We Are No Birds: Which Witch

Halloween is and always has been my favorite holiday. I love dressing up, I love the chilly autumn nights, and I love the spookiness that hangs in the air throughout October. I love driving through my neighborhood and seeing houses that have been transformed into haunted mansions, seeing lawns transformed into graveyards with plastic skeleton hands reaching up through the dirt. It is this element of Halloween that I love the most: transformation. On Halloween, nothing is quite what it seems to be. A garish, illuminated grin is no more than a pumpkin. A fearsome monster is only a child wearing a mask. Everything is just a bit darker, but all the more thrilling for its magic.

Perhaps the most magical (and the most transformative) Halloween figure in contemporary times is the witch. Over time, the witch has seen a number of iterations and transformations. The witch has been an old hag, a beautiful enchantress, a dark figure, a friendly figure, an ugly crone, and a sexy temptress. So which witch is which? (I’m sorry; I had to.) How can the witch inhabit all of these identities at once?

The image of the witch we know today was originally created by the patriarchy as a way of ostracizing independent women. Thinking historically, women persecuted in witch hunts in Europe and North America were often women who lived alone and had knowledge of things they shouldn’t. As Kristen Korvette writes, “These were healers and midwives with intimate knowledge about sexual reproduction and the human body who threatened to educate a highly uneducated populace” and were thus punished. In addition to knowledge, these women also “raised suspicion by amassing too much land, wealth, or influence,” things that women at the time were not supposed to have. As Chloe Germaine Buckley says, the label of witch was used “to delegitimise powerful women and locate them on the outside of society.”

In contemporary popular culture, we tend to think of the witch in one of three ways. Korvette opines that the witch “…is all at once wizened hag, poison apple in hand; learned spinster, married to her books; and enchanting seductress with bared breasts and hypnotic stare.” (I will discuss later a fourth category of the “fun” witch.) The first witch—the “wizened hag”—might be what we think of as a “classic” witch, an old woman with warts, green skin, and snaggled teeth. The wizened hag witch draws her power from a rejection of society and its values, instead putting stock in what she can do to harm others.

The second witch—the “learned spinster”—lives alone, often on the edge of town or in the woods since she has been ostracized by her community. The spinster witch is often called upon for a magic favor (like a potion or spell) from the protagonist, who must make the journey to her far-off dwelling to receive help. While this witch is often not portrayed to be as violent as the wizened hag, the audience is still expected to be wary of her because she is a woman who lives alone and commits herself to books (in this case, spell books), rather than having a family or a husband; thus, she is not to be trusted.

The third witch is the “enchanting seductress.” This witch draws her power from her overt displays of sexuality as part of her plan to seduce men, in particular the male hero, into submitting to dark magic against their will. The seductress witch has knowledge of sex and magic that the “average” woman wouldn’t, making her intriguing to men. The seductress witch is also often depicted as having a sexual relationship with the Devil, making her sexual appeal even more deadly.

These three types of witches possess traits that originate from the patriarchal fear of independent women. The patriarchy fears the wizened hag because she has knowledge of things he doesn’t (magic) that she can use to take away men’s power. Patriarchy may also despise the wizened hag because of her old and ugly physical appearance, which refuses to cater to the male gaze that desires young, beautiful women. The patriarchy fears the spinster witch because she lives alone and is invested in literacy and education. Any woman who would choose this kind of life over a traditional one where she plays the role of wife and mother is a deviant. Her interest in education is transformed into an obsession with magic. Perhaps the most direct tie to the patriarchy’s historical fear of witches is illustrated by the seductress witch. Much like those that feared midwives and healers for their knowledge of sexuality, the patriarchy fears the seductress witch because not only does she have knowledge of sexuality that the “average” woman shouldn’t, but she uses it against men. Women who express their sexuality and sexual desire, then, are cast as witches who prey upon men’s “natural” sexual urges and turn him to a dark path.

While the image of the witch has historically been built on patriarchal fear of independent women, a surprising trend has emerged in recent years. In addition to the three types of witches described above, a fourth type of witch exists, the “fun” witch. The fun witch is seen most often in children’s and family movies like Harry Potter, Matilda, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Rather than seeking to harm, this witch uses her powers for the betterment of others. This witch is often seen as different from her peers, but she is not ostracized. In fact, after a period of time, she is accepted by her community after they see the good that her magic can do. Importantly, the fun witch’s independence is not something to be suppressed or feared: it is to be celebrated.

