The Witch

[MODERATE SPOILER ALERT: No major plot spoilers for The Witch below, but if you're a purist about these things, as I can be, feel free to skip this entry]

Early contender for most feminist movie I'll see all year is Robert Eggers The Witch. It's been mis-marketed a bit as a horror film, and given the huge box office returns of horror sensations like Paranormal Activity, it's not surprising that studios might try to run that playbook. The movie is less a pure horror film than one of oppressive dread, and those are far more disturbing.

A jump-scare-filled horror movie is heart-pounding for the time you're watching it in the theater, then is quickly forgotten. But a movie like Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, one of my all-time favorites, laden with a feeling of inescapable doom, has been lodged in the deep recesses of my memory ever since I saw it, like a splinter that burrowed under my defensive psychic membrane. What is despair but the absence of hope? A movie of dread builds a world in which you see all the characters stumbling towards the cliff and it feels both believable and inevitable. The Witch is less a horror film than a tragedy.

The false advertising of The Witch is less worrisome as an aesthetic misrepresentation than it is as a marketing blunder. It may chase away people who don't like horror movies and disappoint those who come in expecting to be grasping popcorn by the sweaty palmful to soothe their nerves. It's no romantic comedy, some of the images are disturbing, but it's more of an arthouse horror film than you'd suspect from the trailer.

As with the most profound horror movies, The Witch locates true horror in ourselves, in Christianity and the deep-seated guilt it plants in every member of this family banished to live on the edge of a forest. A mother who doesn't feel like she is a supportive wife or adequate caretaker for her children. A father who, well-versed in the Bible but not with a hunting rifle, doesn't feel he can provide for his family. A son who feels shame whenever he glances at his sister's bosom with the first longings of puberty. And a daughter, played with remarkable emotional precision by Anya Taylor-Joy, who chafes against the limited options available for women in 1600's Puritan society.

The movie can be read many ways. It's also a story of a family evicted from the human construct of society but ill-equipped to conquer and tame nature, represented here in all its destructive power by the fairy tale trope of the dark forest and the titular witch who dwells there (played, in one scene, by Victoria's Secret super model Sarah Stephens, which we discovered much to our amusement from a look at IMDb).

The ending is controversial, and I have yet to decide where I come down on it. My initial reaction was that it was too much, that the movie should have ended earlier. I might have left it as an alternate ending for the DVD.

Still, one can understand why Eggers might want to take the movie all the way there, just to stir up some sympathy for the devil.

Her hair

I’ve never known how to live up to my maternal line, though I’ve burned up a lot of energy trying. Womanhood to me is the feeling of always striving. Striving even when there is no endpoint. I learned early on that to be a good woman—a strong woman—means scheduling, doing, achieving. You execute this series flawlessly and without any complaints. You survive in this world by showing up, pretty and prepared and perfect, hopefully more articulate than anyone else in the room—and always with done hair.

Wonderful essay by Rachel Wilkinson about one of the dilemmas of being a woman, the tension between feminism and beauty.

I believe I had a feminist childhood. I had the kind of upbringing where my mother gave me, at age nine, a book of 100 women who changed the world, and sent me to a middle school where we discussed the misogyny of The Little Mermaid. In my mother’s eyes, these were important lessons for me. Intelligence was the thing that would allow everything in my life to fall into place. She’d cultivated me to be the perfect millennial daughter: existing in a meritocratic world where looks didn’t matter so much because I could be anything I wanted if I were just smart enough. Like all parents, she contains contradictions.
Part of me loves her for telling such an exquisite lie. Not even a lie so much, but what she’d truly hoped would be true for me—a parental lie. I think about how much I’ve tried to let this shield me, to let it protect me from uncomfortable feelings. But with my 45-minute hair routine, I’ve only embraced her perfectionism—and her same contradictions. I wish her lie were true: that appearance didn’t matter, a nuisance held up against smarts. Or I wish I could care less about it—that I could hold to feminist principles, smash my blow dryer and somehow transcend the whole gendered mess. But even then, it wouldn’t be enough.
My head of hair is a perpetually living and dying thing: inconstant, uncontrollable, inescapably corporeal. It’s a promise that I am always a body—despite how hard I might wish to be just a mind.

Sneaky feminism

Feminism has been sneaking around. Don’t believe me? A recent New York profile of TV host Katie Nolan hailed the “woman bringing a sneaky feminism to Fox sports.” A few days later, the New York Times went long on Amy Schumer’s boisterous feminism, which it characterized as her “sneaky power.” Like Broad City (another purveyor of “sneak-attack feminism”), Schumer’s work is something of a trysting spot for furtive sisterhood; last year in Slate Willa Paskin declared Inside Amy Schumer the “most sneakily feminist show on TV.”
Psst! Do you know what else is “sneakily feminist?” Showtime’s The Affair. Meanwhile the Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal flick Hysteria is “slyly feminist,” as is Pixar’s fable Inside Out(which, according to a separate reviewon Slate, accomplishes a “subtle but surprisingly feminist” swerve). Plus, the show Trophy Wife has bloomed, like some nocturnal desert flower, into “secretly one of the most feminist shows on TV.” Sundance chose the “top ten secretly feminist films” of all time (with Thelma and Louise at the mist-shrouded apex). Spy is “secretly a feminist attack on the patriarchy.” Not even academic books prove immune from such subtlety, secrecy, surprise: In a chapter on Ursula Le Guin’s invented folklore, scholar Jarold Ramsey notes that the “slyly feminist … appropriation of the mystique of ‘Old Man Coyote’ can be illustrated by the beginning of a Kesh myth about a war between bears and humans.”
Let’s read that myth! Once upon a time, a lady Coyote tried to dissuade the King of the Bears from attacking humankind. “We should all live in peace and love each other,” the Coyote pleaded, and “all the while she was talking,” Le Guin writes, “Coyote was stealing Bear’s balls, cutting them off with an obsidian knife she had stolen from the Doctors Lodge, a knife so sharp he never felt it cutting.”

Katy Waldman on that verbal tic of an adjective that must precede the word feminist or feminism. Anyone referring to Amy Schumer as sneakily feminist must be an extreme feminist indeed.