Invoking Practical Magic: New Social Movements, Hidden Populations, and the Public Screen

Article excerpt

In 1998 the film Practical Magic was released, exemplifying the mounting cultural visibility of alternative spiritualities, specifically Neo-Paganism. [1] Neo-Paganism is a growing social movement with many differing sects, the largest group composed of witches. [2] Beginning with the film Witches of Eastwick (1987), Practical Magic is part of a recent trend of "witchy" Hollywood depictions in film: Hocus Pocus (1993), The Craft (1996), The Crucible (1997), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and Bewitched (2005). The popularity of on-screen witches is also apparent on television where viewers tune into Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996--present), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Charmed (1998--present). Not to be excluded is the ever-thriving Harry Potter book (first released in Britain in 1997 and the U.S. in 1998) and film series. Among the proliferation of film and television shows that portray witches, Practical Magic is an important text because of its messages and popularity both within and outside the movement. Opening to "hit-status at the box office" (Vincent, 1998), Practical Magic reflects multiple ideologies and practices central to the Neo-Pagan Movement. Based on a reader poll, Practical Magic was ranked the number one "pagan-friendly movie" by the Pagan magazine PanGia ("Creating a Pagan Bookshelf," 2005, p. 55).

Today, individuals can participate in movements through a variety of ways other than public gatherings or protests, including becoming fans of media programs/films that embody certain identities or political ideologies, purchasing products (e.g., symbolic jewelry and knick-knacks, or organic products), and by publicly displaying symbols (e.g., via bumper stickers and t-shirts). Specifically, when looking at "new" social movements [3] that are stigmatized and/or ostracized by the dominant culture, such as witches, the relationship between media and social movements is even more important than in movements where members are free to publicly identify themselves because media can offer covert access to the movement's ideologies. This issue raises important theoretical questions regarding not only the representations of movements by the media but the relationship between media and social movements where "hidden populations" (Berger, Leach, & Shaffer, 2003, p. xvii) are involved. In other words, what is the relationship between mass media and social movements when the media, particularly film, are the primary means of dissemination of information about the movement within the public sphere? While other media and social movement studies look at what the culture industry does to social movements it is also important to look at what members of movements could potentially do with the texts that the culture industry disseminates.

The purpose of this essay is to discuss and delineate aspects of mass media articulations with social movements composed of "hidden populations." In what follows I present an overview of the literature regarding the relationship between social movements and media pointing to the gap in this literature. This literature does not address the central question raised above regarding the mass media's relationship with social movements comprised of hidden populations and the potential use of media texts by those populations. Next, I briefly discuss "new" social movements and locate the Neo-Pagan Movement as an illustrative case. I ground my discussion of the relationship between mass media and social movements by treating Practical Magic as an example of the potential relationships between media and a movement's ideology and identity construction when mainstream media become the primary means of dissemination, not simply a representation, of the movement. Finally, I conclude with the implications of this essay for understanding stigmatized social movements under the conditions of late capitalism.

Mass Media and Social Movement Theory

Two major themes arise in the literature surrounding mass media and social movements. …