The witch is all of these women at once. As Halloween is all about transformation, it is only fitting that the witch is one of Halloween’s most prevalent images.

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Sources:

Buckley, Chloe Germaine. “Hag, temptress or feminist icon? The witch in popular culture.” The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/hag-temptress-or-feminist-icon-the-witch-in-popular-culture-77374

Korvette, Kristen. “Witches are some of the most enduring feminist icons of our time.” Quartz.  https://qz.com/535433/witches-are-some-of-the-most-enduring-feminist-icons-of-our-time/

Kimchi Monster

Anne McGovern

Seven bowls of rice sit on my host-family’s Chuseok (South Korean Thanksgiving) table, one for each of them and me. To my right is a plate of sweet, soy- and sugar-glazed lotus roots—light brown, and shaped like a child’s drawing of a flower. Crunchy and crumbly, the roots taste almost like a salted caramel candy. To my left is a large bowl of grilled tilefish, opened and spread at the belly. When eaten, the white meat falls from the spine and dissolves delicately in the mouth. Four fish line the bowl now, and twelve others lie packed on ice in Styrofoam boxes in the mudroom. My host-father bought them fresh from the open-air market by the docks this morning. The extra are a gift to his parents.

Across the table, in front of grandmother and grandfather, lies a plate of grilled pine mushrooms that resemble tiny hammers. They are rubbery yet sweet, with thick stems that squeak when chewed. Minji*, my six-year-old host-sister, fixes her eyes on an assortment of shrimp and vegetables fried in egg—carrots, peppers, onions, broccoli. It’s her favorite, and everyone at the table knows to let her get the first (and last) bite. Finally, a large bowl of thick beef short rib stew sits by my host-mother and eight-year-old Kyeong-ha*, my eldest host-sister. Piled high in the bowl, it oozes precariously down toward the rim.

It is late September, and I have been living at my host-family’s home in Mokpo—a city at the edge of southwest South Korea—for about five weeks. I am there on a teaching scholarship, where I will teach English to 600 students at a local girls’ high school for one year. The holiday weekend is a welcome break from my rushed entry into the classroom—I had never taught before—as well as into a new home and country. We left Mokpo mid-morning and drove to my host-father’s parents’ house in Dangjin, a town south of Seoul, and spent the rest of the afternoon preparing the holiday meal.

Grandfather is a Christian minister, and we wait while he prays. I am neither Christian, nor religious, but I hear my name and am glad that he includes me in his prayer. When he finishes, grandmother stands up, having forgotten something in the kitchen. She brings out a fork for little Minji, who still cannot use chopsticks well.

It’s time to eat.

Kyeong-ha goes for the side dish of dried seaweed. It’s meant to be eaten while wrapped around rice and meat, but she enjoys it plain and by the mouthful. My host-father fills Minji’s plate with the egg-battered vegetables and shrimp, and takes a bite himself. Grandfather munches on the beef, nodding thoughtfully, while my host-mother and grandmother survey the table, confirming that everyone was eating and enjoying the food before they took their first bites.

And me, I go straight for the kimchi.

My tongue prickles with the taste of sweet salt and spice. The type is baechu (or whole cabbage) kimchi. Its heat is moderate. It crunches, and its color is a deep, almost neon, chili-pepper red. I reach for another piece and taste notes of vinegar and the sea. Grandmother sees me devouring the kimchi, and she grabs the dish and runs to the kitchen, returning with a heaping pile that she places right next to my bowl of rice. I am a bit embarrassed; I don’t want the rest of the family to have to reach for it. I push it to the middle of the table, but grandmother pushes it back firmly.

“Meog-eo, meog-eo!” she says. Eat, eat!

Kimchi is a representative dish of South Korea—its pride—and is eaten with every meal of the day. It can be found in every South Korean refrigerator, at every restaurant table, and like water in the United States, it will almost always be refilled for free. Kimchi grew out of the Korean people’s resourcefulness while living on difficult land.

The Korean peninsula is made of mountains, with few opportunities for agriculture, and winters—some of the harshest in its latitude—that often kill local farmers’ small variety of crops. When early Koreans began to farm, they preserved with salt what little vegetables they could grow. One of the most common foods they preserved were radishes that they soaked in brine; these became the forerunners of modern kimchi. Later, more vegetables were introduced into the country, such as the Napa (from the Japanese word nappa, meaning greens or vegetable leaves) or Chinese cabbage, which is the staple of baechu kimchi, the most popular type in South Korea today. During this time, Korean farmers began to add more to their kimchi mixtures (now made with radishes or cabbage) besides brine, such as garlic, spices, leeks, and bamboo shoots. But it wasn’t until after the 1500s that chili peppers were introduced to the country from the Americas, giving birth to the modern spicy kimchi.

