Sunday, October 17, 2010

Double, Double Toil And Trouble: Or, Why Images Of Witch Burnings Are A Bad Idea

Decades ago, feminists really cared about the casual use of images that exploited women's bodies or that used violence against women as a way to sell a product.  A billboard that went up on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1975 was the catalyst for feminists to form Women Against Violence Against Women, the first of numerous groups in the United States, Canada and England that began to link the anti-battering movement to images that articulated violence against women as part of the status quo.

By the 1990's, the feminist consciousness that promoted swift and effective action in such cases had gone under cover, due in part to profound disagreements about what constituted a radical feminist agenda and what women's civil liberties meant.  I am writing a book about why that was, so I won't go on at length, but you will be hearing more about this topic at Tenured Radical in the coming months.

In the meantime, I would like to pass on an email I received over the N-Net listserve from Julie Landwebber, assistant professor of History and Women's Studies, Montclair State University:

I would not ordinarily post a "take-action" request, but this particular issue hits home for historians of women and gender -- in particular, anyone working on late-medieval or early modern Europe, or colonial America.

Please take a moment out to send a note to Tomme@lostabbey.com, the founder of Lost Abbey Brewery in San Marcos, California. They have just released a new beer, Witches' Wit, featuring a highly disturbing image of a very décolleté woman being burned alive at the stake while hundreds of upturned men watch with interest. For those of you who are unaware of this unlovely chapter of European history, roughly 100,000 women were killed by the Catholic and Protestant churches in the 16th and 17th centuries for, most often, the crime of being a woman. I'm sure the creative team at Lost Abbey can come up with a lot of great medieval imagery that doesn't involve women being burned at the stake.

It's difficult to see in the picture at right, but you get the drift.  Let's underline the point here:  it's not the witch thing that is at issue, particularly since this is a seasonal beer that seems to be available in the fall, but rather, what is being done with the witch.  As you are trying to decide whether Tenured Radical is just another humorless feminist after all, try this consciousness-raising exercise:  given that thousands of men were also burned, beheaded and dismembered as heretics and witches by the church, would a beer company produce an advertisement depicting that? Would a beer company put a Jim Crow-style lynching circa 1925 on the label of a beer named, oh, say, "Baptist Brew"? And if not, why not?



A similar version of this post has been cross posted at Cliopatria.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a home-brewer, a man, and a former witch, I'm not that happy about the label, but not surprised that a poorly understood piece of "ancient history" would get depicted this way by a (statistically likely to be) male beer geek. (There is also a little subcurrent of beer culture that likes making labels with shock value -- just so y'all know.) I suspect folks who email the guy will come across to him as Humorless Feminists, but I think it's worth a try.

Oh, and just to be pedantic, that 100,000 estimate comes from Barstow's WITCHCRAZE, which really worked hard to inflate the numbers. Never did like that sloppy-ass book. Suggest Hutton's much more careful TRIUMPH OF THE MOON instead which gives an estimate of 40,000, a number which is itself well ahead of the available evidence.

Historiann said...

Thanks, TR. I almost did a nearly identical post on this, but am glad I came over for a visit this morning!

Clearly, this is a big humor and beer marketing FAIL. The strange thing is that they could have made a much better, funnier, and more attractive label for "Witch's Wit" had they gone with a witch or 2 stirring a witch's brew. That would have been completely inoffensive, and more in the spirit of advertising a brew.

Dumbasses!
People should avoid Lost Abbey beers and ales because the brewers and their marketing people are stupid. There are plenty of tasty brews crafted by intelligent folk with better eyes for label design and humor--we should support them.

Amy said...

There is a long history of complaints about the images of women that brewers use for advertising. Usually the labels are not the issue. Craft brewers have gotten in trouble in the past for using images of Santa Claus on labels.

Anonymous said...

'roughly 100,000 women were killed by the Catholic and Protestant churches in the 16th and 17th centuries for, most often, the crime of being a woman'

Well this is patently ridiculous. 'The crime of being a woman' is an absurd feminist myth. They were executed because people thought they were witches. As were many men.

Whatever the merits of the cause, it is not served by sloppy research and knee-jerk reactions like this. Bad history is not best attacked with bad history.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 12:20: Keep your annoyance within reasonable bounds,ok? Anyway, Amy gave us a citation for her quibble with the #'s -- are you a specialist in the field as the person who posted the original message is? If not, could you be wrong that women were not overwhelmingly accused, convicted and executed for this crime?

Anonymous said...

Well this is patently ridiculous. 'The crime of being a woman' is an absurd feminist myth. They were executed because people thought they were witches. As were many men.

