Series Blog

The Secret Feminism of "Bewitched"

I have never experienced Boston before this summer, when I moved to the city for an internship with American Experience. While living in Boston has been amazing, I am very intrigued by what more Massachusetts has to offer. A few weeks ago, I made the trek to Salem, MA -- the famous "witch town," the location of the infamous Witch Trials of the early 1690s.

Walking down the streets of Salem, I was amazed at how much of the town was devoted to its history. Many of the shops in the downtown district were devoted to selling witch-related memorabilia, some even offering year-round haunted house tours.

I stumbled across a very interesting addition to this collection of devotees to Salem's witch history: a statue commemorating the 1960s television show Bewitched. It depicts the show's main character, witch Samantha Stephens (played by Elizabeth Montgomery), riding a broomstick near a moon in its crescent phase. The statue pays tribute to the show that filmed several episodes on location in Salem.

Growing up, I would watch Bewitched re-runs occasionally, and I liked it well enough – it was an enjoyable (albeit kitschy) sitcom from a time long-gone, about a modern-day witch who married a mortal and their subsequent marital conflicts and shenanigans. Seeing the statue at a much older age, however, made me re-evaluate my conceptions of the show's underlying themes and wonder if there was more to a show that seemed to exist merely as mindless, relatable fluff on television. Intrigued, I decided to go back in time and re-watch several episodes of Bewitched.

The year was 1964, and American society was changing. In Berkeley, CA, students were protesting for freedom of expression, while Cassius Clay, the new heavyweight champion of the world, decided to change his name to Muhammad Ali and his religion to Islam, saying, "I don't have to be what you want me to be. I am free to be who I want." And most importantly – at least in the case of Bewitched – the previous year Betty Friedan released The Feminine Mystique, a book that sparked the feminist revolution, inspiring middle-class women to embrace new identities and to become more independent, the reverberations of which were still being felt in 1964. The general theme of 1964 was progression toward acceptance of individuality.

1964 was also the year of the premiere of Bewitched. At first glance, the TV show doesn't seem to fit in with the nation's climate; in the very first episode, Samantha's mortal husband Darrin (played by Dick York) commands her not to use her magic, and, despite the fact that being a witch is an important part of her identity, she happily agrees. "Darling, it sounds wonderful – and soon we'll be a normal, happy couple with no problems! Just like everybody else," Samantha quips. For the first part of the episode, it seems as if Bewitched would subtly campaign for a return to 1950s normalcy.

As the episode continues, though, it is clear that Samantha will not suppress her magic just for the sake of her husband's wishes. When confronted by Darrin's conniving ex-girlfriend, Samantha speaks up to defend herself against passive put-downs and decides to assert her status as his wife by using magic to embarrass his former girlfriend. Although Darrin will later scold his wife for twitching her nose to cast spells once they get home, Samantha brushes him off again when confronted with a dirty kitchen. She wiggles her nose – and voila! – the kitchen is clean. By using magic, Samantha not only defies her husband, establishing her independence, but she also demonstrates that in this household, the woman has more power than the man. Furthermore, the show suggests that men like Darrin should reconsider their fearful attitude towards women like Samantha using their powers – magical or non-magical. In Samantha's case, for instance, her magical assistance with housewifely duties would only improve life for both Darrin and herself.

Other episodes continue to deliver this soft version of feminism to viewers. In Season 1 Episode 5, when Darrin refuses to believe that Samantha could think creatively for herself without the use of magic, she is highly offended. She even goes so far as to pack her bags and leave the house for the night; it is only when Darrin apologizes that she returns. In doing so, she defines herself as her own person and, like many women at the time, shows that she isn't going to lie down flat at her husband's feet to function solely as his servant. In this way, Bewitched would match the aims of the developing feminist movement of the '60s.

However, sometimes Bewitched does not fully embrace feminist notions. For instance, in this episode, Darrin is only convinced he is wrong to assert that Samantha cannot synthesize creative ideas without magical help when his client decides her ideas are no good. Although today we may view this as flawed and insulting, Darrin's logic relies on the thinking that only a powerful man perceiving her ideas as dreadful can validate Samantha truthfulness about coming up with an original idea. (The modern viewer will be pleased to know that Samantha calls him out on his misogynist attitude.) Despite somewhat catering to outdated ideals of gender roles, Bewitched's Samantha ultimately proves Darrin wrong and stands up for herself in several, non-magical ways in this episode.

In Season 1 Episode 7, Darrin receives a commission to draw a Halloween advertisement filled with witches, or "ugly, old crones," for a client, so Samantha leads an effort to fight this negative depiction of witches - a minority group, she calls it. "How would you like it if you were always being represented as something different?" she asks. She and several other witches plan a nonviolent protest and create signs reading, "We Demand a New Image" and "Witches are People, Too!" Through negotiation, they convince the client to alter his advertisement's portrayal of witches so that the witches look less stereotypical and more like "real" witches. By portraying strong, confident women striving to uphold their own standards and views, Bewitched indicated the growing power of women in not only the home but also in larger society in the 1960s. Samantha's television protest also mirrored the many protests that 1964 saw, ranging from protests for civil rights to the Berkeley student protests. And, later in the decade, he show's attention to minorities struggling for adequate representation paralleled the creation of Miss Black America, which originally began as a subtle demonstration against the lack of black women in the popular Miss America pageant.

