The Worst Witch books and TV shows
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The Worst Witch is back – and it’s as subtly feminist as ever

The Worst Witch is, essentially, a story aimed at bookish young women that deals with imposter syndrome.

If you’re a woman under 50, the name Mildred Hubble probably means something to you. Jill Murphy wrote her first book, The Worst Witch, when she was just 18. First published in 1974, it captivated audiences with its story of a bumbling young girl trying to scrape through her magical education. Perhaps your imagination was first caught by the books, with their descriptions of Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches, which “stood at the top of a high mountain surrounded by a pine forest” and “looked more like a prison than a school, with its gloomy grey walls and turrets,” and the students themselves “dressed in black gymslips, black stockings, black hobnailed boots, grey shirts and black-and-grey ties”.

Or perhaps it was the Nineties TV show that you really remember, starring Georgina Sherrington as Mildred, practically falling over her incredibly long plaits, and Felicity Jones as a deliciously posh and evil Ethel, Mildred’s long-standing nemesis.

However you fell in love with Mildred, Maud, Miss Cackle and Miss Hardbroom, there’s good news. The Worst Witch returns today on CBBC (4.30pm), with a cast borrowed from Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, updated special effects, and a more modern take on a magical boarding school. The series will also be available globally on Netflix later this year.

Mildred Hubble is played by 13-year-old Bella Ramsey, a talented actress who frequently stole the show in several recent episodes of Game of Thrones: no easy feat in a programme overrun with known scene-thieves. But unlike Mildred Hubbles of yore, this character is not from a family of witches – she’s just a normal girl from a council estate.

Like Hermione or Harry in Harry Potter, she has no idea magic even exists until she makes her way to school. In fact, here the script seems to borrow directly from Harry Potter: Maud’s question, “Didn’t anything ever happen to you that you couldn’t explain?” is reminiscent of Hagrid’s “Not a wizard, eh? Never made things happen when you was scared or angry?”

Dowton Abbey’s Raquel Cassidy makes for a particularly sarcastic Mistress Hardbroom, with other teachers played by Kacey Ainsworth, Clare Higgins and Amanda Holden.

There are lines about allergies and preferring “Ms” over “Mistress”, and even references to online magazines for witches. But while there are plenty of superficial updates, this new series doesn’t need to stray too far from the timeless source material. It's full of brilliant women – students and teachers alike. Just look at these badass bitches:


But The Worst Witch is, essentially, a story aimed at bookish young women that deals with imposter syndrome. Mildred finds herself at a competitive school, in intimidating surroundings, with a demanding and complex set of rules and requirements. Murphy writes, “There were so many rules that you couldn’t do anything without being told off, and there seemed to be tests and exams every week.” She constantly feels like an outsider – she even has the wrong cat. But despite constantly doubting her own ability and even her own identity as a “witch”, she frequently surprises herself (and others) with great achievements.

The new series runs with this theme – Mildred stumbles across the school by chance, and knows nothing at all about witch society. She fumbles over the appropriate way to address people, she gets motion sickness when magically transported (which other students find “pathetic”), she tells herself she cannot do potions or exams.

But when it comes down to it, Mildred’s fears about herself are misplaced. Friends and teachers are able to sense her talent, even as she makes mistakes. This is a show that also shows how constant comparisons with peers can only lead to more insecurity – brainbox Ethel is unreasonably hard on herself for missing the 100 per cent mark.

This is a delightful adaptation with a cast full of personality and an empowering message for CBBC audiences, which tells us you can save the world, even if you trip over your shoelaces while doing it. What could be more faithful to Murphy’s original books?

The Worst Witch, a CBBC production in collaboration with ZDF, ZDF Enterprises and Netflix, airs on CBBC today at 4.30pm.

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Now listen to a discussion of The Worst Witch on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

BBC
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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.