In 1964, the magically and enchanting sitcom Bewitched made its debut on ABC and put a spell on audiences everywhere. The charming situational comedy depicts a rather typical, middle-class, nuclear family living in the suburbs. But there is a plot twist that makes this seemingly ordinary sitcom truly magical. The main character, Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery), is a witch. With the wiggle of her nose or the snap of her fingers, she can do anything she wants. Her magical talents help her in everyday life and add a twinkle to the boredom of suburbia. These supernatural abilities make Samantha one of the most powerful female characters in sitcom history. One can argue that having such a strong, female character like Samantha at the center of the show helped Bewitched become a symbol of feminism. But not everyone sees the show in this way. Some critics of the series, such as Gary Kenton and Walter Metz, suggest that Bewitched is an oppressive show due to its reliance on patriarchal norms and female suppression. Although Kenton and Metz suggest that Bewitched is a sexist sitcom, scholars like Susan Douglas have a different view of the magicom. In fact, Douglas and I share the opinion that this show is extremely feminist because it puts female characters at the center of the show and gives them magical powers that no mortal man could possess. I think it is more compelling to give attention to the strengths, powers, and abilities of the female characters like Samantha and her mother, Endora (Agnes Moorehead). If viewers focus on their magical dominance over of the mortal male characters, I think a strong case can be made that Bewitched is extremely feminist and pro-women; it might be called a magically feminist sitcom.
Kenton and Mertz are among scholars who suggest that Bewitched is a sexist show due to its portrayal of female characters and the gender power-dynamics. They believe that Samantha is made smaller, is belittled, and is chastised for having her powers. Rather than being championed for her natural talents and abilities, she is restricted from using them and is made to feel bad for having them. Her husband Darrin (Dick York 1964-69, Dick Sargeant 1969-72), in particular, often restricts her from using witchcraft. Thus, the patriarchal power structures of the show seek to keep Samantha normal and less powerful than her husband or, for that matter, any other male character. In his chapter titled “The 1960s Magicoms” Kenton writes, “By trying to suppress her formidable powers in order to be a ‘normal’ American housewife, Samantha became a hero to traditionalists” (78). Kenton, like many other scholars, argues that Samantha’s natural talents and abilities are restricted so that she can attend to the housework and live out her days in the domestic sphere. In many ways, taking away her powers makes her subservient to her male counterparts, which maintains traditional gender roles. She succumbs to the pressure every female character faces in sitcoms: dealing with the gender structure and male dominance. To add to this argument, Metz writes, “don’t you see that Bewitched is just another example of degradation of womanhood? Here’s a woman with unimaginable power and she uses it to shore up her husband’s ego” (98) and that ““Bewitched was as anti-feminist, anti-sexual, and pro-centrist as a sitcom could be” (94). I think this analysis is a common read of the sitcom. It is a traditional analysis that suggests that Bewitched is inherently sexist and seeks to keep women in a position that is secondary to men. But I suggest we look beyond these critiques at competing messages and instead focus on the feminist aspects within this magicom.
While these opinions are valid, I have to disagree with the arguments that Bewitched is a sexist show that seeks to hinder and restrict females. The show’s central character is a woman who has supernatural talents that far surpass that of any male character in the show. Physically, Samantha is the most powerful character in the magicom. In an interview with Mary M. Dalton, Gary Kenton suggests, “I think Bewitched, you could make an argument for a certain feminist reading. This woman is definitely the smarter character… and more powerful” (Kenton “Chapter Six” 5). In this interview, Kenton goes so far as to say that there may be room for a feminist interpretation of the show. He sees the intelligence and prowess of Samantha and points to the feminist nature of the show. In addition to this, Samantha never follows Darrin’s call for restriction of her powers and instead uses them to save him, and other male characters, from doom. Rather than listen to her husband and follow his rules, she disobeys him and becomes a rebel. What is great is that Samantha never gives up her powers and continuously uses them throughout the show. Susan Douglas argues, “In Bewitched we have a woman’s dream and a man’s nightmare. Darrin was surrounded by an endearing yet constantly troublesome matriarchy, a domestic situation in which is wife, mother-in-law, daughter, and other relatives were all witches, endowed with magical powers, which constantly threatened his professional status and his authority as head of the household” (127). My read of Bewitched, like Douglas’s, is that it is a matriarchal show focused on reinventing the female image and talent spectrum. Every female character stands for something in the feminist movement. Samantha, along with Endora and her cousin Tabitha (also played by Elizabeth Montgomery in a black wig), refuses to be restricted by the patriarchy and sexism of male characters and traditionalist women like Mrs. Kravitz (Sandra Gould).
