Anti-authoritarian themes in The Owl House #01

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If you're a queer person, you might have heard that The Owl House is a show with some pretty good representation. But while it does have queer themes, I find that that's not the only thing it does really well, which is why I wanted to write this blog post. I felt that (maybe partially because the show's audience skews a bit young) the themes of authoritarianism that are central to the plot are not discussed enough.

Now, of course, pretty much everyone sees Emperor Belos for the villain that he is. However, does everyone see the mirror that he holds to our real world, or do they dismiss him as a cartoonishly evil guy who would not be relevant in our age? This is the question I'll be asking as I go through the episodes mainly chronologically and apply my personal readings of the show. I'll warn about spoilers to specific episodes in advance! Of course, it's not just Belos that is the issue, it's the whole system under him, which we start learning about...

Part 1 – Introduction to the Boiling Isles (spoilers for Season 1 Episodes 1) soon as episode 1! This is when Luz Noceda accidentally goes to the demon realm instead of summer camp (after being sent there due to her reputation as a weirdo and to “fit into boxes”), and we meet Eda the Owl Lady, who is a seller of human collectibles. Luz, being human (which is unique in the demon realm) might be able to help her with her stand, except we soon learn that Eda is wanted for “misuse of magic” and is ordered to go to the Conformatorium (it's kind of on the nose, isn't it?); she claims she hasn't “done squat” and she manages to escape with Luz. Now, even with it being called “Conformatorium”, some might say that one shouldn't read much into this, after all, it's a cartoon! WRONG. Which, you probably expected with the context. In a day and age where all kinds of discrimination still exist, conforming is something people have to do to fill their made up roles in society. And having a so called “Conformatorium” is a sign of authority, a sign of there being someone, or even a group of people who get to decide whether your true self is something that you can be open about. Fascists always call people who are different from what they consider normal “freaks” in order to be able to control people, and this is already a huge sign of that happening. Eda also says she didn't do anything for her to go there, although we don't know whether we can trust her and if she's honest yet, so let's not get into that sentence.

Throughout the episode we also meet King, the “King of Demons”, who, according to him, once was a ruler of demons, but then he lost his crown. Luz is tasked with getting his crown back, which is located in the bounds of the Conformatorium. While getting there, Luz meets a few prisoners who are locked up, and learns that their crimes were basically just “being weirdos”. After getting King's crown back (which was basically just a Burger King crown that had no actual power), Luz enacts Eda's help to save the people she met from the Conformatorium with the tagline “us weirdos have to stick together”, setting up a major theme for the series as a pilot should. And while the pilot itself is quite cliché in this, it works well to introduce us to what this show will be about; authoritarianism being part of that. I will add that King’s monarchy-related views are mostly played for laughs and in no way take away from the messages in the rest of the show.

Part 2 – The system for schools and tracks (spoilers for Season 1 Episodes 3-5)

The first episode we get to magic school is episode 3, and the first sentence we hear Eda say about it is that they try to teach you the “proper” way. She also claims that magic is not proper, it's “wild and unpredictable”. From her perspective, school is a place that is more about standardizing magic rather than about teaching it. This definitely has its equivalent in real life – school systems that feed you one way of doing things? Yeah, that is certainly realistic. On this note still, I feel that as we go on, Eda is becoming somewhat of an anarchist icon. She's against the strict school system with 9 tracks (or “covens”) to choose from, but one thing we learn about her in episode 5 is that her criminal status is due to her not choosing to be part of any of those covens. And in that episode, it becomes clear: those 9 covens go well beyond school.

The episode takes us to a Covention event, where we get to learn about covens, which potentially could help magical creatures choose from them. Of course, each witch gets to choose 1 – and a very important detail that's revealed is that when someone chooses a coven, the rest of their magic is sealed away. Amazing metaphor – covens are basically categories which rulers put us into in order to make us weaker and more divided. Eda, having not joined a coven, is able to perform wild magic, which makes her a lot more powerful than most witches. Oh but she's not the only one to be able to retain her full magic – the emperor's coven (not part of the main 9, basically a bit above it) lets you have access to all magic as well. This coven, unlike the rest, is based on selection – unless you're the best of the best, you will not be able to join. Eugenics, anyone? This definitely plants seeds in some people's heads that unless one is in the emperor's coven, they're worth less, or even nothing. They're also the enforcers of the emperor's will, which is just more hints that this is a fully tyrannical system, which many blindly follow.

