A Practical Magic: Christine O’Donnell’s Invocations of Witchcraft

October 13, 2010
By | 12 Comments

By now you’ve surely heard the news: Christine O’Donnell, Delaware’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, is not a witch. O’Donnell uses the simple declarative sentence, “I’m not a witch” to begin her first advertisement for the general election, which debuted last week. The ad, of course, is a response to the brouhaha that erupted roughly three weeks ago when Bill Maher aired a 1999 clip of O’Donnell speaking on his show Politically Incorrect about having dabbled in witchcraft when she was in high school.

The response to the ad among media and cultural critics as well as parody-makers on the web and TV has been significant, but not much discussion of her statement about witchcraft beyond scoffing and sputtering. Some, like Giant Magazine’s Jay Smooth, have suggested that witchcraft is beside the point and that the real problem of the ad is her claim that she is not just like you, but that she is you. Certainly, O’Donnell’s I-am-the-Walrus-esque “I’m you” merits attention, but dismissing O’Donnell’s response to discussions of her dabblings and her decision to do so in her debut spot means passing up an opportunity to understand how she constructs herself as a righteous outsider–a key source of appeal for her as a Tea Party candidate.

Christine O’Donnell – “I’m You” – YouTube

O’Donnell’s actual involvement in any kind of organized witchcraft was likely only cursory (and had little to nothing to do with Wicca, Paganism, or other related spiritual practices), but her opening line in this ad is no mere toss off. When Christine O’Donnell declares, “I’m not a witch,” she is not only attempting to allay concerns about the extent of her experimenting, but also invoking the figure of the witch and its various connotations. These connotations include the image of an unruly woman, the long history of using accusations of witchcraft to marginalize people–quite often women–who do not conform to social norms and the more metaphorical concept of the political witch hunt.

In the ad, O’Donnell is careful to make sure that current or potential supporters are convinced of her current state of faith as a devout Catholic. The tone of the ad is decidedly restrained and mature, with its slow piano track and soft focus close up of O’Donnell, who appears dressed in a modest black suit and pearls, with her hair straightened, looking directly into the camera. This stands in contrast to her earlier strategy of responding to questions about her experience with witchcraft by heartily laughing it off as a lark.  In a sense, then, O’Donnell is chastened as a result of her associations with witchcraft.

But what O’Donnell is responding to is not an organized witch hunt, nor is it an accusation being leveled against her by Democrats or her opponent. Moreover, she is not being persecuted in a particularly menacing way by those who seem fascinated by her claims (mocked and dismissed in some troubling ways, yes, but not menaced pitchfork-and-torch style).  O’Donnell seems fundamentally aware of the absurdity of her situation too, delivering her first line with a smile. Further, she makes the negative attention work to her advantage by positioning herself first of all as someone who sounds more like they are responding to accusations of witchcraft than one who brought it up themselves and on TV, no less.  She moves from “I’m not a witch” to ” I’m nothing you’ve heard” and this move allows her to not only deny the allegations but also to assume the moral high ground with respect to those who dismiss her because of her supposed spiritual experimentation. The second sentence of the ad is key here as it allows and even encourages the audience to reject critiques of other positions she has taken such as her earlier anti-masturbation activism in an MTV documentary or her stance on theories of evolution. Perhaps most importantly, though, by suggesting that all this talk about witchcraft is something “you’ve heard” rather than something she said frames discussions of the Maher  and MTV clips as hearsay or gossip despite the fact that they feature her own words.

We cannot say with any certainty if audiences are thinking about O’Donnell’s word craft or if any of this will change voters’ minds in Delaware. O’Donnell, who was already down by about 15 points in polls before the Maher clip resurfaced, now appears to be almost 20 points behind Democrat Chris Coons according to a more recent University of Delaware poll.

Even if she doesn’t go to Washington, though, Christine O’Donnell’s primary victory suggests some very real shifts taking place in the American political landscape and despite the improbability (but not impossibility) of O’Donnell winning the seat formerly held by Vice President Joe Biden, she continues to hold the attention of news sources like CNN (which will be airing the public debate between O’Donnell and Coons tonight) and she will likely remain a very public and possibly very influential figure after next month’s election.

While I’m very much in favor of focusing attention on candidates’ current ideas and policy positions, I am troubled by the way that public fascination with O’Donnell’s ten-year old admission to an even earlier and wholly superficial-sounding encounter with the Occult now affords her a potentially potent form of credibility as one who was mocked and dismissed through an association with witchcraft.


Tags: , ,

12 Responses to “ A Practical Magic: Christine O’Donnell’s Invocations of Witchcraft ”

  1. Tim Anderson on October 13, 2010 at 4:04 PM

    There is a lot to chomp on in this post, a post that I enjoyed quite a bit. I would like to note that the most basic problem I have with her ad, the one that had me guffawing, is how it brings up the very issue she wants to avoid in her first sentence. It’s as if her campaign decided to throw out the very rules of advertising: you define the conversation talking about what you want to talk about not by mentioning what her opponents want to talk about. Once she begins with, “I am not a witch”, well, I have a mental picture of her as a witch. As the kids say, “adfail”.

