The Worst Witch is a BBC/Netflix kids’ show about the first girl from an apparently non-magic family to attend Cackle’s Academy for Witches. Based on books by Jill Murphy, and reimagining a popular British TV series from the 90s, The Worst Witch follows human disaster zone Mildred Hubble, along with her friends and her rather troublesome familiar Tabby, as she learns magic, has misadventures, and inevitably ends up saving the school from certain destruction at the hands of headmistress’s evil sister, Agatha.
It’s cute, it’s light, it’s fun, and it’s on Netflix if you’re in the US. The third season starts this week, and I recommend you watch it!
But all the time I watched this kids show, I couldn’t help thinking… these witches really need to start a revolution. Possibly a French one, with guillotines and blood in the streets.
Almost every single character on The Worst Witch is female. The protagonist, Mildred, attends an all-girls school, and otherwise lives with her single mum, Julie. The school is run by the kind and intelligent Miss Cackle, an elderly woman with a fondness for fluffy pink slippers, and is kept in order by Ms Hardbroom, the no-nonsense potions teacher who puts Professor Snape to shame by being both strict and still a good teacher who cares about her pupils. The only regular male characters are one quiet male teacher, and the Great Wizard, the head of all magical society. But despite being pretty much the only man around, the Great Wizard wields absolute power.
All witches must follow the Witches’ Code, a restrictive set of rules set by the Great Wizard for… reasons. Mostly drama reasons. Once two witches have agreed to a duel, no one can interfere with the result, even if one of them (aka the evil one) cheats. If someone is tricked into giving her magic away, she cannot get it back. Witches cannot use staffs to cast magic, no matter the circumstances, even though they seem to create more powerful magic, while wizards are not allowed to chant — aka cast magic by singing. All this, again, is for Reasons. The Great Wizard has decreed it, and so it must be.
Unless, of course, he changes his mind. He sets the rules and makes all the final decisions, and he is free to change or ignore the Witches Code on a whim, despite everyone else being held to its strict standards as though it is sacred law. And, of course, despite the fact that he is a wizard dictating the witches code.
He is the worst. And not in a good way, like the eponymous Worst Witch. When he first shows up at the school, everyone is all aflutter. Proper protocol must be followed, or the school will incur his disapproval, and Mildred is told off for failing to understand the rules that she’s never encountered before. The Great Wizard’s dictatorship has no room for newcomers or beginners. When the Great Wizard learns that Mildred is not from a witching family, he overrules the decision of the headmistress, and the fact that Mildred has now been living at the school and learning magic for months, and forces her to take a test to prove herself worthy of continuing. When Mildred’s test goes wrong, the Great Wizard not only decides to kick out Mildred, but fires Agatha as headmistress for daring to give Mildred a chance. He gives the school to her scheming murderous sister Agatha because of RULES, and then later changes his mind… until the next time he decides to show up, at least.
Weirdly, the show reminds me of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, without the dark horror feminist bent. The story is female-focussed, but they live within a male structure. Women are the ones who suffer, while the high priest can just sweep in and do as he likes.
And it’s disappointing, in a female-focussed children’s show, that the Great Wizard’s rule isn’t really challenged. The patriarchy is just a fact of life, and although they can fight to try and convince the Great Wizard to change his mind on issues, they can’t actually overrule him. Any “revolutionary” moments are quiet and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Mildred finds out that Miss Hardbroom secretly uses a staff, but she manages to convince the Great Wizard that such gender-based restrictions are unfair, but there’s no sense that he changes the rules in general. He allows Mildred to use a staff and his own grandson to chant, but they remain special cases.
It’s incredibly strange in an otherwise fun and compelling show, where female friendship and mentorship form the secret to success, and where an outsider repeatedly saves the day. Everything else about the show suggests it wants to be all about female strength and female stories. Witching ability is passed down from mother to daughter. All the great inspiring ancestors we see are female. We see nerdy overachievers and competitive rebels and spiteful bullies. We see power and influence dressed in all black, and dressed pink and feminine. And then we see the Great Wizard, setting bars around it all.
The only answer is for them all to stage a coup. Free themselves from the so-called Witches’ Code, dictated by a wizard, and arbitrarily enforced. Embrace the matriarchy and burn wizarding society to the ground.
The Worst Witch Season Three: Death to the Great Wizard. You heard it here first.