Now there are more than 200 types of kimchi in South Korea, and it can be eaten in an endless number of ways: alone as a meal starter or a transition between foods; together with a mouthful of steamy white rice; wrapped in seaweed with rice, grilled pork belly, and a clove of pickled garlic; boiled in a spicy stew with sweet and spicy chili paste, tofu, beans, and sausage, or with clams and oysters instead; and more. I have tried my fair share of kimchi types and food combinations, but it would likely take a lifetime to experience them all.

Grandfather says my name and clicks his chopsticks; it means he’s impressed that I can use them so well. My host-father asks me a question. I am only a beginner in the Korean language, but his questions always seem to include advanced-level grammar and vocabulary. “Um,” I say, but he’s already preoccupied with Kyeong-ha, who has seaweed flakes sprinkled down her shirt and around her on the floor. He tells her not to be so messy.

Grandmother says nothing but has been continuously placing morsels of food on my plate; she has an agenda to make sure that I properly enjoy her Chuseok dinner. My host-mother worries that I’m being forced to eat too much, or things that I don’t like, but I assure her that I’m loving every bit of everything.

“Mas-iss-eoyo,” I say, around a mouthful of kimchi. Delicious.

I ate my first piece of kimchi a year earlier at a Korean restaurant in Japan. It was not as delicious as that on grandmother’s table now, but it prompted me to actively seek its variety when I arrived in South Korea. Then, while becoming addicted to its piquant taste, I also learned that it was good for me.

Kimchi is a fermented food, which means it’s packed with beneficial bacteria, such as Lactobacillus sakei and Lactobacillus plantarum, found in many plant-based probiotic foods like pickles and sauerkraut. (Yogurt is another type of probiotic food that contains different strains of Lactobacillus bacteria.) Fermentation is a process where yeast or bacteria convert carbohydrates (like sugar) into alcohols (such as beer and wine) or acids. Weissella koreensis, the most abundant bacteria across many kimchi types, produces ornithine, an acid believed to help prevent weight gain and increase metabolism (or breaking down) of body fat. Many researchers are now studying kimchi for its potential antiobesity effects.

Some of kimchi’s raw ingredients are also considered healthy; for example, red pepper powder is high in vitamin C (and contains its own potential weight-gain preventing mechanisms), along with Napa cabbage, which contains calcium, iron, and potassium. In addition to antiobesity effects, researchers are also studying kimchi for its potential lowering of so-called “bad” cholesterol, as well as anticancer, antiaging, and antidiabetic properties. However, it’s important to note kimchi’s possible harmful effects as well. Some research suggests that kimchi and other fermented Korean foods such as soybeans likely contribute to the high rate of stomach cancer in South Korea.

We are halfway through our Chuseok meal, and the youngest member of the family, Minji, sits with her fork gripped tightly in her fist, munching on an egg-fried shrimp. She watches me. I scrunch up my nose like there’s something smelly and stick out my tongue. She blinks; Minji is hard to amuse. I cross my eyes and mimic a fish, but Minji continues to chew blankly. I give up and eat another piece of kimchi.

Minji turns to her father and asks a question. “Minji wants to know why you eat so much kimchi,” he translates.

I consider the question.

The first thing I think of is the difference between kimchi and other spicy foods, such as spicy chicken wings; after three or four bites of a wing, my mouth becomes numb and overwhelmed, yet kimchi manages to stay sweet and savory despite its chili-pepper coating. I also consider my experience of eating a piece of kimchi at noon in the school cafeteria, after having stood on my feet for hours at the front of the classroom, and the jolt of energy that radiates from my taste buds throughout my tired body; it packs a punch. (Later during my stay in the country, I would learn to eat kimchi at breakfast and come to rely on its spicy punch to help me wake up in the morning.)

I also think of how many types of kimchi dishes I’ve seen, and the endless ways it can be eaten. Even in the United States, a country with a palette not yet acclimated to kimchi’s strong, unique taste, its popularity has been growing. In January 2015, David Tanis wrote in The New York Times that kimchi was a “magic ingredient with many possibilities, and home cooks would do well to explore them.” Some of his advice on how to use it include as a topping on a hot dog, or stashed in a grilled cheese or Reuben.