    Of course, I am certain many others laughing at O’Donnell are her ideological opponents, of which I count myself. I can’t imagine ever voting for her. But I, too, am afraid she is “pulling a Palin” whereby the mockery she receives only makes her a stronger voice for her to advocate for bad policy such as creationism in schools, or discrimination of gays, or whatever else she and her ilk may support. In that sense I am worried that mocking her as dumb, rather than her commercial, only produces more problems in producing a more just and science-based civil order.

  2. Matt DiBiase on October 13, 2010 at 7:30 PM

    Megan, you were right on the money about this availing O’Donnell to assume the moral high ground. Once again, this will turn off those on the fence, (5% apparently) while only stoking the fire under the teapot of her followers.

    Tim, I can’t think of any politician who benefited from isolating their own kryptonite, then regurgitating it back defiantly. Richard Nixon is now, and forever will be, a crook.

  3. Megan Biddinger on October 14, 2010 at 3:03 AM

    Thanks for your comments, Tim and Matt. I was initially puzzled by why she’d chose to lead with the witch bit, or why she didn’t go the classic redemption story route (a dalliance with the devil before finding salvation) which is a real crowd-pleaser. I also thought about Nixon and imagine that for her detractors, she is now actually a witch (I think last weekend’s SNL sketch did a good job with that take on things and as a further aside, O’Donnell tweeted that she enjoyed that bit). But, as you both note, those who are laughing were never going to vote for her and are not, I don’t think, the intended audience for the ad.

    So, as counter-intuitive as it may seem for her to lead with “I am not a witch,” I kind of get it. I think it may work to appeal, if not to Delaware’s few undecided voters, then to a potential future audience made up of those who are also skeptical of both the “lamestream” media and those people who mock O’Donnell. Who knows, perhaps TLC will bring us “Christine O’Donnell’s Delaware.”

    Thanks again for reading and offering these insights!

  4. Tim Anderson on October 14, 2010 at 8:41 AM

    Stanley Fish, whom I rarely find insightful in things media, had a great column about the power of being downtrodden a few weeks back at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/27/antaeus-and-the-tea-party/

    “And the Democrats will be helping them by saying scathing and dismissive things about the Tea Party and its candidates. The Greek mythological figure Antaeus won victory after victory because his opponents repeatedly threw him to the ground, not realizing that it was the earth (in the figure of his mother, Gaia) that nourished him and gave him renewed strength. The Tea Party’s strength comes from the down-to-earth rhetoric it responds to and proclaims, and whenever high-brow critics heap the dirt of scorn and derision upon the party, its powers increase.”

    “Commentators who explain smugly that O’Donnell’s position on masturbation (that it is a selfish, solitary act) is contradicted by her Ayn Rand-like attack on collectivism, or who wax self-righteous about Paladino’s comparing Sheldon Silver to Hitler and promising to wield a baseball bat in Albany, or who laugh at Sharron Angle for being in favor of Scientology (she denies it) and against fluoridation and the Department of Education, are doing these candidates a huge favor. They are saying, in effect, these people are stupid, they’re jokes; and the implication (sometimes explicitly stated) is that anyone who takes them the least bit seriously doesn’t get the joke and is stupid, too.”

    • Megan Biddinger on October 14, 2010 at 9:52 PM

      Thanks for bringing this into the discussion, Tim! I think Fish really nails it here. The last line seems especially important: instead of meaningful debate we end up with perceived and sometimes actual name calling.

      I wonder if the comparisons of Obama to Hitler or the portrayal of Nancy Pelosi as a godless pervert provide the same kind of “nourishment” for anyone on the Left? If not, I wonder what could?

      • Tim Anderson on October 15, 2010 at 9:23 AM

        Obama and Pelosi are in power and their derision is really about taking very seriously the end of result of the worst outcomes (too much power concentrated in one source). I’d like to see us really seriously grapple what it would mean, as a nation, what it would mean to embrace a theocratic movement with no regulatory appeal. The point of Antaeus is he lost power when he was elevated. If we were to elevate the Tea Partiers and their ideas rather than deride them I think we would find that they would look pretty unappealing. Going after someone for doing something so silly as talking about trying witchcraft when they were a teen is just wrong. With all due respect to the commentator who is upset about the misrepresentation of Wiccan arts, I think much of the mockery of O’Donnell rests in her being a twenty year old with specific ideals. Lord knows I would not want to watch video of me some 15-20 years ago with all of the ideas I had back then.

        BTW, this post has me thinking in ways that I just didn’t really think I would… thanks

  5. Jennifer Smith on October 14, 2010 at 11:33 AM

    This is a great article. I personally have been troubled by the way the Left has focused on the “witch” history — while I disagree with O’Donnell on pretty much everything, the focus on the fact that she may once have dabbled in witchcraft implies that those who do, those (mostly women) who are actual Wiccans or Pagans of any stripe, are equally silly and deserving of mockery. When the dialogue is between the Right’s fear of non-Christian religions and the Left’s mockery, where does that leave actual practitioners? It all seems to reinforce the witch = bad connotations, regarding both the religion and the unruly woman, and the Left can certainly do better. There’s plenty to criticize about Christine O’Donnell without resorting to this.

