The “Practical Magic” of sisterhood
This year is the 20th anniversary of the widely beloved romantic comedy Practical Magic. While many fans remember the movie — which stars Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as sisters who are also witches — as a funny, supernatural twist on the rom-com genre, looking back reveals a much more resonant theme: how sorority is the most powerful magic available to women specifically because of its ability to uniquely support and instill confidence in each other.
Practical Magic begins by revealing that the women in the family of sisters Sally (Bullock) and Gillian (Kidman) Owens are haunted by a curse: The men they truly love are doomed to die before their time. The curse began long ago when a relative tried to cast a spell on herself to help her avoid falling deeply in love again after going through a major heartbreak, but her powers morphed the spell into the aforementioned curse. But while most women in the family designed their lives to adhere to the curse, Gillian and Sally’s mother doesn’t, and dies of a broken heart after losing the love of her life. Her daughters are left with their two eccentric aunts, Jet (Dianne Wiest) and Frances (Stockard Channing), who are very open about their powers and teach the girls how to use their gifts.
The first message of the movie is clear: It’s impossible for anyone to stop themselves from feeling, and you’ll only end up hurting yourself even more by trying to. But then the movie delves into a gendered take on love — that between two women who unfailingly support and love each other.
From the beginning, it’s clear the Owens sisters are an unshakable unit. They are shown holding each others’ hands when they meet and try to understand their aunts, and are often shown holding on to each other, representing that they need each other for balance. Gillian and Sally help each other cope with the changes in their lives, and decide that they will end up just like their aunts, living together in the same town in which they grew up, and even promising to die on the same day. It’s no coincidence that their constant return to hand holding is one of the strongest symbols of the feminist movement; there is nothing stronger than women supporting each other, giving their hands to both support and receive help.
Though the sisters are always together, they have completely different personalities and views on their magical powers — differences that only grow more prominent as they grow older. Gillian is a extrovert who wants adventure; she loves meeting new people and falling in love. She sees her powers as a gift that deserves to be used whenever possible and ultimately decides to run away with a boyfriend and explore the world. Before she does, she makes a blood pact with her sister that she will always be there for her. Sally, who sees her gift as a burden. and rarely uses magic, stays inside the house to avoid falling in love.
Eventually, despite her efforts to avoid it, Sally becomes the victim of the curse; she loses the love of her life. Gillian senses her sister’s pain from afar. The blood pact allows each sister to feel the other’s pain, even miles apart. Gillian returns to make Sally get out of bed and move on with her life — something not even Sally’s daughters were able to convince her to do. Later, Sally saves Gillian in return. When Gillian discovers her lover is not who she thinks he is, Sally leaves everything behind, despite her typical caution, to make sure her sister is OK and take her back home. Sally does what she has to do to save her sister, which involves breaking her own vow to never interfere in the lives of others by using her magic.
After these whirlwind changes in the sisters’ lives, they form a unit once again to provide support and love they did not even know they needed. Gillian comes back to live with Sally in their town, but her outspoken persona is confronting. In an attempt to adjust to a “normal” life, Sally had chosen to hide her powers in Gillian’s absence. The town is aware, and often critical, of the Owens’ difference, and they are somewhat outcasts; Sally’s daughters are teased at school for being Owenses. But Sally still needs the approval of the school mothers to be part of the school council. This is where Gillian comes in to support and teach her sister an important lesson; she uses her powers to make sure the mothers don’t mess with her sister, which inspires a sense of confidence and that makes Sally feel lighter and even comfortable enough to join her sister in playing pranks on them. With Gillian by her side, Sally not only begins to better understand and embrace her magical talents, but also understand that she is not alone. Her sister helps give her the courage to stand up for what she wants, even in the face of a group that is averse to her.
This confidence Sally regains thanks to her sister’s encouragement is very similar to the effect that media representation more generally has gifted upon girls all over the world. When Sally is alone with the other mothers from school, she is uncomfortable with her magic because she is the only one with it. She begins to think her difference compared to the other women is a problem. But seeing Gillian, who she loves and admires, happily and freely using her powers, helps Sally realize she can use her gifts for good and that she can explore them more. Like many women around the world, Sally needed to see someone like herself in the room and, more specifically, see her difference in a positive light, to finally enjoy being different.
But the film goes beyond this purely sororial understanding of female support. Despite the tension between the women in the town and the Owenses, all the moms from school ultimately come to Sally’s aid when she needs nine woman to join in a magical ritual to save Gillian from possession by her evil ex-boyfriend’s spirit. The women go so far as to hold brooms and chant in an unknown language to come to the rescue of Gillian. There is a lot of beauty in seeing all the woman who made Sally feel bad about her gifts united in witchcraft to help her. Ultimately, however, it’s Sally’s dedication to her sister that makes saving Gillian possible. Just like in all the previous moments in which the sisters found themselves trouble, it is their joined hands that ultimately helps them survive, thanks to another blood pact involving the sisters as well as the other woman who join hands around the circle. They show the evil male spirit that she is not alone, and that he will have to take down all of them before taking her.
The tale closes with the sisters showing off their powers to a supportive crowd of townspeople during Halloween. They enjoy seeing the Owens family fly, all of them holding each others’ hands.
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