I feel like there is a new category of cinema called “the good-for-her” films. The films themselves may not be new, but the categorization sure is.
These movies usually tell the story of a femme protagonist getting revenge on those who have wronged her and achieving some sort of cathartic release in the process. This categorization stems from a clip of Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development saying “Good for her!”
The Love Witch
I love the cheesy dialogue, the hammy acting, the 1970’s pastiche, and the gorgeous set design. I also really appreciate the overall theme of the film. And that last sentence is where I really seem to lose people.
Most of my peers will agree that the film is gorgeous and that the story and line deliveries are so silly that the MST3K guys would have a field day riffing it. But they don’t really like or get the overarching theme. They find the main character unlikable and the plot unfeminist. And I can see why they think that, but they are missing something.
When discussing this film with some of my witchier friends, they almost seem disappointed in the film. I think they were expecting a feminist film about love, friendship, magic, and sex featuring a strong female protagonist. But instead, they got a cerebral film about trauma, abandonment, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and revenge featuring an unlikable anti-hero.
But does that mean that the film is bad? Let’s discuss.
Elaine Parks is a witch who is convinced that she can find love as long as she looks perfect, acts perfect, and casts the perfect spells.
She’s kind of like a witchy Stepford Wife. Elaine states early in the film that what she is really interested in is love. She says that if you want love, you have to give love. This is one of the first thematically problematic statements in the movie.
Throughout the film, it becomes clear that Elaine had never been given love or support, so how can she give what she herself has never received? It becomes clear as we watch that Elaine does not actually know what true love and support really are. So, the best way that we can understand her view on love is to analyze the men in her life.
We learn through an audio flashback scene that three men from her past have verbally, emotionally, and physically abused her. Her father called her stupid, and crazy, and criticized her weight. Her ex-husband constantly criticized her and also withheld affection from her. And the high priest of her coven physically assaulted her during her initiation. So as we can see from her past she was not ever given love or emotional support.
The three men whom she seduces throughout the film seem nicer than the men from her past but they still withhold the love and support that she so desperately desires. The first man, Wayne, seems great at first. After sex, instead of engaging in a dialogue with Elaine about their feelings, he unloads all of his relationship problems onto her and cries as she comforts him. This puts Elaine off because she resents having to hold a crying man when no one ever held her when she cried.
The second man, Richard, cheats on his wife, Trish, with Elaine. On their first night together, Elaine lets her Stepford wife mask slip for a moment. This is the first time we see her express a negative emotion verbally. She tells Richard that her ex-husband never loved her. Instead of offering her any sort of emotional support, he starts talking about how he doesn’t feel like his wife loves him either. Elaine immediately offers him emotional support after he says this. It is at this moment that we see a pattern in the way that Elaine offers support. She strokes the man’s ego while whispering “poor baby.” This is an artificial kind of support because, again, she doesn’t know what real support looks like.
The third man, Griff, is supposed to be a sort of foil to Elaine. In many ways, he is quite similar to our emotionally immature protagonist. Elaine performs hyper femininity to get what she wants from men, which is love or rather her idea of love. And Griff performs hyper-masculinity to get what he wants from women, which is ultimately an heir. Throughout the story, it becomes clear that Griff will never give Elaine the love that she desires because he thinks love “makes a man soft.”
Elaine doesn’t really have many friends who are women in this movie. In fact, she doesn’t interact with women much at all compared to how much she interacts with men.
The first person whom Elaine befriends upon moving to a new town is Trish, the wife of Richard. The first thing we learn about Trish is that she is very complimentary of how Elaine looks, but is very judgemental of her taste, her creative expression, and her views on love. She tells Elaine that the apartment she is moving into is “a bit garish” right before Elaine says that it is “just her taste.” She also makes a face when Elaine says she used to burlesque dance. Upon learning about Elaine’s childish and archaic views on falling in love, she tells her that she has been brainwashed by the patriarchy.
As the audience, we know that Trish is entitled to her opinion and that she is probably right in criticizing Elaine’s views on love. But all this criticism does is push Elaine away since a lot of her trauma stems from constant negative criticism. It doesn’t help that Elaine also views Trish as a romantic rival in her pursuit of Richard.