The idea that a husband can and should control his wife is beginning to become outdated by 1964, and Bewitched is one of the first efforts in television to (slowly) usher the new social standards to viewers. Bewitched illustrates a woman's right to choose her own life path, a very basic facet of feminism – even if a woman, like Samantha, chooses to follow a more traditional route and become a homemaker. Like Muhammad Ali, Samantha Stephens was free to be who she wanted to be. Ultimately, the trite but relatable suburban problems, magical gimmicks, the tinny laugh track, and light, musical score balance out the show's feminist undertones in a way that at first glance might make it appear as if the show had no underlying feminist leanings at all.

Ultimately, Bewitched presented a version of the modern all-American couple that could solve their problems through a loving combination of mutual respect and consideration, delivering soft feminism along the way.

The statue, standing on the corner of Essex and Washington Streets in Salem, thus commemorates not only a television show but also a social movement. Television shows shape the popular national consciousness, and Bewitched, airing during the feminist movement throughout the 1960s, was no exception, delivering the new ideas into the typical American household.

Leaving the monument, I looked back over my shoulder and could have sworn I saw Samantha's nose twitch.


Maria Massad is a summer intern at American Experience, where she enjoys contributing to the official Tumblr page and researching and writing for the show's website. She will graduate in 2016 with a double major in history and biology from Wesleyan University. In her spare time, Maria likes to choreograph dances, create content for YouTube, and learn about American and British cultural history.

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Mark Samels, Executive Producer of American Experience, has wanted to make a biographical documentary of Walt Disney for many years. As Samels says, the iconic animator's pervasive influence on American culture made him "a perfect subject for American Experience."


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Radio Clinic was one of the 1,616 stores looted during the 1977 Blackout in New York City. In the days after the blackout, the chances of Radio Clinic’s survival looked pretty grim. In the wake of a large-scale disaster the precipitous event might be over; the fires put out and the hurricane waters receded. But for the small business owners whose stores were destroyed, the fight to survive was just beginning. Jen Rubin, the daughter of Radio Clinic's owner, writes about her father's experience after the Blackout.


Walt Disney Comes to American Experience in September

American Experience is very excited to announce a project that our Executive Producer Mark Samels has had in the forefront of his mind for years. A four-hour biography of Walt Disney will premiere on PBS this September (see the preview and the press release below), before which we will share a huge collection of stories, images and factoids on our social media pages and our web site. Stay tuned! 

(BOSTON, MA) June 4, 2015 -- In 1966, the year Walt Disney died, 240 million people saw a Disney movie, 100 million tuned in to a Disney television program, 80 million bought Disney merchandise, and close to seven million visited Disneyland. Few creative figures before or since have held such a long-lasting place in American life and popular culture.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE offers an unprecedented look at the life and legacy of one of America’s most enduring and influential storytellers in Walt Disney, a new two-part, four-hour film premiering Monday and Tuesday, September 14-15, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings). Executive produced by Mark Samels, directed and produced by Sarah Colt, and written by Mark Zwonitzer, the film features rare archival footage from the Disney vaults, scenes from some of his greatest films, and interviews with biographers and historians, animators and artists who worked on Snow White and other early films, and designers who helped create Disneyland.

"Walt Disney is an entrepreneurial and cultural icon," said AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Executive Producer Mark Samels. "No single figure shaped American popular culture in the 20th century more than he."

From Steamboat Willie to Pinocchio to Mary Poppins, Disney's movies grew out of his own life experiences. He told stories of outsiders struggling for acceptance and belonging, while questioning the conventions of class and authority. As Disney rose to prominence and gained financial security, his work became increasingly celebratory of the American way of life that made his unlikely success possible.

Yet despite the success he achieved, he was driven and restless, a demanding perfectionist on whom decades of relentless work and chain-smoking would take their toll. He wanted his films to make people feel deeply, yet often buried his own emotions. Aspiring to create great artistic films, he felt he wasn't taken seriously by the movie industry, and was stung when critics panned his productions. Never satisfied with his previous efforts, he always pushed forward to a "new adventure," but his attention to detail and quest for innovation frequently meant delays and cost overruns. When his employees organized and went on strike, Disney felt betrayed, not able to understand how people who worked for him could be unhappy; years later he called them "communists" before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

A polarizing figure -- though true believers vastly outnumber his critics -- Disney's achievements are indisputable. He created one of the most beloved cartoon characters in history, Mickey Mouse; conceived the first ever feature-length animated film,Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; pioneered the integration of media and marketing with thousands of branded products; and conceived Disneyland, the world's first theme park and a three-dimensional realization of his own utopian universe.

Vietnam: 40 Years On

Forty years after the fall of Saigon, debate continues concerning the reality on the ground in Vietnam in 1975. Below are two varying accounts written by Jim Laurie and Stuart Herrington, both of whom were in Saigon in April 1975. At the time, Laurie was a reporter for NBC News, and Herrington was a captain in the U.S. Army. Both men were interviewed for and appear in the film Last Days in Vietnam, which played in theaters nationwide in 2014 before premiering on PBS April 28, 2015. Read both posts here.