Burlesque Witches In Storytelling

Witches have a long history in storytelling, but they aren’t always scary. They aren’t always Baba Yaga types, sometimes murderous, sometimes helpful. There’s another variety of crone who is a ribald storyteller. She’s related to the classic witch, but her function in stories is quite different.

She is known as the burlesque witch. For a definition of burlesque, see here.

What is her name?

1871 illustration by Joseph Martin Kronheim for Mother Goose from My First Picture Book
Childrcraft Poems of Early Childhood, edited by J. Morris Jones, illustrations by Eloise Wilkin, Leonard Weisgard 1954

From eighteenth century nursery rhymes:

What does she look like?

As Marina Warner describes in From The Beast To The Blonde:

  • crone features
  • chapfallen jaw
  • toothless bight of chin and nose in profile
  • a Punch-like proboscis
  • carries a stick
  • wears a conical hat
  • apron and petticoats

The Burlesque Witch In Greek Myth

There is a fearsome cannibalistic mother from Greek myth, unable to save her own babies, and so vengeful against life, the universe and everything that she won’t let anyone else have babies either. So she eats children. Her name is Lamia.

Lamia tied to a tree, tortured by a satyr.

Diane Purkiss describes Lamia like this:

In a culture that values youth and finds age repulsive, like that of Ancient Greece (or like our own culture), Lamia’s predatory abduction of youth might signify the way children and parents are divided by age. … Lamia is invariably depicted marked by the terrible stigmata of the childbearing woman. A fifth-century Athenian vas shows her as a naked woman tied to a palm tree, and tortured by satyrs. She has a sagging belly and pendulous breasts, signs of ageing, and in particular, of the ageing that follows childbearing. The result of being taken over by that demonic child inside is to become an object of fright to the very child who has stolen her youth. In trying to rob children of their youth to restore her own, Lamia is a picture of the tangled feelings of the mother whose own youth has been absorbed, eaten, by the child she bears.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A history of fairies and fairy stories

The modern Internet burlesque witch, too, bears the kind of ageing specific to women who have given birth, though she is never shown with her (now grown) children. She is clearly a descendent of Lamia, but as happens to all fearsome female mythic creatures, she is either sexualised or rendered laughable. The burlesque witch is an interesting mixture of both, because both of these things have happened: her sexuality is grotesque, and that’s what makes her laughable.

Examples Burlesque Witches in Modern Pop Culture

  • Maxine is the cartoon character who most regularly comes through my feed. Maxine is a Hallmark character who has her own Facebook page, of course. She’s a grumpy, wise-cracking old woman.
  • You’ll find Maxine characters on many comedy series. The Simpsons gives us Patty and Selma.
  • violet crawley quotes is in the Burlesque Witch tradition, but she is of the upper class. One of the main character jokes is that she looks down on the middle-class, because her upper-class status is so fragile.
  • Catherine Tate’s Nan is an excellent example of the Burlesque Witch because she has a very reliable habit of being nasty-nice. She’ll be fake lovely, then as soon as someone leaves the room she turns. Nan is simply a modern take on the Baba Yaga character, who can be nice or mean, and we never know what we’re going to get at any given moment.
  • Betty White is the standout example. We like to imagine her as she appeared in The Golden Girls. A popular Twitter handle makes use of her name. Its MO is to point out the ridiculousness of politics in particular, from behind the jaded wisdom of an old woman who has seen it all. The real Betty White’s twitter feed is quite different.
  • Here in Australia, the Betty White parody account has been emulated, but uses recently retired SBS newsreader Lee Lin Chin as its avatar. Here we get the double comedy factor of an older woman (who is meant to be buttoned-up) crossed with a serious newsreader, who spends all day saying serious things. When ‘Lee Lin Chin’ joined Twitter, a lot of us wondered if this really was Lee Lin Chin. We hadn’t seen much of Lee Lin Chin outside her news reading role, but every Australian can see that her fashion sense masked a flamboyant personality. Now and again we got a glimpse. One famous blooper shows Lee Lin Chin saying, “Who is that handsome…” of a young male news reporter, not realising the camera had flipped back to her. We loved that, and could could imagine this ribald twitter account really was written by Lee Lin Chin, even though the twitter personality was more like that of a hard-drinking frat boy. Lee Lin Chin was also asked to play herself in a series of short films, in which she does play this character.

The Internet Burlesque Witch

I’ve seen plenty of burlesque witches on my mother and aunties’ social media feeds. Women who share these memes tend to share images of women older than they are, in true ‘old age’ rather than ‘late middle age’. The joke is that an old woman:

  1. Sees herself as still sexually attractive/active
  2. Sees herself as not still sexually attractive/active.

This juxtaposition is exactly in line with the messaging boomer women were forced to grow up with. Note this was aimed at women. Women could be sexy, sure, but they could not be sexy without also being bad.

The burlesque witch can be mined for sexual comedy in either direction. When older women make the joke, it tends to overturn stereotypes about old women.

Made by an older woman, I bet.

Sometimes the burlesque witch is simply making light out of old age. Often the joke is that she feels like a young woman stuck in an old woman’s body:

But of course, old women are appropriated by younger people making ageist memes based on the regular tropes:

This would have been made by someone who is not an older woman.

Others are based on stereotypes but are shared by older women themselves:

I like this one because although it relies on a stereotype (old ladies knit), she’s not knitting at home alone, and she’s doing it for her own enjoyment.

Features of the Internet Burlesque Witch

  • Sagging breasts (often exaggeratedly so — a common joke is that they drag on the ground, be tucked into a belt or be mistaken for testicles)
  • Fashion sense is youthful. She wears clothing more typically worn by teenagers, and doesn’t care.
  • Loves to drink and although she doesn’t feel bad about this, she does mention it a lot.
  • She carries a lot of middle-aged belly fat, but we can imagine she was ‘curvy’ in her youth.
  • She eschews exercise, except for ‘exercise’ such as picking up massive wine bottles, pulling the lever on her recliner and other minimal efforts.
  • Chocolate is a favourite food, standing in for any of life’s little luxuries.
  • She speaks her mind, and is often depicted with a large mouth wide open.
  • Rather than a chapfallen chin, she has a double/triple/quadruple chin.