Samantha and Darrin’s neighbor Gladys Kravitz is a hero to traditionalists and a foil for the strong female characters. Like certain men in the show, she represents the old ways and seeks to keep gender roles traditional. She is an older housewife who has spent most of her life tending to her family, her home, and her husband. Because she has been contained in the domestic sphere for most of her life, she is nosey and pays way too much attention to other people’s business, especially Samantha’s. Mrs. Kravitz “was a parody of an old housewife with too much time on her hands and nothing to do expect live through others” (Douglas 133). In many ways, she is in charge of pressing the social code and making sure everyone stays in line with cultural norms. That is why she pays so much attention to Samantha’s every move; she wants to make sure that Samantha is following the rules of suburbia. Because she is nosey and wants to know everything, she is always watching from her window or sneaking over to Darrin and Samantha’s house to make sure that everything is normal. In the episode “Be It Ever So Mortgaged,” Mrs. Kravitz says, “Don’t try to stop be Abner. I’m going over there. There is something going on and I’m going to find out what it is” (Avedon and Saks). This is a classic move from Mrs. Kravitz and is a pattern she maintains throughout the series. It is this constant surveillance of Samantha and this need to maintain tradition that drives Mrs. Kravitz. Throughout the eight seasons of the show, she continues to be a strong foil for the progressive and feminist female characters.
In stark contrast to the role of Mrs. Kravitz, Samantha stands as a symbol of feminism and female empowerment. Having a central character like Samantha allowed Bewitched to be a, “show that hailed young female viewers by providing, and seeking to reconcile, images of female equality – and, often, even images of female superiority” (Douglas 133). Samantha has powers that make her stronger and more powerful than any other character in the show. Her talents and abilities far surpass that of any man. She is clearly in a dominant position in comparison to her male counterparts and she does not apologize for it. Although she does play the housewife role, she is rarely ever just in the background. Viewers never just see Samantha doing housewife things; rather, she uses her powers to make those chores and day-to-day work easier. In this way, she is maintaining her identity as a witch while also maintaining her role as a homemaker. Sam is a modern housewife who explores interests outside the home; she puts a modern twist on being a stay-at-home wife by using her powers to be more empowered. This allows her to be a proto-feminist character. Her main focus is not just the home and making her husband happy, but it is about her pursuing her interests as well. “Samantha embodied important contradictions, for she was a happy, respectable suburban housewife who exerted power beyond the kitchen or the living room…The show often suggested that women, especially younger women, were smarter, more creative, and more versatile than men” (Douglas 128). In addition to putting a modern, feminist twist on being a housewife, Samantha also plays an integral role in Darrin’s career. In almost every episode, she ends up saving Darrin’s job and helping him come up with a fantastic advertisement. It is suggested that “Samantha engineered the outcome so that Darrin got the credit for coming up with a great idea or doing a great job, but the audience knew who was the real power behind the throne” (Douglas 128). In many regards, this makes her smarter and more business-savvy than her own husband. In the episode “Help, Help, Don’t Save Me,” Darrin is struggling to come up with good pitches for his client Caldwell Soup. Samantha ends up making his original ideas much better, proving that she has abilities and smarts far beyond that of a simple housewife. In this scene, Samantha proves herself and clearly shows that she is just as good, if not better than, the male characters in the show. The sitcom’s depiction of such a strong and powerful female character invites feminist readings of the series.