This includes Amity and Lilith, who we first meet in episodes 3 and 5 respectively. Amity is a student in Hexside (the same school which Luz visits), a prodigy, who wants to become a part of the Emperor's Coven. Amity is an important figure at this point as someone who wants nothing but to be the top student, potentially poisoned by the expectations of the school and society. Lilith is one of the highest serving members of the Emperor's Coven. She also mentors Amity, and importantly, is the sister of Eda. Lilith is here as a bit of contrast to Eda, who might be on a different side compared to her, but she still is opening up to her, hoping she might also join a coven. She thinks being in a coven is actually a good thing, swallowing up the propaganda from the emperor. Well, we don't actually know if it's propaganda, but the way the show is being written seems to suggest strongly that it is, it has all the signs of fascism.

Plus, one more thing regarding the coven system: it also reflects the need to choose a career path under the oppressive system that is capitalism. Speaking of…

Part 3 – Capitalism and disability (spoilers for Season 1 Episodes 4 & 6)

Did you think we wouldn't get into living with disabilities and capitalism in this post? Well, then you'd have expected wrong. Though it would have been fair to see this part coming, considering that Eda's “disability” is a major plot point throughout the series. We learn about this (aka her curse) in episode 4: it turns out that Eda needs to drink elixirs, because she had been cursed a long time ago, and if she doesn't take it, she turns into an owl beast. Many see this as a metaphor for chronic illness, I personally prefer to see it as one for neurodiversity considering some later episodes, however, both readings work fairly well. The point is that she needs to take medicine, and that is costly, which is where episode 6 comes in.

In this episode, Eda runs out of her elixir and gets to her usual seller to buy more. However, the seller (Morton) is out of elixirs. As a result of this, he tells Eda to try her chance at the night market. So Eda goes to the night market, finding the stand of “Grimm Hammer” (also known as Tibbles), who is revealed to have a pig-like appearance. Lucky for Eda, he has just stocked up on that specific elixir! Except that luck runs out very quick when she finds out that the price of it is 2 digits longer than her offer. The following conversation happens between them:

Eda: A thousand snails? What kind of game are you playing? Tibbles: Capitalism! Where everyone wins, except you.

Now... yes, this is a show produced and distributed by Disney. Having this in their show is just them selling counter-culture. But: the show was not written by the execs. It was written by Dana Terrace and her crew. And while corporations will jump on every opportunity to appropriate movements against them, this message fits in perfectly with the themes, I'd say. Disabled people lack many accommodations under capitalism, and they're the ones least likely to be able to make the money required to pay for their meds. Quite a few disabled people aren't able to work, and that makes affording basic amenities quite difficult, or straight up impossible. This makes the system more oppressive against those who are disabled, and the show highlights this issue quite well, in my view.

Part 4 – We live in a society (spoilers for Season 1 Episode 9)

In episode 9, the topic of Hexside (the school) comes up once again. Luz still wants to go there, and she even has 2 friends now who attend the school. However, this makes Eda mad. She does second guess her decisions regarding this, though, and ends up attempting to surprise Luz by getting her signed up. It is a bit of a shame that Eda’s decision is played off as a joke in a scene with Hooty (endless owl tube attached to the front door of the owl house/amazing guard), showing “how he turned out” after being taught by Eda. Despite this, I still think there are important points to be made here.

Firstly, that being anti-fascist/anti-capitalist does not mean that you should opt out of participating in society. Making connections with other people is quite important. And even if you don’t feel that’s true: there’s not much of a choice to opt out, cause if you do, that does not go unpunished (see the enforced coven system). Another significant discussion to be had here is of the parent – child relationship between Eda and Luz. While they might only see each other as mentor – student, it’s clear that a more family-like bond is forming. And Eda cannot ignore that Luz is a person of her own, with the ability to make choices. So even if she is against school enrollment, it’s important that she does not become controlling. Hierarchy in a family environment can be quite unhealthy for both the people and the connection between them.

One last note about this episode is regarding the detention pit in the school. The way it works is it basically the students get put into a brainwashed state and have to repeat “I will be a good student”. This feels like something straight out of horror (well, I guess the series can be considered that in a way). It could be a way of hinting at a bad method of punishing people (aka justice systems throughout the world).

I wanted this to be one long post, but turns out there is a lot of content in a tv series. So I just want to get something out right now, otherwise nothing might get published lol. Thanks for reading this far (or for scrolling to the end, I guess)!