Well, not so many men in comparison and most men charged were linked to women who had been charged. This is such old, standard scholarship that I'm surprised anyone raises it. Check for American episodes:
Norton, Karlsen, Reis, and Demos for a start. If you worry about their "liberal bias" or "feminist bias" then just go to the documents that detail who was tried and executed. For (say) Salem, see Rosenthal, et al. "The Records of the Salem Witch Hunt" or drop by your local archive!

The fact is that women were so much more vulnerable to witchcraft charges that it was indeed related to sex. The overwhelming numbers of women executed in the west show that. Even in Puritan communities where doctrine said male and female souls were equal, their belief that the devil worked on earth in physical form made women *still* more "vulnerable" because of perceived physical weakness. Sex corelates very closely with witchcraft charges.

It isn't bad history. But, in your comment, you show the results of knowing no history which is a problem.

G. Adams

Susan said...

Landweber's reference to the 100,000 dead (which I think originated in the Ehrenreich and English pamphled "Witches, Midwives, and Nurses" even before it was used by Barstow) is unfortunate; early modern feminist historians would not use it, and the later research on witchcraft has painted a far more complicated picture.

Stil, this is a clumsy marketing tool A little web surfing turned up this post http://deafpagancrossroads.com/2010/10/16/witches-wit-beer-label-the-lost-abbey-response/ at Deaf Pagan Crossroads (sorry I don't know how to embed a link in a comment). What I find intriguing is that Lost Abbey's founder thinks beer labels are a good place to educate people about Catholic excesses. What strikes me in this case is that the visual message and the written message don't appear to mesh.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I think that's technically a "sexy Halloween witch" ... the cleavage & pointed hat combo that some twentysomethings wear to Halloween parties. And I agree: sexualizing an image of a person being tortured to death is advertising something beside beer.

@Susan, I have to object to the idea that witch trials were strictly "Catholic excess." Catholic witch prosecutions should not be excused, but neither should Protestant witch prosecutions (like that one in Massachusetts) be written out of history.

Historiann said...

Word on the pan-Christian execution of witches. I agree with Dr. Cleveland on that, however I disagree that this label is too sexxay. I went to the brewery's website, and looked for a larger image of the label, expecting to the the St. Pauli girl. You can see it on the tee-shirt for Witch's Wit t-shirt they sell. The witch on the label is pretty well covered up. (Unless that's cleavage and not a Puritan collar! Even with the larger image here, it's hard to tell.)

http://www.lostabbey.com/shop/apparel/lost-abbey-womens-witchs-wit-t-shirt/

Susan said...

@Dr. Cleveland, I know that Protestants burned witches too. I was quoting from the letter from the Lost Abbey PR person.

And Historiann, I think that's skin, not a puritan collar.

Digger said...

If you click on the pic of the t-shirt in the link H'ann posted, you get an even larger image. I do believe it is cleavage.

It just looks like either: a snuff film (all those turned up mens faces; no women in the masses that I could discern) or damsel in distress awaiting rescue (which appears to be too late). The bound, helpless woman with heaving cleavage, hair disheveled, and mouth open is pretty standard porn/advertising fare. I'll happily drink other people's beer.

Historiann said...

I stand corrected, then. EEEeeeww!

Doctor Cleveland said...

@Susan: you're right, and I'm wrong. Apologies. Next time I'm feeling pedantic I'll try to get the citation right.

Needlelover said...

Could the company have chosen better? Probably. Avoid the beer? Sounds like a witch hunt...

Besides, the beer's main failings are a lack of taxidermy and neoconservative historiography:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38376048

Alan Allport said...

Professor Landwebber isn't doing her reputation as "a specialist in the field" much good by throwing around an estimate for the number of victims that's more than twice as high as the concensus figure amongst most historians today. Her inflated total is I suspect based on the dubious work of Anne Barstow, which few scholars of early modern Europe take very seriously.

Janine Giordano said...

Thank you for this post, TR. Especially as we near Halloween, depictions of women as sexy witches is becoming a "hip" alternative to depictions of women in more definitely anti-feminist personas. However, I don't think this is an improvement. What bothers me most about this picture is the way the beer is marketed around the imagery of gawking at a woman. Even if she weren't being burned at the stake, what does it say that a hip craft beer is marketed around an image of medieval/early modern Europeans staring at a woman?

GlassPen said...

"Cold as a witch's mitt."

OK, it wasn't "mitt" in the original. It wasn't "wit" either. I'm going with "decolletage" here, to match the image. I expect it tastes pretty much like anything made in a cauldron with eye of newt.

Jay Livingston said...

An even larger, clearer version is here.

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