproductive process, such as the banning of birth control measures, the replacement of midwives with male doctors, and the outlawing of abortion and infanticide.4 Federici calls it an attempt to turn the female body into “a machine for the reproduction of labor,” such that women’s only purpose in life was supposedly to produce children.
... For Silvia Federici, it’s no accident that “the witch-hunt occurred simultaneously with the colonization and extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures, [or] the beginning of the slave trade” (164). She instructs that all of these seemingly unrelated tragedies were initiated by the same European ruling elite at the very moment that capitalism was in formation, the late 15th through 17th centuries. Contrary to “laissez-faire” orthodoxy which holds that capitalism functions best without state intervention, Federici posits that it was precisely the state violence of these campaigns that laid the foundation for capitalist economics.But we also learn that this was just one component of a broader move by Church and State to ban all forms of sexuality that were considered “non-productive.” 

...For elite European nobles and clergy, the Witch Hunt succeeded in stifling a working class revolution that had increasingly threatened their rule. Even more, Silvia Federici puts forward that the Witch Hunt facilitated the rise of a new, capitalist social paradigm – based on large-scale economic production for profit and the displacement of peasants from their lands into the burgeoning urban workforce. In time, this capitalist system would dominate all of Europe and be dispersed through conquistadors’ “guns, germs and steel” to every corner of the globe, destroying countless ancient civilizations and cultures in the process.6 Federici’s analysis is that, “Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle – possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide”.

And now back to the world of WGN where there is a character (so far the lone African American) most who watch the show Salem will not realize was an actual historical figure.  That is Tituba.  Tituba was likely a West Indian slave who herself was accused of witchcraft at Salem, arrested in 1692. African American feminist historians depict Tituba as black. With Tituba married to a man named John Indian, at the time the trans-Altantic slave trade was transporting Africans throughout and among the Caribbean islands, also known as the West Indies, Tituba's racial identity, they say, is only obscured to those who erase the history of slavery.  Others say she was  a member of the Arawak Indian tribe from present-day Guyana or Venezuela, where she was stolen into slavery and eventually bought by Samuel Parris, a merchant in Barbados (also a Harvard man, I must say), before he moved to Boston in 1680.   

Tituba, black (which is what I and WGN think she was), Indian, both, whatever, was subjected to the same gender restrictions placed on Puritan women...and upon blacks.  And Puritan men had only two views of women: the good wife and the bad witch.  And we know what they thought of blacks...and Indians.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes at The Root:

In any case, the winter of 1691-92 is when Tituba—the Tituba of Salem—first appeared in the historical record. By then she was likely in her late 20s or early 30s. The reason for her appearance: accusations of witchcraft. Parris’ 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and 11-year-old niece, Abigail Williams, were suffering repeated episodes of falling down, shaking and babbling. Speculation, even by their doctor, swirled around a supernatural source, perhaps even a curse.

Tituba is forced to confessed with the use of enhanced interrogation techniques available at the time that she was a witch.   Tituba was known throughout Salem to tell tales from her African folklore tradition that both frightened and fascinated children and adults alike, stories later seen as evidence of her personal witchcraft.  She was not merely forced to confess.  Her jailers wanted more and eventually  she named other witches, Good and Osborne, as her accomplices. Confession is what the judges were looking for, and Tituba's "evidence" of a conspiracy of witches in Salem Village stimulated the court and the ministers a license to hunt and kill witches with a religious fervor and zeal.

Though Tituba was not executed for her participation as a witch, she was forced to languish in jail for thirteen months after Parris refused to pay her imprisonment costs. She was finally freed from jail when an unknown person redeemed her jail fees and took her from the Village. Nothing is known about her life beyond Salem Village.

On WGN, at least in the first episode which I have seen, Tituba's slavery is never mentioned.  In fact, virtually nothing about her is mentioned.  She is just presented as a rather seductive looking, black woman, who with the help of Satin forcefully  aborts her mistress' fetus (against her will), sacrifices it, and then proceeds to lead her to the dark side.  

Speaking of that "abortion," the anti-abortion folks should perhaps make it into one of their videos to show outside clinics.  Katie Yoder writing at NewsBusters describes the scene in the show this way,

Mary Sibley ...Confronted with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy by her beau John Alden (Shane West) who left her for war, Mary relies on her mysterious confidante, Tituba, for help. Tituba and Mary decide on abortion in return for power from the devil. 