The other woman, Barbara, who Elaine befriends is probably the only real friend she has in the entire world. Barbara was one of Elaine’s mentors when she started practicing witchcraft. She is also one of the only people in Elaine’s life who listens to her and tries to offer her guidance when she can. She does give her some criticism but it is more constructive and gentle than what Trish gives her. But even though she is Elaine’s closest friend, she still lets her down by standing idly by as the high priest of the coven assaults her, in a sense abandoning her in her time of need.
We have reason to believe that Elaine has abandonment issues. And it may be due to what we hear, or rather, don’t hear in the audio flashback that I mentioned earlier. While Elaine is remembering the awful things that her father said to her, we never hear her mother. We can guess it’s because her mother was physically or emotionally absent. This abandonment may have colored how she views her relationships with her female friends.
We see Elaine take part in two magical rituals. I guess you could say she technically takes part in four but I’m not counting the initiation or the coven celebration.
In the first ritual she performs, she tries to take control of her love life by asking the goddess for a man who will love her as she loves him. You could say that this spell works because Griff does only love her in the same performative way she loves all of her suitors.
In the second ritual, Elaine, perhaps feeling insecure about the longevity of her and Griff’s relationship, allows the coven to perform a spell that will keep them together for all eternity. I guess this spell works too, but we will talk about that in the next section.
Or Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms?
Elaine says that she wants to be a witch because she wants magical powers. But in reality she is using magic and witchcraft to cope with her past trauma and insecurities. The men in her life left her feeling powerless, so she turned to witchcraft to reclaim some of that power.
You may watch this film and ask yourself why she doesn’t try to empower herself through therapy. Well that’s because Elaine has a weird relationship with therapy. The first man that Elaine talks about in the film, besides her husband, is her therapist. We learn that her therapist invalidated her past trauma by telling her that people all over the world have been abused worse than her.
Elaine says that she uses sex magic to create love magic. She may have gotten this idea from Barbara and the high priest. They instruct her to use love and sex magic to control men. They tell her to open men up to the idea of love so that she can do whatever she wants with them. But does she actually want to have sex with the men she seduces? Or is she subconsciously trying to exact revenge on men in general?
Elaine punishes Wayne for crying by leaving him alone to cry and scream in his room by himself while she sleeps on the couch. As I stated earlier, she does this because she is bitter that no one ever comforted her. So leaving Wayne to cry by himself is a way of exacting revenge on the people who never took care of her.
Elaine delivers her harshest punishment to Griff. Throughout the movie, Elaine passively causes the deaths of three men. It’s implied that she poisoned her ex-husband. She accidentally poisoned Wayne with the hallucinogenic herbs. And her abandonment leads Richard to take his own life. But Griff is the only one who she actively murders. Griff confronts Elaine about her past crimes and in a moment of vulnerability, she explains why she did the things that she did. She once again lets her perfect mask slip as she describes her past trauma and explains that this was the only way to reclaim her power. But rather than offering her any understanding, Griff stays cold and indifferent to her struggle.
After rescuing her from a bar of angry patrons and getting hurt in the process, Elaine comforts him on her bed with her contrived “poor baby” act. Keep in mind, she was being brutalized by the patrons as well but he doesn’t even ask her if she is alright. Yet she tries to take care of him. He does nothing but glare at her and eventually lays back on her bed as if he expects her to give herself to him. I guess this is the film’s way of saying that the spell worked and now they will cling to each other for all eternity. This is where she is pushed over the edge. He offers her no love or emotional support yet still expects sex from her. And that is why she stabs him three times in the chest.
Strong Female Character… or Sympathetic Anti-Hero?
Elaine is not a strong female character. And frankly, I wouldn’t want her to be. This is not that kind of movie. She is not Sarah Connor or Sally Owens. We are not meant to root for her. I’ve seen this movie countless times, and I never root for her in the sense that I want her to achieve her goal. But I do root for her because I want her to learn from her mistakes. I want her to find self-worth and empower herself. The tragedy of the film is that she doesn’t really achieve that empowerment. Unless you count stabbing a boyfriend in the chest three times empowering.
Elaine Parks is not likable. But she is relatable because we have all been in the same mental place that she is in. At some point in our lives, we have measured our self-worth by how we make others feel or how others feel about us. Hopefully, this is a mentality that we can grow out of, but it is one that we can all sympathize with.
We need to stop seeing this film as a witchy “good-for-her” movie about magic and sex. Instead, we need to start seeing it as a cautionary tale of what could happen if you let your trauma go unchecked. If we can do that, I think we will be able to appreciate this film’s message.