But though kimchi’s popularity is indeed growing, it’s still far from becoming a frequent part of the American diet. For one, kimchi is a pungent food, in both taste and smell. It often requires its own refrigerator for storing to keep the rest of the fridge contents from soaking up its vinegar and slightly fishy smell. After I returned to the United States and moved to Boston, my roommate graciously endured the smell from my horde of kimchi in our regular fridge during the time we lived together. She, along with many Americans, was just not a fan. Kimchi seems to be one of those foods that you either love or hate.

All things considered, my answer to Minji’s question is that I eat so much kimchi because it’s delicious, versatile, and packed with healthy bacteria, vitamins, and minerals. But I knew I couldn’t explain this answer to her with my shoddy Korean language skills and instead considered a simple answer in English that would satisfy her in some way.

“Good question, Minji,” I say in English. I am not sure if she understands, but I rub my chin and temple, a gesture of thought she is likely to recognize. “I think it’s because I have a secret.”

She sits up straight. “Secret” is a word she knows well, due to the exciting things that follow when a speaker utters it.

“Do you want to know?”

“Yes,” she says, and her grandparents “oh!” in approval of her English usage.

“I like kimchi so much because,” I say, and lean in close. “I am the kimchi monster!”

Minji blinks her blink, and just when I think I failed once again to amuse her, she giggles. To my right, Kyeong-ha giggles too. “Kimchi monster!” she squeals, with a happy mouthful of seaweed.

The girls tumble back from the table, laughing and rolling on the floor.

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* The two girls’ names have been changed from their actual names for added privacy.

List of References

1. Ye Jong-suk. Delectable Aroma of Songi Mushroom. From Koreana: A Quarterly on Korean Culture & Arts. Published in the fall, 2013 issue. (http://www.koreana.or.kr/months/news_view.asp?b_idx=3033&lang=en&page_type=list)

2. Beef short ribs. From maangchi.com. Published September 10, 2008. (http://www.maangchi.com/recipe/galbijjim)

3. Eric Huh. A Complete Guide to Kimchi. From Seoulistic.com. (http://seoulistic.com/korean-food/a-complete-guide-to-kimchi/)

4. Jisho. Japanese-English Dictionary. Nappa. (http://jisho.org/search/nappa%20)

5. Joe McPherson. Kimchi: A Short History. From Zenkimchi: The Korean Food Journal. Published November 5, 2006. (http://zenkimchi.com/top-posts/kimchi-1-short-history/)

6. PBS. Kimchi Chronicles. Episode 1: The Kimchi Chronicles Begin. Aired in 2011. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymUMMUWToSc)

7. Kun-Young Park, et al. Health Benefits of Kimchi (Korean Fermented Vegetables) as a Probiotic Food. From the Journal of Medicinal Food. Published in October, 2013. PMID: 24456350.

8. J.-A Park, et al. Anti-obesity effect of kimchi fermented with Weissella koreensis OK1-6 as starter in high-fat diet-induced obese C57BL/6J mice. From The Journal of Applied Microbiology. Published in September, 2012. PMID: 22978326.

9. Burkhard Bilger. Nature’s Spoils. From The New York Times. Published November 22, 2010. (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/11/22/natures-spoils)

10. Umesh Rudrappa. Napa cabbage nutrition facts. From nutrition-and-you.com. (http://www.nutrition-and-you.com/napa-cabbage.html)

11. Hong-Mei Nan, et al. Kimchi and soybean pastes are risk factors of gastric cancer. From the World Journal of Gastroenterology. Published June, 2005. PMID: 15929164.

12. David Tanis. Cooking With Kimchi. From The New York Times. Published January 20, 2015. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/21/dining/cooking-with-kimchi.html?_r=2)

We Are No Birds: Super-/Em-Powered

I’ll be honest. I was never really interested in superheroes as a kid. Comics were something that boys read, and besides, they were all a bunch of beefy men beating each other up anyway, so what was I really missing? As I came of age, so too did superheroes, it seemed. When I was in high school, Marvel was popping out movies nearly every year. So, as someone who was desperate for friends at the time, when it was suggested we go see Iron Man or Captain America or Thor, I agreed, even though I didn’t really think it would be “my thing.”