But as they head into the dark forest to commit the deed, Mary hesitates, “I've changed my mind. I want to go back.” Tituba warns, “There is no place for that child in Salem,” and questions what the town’s leader might “do to you when he finds out you're pregnant with John's baby?” She continues, “Do not fear the woods. The woods are gonna take care of that little soul. And you.” 

Against Mary’s repetitive pleas, Tituba threatens more harshly, “You want to live? Lie still.” and pushes, “You don't have a choice, Mary.” 

When Mary cries at the sight of her flat stomach after the ritual filled with a dark demons, flesh-eating beetles and black ooze crawling up her spread legs, Tituba consoles, “All the world shall be yours in return.” 

Unfortunately, Salem will have a following.  I watched it and I assure it will have a following.  People will view it for entertainment, but they will absorb a message and the message is not a good one. 

If you ask me, its as if WGN decided to do a story on the Holocaust in which they failed to mention the reasons for the rise of nazism, failed to mention anti-Semitism, did present the Nazis as not such good folks who went overboard, but added that the world of the Jews really was the one presented in the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and in Mein Kampf. .

All that said, here is a review (which I think is far too kind and far too hopeful and fails to understand what is going on here) written by Heather Greene and which I found at The Wild Hunt: A Modern-Pagan Perspective.

Review: WGN America’s Salem

On Sunday WGN America debuted its first originally-scripted TV series: Salem. Crafted in the horror genre, the show follows in the footsteps of the popular American Horror Story: Coven.  WGN uses the tag line: “The Witch Hunt Has Begun – In Salem, witches are real, but they are not what they seem.”
On opening night Variety reported that the show earned “1.5 million viewers” which is “seven times the network’s season-to-date average in the 10 p.m. timeslot.” WGN is capitalizing on the recent popularity of witches in order to launch its new original production offerings. In July the network will premiere its second series, Manhattan, and then in 2015, Ten Commandments.
WGN America's Salem Promotional Poster
WGN America’s Salem Promotional Poster
WGN’s Salem is the latest in a very long-line of television and film productions using the city as its setting. Hollywood began its love-affair with the trials in 1909 with the release of Edison’s In the Days of Witchcraft. Perhaps the most famous rendering of the Salem story is Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” which transforms the city’s history into an allegory for McCarthy-era politics. Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem said, “The Salem Witch Trials are a rich and compelling subject for novelists and screenwriters…”
In this latest adaption, the witches are rendered as actual creatures. WGN’s Salem presents a historically-derived Puritan world complete with “witch” panics alongside the genuine existence of Satanic-based witchcraft. In doing so, it attempts to offer a far more complex ethical structure than past Salem or witch stories.
When production was initially announced, a group of Salem citizens and business owners discussed the potential for damage caused by yet another Hollywood show conflating history and horror. Should they protest? Elizabeth Peterson, director of Salem’s Witch House, said:
The Witch House is the only historic site left that was an absolute witness to the conversations and phenomena [of that time].  It is our responsibility to dignify and intellectualize that history. 
After multiple conversations, the group opted for a different approach. Fox said, “I will welcome the opportunity [the show] will afford to talk about the destination Salem with viewers who may find a new interest in our town.”
Salem Witch House [Photo Credit: Scott Lanes]
Salem Witch House [Photo Credit: Scott Lanes]
After seeing the show Peterson said, “I’m not worried that [Salem] could be mistaken as historical because it is so fantastical.” She points out that show contains many inaccuracies but it’s presented in such a way that there is no danger in mistaking it for fact. In other words, WGN’s Salem is not even pretending to be real. It is pure horror entertainment.
Due to the continued fascination with the trials, Salem and New England in general have ascended historicity to become a modality within American popular myth. Salem as a backdrop is strongly rooted within Hollywood’s own narrative symbolism. Even Samantha makes a trip to Salem for a Witches Convention in 1970. If you make a witch movie or show, it should be set in a small town in New England.
Just as it capitalizes on historical lore, WGN’s Salem also makes use of the archetypal Hollywood Satanic witch. Narratively speaking these witches are villagers who have sold their souls to the Devil for personal gain. They perform magic with oils, frogs, lizards, hogs, blood and fire. They hold sabbats in the dark woods wearing beastly masks. They have familiars and understand the nuances in “life, love, war and death.”
Visually speaking the witches are monstrous, zombie-like creatures that only appear in quick cuts or extreme close-up. Such shots are often flanked by tilted visions, screams and flashes of light. These are all very typical elements of the modern horror montage. To counter that extreme, these same witches appear as their respectable former selves during the day and are shot in a non-dynamic simple composition.
