The Cultural Roots of Little Witch Academia Part 3: The Significance of Shipping Hannah and Barbara

Some mildly NSFW material below.

So Netflix has just released the first half of the Little Witch Academia television series on their platform along with their very own English dub that can only be described as… underwhelming. Thankfully, the option of subtitles is present, which gives me a great reason to re-watch a few episodes. I’m glad I did so too, since that helped me a lot with the last article where, in case you missed it, we delved into the show’s main plot devices and how one of them reinforces the primary philosophical theme of the series. So let’s continue down that path by discussing something equally important and nuanced: yuri shipping.

Okay, so we’re going to go a little more in depth than that, but this article’s inciting action is indeed the fact that many people in the fandom ship the characters Hannah and Barbara with one another.

Of all the fanart I found of these two, this is the only one that’s G rated.

Yes, their names are indeed a reference to the famous American animation studio Hanna-Barbera, one of countless pop-culture references found in the show (I should do an article on those eventually) but could the show be encouraging the shipping on purpose? The argument can certainly be made that it does. After all, the two are constantly with one another, we see much more casual physical contact between them than with almost every other character in the show combined and we even see them bathe together.

Of course, a subtle implication of a romantic relationship between same sex characters is something that’s so common in anime it borders on cliché, but I think there’s a little bit more behind the direction of this character dynamic than simply following a trend and I think we can find it in, you guessed it, the representation of witches throughout real life culture.

Those of you who generally associate witches with old ugly women with long noses and hunched backs may be surprised to hear this, but sexuality has in fact always been a part of witch mythology. People in the middle ages believed that witches gained their powers through pacts with demons, were they would trade sex for magic. This is only one of many sexual characteristics of witch lore, too. Have you ever wondered why witches are always depicted as riding brooms? Well, many say that the broomstick was originally meant to be symbolic of a demon’s penis. Yes, that’s actually real.

It’s going to be weird trying to see Halloween decorations the same way again.

Of course, those are just examples of sexuality in general, we haven’t quite gotten to the cultural precedent of witches being lesbians yet. That comes courtesy of the Catholic Church, who at one time used (most likely fabricated) accusations of homosexuality to justify the murders of their rivals, who they would often brand heretics. Throughout medieval times many religious groups began to expand their reach and influence, which meant taking away the reach and influence of the Catholics who would use these fear mongering tactics to silence them through killing. Originally, the Church only targeted rival religious groups, but in 1320 Pope John XXII gave permission to the French Inquisitors in Carcassonne and Toulouse to organize witch hunts. If you’re familiar with the term’s modern day connotation you probably have a good idea of how that went down. Accusations of witchcraft began running rampant with countless people falsely accused and convicted by way of kangaroo court. Just like their religious opponents, the Church accused their targets of homosexuality to fix public opinion against them and fix it it did, as once the accusations had been made, almost anything could serve as proof of witchcraft.

If a woman was found to have anything from supernumerary nipples to just a simple mole she was considered irrefutably guilty of being a witch and would promptly be burned at the stake, usually after a forced confession through torture. I really cannot put enough emphasis on how integral gay accusations were to this process either. It’s a detail that isn’t often addressed in modern witch stories, but at the time gay people and witches were not far off from being considered synonymous with one another. In fact, the use of the word “faggot” as a derogatory term for gay people is widely believed to have originated from the bundles of sticks used as tinder for witch burnings that had the same name.

So is the implication that our two Luna Nova witches are in a relationship meant as a callback to a horribly cruel time for both witches and gay people? Well, that’s not exactly the whole story. In modern times, the lgbt community generally regards witches as a symbol of empowerment for queer women. Witches are once again closely associated with gay people but now it’s on their own terms and as a compliment rather than a pejorative. The relationship is not limited to symbolism, however. Modern Wicca and Neopagan groups have seen a very high number of gay members among their ranks.

The Radical Faeries, an all-gay Neopagan group at the 2010 Gay Pride Parade in London, UK.

I am neither gay nor a witch, but I speculate that this is more than just a coincidence. After all, even when they were being demonized, witches were seen as powerful women who defied societal expectation and took no crap from anyone. This would seem like a desirable position for anyone, but for a group of people who were attacked and degraded as much as gay people, it could very well be seen as inspiring. A figure that is feared and oppressed but still ends up coming off as powerful and independent seems like something that could really speak to someone in the position of a gay person in our society, after all. The parallels between the plight of witches and the plight of gay people don’t stop there, however. I’m sure that I’m far from the only one who sees why stories about witches disguising themselves as regular people to fit into our society and avoid being attacked might resonate with gay people so it only makes sense to see an appreciation for witches in the lgbt community. I’m not just talking about some small connection you only see on occasion, either. Witch imagery is a very common motif at gay pride parades, be it through things like gay wiccan groups, empowering t-shirts and even attendees who flat out cosplay as witches.

This pride parade attendee is disguised as the witch from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. It’s pretty *snicker* wicked, am I right?

Was all this what inspired Studio Trigger to write Hannah and Barbara in a way that suggests a romantic relationship? Well, probably not. After all, these are not especially prominent characters and implied gay relationships are a dime a dozen in anime. But, on the other hand, we’ve seen that the creative team behind Little Witch Academia has been extremely conscious of the culture surrounding the groups and settings found in the show, so it’s not too farfetched to imagine that they may have been inspired to write some gay witch characters by the relationship between the two groups in real life. Even if it’s all just a coincidence, I still find this to be a fascinating reflection of how witches are seen, both in historical times and in the modern day. Sure, it may be a bit of a reach, but it lends credence to all the shipping so who can complain?

 

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Will Bertazzo Lambert
Will Bertazzo Lambert has recently risen above doing nothing but watch anime all the time and has now taken up talking about it on the internet. He hopes you will listen too, since he intends to talk for a long, long time.