Mona Chollet analyses the figure of the witch in our modern society

INTERVIEW – Mona Chollet is one of the major feminist figures in France. Journalist for Le Monde Diplomatique, she published two key essays on the representation of the woman’s body (
Beauté fatale, 2015) and on the figure of witches (“Witches : The unbeaten power of women”, 2018) that can be linked to the image of independent women in our modern societies.

Why did you choose to work on the figure of the witch? What does she represent to you, personally ?

At first, I knew I wanted to write on two topics : Women who won’t have children by choice (which is my case) and the social perspective on aging women, which is much harsher than aging men. But I couldn’t choose between the two and none of them would motivate me quite enough so I would start writing. And then, I realized that those two types of women were united as witch figures and those initial concerns were linked to my old fascination for this character. In my childhood, I have been really fascinated by witches such as Floppy Le Redoux in “The Glassblower’s Children” by Maria Gripe and in 2003, I was passionate about Starhawk (“Dreaming the dark: Magic, sex and politics”), a Californian neo-pacific witch, ecologist, feminist and anti-globalist. From this point, I started to read about the history of the European witch hunt to see if my intuitions were true and if stereotypes from that time were still applied, especially on single women.

In Japan, the image of the witch is either cute in modern popular culture (魔女の宅急便, Kiki’s delivery service) or scary, as portrayed in ancient mythology. How do you explain this transition in the perception?

I don’t know the history of the witch in Japanese culture but in Europe, the witch is a repulsive figure, extremely negative. A misogynist representation. In XVI or XVII centuries, when you were called a witch it was like being sentenced to death. Later, pop culture made her less evil. She became even positive, young, blond-haired, cute. In other words, she became the kind of harmless women indirectly promoted by the witch hunters at the time. Even when we want to rehabilitate witches, we remain prisoners of limitations within the definition of positive female characters.

In your book, you explain that the witch is often the free woman: Independent, emancipated. In Japan, women are more and more numerous to refuse wedlock because they see them as a brake for personal fulfillment. Are we attending to the birth of entire generation of witches ?

It’s hard to say if we witness a massive phenomenon (in the West anyway, the ideology of the compulsory couple remains very strong), but it is an interesting trend. The whole cultural atmosphere of our societies continually repeats for women, in a diffuse or explicit way, that their only salvation, the only way to happiness, is the couple and the family, and it is very good that many of them are no longer intimidated by this speech. Because unfortunately, the couple and the family as they exist today are still institutions that very often repress women (at least heterosexuals), who divert their forces towards the well-being of their husband and children at the expense of their personal achievement.

In Japan, feminism has a 150 years old history but it looks like it developed underground, compared to occidental movements. Women tend to conform to the system in order to upset it from the inside. Do you know other cultures where this occurs?

Not really. I mostly know about French and American feminism which is different in so many ways, but each denounce problems very loudly, usually with violent clashes, especially on social networks (many French feminists were harassed by masculinists on Twitter). I particularly admire US feminist humorists such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler who are afraid of nothing and manage to convey powerful messages while making the audiences laugh.

Even though Japan has a poor world ranking in gender equality, an academic research has recently found that women were globally happier than men. Is it possible to be happy in an unequal society ?

Honestly, I don’t think so. Some can dare to caution the established order, hoping to take cover and pull out of the game, but I don’t think we can experience real happiness in a system that despises us deeply. But what this study underlines is perhaps the fact that men  can be unhappy in an unequal society, right?

Japanese magazines convey a glamorous image of the mother who manages to succeed both at her professional career and her motherly duties. She is sometimes described as a woman who sleeps only a few hours, has no hobbies but it’s not a problem since she is able to take care of her home, children’s education and going to work. What do you think about that?

There is actually the same kind of speech in France. In my opinion, it is a way to prevent the questioning of women’s condition in the workplace or the share of educational and domestic tasks between a couple. It’s a way to conceal the fact that women have to deal with everything mostly alone. Noisy tributes are then rendered to those who manage to “get there”. This gives way to self-shaming for those who can’t keep up: “If some can do it and I am overwhelmed and exhausted, it must be because I’m not good enough as a woman!”. It  conceals the fact that this “conciliation” is at the cost of the health of these women and involves the sacrifice of their well-being and their leisure. Moreover, not everyone is made for this kind of life. For my part, I hate schedules, I need a lot of time alone and in quietness, and I do not find these timed and saturated schedules something to aspire to at all.

Japanese sexuality is a half mast. The gap seems to grow deeper between men and women who understand each other less and less. Can we make a link between an unequal society and its sex life?

Yes, surely. Sexuality is much more interesting when there is complicity, respect, the possibility of genuine and profound communication. And the very rigid and stereotyped roles in which an unequal society encloses men and women make all this very unlikely… The model of the man who works outside and the woman confined to the home also helps to evolve men and women into non-communicating universes, I think.