Salem: WGN’s Damaging Portrayal of Witches of Color


A nineteenth-century representation of Tituba bewitching Betty Parris

A nineteenth-century representation of Tituba bewitching Betty Parris.

WITCH! Witch! You’re a b*tch! Witch! Witch! You’re a b*itch!

If you’ve seen Practical Magic, you probably found yourself chuckling when the village kids used this clever little taunt to tease the Owens girls, the island’s resident witches. Especially when Kylie Owens, the little witch-in-question, curses her accusers, not with death, not with disaster, not even with your all-around, general-purpose misfortune, but with chickenpox. That’s pretty mild as hexes go, not to mention cute, seeing as how it’s the worst punishment a young girl’s mind can think up. Oh innocence.

You know who wouldn’t have found that chant funny? Or cute? The more than 200 people who were accused of practicing witchcraft during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. Especially the 20 unlucky people, the majority of whom were women, who ended up hanging from the gallows for crimes they didn’t commit.

Salem, Massachusetts is the setting for WGN’s newest historical drama Salem, which celebrated its first season finale this past Sunday, and the events leading up to the 1692 Salem Witch Trials are what drive the show’s plot. Albeit loosely, because the French and Indian War, which series protagonist John Alden (Shane West) returns home from fighting in the pilot, didn’t actually take place until the 1750s. A minor detail that doesn’t bode well for WGN’s ability to take historical fact into account.

Temporal inconsistencies aside, the main problem centers around Salem’s portrayal of Tituba, an actual person and West African slave who, on the testimony of a few young girls desperately trying to cover up their not-so-Puritanical after-church activities, was the first to fall victim to the panic that would characterize the trials. In fact, she was blamed as the source of the trouble itself, charged with bringing witchcraft into the Puritans’ midst in the first place, and while she survived the trials, for the rest of her life and for centuries after, her name was synonymous with evil, devil-worshiping, and black magic. That is, until historians realized that slaves were often used as scapegoats to shoulder the blame for anything that could and did go wrong in the communities they lived in. And that a slave, already an outsider and already ostracized, would confess to anything to stop the torture, the pressure, and the death-by-hanging that her confessors were threatening.

In Salem, Tituba (portrayed by Ashley Madekwe) is depicted as a true, honest-to-God (Satan, in this case?) witch with purely evil intentions and a scheme to put Salem under her control. When John Alden abandons his pregnant lover Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) to fight for his country, Tituba convinces a desperate Mary — not her master, but  her companion and, as we are increasingly led to believe, her lover — to hand over the soul of their unborn child to dark spirits, in exchange for sorcerous powers, wealth and a marriage to a high-ranking town official. It’s unclear if Mary knew what she was signing up for when she followed her “friend” into the forest, but there’s no doubt that Tituba knew exactly what was about to happen. As the season progresses, viewers see Tituba using a combination of seduction, violent magic, and manipulation to maintain her hold over a now-influential Mary, and through her Salem, in order to push her own hidden agenda forward.

WGN’s portrayal of Tituba is not the disenfranchised outsider with no options that the majority of historians have come to agree is the Tituba to most likely have existed. Far from it. Salem’s Tituba is what Edward Said calls “the Other” in his 1978 book Orientalism: that which is foreign and fascinating and sexually desirable to the West, but ultimately corrupt and inferior, and dangerous to the morality of Western (i.e. white) people. Tituba’s sexually-charged “otherness” is what causes Mary to damn herself, and that’s a problem in a number of ways –the first being that it equates feminine sexuality with corruption. It’s a sentiment that’s as old as patriarchy itself —  if you can’t tame it, defame it — manifesting historically in countless ways like the forced seclusion of menstruating women (due to their “uncleanliness”) to the portrayals of sexually-threatening femme fatales and vamps like Jezebel and Cleopatra and Lana Turner in literature and film. And it’s manifesting now, with the Hobby Lobby court case that recently rocked the nation and the struggle to preserve women’s bodily rights and access to reproductive healthcare.

The second and equal, if not worse, problem is that this iteration of Tituba equates blackness with evil. The pilot implies that if it wasn’t for the evil Tituba and the devil-worshiping ways she brought over from Africa, the women in Salem would be the pious, pure, God-fearing housewives they were meant to be. You can’t ask for a clearer equation than that. It’s as irresponsible a depiction of black people in modern times as the strikingly-similar April cover of Vogue magazine’s shoot featuring LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen in parody of a WWI armed forces enlistment advertisement entitled “Destroy This Mad Brute-Enlist:”


Both of these depictions hearken back to the arguments that slave-owners in America used to justify and perpetuate enslavement of Africans, and they draw upon the old-school imagery and stereotypes of the dark-skinned “other” as hyper-sexualized, savage and morally inferior. And while the majority of people realize that these stereotypes hold no water, the lingering ramifications that images like these have are still felt by black people living in the United States to this day; black women are among the leading minority to suffer sexual abuse and violence, and young black men experience physical violence and incarceration at alarmingly-high rates, more so than any other demographic in the United States.

We understand the concept of taking artistic liberty. If WGN wanted to create a Tituba character with explicit supernatural powers, that’s well within their rights to do so. But they easily could have done so with more tact, with more attention paid to the historical issues surrounding Tituba and historical depictions of black women in the media, and could have consequently created a much more complex, interesting character. They could have taken a page from HBO’s True Blood and its character Lafayette Reynolds, a gay black man whose journey to coming to terms with both his magical heritage and his sexuality is tumultuous, but ultimately engaging and empowering. Instead, they followed in the footsteps of a show like Charmed, which depicts its only black female sorceress, The Seer, as a power-hungry siren out to rule the world by leading one of the show’s protagonists, a good (white) witch named Phoebe, down a path that results in her impregnation by the Source of All Evil. Ring a bell?

Though it seems that WGN did take a page from somebody.  Maryse Condé, Guadeloupean author of the 1986 novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, also gives Tituba actual supernatural powers that she occasionally uses to her own advantage, makes her the source of witchcraft in the colonies, and even has her engage in an anachronistic lesbian relationship with The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne: in short, everything we see Salem’s Tituba doing. But whereas female sexuality in Salem is seen as evil and corrupting, female sexuality for Condé is life-affirming and positive, a viable alternative to the perverted male sexuality that allowed white slave-owners to view female slaves as less than human, but definitely human enough to rape and abuse. And where Salem paints African slaves and outsiders as inherently inferior and as sources of evil, Condé portrays them as victims of the evils of systemic racism and the institutionalized slave trade with very few options at their disposal. By giving the historically-silenced Tituba a voice of her own, Condé forces us to examine the absurdities of racism and misogyny and sexual abuse and the ways that dominant historical discourse paints narratives that exclude the stories of “the Other,” slave or woman or otherwise, and how we ourselves are complicit in perpetuating those kind of narratives to this day.

Which probably isn’t what WGN was trying to accomplish with Salem. All they’re after is creating the next big supernatural drama to fill the vacuum that True Blood is leaving in its wake, one that’ll pull in the ratings and the viewers. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t have created a complex Tituba instead of opting for the historically-damaging, stock image of the exotic woman of color who is also a seductress and also the mistress of Satan, though. That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to disregard the historical baggage that a figure like Tituba carries, or the damage that this kind of representation does to women, people of color and gays and lesbians. And it doesn’t mean you can play the Puritan and use a convenient “Other” to shoulder whatever burden you need or, in this case, to drive your plot forward.

But don’t worry about Tituba. She’s withstood taunts of Witch! Witch! You’re a b*tch! for more than three hundred years. She survived that, and you can bet she’ll survive this latest attempt to drag her through the mud.

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