Traditionally pop culture portrays witches as Halloween novelties, manifestations of horror or comedic social tricksters. On occasion there are kindly witches and even inconsequential ones. However rarely is there ever a traditional, pointy-hat wearing pop-culture witch who has been constructed as a childhood role model.That is exactly what has been done by the National Social Climate Center (NSCC). In 2010 the Center’s BullyBust Program teamed up with the Broadway Cast of Wicked to develop an anti-bullying educator toolkit. The opening document reads:
This educator’s toolkit and companion student supplement have been created to help raise awareness about the harmful effects of bullying and they should be part of a long-term effort that addresses individual, classroom, schoolwide and community bully prevention work.
Why Wicked? The Stephen Schwartz musical is based on Gregory Maguire’s New York Times best-selling book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Both the novel and musical tell the story of how the most notorious pop-culture witch becomes “evil.”
Wicked subverts the assumptions posited by the original L.Frank Baum tale and subsequent movie renditions through a prequel that leads up to and encapsulates the well-known narrative. In this modern retelling, Elphaba, a green-skinned girl, is an outcast who, as a child, endures social isolation and bullying. Later at the University, Elphaba unearths political injustice and corruption which eventually leads to a life of radical activism. When she openly defies the law, she becomes the victim of a government-born P.R. campaign to ruin her reputation. She is labeled “wicked” The rest is history.NSCC chief operating officer Darlene Faster said, “Elphaba is the perfect model” for their program because she is the victim of bullying as well as being what the program calls “an upstander” which is defined as:
…someone who recognizes when something is wrong and acts to make it right. When an upstander sees or hears about someone being bullied, they speak up. Being an upstander is being a hero: We are standing up for what is right and doing our best to help support and protect someone who is being hurt.
NSCC’s BullyBust Wicked-themed program was originally launched in 2011 with the help of teacher Deborah Leporati of Warwick Valley Middle School in New York. That March the Broadway cast of Wicked held an anti-bullying workshop in the Gershwin Theater in New York. During the session, they performed bits of the show, discussed bullying with the 300 plus attending children and presented an award to the winner of their “Defying Gravity” anti-bullying essay contest.
Originally the relationship was only supposed to last one year. However the Wicked-themed program was so successful, it has continued on. Now nearly three years later, the program thrives in more than 3000 schools throughout the U.S. and Canada. This month Omaha’s Anti-Defamation League sponsored a Wicked Anti-Bullying Summit while the musical was in town. Designed for teenagers, the Summit included workshops, talks, cast encounters and tickets to the musical.
As reported by the Vancouver Sun, the “Witch [is now] a symbol for bully busting in schools. Winnie Holzman, Wicked‘s Script Writer, told the paper:
I think one of the reasons our show has meant a lot to people is the character Elphaba who’s so looked down on and treated with such contempt and she really, really triumphs. She really comes into her own strength and power and I think that’s something that means a lot for people to see.
While NSCC’s BullyBust program is geared to general audiences, it could potentially have a greater significance for the Pagan and Heathen communities. Pagan Author Byron Ballard, who has worked very closely with her local school system, explains:
Witches are everywhere these days in popular media, mostly as some sort of shock-and-awe effect. Using the story of the play “Wicked” to lead school-age folks into a stronger position against bullies of all stripes seems like a good way to use this age-old image as a symbol of out-of-the-box power.
The BullyBust program encourages children to examine the notion of perspective through Elphaba’s story. They compare the presentation of the witch in Baum’s Wizard of Oz to Maguire’s Wicked. The educator’s toolkit suggests the following exercise:
The Wicked Witch of the West is considered one of the most infamous icons of evil, yet the story of WICKED reveals she was simply misunderstood. Choose a character from a book you know well. Write a short story that reveals a different side to the same character, explaining his/her actions or revealing something extra the reader does not know
Although the book and the show themselves do subvert social assumptions about the witch, the NSCC program takes that concept out of narrative fiction, out of the theater environment and places it into reality. Byron notes:
It means [when Pagans] choose to engage publicly, there’s a hook to hang that on. We’ve always had the original image but that has only worked successfully as a tool of fierce resistance. This re-framing gives us (through the image) the moral high ground. That’s a good position.
In this re-framing the witch is a symbol of “otherness” which can be translated as any aspect of oneself that causes social marginalization. However the program’s meaning translates more literally for children or adults who have been bullied specifically for being a Witch. Byron adds, “It doesn’t hurt that the Wicked premise is that a propaganda campaign was effective against someone who was an enemy of the state.”
Regardless of the approach, the BullyBust program presents a new role for the pop-culture witch. Framed as a champion against bullying and an “upstander,” Elphaba may offer Pagan and Heathen children a stronger foundation to grow on and a new tool to prevent situations like the one faced by Tempest Smith years ago. As Byron says, “That is a good position.” She plans to send the program to her local school system and offer assistance in its development.