While I did enjoy these movies—it turns out watching a bunch of beefy men punch each other can be fun—the budding feminist in me wondered where the women were. Sure, Iron Man had Pepper Potts, Captain America had Peggy Carter, and Thor had Jane Foster, but these women inevitably ended up in a romantic entanglement with the hero that turned her from a potentially strong character into yet another heart-eyed fawn. Even at that age, I was quite familiar with (and sick of) this trope. I would come out of the theater feeling like a superhero who could run fast, punch through walls, or fly, but this feeling wore off in about twenty minutes. These movies were entertainment, but they fell flat of having a real effect on me.

Then came The Avengers. Finally! I thought. A female superhero who gets to fight with the boys! And Black Widow did just that—at least, in part. I could never quite identify with Black Widow at the time because although I was thin, I never thought of myself as sexy, one key to Black Widow’s power. But I continued to go see Marvel movies, since, as I said, they made for a fun evening and gave me momentary feeling of power afterward.

That is, until Marvel released Avengers: Age of Ultron. By this point, I’d just finished my second year of college (and perhaps importantly, my first Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies class). When the stereotypical Forced Heterosexual Romance reared its ugly head between Black Widow and the Hulk, I lost all interest. The little autonomy Black Widow had had in the first Avengers movie had been completely eroded and her character had been reduced to a flimsy, man-dependent shell of what she had been. And thus ended my short affair with the superhero genre. Or so I thought.

Summer of 2017 had kept me busy, from graduating college to going on various trips. I had, though, still heard the buzz about Wonder Woman. I heard the movie was smashing box office records and critics were raving. Friends asked me repeatedly if I had seen it yet. Thinking all of these people had to be onto something, I took my boyfriend to see Wonder Woman in July, just before it left theaters.

I did my best to reserve judgment to keep from getting my hopes up, but ten minutes into the film, I was enamored with it. I left the theater feeling so much more than that fleeting sense of power I got after any previous Marvel movie. I came out of Wonder Woman feeling, in the fullest sense of the word, empowered. Here was a character who was not only physically strong (and more so than her male companions) but also emotionally and intellectually capable of engaging with the complicated world. Finally, Hollywood was depicting a female superhero as a feminist, the kind of hero who inspires and emboldens women like me. For example, rather than letting her grief for Steve Trevor prevent her from defeating the villain, Diana (Wonder Woman’s real name) overcomes this feeling to do her duty for the good of the world. And yet, at the same time, Diana expresses a variety of emotions, just like any real woman, a human being, would: she is angry at the all-male war council who refuses to listen to her; she is delighted to see a baby in the street; and she feels grief when inhabitants of the small Belgian village are killed and guilt at not being able to prevent the carnage. And while Steve and Diana do have a romance, Diana does not let her feelings for him impede her mission, thus avoiding the Forced Heterosexual Romance trope. Rather, as in the real lives of women who are feminists, romance and work coexist.

I could go on about what I liked in Wonder Woman, but my main point circles back to that feeling of empowerment. Here’s the thing about the superhero genre. Superheroes are supposed to be the best versions of ourselves. Even if the hero has been genetically modified or is from another planet, we still recognize them as human. Even if they have powers (like super speed, flight, or super strength) that mark them as non-human, their sense of ethics is what makes us respect them and recognize a part of ourselves in them. As such, putting aside their superpowers, we want superheroes to be as “real” as possible. We want them to have and express emotion, to make meaningful connections with other people. It’s no surprise, then, that when a superhero’s character simply fulfills stereotypes, rather than being “real” and complex, we feel disappointed. Characters like this fail to really resonate with an audience due to their lack of depth. Even if superheroes are supposed to be the best versions of ourselves, they still ought to contain the complexities and multitudes that your average non-super human does. When I saw superhero movies like Captain America, I was disappointed because the hero (and his female sidekick) did not resonate with my idea of the best version of myself. Although I admired Captain America’s sense of justice, the movie, for various reasons, supported a bias that supported the dominant, patriarchal power structure.

For groups who have been historically underrepresented, misrepresented, or stereotyped in Hollywood, seeing people like you on the big screen and portrayed in ways that do not perpetuate stereotypes is a truly great feeling. I don’t know if I have ever seen as many women on a movie screen at one time as I have in the opening scenes of Wonder Woman at Themyscira. And what are the women in this scene doing? Training. Being physically strong and athletic, without catering to the male gaze with “sexy” shots or with weakness in emotions or strength. I hope that there are more movies with unbiased tones like Wonder Woman to make women and other historically marginalized groups of people feel, well, super.