The Power of Love: Sex and Submission in The Love Witch
Yes, I went for a Celine Dion pun for the title of this. Yes, you can hold it against me, because I hate myself for it (I’m currently listening to ELO’s “Evil Woman” to get that one out of my head). What you can’t do, though, is ignore the fact that Anna Biller created one of the best feminist statements regarding sex and power with damn intimidating style in a long, long time. 2016’s The Love Witch deals deftly with the reversal of stereotypical roles whilst using the act of sex to reclaim authority, thereby condemning the traditional role to which a woman is relegated.
The beginning of the film does not present a lead character that seems to be all that feminist; in fact, Biller’s titular love witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is every bit the pie-eyed princess that wants to be loved and rescued. Within the first ten minutes of the film, we see Elaine talk her way out of a traffic ticket, then espouse relationship advice to the married Trish (Laura Waddell). Her take on a happy marriage? Be everything that your husband wants you to be to gain the upper hand. Trish points out that this is equation appears to leave out the wants, needs and desires of the wife in question, and we’re on board with Trish with this notion; however, Biller (who wrote the film) inserts in an interesting detail: Trish motions to her diamond engagement ring and hints that she used sex and her husband’s want of her to obtain a marriage proposal. Like it or not, Trish is in the same boat of playing games as Elaine. Game play is the precise expression for Elaine’s actions: she targets men like Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) and Richard (Robert Seeley) in an effort to “win” them from another woman. Her purposes aren’t terribly deep either: she wants someone to love her, marry her, and make her feel good about herself. On the surface, Elaine wants the validation that the constant praise of a romantic partner can bring her, and she achieves this validation by picking men that choose her and praise her above their partners, whether potential or legally bound. In fact, Elaine has to influence these men against their free wills by having them ingest a love potion that inspires absolute devotion.
However, once Elaine achieves her goal, the victory is short-lived as the man in question is reduced into the stereotypical role of woman, to disastrous results. In the case of Wayne, he screams out for Elaine during the night in his state of mania and panic, pouring out his feelings to her. Wayne’s problems are pretty pathetic: he can’t seem to find a woman that is both attractive AND intellectually stimulating, and Elaine – who he’s known for all of 24 hours, max – seems to fit that bill like no other. As such, he confesses her perfection in a state of crying rambling akin to what we’d call hysteria. Sound offensive? It should – hysteria was initially regarded as a disease from which only women suffered, caused by a displaced uterus. You guessed it – I just implied that Wayne is having a breakdown because he’s hormonal and his uterus is out of whack. It’s offensive on quite a few levels, but the way in which Elaine treats him reinforces this notion of emotional dismissal: she spends the night on the couch rather than sleep next to him. She looks bored and disconnected as he speaks of the struggle of not being able to reconcile a great mind with a “homely” face (at this point, Wayne lost all sympathy from me). She doesn’t exactly tear her hair and beat her breasts when he dies, either. In a similar fashion, Richard becomes obsessed with her after ingesting the love potion, causing a reaction of boredom in her and rejection that ends in his suicide. The one man that manages to reject her is Griff (Gian Keys); however, he’s killed once he refuses to follow protocol and arrest her immediately, allowing some wiggle room for Elaine to gain the upper hand.
The grand irony stems from one of Elaine’s later speeches. At the end of the film, she states that she’s using sex and magic to take what she wants from men, with explicit emphasis that she is fulfilling her wants and needs rather than those of her lovers – she wants to be completed, not placed into service. Despite that Elaine wears fake hair to look more attractive and employs love potions, she uses sex and the role of fantasy homemaker to gain a sense of power over her lovers. As she tells us earlier in the film, “Men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way.” She may dress up in frilly outfits, put on makeup and have sex with gusto, but Elaine essentially uses sex and the concept of the perfect mate to enslave her marks – whom she poaches rather than earns. Like it or not, Elaine is far more in charge of her destiny than someone like Trish because she actively admits to her machinations rather than rely solely on the give-and-take of a natural relationship. Trish had to angle for the ring, whereas Elaine enslaved in no time flat. When her lovers begin to displease or annoy her, Elaine simply throws them away. It’s not the men themselves that she loves: it’s what they can give her, how they can make her feel about herself. Elaine isn’t looking for a house, babies, or financial security: she wants someone she can keep in a constant state of worship, someone who only has eyes for her, that shows extreme devotion. That’s not equality or even love – that’s a power play. Once she detects an extreme version of this weakness, the men are rejected, where they ultimately wither and die.
The lesson we take from this is that the traditional gender roles are ultimately a control mechanism for those who recognize the weaknesses associated with rigidity. Elaine uses sex and extreme devotion to place the men in her life into a role of submissive, fawning minion. However, once she achieves this goal, she quickly becomes disinterested. It’s when she meets Griff that the challenge of free will arises for her, something she can’t subvert. Even then, Elaine uses violence to ensure that no one else gets her man, making her the far more aggressive one. And I’m slow-clapping for Biller, because she gave us the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing: the girly-girl we all assume just wants to be the perfect little wifey-poo at home, waiting on her man hand and foot. Sometimes, it’s not the militant feminist you have to fear – sometimes, it’s the pretty lady offering you a drink and breakfast in bed.