Thursday, May 8, 2014

Cotton Mather, "Uppity Women," and WGN America's "Salem"

I have not seen Salem, a television series loosely based on the Salem Witch Trials that appeared last month on WGN America.  In fact, I had not heard about the series until I read Kelli McCoy's and Rick Kennedy's essay at Books & Culture.  It is titled "Cotton Mather and the Uppity Women."  Here is a taste:

In Salem, the two characters who outsmart "the smartest man on earth" are the two women, Tituba and Mary Sibley. In the interviews that promote the show, Mary is described as a modern woman, in control of the situation, and as a symbol of women's power. Sadly, the characters of Mary and Tituba do not show women’s empowerment, neither then nor now. The pilot episode suggests that these women are seeking revenge on Salem for the ways in which the Puritans have hurt them—in Mary’s case, by taking John Alden and their baby from her. These female characters may be intended as a critique of the Puritan social order, in which women typically had less power than men and, as in Mary Sibley’s case, must use marriage to a wealthy and powerful man as a way of climbing the social ladder. However, disappointingly, Mary Sibley seems exactly like the 17th-century stereotypes of women that fueled witch panics to begin with. Such stereotypes said that women were weak-willed, dominated by their passions, and more likely than men to be in league with the devil. Unlike Tituba, who may have made a more calculating move to wage war against the Puritans (that remains to be seen as the series unfolds), Mary naively falls under the control of the devil when she seeks an abortion in the forest and consents to something that she does not seem to fully understand until it’s too late. Now, she is governed by her contract with the devil and she must battle within herself over whether to continue her witchcraft or follow her heart and go with Alden. Mary’s contract with the devil leaves her no more free than the other women in Salem who are bound to their husbands through marriage contracts. Rather than a heroic struggle against the social institutions that denied women access to the heights of power, Mary Sibley’s story unfortunately seems to reinforce the 17th-century belief that women were less capable of rational behavior than men.