Is sexuality a gendered power that women have over men? Callie Hitchcock discusses the 2016 film The Love Witch in light of the recent conversation surrounding the despicable humans known as “incels”.
The recent incel (involuntary celibate) conversation goes a little something like this: there needs to be a “redistribution of sex,” where violent, alienated men can get their piece of the sex pie or there will be hell to pay. The word redistribution here is meant to echo the Marxist idea of a “redistribution of wealth” or “redistribution of power.” For incels, sex, and the ability to choose who to have sex with and when, is considered to be an unequal power that women have over men.
Is the ability to reject sexual advances a form of power? Does this “power” also assume the ability to unequivocally attract? To say nothing of the threat of retaliatory violence in the wake of a rejection, it’s pretty demoralizing to think that the only place women are considered to have social power is in the singular, ten-second act of deciding not to have sex with someone.
An interesting film that unintentionally took on the incel conceit of “female sexuality as power over men” is the 2016 film The Love Witch, written and directed by Anna Biller. With lush 1960s technicolor aesthetics, The Love Witch takes up claims of sexuality as gendered power and highlights scope and limitations of this understanding. The film posits a world wherein women really do have total sexual power over men – control in the form of spells and potions.
Elaine, the film’s protagonist, is a witch who uses spells to get men to fall in love with her and then proceeds to kill or drive to suicide those who do not fit her idea of love. The men she dates are either dopily in love with her, which bores her, or indifferent to her, which she also finds unacceptable. So, as per the incel argument, the “spells” cast by Elaine represent women’s sexual power in the form of the ability to attract. The power gained from this ostensibly plays out in her power over their lives literally and figuratively. For example, one lovesick man commits suicide when she does not return his affection, and she in turn kills a man who does not return hers.
But the other side of the sex as power equation is that Elaine’s mutated fantasy of “love” is born from a dark reality of living as a woman in a patriarchal society. As Elaine says, “Men make us work so hard for their love. If you would just love us for ourselves… But you won’t. All my life I’ve been tossed in the garbage except when men wanted to use my body. So I decided to find my own power. And I found that power through witchcraft. That means that I take what I need from men and not the other way around.” This complicates the idea of female sexuality as power that women have over men. Although she possesses the mundane “power” to attract men, she seeks out a different, more potent form of power, witchcraft, which enables her to both be loved by men and valued as human by them. Elaine’s witchcraft is a caricatured form of women’s “natural” power to attract men – i.e magic is here truly empowering – in that it has the power to be valued as worthy, equal, loved.
Another particularly compelling dissection of the incel “sex as power” concept occurs in a scene set in a cabaret. In this scene, a male and female witch teach two women about witchcraft and sexuality while a female performer in a blue-sequined outfit does a mesmerizing striptease in the background. “Do you see how powerful that girl is?” The man asks. “These men would do anything for her. Wouldn’t you like to have that power yourselves? … All witches need to figure out where their power lies. And we feel that a woman’s greatest power lies in her sexuality. We don’t view this power as satanic or anti-feminist, but as a celebration of woman as a natural creature.” This follows the incel logic that women have innate power, but only as it relates to men and whether to have sex with them or not. From the male gaze, women’s power is their sexuality – and this power grows or diminishes according to men’s desire for access to it.
The female witch then adds, “The whole history of witchcraft is interwoven with the fear of female sexuality. They burned us at the stake because they feared the erotic feelings we elicited in them. Later, they used marriage to hold us in bondage and made us into servants, whores, and fantasy dolls never asking us what we wanted.” So, according to these witches, fear of female sexuality is what motivated these men to degrade women. It is this same fear that triggers the incel idea that sex is “unfairly distributed.” But this “fear” is not about a visceral reaction to a real threat, it is about a desire for domination over female autonomy. All the many forms of female subjugation are about a desire for control and the creation of an underclass, rather than simply a fearful reaction to women’s so-called “mystical sexual powers.”
In the end, sexual power is categorically useless if it doesn’t engender love, respect and a recognition of mutual humanity. But the female witch insists that one can be used to gain the other: “Use sex magic to destroy his fear of you and to open his heart to the floodgates of love. Only then will he begin to see you as a human being with all of your inner beauty. Then, when his heart is open to love, you may do with him what you will.” The “fear” (but really the desire for domination) that drives misogyny, the witch argues, can apparently be subverted through sex (or, more precisely, sex magic). Supposedly sex will yield the love and equal recognition a woman desires.
Most women will recognize this sentiment – that the acquisition of men’s sexual desire leads to love, and thus (somehow) to equality – as misdirected. While women may, in a myriad of cases, have the sexual power to attract, female sexuality is a much more ambiguous form of power than this witch assumes. If sexuality is power only in relation to heterosexual male desire, then this power is extremely limited. If this “female” power doesn’t extend to bodily autonomy, and the power to command human respect and recognition then how valuable is such power, in and of itself? The film tackles this ambiguity in various ways, including through representations of gendered revenge. The final scene shows Elaine, bloody dagger in hand, panting over a lover she has just stabbed to death, her image echoed in a nearby painting of a woman holding a man’s heart – which she carved out of his chest. For Elaine, the only real way to have a man’s heart is to pull it out of his dead body.
This image perfectly captures the ambiguity of sexual power – what good are Elaine’s good looks, charms (literal and metaphysical), spells, and potions if she can’t get what she really wants from men – true abiding love? As Elaine says of herself, “I’m the love witch, I’m your ultimate fantasy.” In this claim is a yearning to be seen. A similar yearning underlies the incels rage. So which way is the power unequal? If a woman’s power to be seen is only sex deep, then there’s a lot left to feel powerless over that the incels don’t experience– having a nonautonomous legally- and socially- policed body, threats to physical safety, and unequal esteem in society. Power that only exists in relation to a man getting or not getting what he wants sexually, isn’t power– it’s a liability.
Callie Hitchcock is a writer living in Brooklyn and completing a Master’s in Journalism at NYU through the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Find her work here and her curated jokes on Twitter.