I live in Pendle, Lancashire. If I travel into Manchester by bus I take a the X43 transdev route, entitled the ‘Witch Way’. The name comes from the dark history of the Pendle Witch Trials; a rich source of tourism for the area and a lot of fun at Halloween.
In recent years, the Witch Way buses have been rebranded. Gone is the full-moon silhouette of a witch on a broomstick and in its place is a young, blond, sexualised witch as though plucked straight from the 1960s ‘Bewitched’ TV show.
The bus company is, of course, trying to distinguish itself with a memorable image. I don’t expect transdev to think deeply about the history of the witch trials and the associated issues, but it does seem to me that the the current Witch Way motif is symptomatic of the heritage approach to the Pendle Witch Trials, not to mention the portrayal of women more generally.
The Pendle Heritage Centre offers a permanent exhibition which tells the story of the women accused of being witches. Interestingly, the display boards which tell this story do not make it clear who is narrating. The women are described as witches and reference is made to the magic they are said to have performed. These may be extracts from contemporary court reports, but they may have been written by the heritage centre. The effect is that there is no humanising discussion of the women (and men) who were subjected to anguishing ordeals of imprisonment and execution. The centre portrays them as witches. As part of the exhibit, a video production tells the tale of the trials with dark stylised images and atmospheric music, all narrated by Tom Baker’s deep voice of foreboding.
In some respects the exhibit offers the visitor a chance to interpret the history for themselves through a creative interpretation; since the curatorial voice is not identified clearly then the visitor may feel as though they can react as they wish. But here the theatrical and emotional aim of the exhibit is to create an aura of mystery and otherness; otherness of the past and otherness of the women who were persecuted. This approach skirts the horrifying issue of 17th century misogyny and instead almost normalises the masculine religious and social ideology of the time: as if to pass on the message: “there really was something strange about those women, so it’s not surprising that society acted against them in this way.”
It seems to me that the approach prevents visitors from seeing the event as a context for the current status of women in society: women’s intuition as mysterious power; the portrayal of domestic skills as arcane and their incompatibility with the ‘real’ world of work; perceived unstable and emotional reactions compounded by menstrual cycles; even the way that women hold their faces (as with recent online references to ‘resting bitch face’). And, of course most recently, the recent comments made by Sir Tim Hunt.
So, within this context, when I see the X43 and its witch-based motif, I see a veneer of commercialism, marketing and sexualisation; a male gaze echoing on through the centuries which denies the relevance of the witch trials to our world today.
Or am I being po-faced?