Women

03.11.14

‘Bewitched’ Cast a Feminist Spell

The ’60s TV comedy took the ‘situation’ in ‘sitcom’ to dizzying heights, but who knew back then that the show was also subversively and delightfully feminist?

I discovered reruns of Bewitched in 1989 while visiting my grandma in Florida. I was 11, my grandma was well into her 70s, and it was the only show we could ever agree on. Magic. Mindful of the approaching anniversary of the final episode, which aired March 25, 1972, and the recently released DVD of the first two seasons, I decided to revisit the series that brought Grams and me together in the cradle of Nick at Nite.

Bewitched premiered in 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Act granted women and minorities legal protection from workplace discrimination, a year after Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, and not long after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique tore down the myth of the happy housewife. “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: 'I want something more than my husband and my children and my home’,” wrote Friedan.

Enter Samantha Stephens, the plucky little homemaker with a supernatural secret. She could travel to Paris if she closed her eyes, make it rain with the swirl of her hands, and turn a lecherous old man into dog with a squint. But she’d always get in trouble if she did. Samantha was just the soft-launch feminist TV needed to broker the tensions of a changing society. She was frighteningly powerful, but only if she wiggled her nose, and her kryptonite was the love of a mortal man. Conveniently, she was a character who could be interpreted in many different ways —and many writers have—as someone who wasted her powers, or as someone who harnessed them, as an oppressed figure, or as a symbol of second wave feminism.

For me, Samantha made magical powers seem within reach. For my grandma, she may have been a reminder of the power of marriage over magic. Neither one of us was wrong. And that was one thing I learned from re-watching Bewitched. I also discovered that magic was just a distraction for a lot of other heavy topics examined by the series.

Here’s what I’m talking about:  

Darrin Stephens was the original Madman: Samantha’s husband, Darrin, wrote ads for perfume and soup, kept a bottle of whiskey in his office, ogled hip-swaying secretaries and sometimes even cheated (but only when under spells, mind you.) Worse than that, he struggled with the notion that copywriting could be women's work, too. In an early episode, Samantha improves upon Darrin’s lame ideas for a new soup campaign and Darrin chalks her talent up to magic. In fact, we learn, Sam just has a natural talent for copywriting, and guess who doesn’t like it

Darrin was also a drunk: Darrin enjoys a Manhattan with one cherry, a martini, a sidecar, hell, a straight up quadruple shot of whisky, which in one episode he guzzles down like a glass of O.J. Any time Sam casts a spell, or even threatens to, Darrin calls for another shot. One of his worst benders started early in their marriage, when he discovered his wife was a witch. The next several days were spent at a bar, trying to no avail to convince a drinking buddy of his home situation. But then again, who isn’t married to a witch? (That’s the running joke through the episode.) When he finally comes to terms with the truth, he does see a bright side.  “It might have some advantages, like if you want a drink in a dry state,” he says. Cue laugh track.

Samantha was in a “mixed marriage”: Inside the whitewashed world of Bewitched, racial tensions brewed, but only between witches and mortals. Sam’s often ridiculed “mixed marriage” with a mortal was considered a blot on the family name, especially in the eyes of her Warlock father. He was so angry about the arrangement that he made Darrin disappear. For all his faults (and there are many) Darrin was fairly progressive when put to the test, standing up for his marriage in the face of the narrow-minded—be it Sam’s dad or his own boss. In an early episode, he’s tasked with drawing a classic witch—warts and all—for a Halloween-themed ad campaign. When Samantha explains how such misrepresentations of witches have hurt her people, Darrin decides to quit his job rather than be forced to further the anti-witch propaganda. It’s a side of the guy I wish we’d seen more of. 

Psychotherapy has come a long way: Gladys, Samantha’s neighbor, may be unstable, but she’s also the only person besides Darrin who knows about the whole witchcraft thing. Sadly her husband, Abner, chalks it up to her mysterious mental illness. Often, he threatens her with psychotherapy, and in more than one episode is seen spoon-feeding her some unidentified liquid medicine, which Gladys complains makes her nauseous. “Better nauseous than crazy,” says Abner.

