Hello, do you have a moment to spare for the best and most important character archetype ever? I’m talking, of course, about teen witches. Why, you ask? Please, sit down; we may be here a while.
Who do you envision when I say “teen witch”? Maybe Hermione Granger, who was probably the only one who kept Harry and Ron from dying on multiple occasions. Maybe Sabrina, who dealt with the discrepancies between her normal school life and her magic home life as best she could. Maybe Willow, who over time became more powerful than the Slayer herself. At any rate, I can say with some confidence that you probably imagined a capable, intelligent young woman with powers that the rest of us can only dream of. I want to specifically focus on Hermione, because Harry Potter is the ultimate cultural touchstone of my generation in addition to being extremely important to me personally. So, we’ve got our empowered, active-in-story young woman. Well, what’s the big deal, you might say. To get into that, first we need to talk about wish fulfillment.
A lot of people, when discussing fiction (especially the genres of speculative fiction – fantasy, sci-fi, alternate history, etc.) use “wish fulfillment” as a pejorative term. “Escapism”, I’ve found, also gets the same treatment. It’s used as shorthand for “this writer was lazy in regards to plot”. To be blunt, I’ve always found that patently ridiculous, especially in regards to media targeted to young adult audiences. I have never seen why reading to enjoy a fantasy is wrong. Why escaping into a different world, if only for a little while, is something to be frowned upon. But alas, the association persists and there’s little I can do about it. Frequently, in the cases of this type of character, the (usually female) author sees them as an aspect of themselves, more so than other characters in the same work. For example, JK Rowling has acknowledged that Hermione is an exaggerated version of herself at the same age. And then in turn, a significant portion of the target demographic will relate better to that character than to the others. To use the same example, I don’t have a single girl friend my age who didn’t aspire to be like Hermione at least a little bit (…to be fair, this might be because I will automatically befriend fans of Harry Potter). It was a frequent joke among my friends in middle school that I was just a Hermione looking for my Ron (no I am not going to talk about Rowling’s recent flip-flop about that, no, no way).
So why is that so important? Because the wishes of teenage girls are often seen as irrelevant, frivolous, or downright stupid things. What’s the fastest way to deride a piece of media you don’t like? To relate it to teenage girls. The music that teenage girls like is automatically worse than any other kind, for example; boy bands get an inordinate amount of hatred for making ultimately harmless music that’s fairly easy to avoid. It’s the worst combination of age and gender stereotypes. Teenagers are seen as stupid, girls are seen as stupid, what could be worse than a teenage girl? Teenage boys, on the other hand, are much more often heroes in their own right and are generally seen as being more relatable to all audiences (a continuation of this pervasive idea that men are the default and women are the deviation from default). How many times, within the narrative of Harry Potter, did it seem like Hermione should have been the real hero? Because it seems like a lot, to me.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone going through adolescence is going to be emotionally volatile, physically confused, and frankly just a little bit of a mess (or a lot of a mess – adolescence is hard). So what happens when you take a girl who is already going through all that, and put her in a culture that surrounds her with media that hates her, people who tell her that her opinions and thoughts are worthless, and then sexualize her and take away her agency in her own life? Well, it’s not pretty. Everything is painful, like you’re drowning, your blood is boiling with anger and hate (mostly directed inwards), everything in the world feels like poison, most of all your own mind. So amidst all of that, it is even harder and even more important for those of us who were able to, to find a life raft.
So what does all that have to do with teenage witches? In a business sense, these characters often belong to the type of media that is ridiculed for being so beloved by teenage girls. The most successful franchises are the ones where our teen witch is secondary to some other main character, usually a teenage boy, let’s be honest. I distinctly remember people wondering if the Hunger Games movies could be a financial success, because the main character was a badass action hero who was female. Uh, well, look at how that one turned out: Catching Fire was the 4th-highest grossing movie of 2013 and set new records for the biggest November opening weekend. For god only knows what reason, major producers of media still like to act like women don’t buy things, don’t give money to the things they love, no matter how many times that’s been proven false.
In terms of fiction, they’re important because that “wish fulfillment” aspect of having magic, of having the ability to fix or change things, of having any degree of power at all – well, I know that’s something most teenage girls are desperate for. I wasn’t kidding earlier when I said that there is very little agency available for teenage girls. Choices are mostly made for you, and those you are allowed to make are usually mocked. Almost every decision leads to a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation; everything feels like a trap. Because she wasn’t the POV character, we see little of this in Hermione, but I remember reading the scenes of the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire, and seeing her just this once break down crying at a school dance meant so much to me, because it was just so real; I won’t embarrass myself with the number of times I or my friends have been in that exact situation. But for the witches, things were different anyway. These girls take their situations and take control of them, they see a change they want to make and they do so, even if it doesn’t always turn out for the best. Even those of you who are not or have never been teenage girls can see why that’s appealing; no one likes feeling stuck and everyone wants the power to change their lives or themselves. So often in media, though, the only one who can do so is the man, or at the very least an adult, the very same ones who look down their noses at teenage girls. It comes down to representation, a topic I’ll definitely be getting into more in the future; everyone feels a need to see characters that they can relate to, and better, look up to.
In a more personal sense, these are the characters we looked up to and tried to model ourselves on, the life rafts we clung to when things got bad. Lots of people of all ages and demographics turn to fiction, I know. It’s just so immediate and urgent in teenage girls, because it feels like the fire under your skin will eat you alive if you don’t find a handhold somewhere in your life, even as tenuous a one as a favorite character on a TV show. The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett, featuring the indomitable Tiffany Aching (okay, she was 9 in that book – she was strictly a teen witch later), came out in 2003, when I was 10, and I didn’t read it until I was 14 or so. In fact, the title and headline of this blog come from that book (First Sight and Second Thoughts are Tiffany’s main powers). I didn’t realize immediately why she meant so much to me, but by the time I read her last book, in 2010 (age 17 for me), I knew. This is a girl who was not meant to be a witch. Magic was nowhere in her future or her destiny, she was an ordinary, powerless girl. She became a witch when she found things she felt she needed to do, and forced the world to give her the power to do them. She still means a lot to me, and perhaps always will, because even though I’m past my adolescent years, it still sometimes feels like I just haven’t forced the world to give me my power yet.