Practical Magic (1998) pits the magic of women against the villainy of an abusive man while showing the power of sisterhood. The movie equates witchcraft with feminism, reflecting the historical reality that witch trials have been used to punish the behavior of transgressive women. Through the unifying connection of women-only spaces, the women of Practical Magic learn that the only way to access their true power as witches and women is being true to themselves.
The main plot is framed with the story of Maria Owens (Caprice Benedetti), Gillian and Sally’s ancestor, a witch, and the originator of their family’s curse. Maria was sentenced to hanging, in large part due to her extramarital affairs. This is in line with the fact that a disproportionate number of the women killed for witchcraft throughout history behaved outside of societal norms, whether they were spinsters, widows, property owners, or otherwise unorthodox. This connection has since been embraced by modern feminists and pagans alike, with the activist group W.I.T.C.H. performing street theater on feminist subjects in the 1960s, and seeing a contemporary revival.
Having escaped execution, Maria is exiled. The town’s children chant the rather uninventive “Witch, witch, you’re a bitch!” using a gendered slur to bully the various Owens women. In the present, Gillian (Nicole Kidman) is judged by the PTA moms for her clothing and rumored sexual history, showing how little the times have changed.
Jimmy Angelov, the film’s villain (played with expert sleaze by Goran Visnjic), was Gillian’s intense Bulgarian boyfriend. Even when things were going well, Gillian snuck low doses of belladonna into his drink so she could get a moment alone. His controlling behavior is evident from early on, when he is unhappy with Gillian leaving his side even to go to the bathroom. His behavior escalates and we learn he punched Gillian for laughing at him in front of someone else.
It turns out Gillian was not Jimmy’s first victim — a detective comes to town asking questions about Jimmy’s disappearance, but not out of any real concern for Jimmy’s well-being. Another woman was found dead, with the brand that Jimmy attempted to put on Gillian with her ring. This reinforces Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian’s read on an earlier kidnapping: Jimmy never intended to let Gillian live. This tracks with what we know about abusive men. Jimmy attempts to strangle Gillian, but dies (for the first time) before he has the chance. This reflects the reality that women who have been strangled by a partner are far more likely to eventually be killed by them.
In the world of Practical Magic, witchcraft is possessed by women alone. They may share their gifts, like Sally’s lotions that seem to have an extra magical kick, or the aunts’ love spell for Sally that undoubtedly benefited her husband, until his untimely death due to the Owens family curse.
Though there are relatively few men in the movie, all the major spells we see are in reference to men. Early on in a flashback to Gillian and Sally’s childhood, a stranger comes to the aunts seeking a love spell to woo a man who is with someone else. Sally then casts a love spell of her own, for an imaginary man so singular he couldn’t possibly exist, in an attempt to protect herself from the desperation she saw in the woman from town. When Sally is an adult, the aunts cast another love spell, this time giving her a push toward the man who would eventually be her husband. And of course the remaining two major spells were to bring Jimmy Angelov back to life and then to banish him from the earth for good.
Pivotally, the sisters can’t vanquish their foe without expanding their sisterhood to include an entire town’s worth of women, helping them to unlock their inner witches. This meeting has a party-like atmosphere, in spite of the serious nature of their task, and is akin to a consciousness-raising circle of the 1960s and 1970s. The women trade stories of abusive men, times they stood up for themselves, and instances when they felt the power of their own latent witchcraft. As Aunt Jet (Dianne Wiest) says, “There’s a little witch in all of us.” Even the previously cruel women answer Sally’s call to come to Gillian’s aid, showing a feminist aspiration: the unifying strength of womanhood. Their collective power demonstrates that all women possess this power and can tap into it if they so choose, and reflects the feminist belief in the inherent value in organizing instead of going it alone, as Gillian and Sally had tried to do.
The true love story of Practical Magic is not between Sally and the lawman she conjured as a child, but between Sally and Gillian. The storyline moves along their timeline, showing their childhood after losing their father and then mother, their young adulthood, separation, and reunion. The white knight rescuing the damsel in distress isn’t a new love interest for Gillian, but instead her sister. Men come and go from both of their lives, and even the very meaningful relationships with men, like Sally’s marriage to her husband, pale in comparison to the importance they hold in each other’s hearts. This is a shared family trait: Other than their mother, each generation of Owens women that we see has two sisters, one brunette and one redhead. While the pairs of sisters bicker and disagree with one another, they ultimately protect each other fearlessly.
In the end, it is the bond between Sally and Gillian that banishes the abusive Jimmy and breaks the curse. The “coven” they have formed does everything by the book, under the direction of Aunt Frances (Stockard Channing) and Aunt Jet. Still, it is not enough until Sally calls upon their sisterly bond, and the blood promise Gillian made when they were younger, to grow old together and die on the very same day.
The women of Practical Magic come together to use the supernatural to vanquish a perpetrator of intimate partner violence. Ultimately, feminism is the real magic power underpinning the film, and only by taking collective action can women liberate themselves from the malevolent spirit of male abuse. If there’s a little witch in all of us, then there’s a little feminist, too.
Delia Harrington lives in practically magic Boston.