Ever frustrated by her daughter’s decision to settle down and marry a nice man, she tried with spells and verse to convince her to ditch the dude and be free

Endora was a feminist pioneer (and a stoner): With her Disney Villainess collars and psychedelic muumuus, Samantha’s mother was a counter-culture television anomaly. Ever frustrated by her daughter’s decision to settle down and marry a nice man, she tried with spells and verse to convince her to ditch the dude and be free: “Home has no boundaries beyond which we can not pass. We live in music, in a flash of color, we live on wind, on the sparkle of a star,” she said in an early episode, “and you want to trade it all for a quarter of an acre of crabgrass.” How’s that for an empowering speech? She’s protective of Sam, not because she’s married to a mortal, but because she’s married to a mortal who won’t let her use her powers. We soon learn that Endora’s marital arrangement to Samantha’s father, a warlock, is an “informal marriage.” It’s casual, open and not at all prohibitive—sexually or otherwise. On the topic of marriage, Endora tells her daughter, “You could change your mind in a 1,000 years—I did.” As the show progresses through the ‘60s, so does Endora’s hippie spirit. Her make-up gets more Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and her quips get more deliciously trippy. In a 1969 episode, we learn that Endora enjoys an “Alice B. Toklas” brownie now and then. No surprise there.

Samantha and Darrin could have used couples therapy: One of Darrin’s great pleasures is explaining the stock market to a woman like she was child. (See season 2, episode 19). So it’s really a bummer for him that his wife has the ability to “tamper” with the market with a quick blink. Darrin’s own insecurities rub off on Sam, leading her to worry about telling him anything—for example, that she’s having his baby. It’s not that he doesn’t want kids, it’s that he doesn’t want a kid with her genes. Sweet, right? Much of season two centers on Darrin’s concerns that his kid is a witch—or more pointedly, that his daughter is as powerful as his wife.

Magic was, at one time, the only way to deal with sexual harassment: Before there were “very special episodes” on sitcoms, there was episode 4 of Bewitched, entitled “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog.” Here’s the synopsis: One of Darrin’s most valued clients relentlessly hits on Samantha and tries to make-out with her. After a heated exchange that almost gets physical, she decides to turn him into a dog. If only that was the end of that. Darrin doesn’t believe Sam was harassed, or rather harassed enough to merit her reaction. It’s one of their first fights and you have to love Samantha for sticking up for herself and practically walking out on Darrin because he’s so unsympathetic. Eventually he comes around and the client returns as a man with a poodle-like haircut and everyone laughs, but it’s not that funny. The episode aired the same year Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was passed, granting women legal protection from discrimination in the workplace, but 10 years before the first sexual harassment case was brought to court. The show was progressive in that it dealt with a topic still loosely defined in legal terms, but it offered little in the way of real solutions. 

Love can lead a man to an existential crisis: Darrin’s darkest hour may be found in the season one episode “Witch or Wife,” when he realizes Samantha doesn’t age. We never know how old she actually is on the show—it’s hinted that she’s in her hundreds. The thought then occurs to Darrin—somewhere between the bar and a park bench where he’s almost arrested after talking to squirrels—that he’ll be an old man at some point, and his wife will look the same. What’s not said, but implied, is that he’ll die and she’ll go on to replace him with another Darrin. (Foreshadowing, much? Famously, Dick Sargent replaced Dick York as Darrin in season five, due to York’s serious back injury, though the husband-swap was never really addressed in the show’s plot.) But can you blame a guy for struggling with his own TV mortality? It’s perhaps the best explanation as to why Darrin wants to suppress his wife’s very awesome, and useful powers: They remind him of his insignificance on this earth.

Piper Weiss is the author of My Mom, Style Icon and has written about pop culture and women's issues for Yahoo, The Huffington Post, Glamour, and The New York Daily News. She really misses classic Nick at Nite.