The XX Factor

Christine O’Donnell, Teenage Witch

Thanks to Christine O’Donnell’s admission that she “dabbled into” witchcraft in her youth, Wiccans are up in arms about their portrayal: One high priestess told the Huffington Post that O’Donnell’s flippant dismissal of her teenage experiment contained “defaming” misrepresentations of Wiccan beliefs. O’Donnell herself blamed it on the era: ” Who doesn’t regret the ‘80s, to some extent ?”

In fact, the late ‘90s and early 2000s were when Wiccanism had its highest pop culture profile: 1996’s The Craft made witchcraft seem sexy and dangerous and darkly appealing to a certain sort of female teenage outsider. That same year, indie darling (and heroine of disaffected teenagers) Winona Ryder starred in a big-screen adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Salem witch-trial play, The Crucible . On Season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer , viewers learned that Willow, a witch-one of many outsiders on a show about outsiders-had joined her campus Wiccan group, right around the same time she came out as a lesbian, part of a larger story arc in which she comes into her adult self (according to resident XX Buffy expert Nina Shen Rastogi). A flurry of books about Wiccanism were published in the ‘90s and early millennium, including Rocking the Goddess: Campus Wiccanism for the Student Practicioner . And Wiccanism’s focus on the feminine divine-and female-female relationship, whether friendly or sexual-seemed to dovetail nicely with the feminist moment of the ‘90s .

Hanna thinks O’Donnell’s ” Wiccan thing throws a loop into her whole self-presentation .” Not to my eyes: While her dabbling obviously preceded this high-’90s era, I can’t help reading the Wiccan tidbit, along with some of the others, as adding up to a picture of someone who imagines herself an outsider searching to belong to a group. (And who knows, if she’d stuck with it, maybe it’s less likely she’d have become a Republican .) O’Donnell’s Lord of the Rings -as-feminist-text lecture seems to have grown out of a similar strain: For whatever it’s worth, a woman I spoke to at Bryn Mawr (where not long ago it was a relatively common sight to see students in capes), who was a student there in the ‘90s and is now an administrator, noted that another of the groups closely associated with Wiccanism was a sci-fi-focused group, and another maintained a communal, public diary.

Wiccanism did indeed grow rapidly in the 1990s-about 17-fold, according to the American Religious Identification Survey; but the “New Religion” category of that survey grew even more quickly in the 2000s , based on 2008 data, even if the media and Hollywood are less obessesed with sexy teenage experimenters. Post- Harry Potter , witches (and wizards) are friendly, familiar, kid-safe. Now, if you want dark and sexy, vampires are a classic, reliable bet , especially with female audiences . But there are still college witches , and there’s even a serious pagan community at the U.S. Air Force Academy that recently got its own worship space . Hard data on Wiccan demographics are scarce, but a couple of anecdotal points-the reissue this year of the Wicca Cookbook , the launch of Crone , for the “aging female pagan”-suggest that plenty of people have settled into it as a lifestyle, rather than an adolescent experiment.

I recently noticed a model in a very ‘90s flashback Urban Outfitters catalog spread holding a book on Wiccanism. And True Blood just introduced a Wiccan character in the midst of all those sexy vampires. So maybe Wiccanism is on the verge of another pop-culture moment, whether actual practitioners-or O’Donnell-like it or not.

Photograph of the spiral pentacle for Wikimedia Commons.