Thursday 14 December 2017

Heroine Fix: The Strong Sisterhood in Practical Magic

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature looking at characters that I admire and who influence my own writing.  (Warning: This article will contain spoilers.)

Practical Magic is one of my favourite films and romantic comedies but I'll confess that it's been a few years since I watched it.  As I settled down with my notebook and popcorn and watched the scenes unfold, something new struck me: the strong presence of women in this movie.  It passes the Bechdel test with flying colours and extra credit.  From the Puritan women condemning great-aunt Maria to the delightfully eccentric aunts to the modern women of this small town to Sally's little girls, the film positively drips in estrogen.  And although it is a romance, the main relationship in the movie isn't about Sally and her man, it's about Sally Owens and her sister, Gillian (played by Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman respectively).

Just another Thursday night at the Owens' place.
The two of them have a great dynamic.  Sally is the one with the stronger powers, but also the one who feels the town's rejection most keenly.  She longs to be accepted and to fit in, rather than be a target for people's fears and insecurities.  And yet, for all that, she doesn't deny her powers, using them to remote-stir her drinks and light candles with a single breath.  But she does blame her family's magic for the death of her father and her first beloved husband, both victims of a curse passed down from Great-Aunt Maria that brings an early grave to any man who dares to love an Owens woman.

Gillian, on the other hand, takes the position that if the town is going to reject and fear her, then she's happy to reject the town and leave it in her dust.  She travels the country, fearless but also unattached.  She meets a self-described vampire-cowboy whose intensity quickly turns abusive and deadly.  But when he hits her, Gillian calls her sister, who immediately comes to the rescue.

That's the dynamic which really struck me as I watched.  How the women of the Owens family (and ultimately the whole town) stick together and help each other.  Aunt Frances and Aunt Jet cast a spell to cause Sally to fall in love with her first husband because they want her to be happy.  When he dies, they are as heart-broken as she is.  Gillian comes via a psychic journey to spend the night talking to her sister to help her get out of bed.

There is nothing these sisters won't do to help each other, from driving cross country to raising a corpse to admitting to being a witch in order to save Gillian from ghostly possession.  And it's not all bad times either.  The grand old Owens home is full of laughter, magic, and Midnight Margaritas.  None of the women are perfect and they all get on one another's nerves, but their bond is unbreakable.  Maybe it's because of their social isolation, but I think it's a fair depiction of how women's friendships can become so much stronger and more powerful than their male counterparts.  Men might be able to become a Band of Brothers in times of war, but women can always find their Circle of Sisters.

Sally does fall in love with the handsome law-man who comes to investigate the disappearance and death of Gillian's former paramour.  But he doesn't appear until almost halfway through the movie and his presence is tangential to the real stories: dealing with the dead boyfriend's body and ghost; and facing the women of the town who might not think the boyfriend was murdered but that "maybe they shook his hand and then he died.  It's all very mysterious."

Like many writers, I know I can be guilty of putting my heroines in a male-dominated world.  It's what we see and read most often.  This movie reminded me of how powerful those female relationships truly are but also about how difficult they can be to portray.  Because the truth is that women who stand together are stronger and have less to fear from the world in general.  Like the arches supporting the Coliseum, the Circle of Sisters protects and distributes the pressure, preventing it from crushing any one member.  Watching Sally and Gillian, I'm making a promise to myself to do better on that score.

In the end, Sally passes on her accumulated wisdom: Always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder.  Keep rosemary by your garden gate.  Plant lavender for luck.  And fall in love whenever you can.

Because falling in love isn't so scary when you have your sisters there to catch you.

Are you addicted to strong and intriguing heroines like I am?  You can sign up for my Heroine Fix newsletter and then you'll never miss your next Heroine Fix.

Next month I'm going to be looking at a series that I enjoyed but I have to say that I felt some deep conflicts about the concept: Joss Whedon's Dollhouse.  A technology is created to erase the mind and create any personality the client wants inside the living doll's body.  Is there any way that such a concept could create a strong and interesting heroine to inspire us?  Join me next month to find out.

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