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?
As the designer of the arrestingly gorgeous figure on the bus, I have to tell you I am reasonably well read about the witch trials. However, since the identity and iconography of this brand was already well-established, my job was to make sure the stereotypical image of a witch as a haggard old crone, which is neither appealing, appropriate or accurate, was banished from the buses for good. As to being a male gaze echoing on through the centuries, you must not assume anything! Our witch is so glamorous, she (he, that is) is drag anyway, and when not adorning the bus is to be seen playing rugby for a local side. He’s just in touch with his feminine side – if only more men were!
Thanks for your comment.
I like your suggestion that the witch may be a man after all. It is of course my assumption that the witch is a woman, and it is certainly true that we all will interpret images differently. Your own thoughts and intentions as designer I could never know, but from my perspective there are few clues to have drawn me to a different conclusion. In terms of the male gaze, I think it still applies here because your witch functions as a symbol of male desire. This can be true whether your witch is male or female.
For me, the role of the witch on the bus is part of the promotion of Pendle’s heritage. The awful treatment of women (and indeed many disadvantaged groups throughout history) by (largely) men masquerading as protectors of society in the name of religion goes somewhat unrecognised in the Pendle Heritage Centre. While not the same, it seems clear to me that women are still expected to behave in certain ways which are decided by a (largely) male constructed society.
My point is that the persecution of women as ‘witches’ in the past resonates well with the way that society now persecutes women for not conforming to a specific and unrealistic image and behaviour. In this sense, I am asking whether the heritage industry as a whole is doing justice to the story of the Pendle Witches.
Of course, you’re right to say that women are expected to behave in certain ways decided largely by a male constructed society – look at how in certain religions across the world, west and east and in the middle, men expect women to hide their sexual attractiveness lest they inflame men’s passions (and therefore can be blamed by men for doing so, thereby negating men’s responsibility in the reaction – the “look what YOU made me do” syndrome).
Then some men want women to maintain and display their sexual attractiveness (think of the Charles Aznavour song, “You’ve let yourself go.”). But I defend any person’s right, male and female, to dress like a slut or frump, or anything else, so long as they do it of their own free will and motivation, not simply to please someone else’s expectations.
So our Witchway witch, who could be transgender, pre-op trans-sexual or a joyous lesbian who can’t afford to live in (or wouldn’t be seen dead in) Hebden Bridge, I believe has chosen for him/ herself to look nothing less than drop-dead-gorgeous on his/her own terms. I should know; after all I created him/her.
As for functioning as a symbol of male desire, perhaps I intended my witch to be a symbol of female desire – possibly sexual or more likely uncontrollable envy? Isn’t it great to throw a great big spanner in this gender thing and the male/female domination/subjugation argument. Only through discussion and argument and challenging our thoughts will we progress as a society and species. Perhaps my witch is helping a little, at least for two of us.