    • Megan Biddinger on October 14, 2010 at 10:05 PM

      Thanks for reading and raising this point, Jennifer! I saw that the Washington Post’s ‘On Faith’ blog ran a response by Starhawk that spoke to the concern for actual practitioners: http://bit.ly/c9Pxqk So, it’s not as much attention as should be paid to the matter of religion, but perhaps it’s a start to a conversation where those who self-identify as witches get to define the term.

      Additionally, I think you’re right that the dismissal (whether intentional or not) of Witchcraft as a legitimate religion also works to contain “unruly” women, not so much by painting O’Donnell as dangerous but by laughing at her.

      Your comment also made me think of the jokes circulating about her as the “41-year old virgin”. I’m interested in O’Donnell’s unruliness because it’s not the “bewitching” sexualized unruliness. Rather, part of her unruliness comes from her refusal to engage in sexual activity according to dominant norms–we go from slut shaming, to prude shaming.

  6. Matt DiBiase on October 14, 2010 at 3:29 PM

    Jen, I agree that actual practitioners, like many other marginalized groups aren’t given a fair shake in the nation’s dialogue; but honestly, if we’re looking for our Congress, network news and increasingly monopolistic newspaper circulation to show that respect, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Outside of SNL, who mocks everyone in very immature (and funny) ways, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone on the left who is mocking O’Donnell because of her dalliance. I’d like to think that people like Bill Maher (and myself) are skewering O’Donnell because of the sheer dichotomy of her Christian Conservative beliefs and those of Wiccans.

    • Megan Biddinger on October 14, 2010 at 10:38 PM

      In practical terms, I think you’re right, Matt: This kind of joking and erasure of marginalized groups isn’t going to be remedied any time soon. That said, I think it’s the obligation of those who study the media to call for that change and to point out places where it can happen, even as we understand the reasons why change is so slow and imperfect.

      Your point about who is mocking her and why is a really thought-provoking one. I have 3 somewhat related thoughts in response:

      First, I do think that some people are mocking her for her spiritual spelunking (needed a word besides “dabble” and “experiment”) in that they know that they are reproducing an inaccurate/incomplete picture of witchcraft for the sake of a laugh. I mean, why not just point out the ways that any number of her policy positions violate norms of “Christian decency”? For some people getting the laugh is really their only job and I respect that, but my job is to call them on it.

      The other thing you brought to mind is that I have to admit that when O’Donnell talks about her dabbling, I’m scoffing in part because it seems so fake (which is not the same as insisting on a space for Wiccans and Pagans to define themselves). When O’Donnell says, “I’m not a witch” my gut reaction is “Ah, something we agree on.” For me the only thing joke-worthy is really the idea that she ever actually was a witch.

      Lastly, in trying to think through all of the issues that you, Jennifer, and Tim have raised I went back to the 1999 video to try and see why she even brought the witchcraft up in the first place. As best as I can tell, it’s part of a discussion of Halloween and it’s ties to Satanism. Again, I don’t have access to the full episode, but it looks like she brought up these personal experiences as evidence for her claims that Halloween is tied to evil practices. It’s too bad there wasn’t someone there then–a moment when US popular culture was well-stocked with positive images of characters linked (however loosely) to Wicca–to correct her instead of buying into her hype. I realize the absurdity of making such a wish about a show called “Politically Incorrect,” but there it is.

      Oof. So many thoughts about O’Donnell. I should probably go do some GOTV work now! 🙂

  7. Josh S. on October 20, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    Since we can’t trust what we see or hear, she argues, and since what we sense may be fabricated just to mislead us (by witches, perhaps), we’re left with one sober fact—-that we can only trust the most fundamental possibility for self-affirmation, we think and perhaps deliberate. Not to worry. Like us, O’Donnell exists, and isn’t a mere phantom of sensory uncertainty or worse, a conjurer of illusions.

    This may be the first political ad to utilize Descartes’ ‘cogito’ to gain votes. Interesting platform, but a pretty low bar to set for herself: reinforce your existence by voting for a deliberating proxy.

    • Megan Biddinger on October 22, 2010 at 12:33 AM

      Thanks for the comment, Josh. I think those first three lines: “I’m not a witch. I’m nothing you’ve heard. I’m you.” are a thoroughly calculated and not totally illogical move to appeal to those who feel inefficacious above all else. I don’t have numbers on how many people feel like they have no political efficacy, but my sense is that such feelings are quite pervasive (particularly among those who identify with the Tea Party–O’Donnell’s base). Politicians and public figures have often used the appeal “I’m just like you” as both a selling point and a defense in the past. However, I think you’re right that the full-on congruence of she and me (well, clearly not me, Megan) is a new move. Whether or not people are intrigued by her premise really speaks to the different ways that Americans think government should work as well as the ways that it doesn’t seem to be working–there is both a critique and an ideal in the message that’s worth paying attention to, even if it becomes less and less likely that O’Donnell will win. Thanks again for a great comment.