Before we knew better: “Bewitched” was a traditional show dressed in feminist clothing

Samantha and Darrin
Samantha and Darrin
Image: Columbia/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In this mini-series, we look again at media we have loved to consider how it depicted gender. How does it look to a person with a 2019 perspective on gender roles and norms? Warning: Contains spoilers.

When did it air? 1964-1972

How does it hold up? Not well

The 1970s were a confusing time for a budding feminist to grow up. My mother wore shirts and buttons with pro-woman symbols and slogans and taught me that I could do anything I wanted. My first best friend was a boy, and I defended him from playground bullies. But I also played with Barbies, idolized Disney’s Cinderella, and adored TV shows like Bewitched.

Bewitched rode the crest of second-wave feminism: The Feminine Mystique came out the year before the show began, and Roe v. Wade was decided the year after it ended. The show straddled and combined several different types of TV shows popular at the time: family sitcoms featuring pretty, pleasant housewives (The Donna Reed Show; Leave It to Beaver), fish-out-of-water fantasies (Green Acres; The Beverly Hillbillies), and gimmicky, high-concept larks (The Munsters; The Addams Family). Mostly, it provided a half hour of escapism in a turbulent era in which we grappled with who we are in the world (the Vietnam War) and at home (civil rights, women’s rights).

So it makes sense that Bewitched—starring Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha, a witch who marries a mortal and lives a normal human life—was a beloved hit. (I watched it in reruns in the mid to late 1970s.) But for a thinking viewer, a big question looms over the story: Why? Why does Samantha love Darrin? Why does she marry him? Why does she submit to a typical mortal woman’s life as a suburban housewife? Why does she agree not to use magic and to keep her true identity secret? Why does she sublimate her authentic self, abilities, and potential to cater to the banal wants and needs of a mere mortal, his career, and their nosy neighbors? The answers never come.

Bewitched was more than just a creative twist on a show that revolved around a young couple’s relatable and resolvable problems. It was, as others have observed, one of the first apparently feminist TV shows, one that showcased a wife who clearly has more power than her husband. But what was the subtext? Possibly it was slyly delivering feminist ideals, but likely it just reinforces the idea that even capable women should curb their power–charmingly–to suit men and survive in their world. The Stevens’ marriage feels like an analogy for patriarchal American society, in which women were forced to find palatable ways to both assert and check their power.

Decades after Bewitched went off the air, some still read feminism into Samantha’s spells. “Writers have long celebrated Elizabeth Montgomery’s plucky witch Samantha as a hopeful role model for a changing society: intelligent, attractive, devoted and—literally—empowered,” the New York Times observed in 2005. “Her efforts to balance the demands of a suburban housewife with her husband’s frail ego and her own supernatural abilities charted a course for women weighing the challenges of home, hearth and their own awakening ambitions.”

But Samantha’s true identity can never be fully realized because she’s devolving, not evolving, moving not toward greater freedom, but away from it, and that balance is always tipped in favor of her husband and gender norms. She regularly violates her vow not to perform magic—but usually uses it either behind Darrin’s back or for his benefit, sometimes even at his behest, and especially to help his career (behind every successful man, there’s a woman, right?). Even when she refrains from using magic to help him, it’s only because he doesn’t want her to use it. Her daily existence revolves around moderating and modulating herself to please her husband, his colleagues, and their friends.

Samantha isn’t very good at being a typical American housewife, and often resorts to casting spells to fix problems she creates in the course of just going about her day. The implication is that Samantha is Everywoman: All across America, seemingly happy homes hide powerful women who are, in fact, just playing at housewifery, concealing their true abilities. But if a supernatural woman has no hope of fully embracing her empowerment, what chance have we, her mortal sisters?

Whereas its contemporaries I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan’s Island are easily rejected now as retrograde, Bewitched is a bit trickier to parse. Sure, Jeannie, Ginger, and Mary Ann aren’t feminist icons, but neither is Samantha. The humor of Bewitched isn’t broad enough for the enterprise to be dismissed as a big joke. Even Samantha’s mother, Endora, playing the witch version of the stereotypical meddling mother-in-law who laments her daughter marrying beneath her, succeeds less as comic relief than as moral center; the original audience just couldn’t or wouldn’t heed her. Just like Samantha. Originally, Endora seemed annoying; now it’s hard to disagree with her.

As The Outline points out, “a series can engage in feminist ideas without living up to feminist ideals.” The most feminist Bewitched gets is to suggest that the real power lies with Samantha, not Darrin­. But when the viewer is treated to Sam wrinkling her nose, it’s merely an entertaining plot device. Darrin never has to give up a thing. Reliably, at the end of the episode, he always re-exerts the control he craves, and she’s back to being dutiful and disempowered. Even when Samantha is tapped to become the new queen of the witches, Darrin’s impulse is to whine about how he needs her at home. He may well love her, but the price of his love seems to be that she maintain inferior status in both the mortal and magical worlds.

Samantha never unreservedly unleashes her abilities or resolves her conflicting witch and wife identities. Her feminism, if we can even call it that, is tepid and ineffectual. She’s a model for keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, and keeping her true power under wraps. Where’s the magic in that?

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here