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The Feminism of "Bewitched"

Finding the Feminism in 1960s Sitcoms

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Sitcom Title: Bewitched
Years Aired: 1964–1972
Stars: Elizabeth Montgomery, Agnes Moorehead, Dick York, Dick Sargent, David White
Feminist Focus? In this household, the woman has power – magical powers.

The fanciful 1960s sitcom Bewitched starred Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stephens, a witch married to a mortal husband. The underlying feminism of Bewitched revealed a “typical housewife” who is actually more powerful than her husband. Samantha used her witchcraft powers to solve all sorts of problems, despite having promised her husband, Darrin, that she would no longer practice magic.

The Perfect Housewife?

When Bewitched began airing in 1964, The Feminine Mystique was still a new book. The woman-as-happy-suburban-homemaker was an idea featured prominently on television, despite the dissatisfaction real women felt in that role. The feminism of Bewitched made Samantha the clever, interesting one. The wacky situations were played for laughs, but she repeatedly rescued Darrin or other characters - including herself.

At Home, At Work, At Play

Dutiful Darrin kissed supportive Samantha goodbye and trotted off to his respected advertising agency job, leaving her in their lovely middle-class home. He was never gone long before some chain of events was set in motion that ended up with Samantha needing to use her powers to end the predicament. 

Often the instigator was Samantha’s mother Endora, played by Agnes Moorehead, who famously called Darrin “Derwood” and never understood what Samantha saw either in him or in normal mortal life. Why, Endora asked, would Samantha suppress her witchcraft when she could enjoy being supernatural, powerful and immortal? Other times, the plot revolved around Darrin's work, and Samantha worked her magic to save the day and prevent the latest client from finding out that she was a witch.

Neighbors, co-workers and other mortals repeatedly noticed something suspicious resulting from witchcraft, but either Samantha, Endora, or another witch would use magic to remedy the situation. Samantha and Darrin had a young daughter, Tabitha, who was also capable of witchcraft.

Power Dynamics and Feminist Sleight of Hand?

Bewitched was a simple escapist sitcom, but the idea of glorifying a husband’s efforts to control his beautiful, perky housewife rightfully strikes feminist viewers as offensive and outdated. It is true that Bewitched featured Samantha “choosing” to be a housewife and do things the “normal” way, despite the persistent argument from Endora that Samantha deserved better.  

However, Bewitched was also clever. Apart from the visual gags when people or objects appeared and disappeared at the twitch of Samantha’s nose, much of the show’s comedy came from its suggestiveness and subtext. The feminism of Bewitched was a fantasy, but also a logical if extreme take on the idea of a husband and wife coming together from different worlds to have a relationship and family.

Feminist Behind the Scenes

Elizabeth Montgomery was a lifelong supporter of women’s rights in real life. Although viewers may wish that Samantha stood up to Darrin more forcefully and more often, they also know that Samantha was the hero and was basically always right. Bewitched revealed a hint of feminism in 1960s sitcoms; meanwhile, the women’s liberation movement developed in the U.S. throughout the years the show was on the air.

Other Portrayals

Bewitched is sometimes compared to I Dream of Jeannie, another supernatural sitcom that featured a young, pretty, blonde woman with magic powers. It began in 1965 but never had as much ratings success as Bewitched. Jeannie was more of a male fantasy: Barbara Eden played a genie released from a bottle who obligingly, if humorously, served her master (Larry Hagman). Jeannie’s long-remembered pink and red costume showed her midriff, but TV executives did not approve of showing her navel.

Elizabeth Montgomery's conservative-yet-fashionable Samantha arguably offered more personality, wit and charm as Samantha Stephens. Bewitched was turned into a feature film starring Nicole Kidman in 2005.

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