Mona Chollet is an essayist and journalist at Le Monde Diplomatique1. Her work focuses on women’s condition, feminism, media and contemporary imaginary. She has notably written Beauté Fatale : les nouveaux visages d’une aliénation féminine (2015)2 and Chez soi : une odyssée de l’espace domestique (2015)3.
As the subject of numerous fantasies, the witch is an ambiguous figure. She personifies, as Mona Chollet told us, at times “the woman who holds freedom in all kinds of dominations”, at times “the worst of infamy”. From Snow White to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, including Charmed and Harry Potter along the way, the imagination of witchcraft has been quite well-known among the many elements of pop culture. We would not have served it right if we only see her as an unremarkable figure of folklore: this myth, shaped essentially around the 15th century, has led tens of thousands of innocent women to the stake. Do you think this is ancient history?
Well no, precisely. Mona Chollet tells us that witchcraft is always present, deeply rooted in our collective representations. This archetypal figure has its roots in the most masculine form of femininity: the witch, is exactly what a woman should not become. Being either single or widowed, she has done with the affinity with men; without children, she is against nature. Yet she is also recognized by her wrinkles and her white hair; aging, for a woman, can mean discomfort and doubt. And if, with her knowledge and skills, she encroaches on the ground of men, then again, she is a witch. In short, the witch is this “feminine depiction that could be immense”, who dares to show “intolerable assertiveness” and who scares men.
Being mythologized and normalized, the tales of witch-hunt bring forth the medieval obscurantism of another time. Though, this is to forget that the witch is “a victim of the modernity and not the antiquity”, that she is the product of Renaissance and of the Modern era, of the emergence of a “rational” science and of a “hyper-masculinized model of knowledge”. This is because the “scientific” and managerial exploitation of nature has gone hand in hand with the enslavement of women. And so in many ways, this heritage is well implanted in the DNA of our contemporary societies.
Yet the sorceress is also a subversive and disruptive persona. She appears as the powerful woman: rebellious, invincible, intelligent, “she is an ideal towards which to strive, she shows the way”. Like numerous feminist movements since the late 1960s, Mona Chollet calls for the rehabilitation of the concept of the witch and turn it into a true feminist icon. For that matter, the book puts forward an extract from the W.I.T.C.H. manifesto (the movement of Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, established in the United States in 1968).
“No need to join W.I.T.C.H. If you are a female and you dare to embrace yourself, then you are already a witch.”
Nonetheless, if the myth of the sorceress occupies an important place in the work of Chollet, this is perhaps not the essential point. The author explores profoundly, above all, the social and normative order which puts pressure on women. She debunks meticulously the feminine identity that is imposed by patriarchy.
This concerns the social injunction of self-devotion in the first place, because it is all set that women, way since they are still little, are integrated into “the belief that their purpose of life is to serve the others” and give up any desire to be independent. Being brought up to “seek emotional security at all costs”, to never trust their own capabilities and to “consider marriage and family as the vital elements of a personal attainment”, the young girls are indoctrinated to accept the sexual division of labour. And when they arise to claim autonomy, “a war machine switches itself on to make them give up by coercion, by intimidation or by menace.” Women are thus asked to step aside, to become “invisible women”, bound to subaltern professions and entirely devoted to marriage and motherhood.
The injunction of maternity is subject to the second part of the book. And it is perhaps where Mona Chollet strikes the hardest, exposing the “institutional violence of patriarchal maternity” which can, as a last resort, instigate a woman to commit infanticide. It is an act of abomination and monstrosity; a convenient explanation which excuses oneself from reflecting at the extreme violence that a woman must endure to get to this point. The author likewise takes on the pseudo-scientific argument of biological determinism, a “proof” that women “are programmed to desire to be mother”, explained in a concept of “pro-life”. She comes facing, at last, the regret that sometimes gives rise to maternity – a real taboo that she considers to be the “no-thinking zone”.
In the third chapter, “The Euphoria of the Peaks”4, Mona Chollet evokes this time the challenges faced by a woman in aging, which is another major social taboo. This is because undeniably, aging does not impact both women and men the same way. Nevertheless, like Carrie Fisher said (quoted by Chollet), “men do not age better than women, they are the only ones allowed to age”. And for women, this “prohibition” of aging is not a state of mind: as that makes us ponder on the decrease of salaries of actresses when they age, on the marginalisation of aged women (including in the feminists circle), or on the age gap among couples. Women see themselves being confronted with the threat of their “pre-emption” and the fear of “programmed obsolescence”.
Reviewing some magazines, series and films, the author shows us to what extent the social injunction to stay young is omnipresent, up to the Disney classics. By quoting Kristen J. Sollee, Chollet tells that the films like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty “portray a generational conflict between old witches and young beauties, also reframing the value of a woman on her fertility and her youth – but never on strongly acquired wisdom”. As if the aging of the physical of a female leads to “a real aversion”, the experience is much disqualified. Aged women are aimed at sometimes witch-hunt, since they “manifest an intolerable assertiveness”. Yet, the mentality has less evolved than what we would have thought.
The last part of the book return to the thesis announced in the introduction: to adopt a feminist lecture of history, the author expresses that witch-hunts have been symptomatic of a philosophic and societal upheaval. This is because they are in the name of the cult destined to the “reason” that they have been hunted (also that of the name of the religion); reason that incarnates for example Descartes, who supposes that men must be the “masters and possessors of nature”. (Descartes, Discours de la méthode, quoted by Chollet). He could have included “and women”.
Mona Chollet discovers at length the link between rationality, domination of nature and that of women. The remarks of the ecofeminist philosopher Carolyn Merchant (quoted by Chollet) have basically explained this.
“The witch, a symbol of violence of nature, enraged thunderstorms, caused diseases, destroyed crops, hindered the generation and killed the young children. The woman who caused disorder, like the chaotic nature, should be placed under control.”
Women, judged as irrational, emotional and chaotic, also excluded by modern science, a domain which, by definition, can only be masculine. “The founders of modern science […] associate masculinity with an epistemological relation to the world which is cleaner, purer, more objective and more disciplined.” (Susan Dordo, quoted by Chollet). We will not strive to learn how science, and in particular medical studies, have served (and are still serving) to control the body of women, which the organs are “punctuated by masculin names”. (Florence Montreynaud, quoted by Chollet).
Mona Chollet thus sets up a critical assessment of the contemporary feminine condition. Despite the decades of fight and some significant victories, it is still a lot to do to deconstruct the framework of the witch-hunts era. The assessment could of course discourage, but humorously, the striking tone and eloquence of the author are in contrary galvanizing. Chollet attains to strip off the contradictions and absurdity of the social order that appears to be fragile. Finally, it is a book that is firmly engaging, striking, and gives the solid concluding keypoints with the alienation of women facing the social injunctions. One thing to regret might be the absence of a clear guiding principle in this book, which sometimes fragilizes the demonstrations, also that certain evidence could have been forgone. Some references and sources are also questionable, but they are all compensated by the immense research work done by Mona Chollet.
Translated by Solange Meurier & Iman Seepersad.
|[Note of translation]: Le Monde Diplomatique is a french monthly newspaper offering analysis and opinion on politics, culture, and current affairs.
|[Note of translation]: Not published in English at the moment. Translation suggested by the translator: Fatal Beauty: the new faces of female alienation.
|[Note of translation]: Not published in English at the moment. Translation suggested by the translator: At home: an odyssey of domestic space.
|[Note of translation] Originally in French as “L’ivresse des Cimes”.