Bewitched and the evolution of '60s gender norms

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May 9, 2018, 3:01 PM EDT

Witches are generally thought of as people who challenge society and go against the grain—but witchdom met their match when they came upon Samantha Stephens, a witch determined to live like a mortal housewife. 

On the outset, Bewitched looks like any show designed to be a simple diversion from everyday life. But underneath its sitcom exterior is a battlefield of changing social mores warring against each other, including the war between different modes of feminist thought. On one hand, Bewitched advocated freedom for women to do what they pleased. On the other, it both critiqued and asserted the virtues of living the way women had been told to live for decades, if not centuries. The show’s theater of war for feminism came in the forms of Endora, an older, unmarried witch who was comfortable in basking in her powers, and her daughter Samantha, who despite being younger, was intensely more conservative and in line with the housewives of years past. 

For me, Bewitched, which aired from 1964 to 1972, has always been that show that stood between the old archetypal ways of the 1950s and the new feminist outlook of the 1960s. Books like Betty Friedan’s book detailing the new wave of feminism, The Feminine Mystique, and young feminist stars like Jane Fonda were pulling audiences into the new world order of independent women. At the same time, films starring avatars of pseudo-feminism and white patriarchy such as Doris Day were still in vogue. The same could be said for television. Throughout the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, Bewitched stood in the middle of the spectrum of TV that straddled both the conservative end of a patriarchy-laced feminism, such as Leave It To Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and My Living Doll, as well as the more liberal end with shows like Julia, That Girl, Star Trek and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. 

Bewitched seemed aware of its complicated place in pop culture—so aware that it often feels at war with itself when it comes to showcasing society’s changing relationship with feminism. First of all, Bewitched is one in a triptych of midcentury stories, such as 1942’s I Married A Witch starring Veronica Lake and 1958’s Bell, Book and Candle starring Kim Novak, that showcase witches—women with supreme power—falling for ordinary guys for whom they must reduce that power. While the stories differ slightly, the conceit is that the ultimate achievement for these supernatural women is living an ordinary mortal life with the man they love. While the stories want to tell the audience “love conquers all,” what it’s actually saying is that the proper aspiration for women is to have a man to look after you as the head of the household. There’s no account for what happens if the woman is actually more powerful (financially, socially, etc.) than the man. 

Samantha perpetuates this idea of feminism extending only to the four walls of a woman’s home. Her aspiration, as she often states to her mother, is to live as close to a mortal housewife’s life as she can. Despite having the world at her command, she chooses to diminish herself for the sake of Darrin, someone who mortals would consider to be powerful as an ad executive. But to someone like Samantha and much of her family, Darrin is insignificant. This is the chief reason why Endora can never understand why Darrin, of all people, is the one Samantha would choose to lower herself for. Endora might be older, but she’s not bound by the societal ineptitude her daughter appears to be. Instead, Endora is free-thinking, conspicuously husbandless (she’s in an “informal marriage” and insinuates that she and Samantha’s warlock father are no longer together), and thoroughly modern. Her constant agitation with Samantha is her decision to live beneath her status as a witch. In a feminist context, Endora is perturbed by her daughter’s insistence at being under a man’s thumb, especially a whiny man like Darrin. 


To be clear, though, I’m not asserting that women who choose to stay at home are somehow not part of the feminist wave. Indeed, my own mother is a stay-at-home-mom, and she’s as feminist as they come. One part of feminism that gets overlooked is that feminism means a woman has a choice in how they run their lives. My mom chose to be at home to take care of me and my siblings, and that’s as noble a choice as it is to go off to work. Technically, Samantha herself chooses her life as a stay-at-home-mom, too. What becomes unbearable to me about Samantha’s life is not that she’s choosing to be a homemaker, but that her husband rarely supports her in anything she does, something that only underscores Endora’s arguments against him as a suitable mate. 

This is where Samantha as a feminist icon falls apart for me. Samantha’s choices are consistently undermined by Darrin and she’s rarely supported by him unless she’s fitting into his narrow expectations of “being a woman.” Even though he’s paid to be a creative, he puts no creative thought towards the casual oppression he inflicts on his wife. While it’s Samantha’s choice to stay and put up with this, it’s also Samantha’s choice to put her foot down or, in a worst-case scenario, leave. But the show doesn’t ever delve into the myriad of other choices Samantha could make about her life. It limits her to the one choice of being a housewife, and even then, it doesn’t often assert the fact that a choice, such as being a housewife, isn’t permanent; it can also be undone. 