At first it might seem WGN’s Salem is yet another horror show fostering the negative representations of witches. It is after all presenting a typical Satanic witch story. However it does do something a bit different. It offers an atypical dynamic morality that embraces the complexity of contemporary social issues. This complexity is best demonstrated though three characters: John Alden, Cotton Mather and Mary Sibley.
John Alden is defined as the imperfect but good secular American. He fights for “his country,” befriends Native Americans and stands against the Puritan moral panic. At one point he tells Mather, “She needs a doctor not your prayers.” John is the open-minded, modern cowboy who believes in love and even Paganism. When Anne Hale explains that Mather calls drawing “idolatry” or nature worship, Alden responds, “There are worse things to worship.”
Cotton Mather is the polar opposite. He represents the religious zealot who publicly defines life through absolutes found in the testimony of his books. Giles Corey describes Mather as the “most dangerous type of fool…The kind that thinks he knows everything.” Mather is further demonized through his apparent hypocrisy. While inspecting the wounds on an hysterical young girl, Mather pushes her dress up to her thighs. At that point, the camera rhythmically cuts between his face, her face and his hands on her thighs. Then the show abruptly cuts to a salacious scene of Mather in a brothel. The viewer is left wondering if Mather abused the girl.
WGN America's Salem Poster
WGN America’s Salem
To complete the triad, there is Mary Sibley, the witch.  As a young unwed pregnant girl, Mary is led to witchcraft by Tituba in order to escape public shame and punishment. The show posits that Mary and ostensibly the others turn to the Devil in order to escape the horrors of Puritanism. However at the same time, Mary is also depicted as cruelly toying with John Alden, driving a young girl mad and killing Giles Corey. Her vengeance knows no boundaries.
These witches are morally complex representing a type of social defiance that is very contemporary. The show appears to oppose the tyrannical religious teachings of its conservative Christian environment.  At one point Giles Corey says, “Puritans know their sun is setting. Nothing like a new enemy … to get people behind ya.” This statement recalls recent discourse surrounding the religious climate in the Unites States.
Similarly Puritan leader George Sibley yells out, “We cannot expect God to be on our side if we tolerate abominations or those that commit them.”  While he is referring to “fornication,” his line resembles language used to counter the Marriage Equality movement.
WGN’s Salem explores the progressive ethics that are now appearing within contemporary American discourse. It is mediating the mythological Salem story through very current cultural politics. The witches themselves are the tipping point that places the viewer into the uncomfortable position of liking the goal but disliking the means. Through them we can ask, “success at what the cost?”
Are these witches representative of real Witches, Wiccans or Pagans?  No they aren’t.  As with the use of Salem, the witches are merely typical Hollywood archetypes representing social defiance. In fact the narrative makes a direct distinction between a “nature worshipper” and the Witch.
How the show proceeds over its run will be interesting. How will it negotiate the issues presented? How will it handle race and explain the origins of the young, beautiful Tituba as instigator of Salem’s witchcraft?  What is Nathan and Anne Hale’s story?
With all that said, was it a good entertainment? It was average, sensationalistic and at times campy. It falls into the category of recent shows pushing the limits of television horror by exploring the limits of our humanity. If the show continues on its current course, it may hold a season worth of interest beyond that, who knows.
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1 comment:

GoddessesofSalem RZ said...

I was so delighted to read all of the snide, pseudo intellectual, and downright autistic comments written by men (?), who think all entertaining shows BASED on historical events over 500 yrs old have to be as boring as a CSPAN show. If you two neckbeards had done any research, you would know that Brannon Braga was submitted an idea that boldly reimagined the events of the infamous 17th century trials and colony. Mr Braga and his writing partner Adam Simon, didn't want Salem to be a dry, historical retelling of the same facts that everyone who watches the Discovery channel knows about. Mr Braga and Simon, decided instead to put a new creative spin on the events that would not only be entertaining but also respect the victims of that tragic period in history. Neckbeard number one, Mr Handle of TV Club, you mention "historical accuracy" and "living in the real world" and "real women", do you realize that in our universe the magic they use on TV isn't real? Both you and H.L. Gates from The Root (is that even real?) in your overly long diatribes don't make any sense. Finally, I loved how you both threw in your pointless racial comments.The racial climate in the world is on edge and neckbeards like yourselves make things worse with stupid comments that haven't anything to do with this subject. There are so many other things you two got wrong such as Wiccan beliefs, but I'm bored now and you both seem like two cuks who don't want to know anything outside your closed tiny minds.