While Samantha is more of a subtle feminist, her mother Endora is an outspoken one. She is arguably the most radical character of the series. From the very beginning of the show, Endora is vehemently against Samantha marrying a mortal and giving up her powers. She cannot understand the appeal of being a housewife and giving up so much freedom. Endora is truly bewildered by the notion of housewifery, the American dream etc.; “Endora is probably one of the most radical feminist characters to appear in the sitcom. She not only mocks Darrin at every opportunity but disdains all the cherished trappings of the American dream to which her daughter aspires – marriage, children, suburban house, security – all of it” (Kenton 78-79). She sees this as a sacrifice that Samantha is too good to make. Endora values her daughter’s talents and so desperately wants Samantha to keep them. Giving them up, especially for a man, is not an option in Endora’s eyes. During the interview, Kenton acknowledges Endora’s strength, “well, and her mother, the Agnes Moorehead character, was, you know, one of the prototype feminist characters. I mean, she just couldn’t understand, you know, why she had this enormous power, she could go anywhere, do anything” (Kenton “Chapter Six” 5). Endora wants to instill a sense of pride, rebellion, and confidence in Samantha; at a time when women were supposed to just listen to their husbands and lose their individual identities, this was a pretty radical notion. Endora seeks to protect and fight for women, like Samantha, especially because she sees men as idiots and buffoons. Endora truly believes that Darrin, and most men for that matter, are weak and stupid in comparison to women. Thus, she cannot understand why Samantha would want to be secondary to her husband and give up her noticeable dominance. Endora “sees him [Darrin] as a mere mortal to whom Samantha is superior, and as someone who is constraining Samantha, trying to make her life too confined, boring, and predictable” (Douglas 130). Endora has such an interesting perspective and brings so much to the show in terms of female empowerment. She acts as a teacher for many viewers as she lectures Sam on the dangers of allowing men to act like kings in many episodes. A great example from the first season is “Be it Ever So Mortgaged” when Endora says, “Just because you married a human, Samantha, that’s no reason to overdo this grubby little housewife role” (Avedon and Saks). Endora’s role in the show is to bring attention to sexism, unfair gender roles, patriarchy, and other societal conventions that seek to make women secondary.
In many ways, I think that Bewitched is a feminist show that says a lot about gender roles, patriarchy, and societal expectations. It is a strong reading of the series to look at it as a female-centered sitcom in which almost all of the featured female characters are strong. Characters like Samantha, Endora, Serena, and even Samantha’s daughter Tabitha (Erin Murphy) in the later seasons, highlight the progressive attitude running through this particular magicom. The feminist ideals are often contested by Mrs. Kravitz, but I think her role is necessary to give a sense of realism to the show by acknowledging pervasive attitudes and offering a stark contrast to the witches. Mrs. Kravitz represents the past and people who are not ready to embrace the second wave of the women’s movement. She is a representation of the older generation, the traditionalists who are stuck in their ways and even women who are happy being just housewives. But the younger generation, people like Samantha and Tabitha, clearly desire more for themselves. Tabitha is born with magical powers and from the get-go is more powerful than her father and other male characters. Her mother and grandmother encourage her to be proud of who she is and to cherish her supernatural talents. Bewitched really starts a conversation about the empowerment of women and how that is represented in different generations during the 1960s. The show clearly invites a conversation about female issues and female empowerment as it centers on such strong women characters.
Shows like Bewitched were able to bring social and political issues to the forefront of television. For me, Bewitched started a conversation about feminism and really highlighted the feminist perspective. I think it is important to see Bewitched as a feminist show because it was one of the first series that really put strong women at the center of a sitcom. Before this, we see a lot of women inhabiting the typical female roles as mothers, housewives, or housekeepers. Here, we see that but with a twist. Samantha is not simply a housewife, a homemaker, a mother, etc. She is a witch who is smart, talented, powerful, and able to do things outside the home. I think Bewitched is an important show because it depicts women who are in power positions. Viewers see women who are more dominant and able than men with talents that extend beyond the home. The domestic sphere does not define Endora and Samantha; rather, their valued is based on their abilities as witches. Bewitched shows that women can and should be valued for more than their pot-roast or the way they set the table. The series uses witchcraft and Samantha’s wiggly nose to show that women have talents that far surpass what is assumed of them. The real power of the show does not necessarily come from witchcraft but from the strength of the female characters and their talents outside the home.
Isabelle Jeffrey is a senior at Wake Forest University from Greenwich, CT. She is a Communication major and a double minor in Entrepreneurship and in Global Commerce and Trade.
Arnold, Danny, and Sol Saks. “Help, Help, Don’t Save Me.” Bewitched. N.d. Web.
Avedon, Barbara, and Sol Saks. “Be It Ever So Mortgaged.” Bewitched. N.d. Web. 20 July 2017.
Douglas, Susan J. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Times Books, 1994. Print.
Kenton, Gary. “Chapter Six: The 1960s Magicoms: Safety in Numb-ers.” Interview by Mary Dalton. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 July 2017.
Kenton, Gary. “The 1960s Magicoms.” The Sitcom Reader, Second Edition. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 June 2017.
Metz, Walter. TV Milestones : Bewitched. Detroit, US: Wayne State University Press, 2007. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 27 June 2017.