Perhaps, though, Samantha never changes her mind because she, too, is sold on the idea that somehow she’s not complete if she doesn’t fulfill this role of 1960s housewife. As far as her characterization goes, it doesn’t make sense, since she’s a witch who is hundreds of years old, isn’t used to rules, and could easily do whatever she wanted whenever she felt like it. What’s keeping her from exerting her power? One viewpoint is that Samantha is used as a tool by the writers to critique the idea of the “perfect” housewife. In most episodes, Samantha is tasked with doing something ordinary, like simply making breakfast. But instead of succeeding, she usually flubs it, relying on her magical talent to set things right. 

In all honesty, some of the reasoning for Samantha’s adherence to social norms might lie in the fact that the show is still a product of its time and must work within the framework of early-to-mid 1960s society. 

TV tried to push the social narrative too far before most of America was ready for it. In the 1950s, Nat King Cole hosted a short-lived nightly talk show on NBC, the first African-American to do such a thing. But his show quickly ended (on his call, not NBC’s) because of the country’s rampant racism. Star Trek, a contemporary of Bewitched, was always on tenterhooks because it not only featured women in leadership positions, but it also had Lt. Uhura, a black woman, with as much authority as the other men. Uhura and Capt. Kirk’s kiss, the first on-screen interracial kiss in U.S. television history, famously took the show even closer to cancellation. 

The social clamps on feminism were fastened shut for decades. Victorian-era assumptions about womanhood, such as women being hysterical, fragile, flighty creatures in need of a man’s paternal steadfastness, were still hanging over women’s heads well into the ‘60s when women were beginning to fight off the shackles of the forced housewifery of the 1950s. Again, shows like Leave It To Beaver and The Donna Reed Show, starring Reed, TV’s answer to Doris Day, were still popular for a reason. They presented the archetype for the “perfect” woman—a doting mother, a happy housewife, and a loving spouse to her husband, who would be there to guide her through life thanks to his supposedly “superior” masculine ways. It’s a charming lie since the only person who truly benefits from this arrangement is the man, who can be the leader at home and in the workplace. Technically, Darrin is neither. He struggles at work and at home to achieve the masculine right of passage he’s longing for. But still, Darrin gets to assert what little power he has over a willing wife, despite the type of power she could wield over him with the twitch of a nose. 

Samantha is like a lot of white women still trapped in the world of “white feminism,” a set of rules that rely on and work within white patriarchy to support it. By working within the framework, white suburban women in the same social class as Samantha can feel like they’re advancing the cause, but in many ways, they’re just spinning their wheels, centering themselves and their want of social and financial comfort over the hard work of releasing everyone, including themselves, from society’s shackles and challenging the status quo. Samantha, like a lot of women in this trap, is powerful enough to chart her own course in life and to see the truth beyond the guise of a so-called societal perfection. But, like Samantha, those women fail to see how their innate gifts will actually set them free. Instead, they mismanage themselves and choose to be helpless instead of beings who are capable of grandeur. 

On the whole, I’m more like Endora, but I see her criticism of Samantha as even more nuanced than the show portrays. For me, it’s not about whether a choice to be a housewife or a world traveler is right or wrong. What it comes down to is whether the choices you make as a woman are the ones that make you happy. Can I say Endora’s happy with her life as a free spirit? Absolutely. Could I say the same of Samantha, who constantly seems put down and put upon? Not so much. In that sense, Bewitched wants to have its cake and eat it too; it wants to say it’s a show about the nuances of feminism and the arguments within feminist groups. However. It’s also a show that still makes the point that choosing subservience is the only role in which a woman will be respected by society. For as much as Endora might be happy, I doubt she’d be highly respected if she decided to be herself in the mortal man’s world simply because, to paraphrase Fleetwood Mac, she chose to go her own way.

Bewitched is a fascinating show, one that tries to say a lot with regards to gender politics and the changing theories of feminism. But sometimes, it’s a show that undercuts its own messaging by refusing to give Samantha true agency in her life. In an alternate reality, I imagine a scenario in which Samantha, finally having enough of Darrin’s emotional abuse, decided to extoll her will on him, turning him into a turtle and giving him to their daughter Tabitha as a pet until he finally got it through his head that while he might go outdoors to make money, she’s the one that really wears the pants in the family. Endora would be pleased. 

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