Angela Lansbury’s School of Feminist Witchcraft

Written by JLM; Published by GENDER FOCUS on June 21, 2015

Angela Lansbury in Bedknobs and Broomsticks

*Substitutiary locomotion (definition): the craft of using the substitutive power of language for feminist purposes.

Long before I had ever heard the word “feminist,” I knew about witches. What I knew about them, aside from their green noses and warts, which represent so obviously social pressures placed on women to accommodate and adhere to male-dictated, mainstream beauty standards, was that witches were individuals society had shunned and thrown away. Society’s construction and demonization of the “witch,” however, did not make a witch-hater, or a witch-hunter, out of me.

The pop-culture assault on disobedient women instead served to teach me about the cultural monster of misogyny. In fact, as a child, I felt strongly inclined to go and live in a small cottage away from society with every maligned and mysterious witch or similarly disobedient woman whom I ever encountered on screen and stage. I was their advocate in every way, waiting to join them and live forevermore on the plane of their pioneering rainbow of insight.

On-screen witches, the mythical and historical rejecters of the cults of hegemonic notions of gender and femininity, were my first introduction to feminism: why it was necessary, how it had come about, that it was a response to ideologies and actions of oppression.

Witches were my Feminism 101— they revealed to me the power and intent of cultures to demonize, ostracize and destroy every manifestation of disobedience in women. The reason for my fascination with witches was because they were something I had not yet encountered in real life: they were independent women refusing to conform to social normativity. Witches were cultural warriors, both a product of cultural fears about women’s empowerment and rebels for their own cause, working within the system to rise up against it.

The first actor that I saw breach the subject of feminism in a meaningful way to me was Dame Angela Lansbury. She was my first feminist role model. She was my childhood world, too, and it all began when she taught me what it looked like for a woman to live according to her own will, and not according to society’s, or a man’s, patriarchal will for her.

It was specifically her role as the clumsy, bookish, spinstery witch Eglantine Price in the 1971 Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks that knocked some sense into me.

It was in 1989, when I was five years old, that I saw Ms. Price on the screen for the first time, and it was a life changing and mind-altering experience. It was love at first sight: I was in love with feminism.

My deep love for the character of Ms. Price and what she represented was a reflection of my inner desire to understand myself and to free my own intellect of society’s narrow concept of “womanhood.” She was the first witch I had ever seen who, in being perfectly human and with obvious feminist sensibilities, claimed her power and used it to transform society.

In other words, Ms. Price kicked normative ass— using the power of her intellect and drive, which propelled and allowed her to use magic.

As an adult, I recognize magic, in the film, as a metaphor for feminist empowerment.  Magic was Ms. Price’s feminist activism. She clumsily tries to practice magic, thinking she is failing over and over, but she does not let that stop her. She nurtures a calm resilience that allows her to pursue her passion. She also seeks out the help she needs, travelling via witchcraft across time and space to put together pieces of the puzzle in order to become an expert practitioner of magic. Or, feminism.

Throughout much of the film, Eglantine treats magic as if it were a destination at which she frustratingly cannot arrive. By the end, it becomes clear, however, that the journey itself is magical— that it is activism and that she has achieved so much in pursuit of a destination that an actual destination doesn’t need to exist. I find this to be a testament to and an encouragement of the feminist imagination: that it can travel as far as we allow it to travel, and that, by embracing and using it, the possibilities for social transformation are limitless.

Angela Lansbury’s depiction of Ms. Price reveals some of the dilemmas feminists were and are faced with: the pressures to conform to various types of normalcy, the setbacks involved in actively pursuing one’s interests, and the challenges of activism.

My favorite scene of Lansbury’s, in the film and maybe in all of her films, is the long sequence in which Ms. Price, using her spell of “substitutiary locomotion,” manages to wage a non-violent war against war, using witchcraft. The film is deeply steeped in World War II, and Ms. Price is a highly political character, in more ways than one. She intuitively believes that witchcraft can end the war, and much of the film affirms her intuition.

Her struggle to take back her missing spell, when she finds that it was ripped out of her spell book, leads her to cross back through time and space to find it. This she does in the company of three evacuee children she has been forced to take in. Two things are important here: first, the retroactive and spatially dispersed element of her journey, which suggests to feminists that they need to think outside the box, to dig into and enter their erased histories and to use the imagination in order to reject the system, disrupt its function, and move forward with new prevailing philosophies.

Second, the presence of the children reveals that witches are not dangerous to children and can, in fact, be sources of nurturing to them. It debunks myths about non-child-bearing women. Even more than this, Ms. Price’s maternal and tutorial relationship with the children, whom she later adopts, encourages feminists to stay connected across generational gaps.

Triumphantly at the end of the film but not without a lot of missteps, it is “substitutiary locomotion,” used by the newly-confident Ms. Price, that defeats the Nazis in an epic feminist battle scene.

In this atypical battle, Ms. Price casts a spell that brings a museum of medieval armor to life. She then, singlehandedly and musically with her wand in hand, directs her feminist-conjured faction fearlessly toward the Nazis, who are moving inland. Ms. Price, flying high above her mystical army, leads a defense against a fascist regime. The mystic soldiers do not kill or seriously harm their enemies; they merely stop their advances, defeating them in battle by foiling their attempts at violence. They do so at the behest of a witch.

Ms. Lansbury’s work as the lieutenant-witch is an incredible victory for feminism, especially for young feminists who didn’t know they were feminists at the time when the film was somewhat popular. The battle is an educational metaphor that calls for feminist participation and for a shift in our ideas about witches.
Ms. Price is an inspiring character who sets a wonderful example for feminists of all ages by urging us to reexamine the feminist potency of the wily witch: what she stands for, what she has been made to withstand, what she can do to rise above oppression, literally.

No one but Dame Angela Lansbury could have carried this off.  She, the actor, was and is our feminist teacher. The film is still important, the character is still important, and Angela Lansbury is still important. This is why I consider her, in her genius rendering of the character, Ms. Price, to be my first feminist icon.

At five, I was enamored and enchanted, dreaming about Ms. Price, singing and dancing right along with her, on top of the coffee table in front of the television of my childhood home; as an adult, I am still dancing and singing with her, while also grappling with the impression she made on my child psyche, learning from it and allowing it to serve as the foundation of my own creative writing and academic scholarship.

Angela Lansbury set me off on my own journey into the feminist analysis of the greater significance of pop culture representations and conceptions of “the witch.” She also set me off on my journey into the potency of language and the feminist activism that can be present within it. Her song-spell, “Substitutiary Locomotion” is my academic anthem and I have turned its theme into a kind of theory that fuels my own forms of activism.

Because of Ms. Price, I discovered that language substitutions are magical and empowering— and that we can, indeed, transform society, using language. Language matters, has always mattered, will always matter. It is a magical defender against tyranny and oppression. We must always use our magic, our crafty minds and our pointed voices, like Ms. Price, to fight against oppression and empower the oppressed.

I have Angela Lansbury to thank, in large part, for the feminist scholar and witchy wordsmith I am today. Her depiction of Ms. Price lives on vividly in my feminist imagination and in my work: she is present in the concept of “hexuality,” which I coined recently and the linguistic liberatory concept of “hex,” which I am in the process of developing, and she’ll be a key player in any future manifestation of ‘A Bedknobs and Broomsticks Reader’ I edit and publish. She is the feminist role model who taught me to speak “feminist.” I know she will be with me for all time.

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