The Secret Subtext of Bewitched!

When I was a child, I loved the television show Bewitched! A beautiful and powerful yet thoroughly nice witch named Samantha fell in love with a young advertising executive named Darrin Stephens. On their honeymoon, Samantha reveals her secret: that she is a “real, house-haunting, broom-riding, cauldron-stirring witch!” Darrin is at first skeptical and then appalled and more than a little frightened. Yet he agrees to stay married to her, on the condition that she gives up practicing witchcraft. Yet was this story about witchcraft, or about something powerful yet real?

Is Bewitched! anti-feminist or feminist?

When I was a child, I did not understand why Darrin would insist that Samantha give up witchcraft. Why did he work so hard at the McMann and Tate advertising firm, when he could have had a blast flying around the world and goofing off with Samantha? Instead, he insisted on being a work-a-daddy in a high-pressure job, and he insisted that Samantha become an ordinary housewife. And why would Samantha agree to these conditions, a year after the publication of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, the book that launched the Women’s Liberation Movement? On the surface, the television show seemed to be suggesting that women should embrace the feminine mystique and should have no higher aspirations than being a housewife. Yet Samantha regularly broke Darrin’s rules about using witchcraft, sometimes to solve pressing problems, and sometimes just for fun.

Why was Bewitched! so popular?

I think that the show was popular for several reasons. One was Elizabeth Montgomery’s charisma. She had leading lady good looks along with the comedy chops of a veteran character actor. Samantha may have had scary magical powers, but she is exactly the sort of person that you would want as a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a friend. Another reason was that the show was gently subversive. It reinforced women’s suspicions that even a beautiful and intelligent woman like Samantha Stephens could fulfill the impossible standards of the feminine mystique only through the use of witchcraft. Also, Samantha Stephens served as a model of female power and agency, yet one that was acceptable even to people who were committed to maintaining traditional social roles. However, I think that the show was popular for yet another reason. The magic was actually a metaphor for a problem that most people would love to have: inherited wealth.

Witchcraft as a metaphor for inherited wealth

Samantha’s powers are clearly inherited. Her family is literally very old, in the sense that witches and warlocks in the Bewitched! universe live for centuries. Yet that age serves as a metaphor for old money. Samantha’s family money is so old that nobody talks about where it came from originally, and it seems to manage itself. Yet it is clear that Samantha’s family has political ties with other wealthy families, whose wealth also goes unexplained. Most mothers would think that a business executive like Darrin Stephens would be a good match for their daughter. But like many members of old wealthy families, Samantha’s mother Endora is appalled that Samantha married a middle-class striver with no wealth or family background.

Samantha’s odd relatives

Samantha’s family has always had money, and they use it to have fun and to solve their problems. Their wealth frees them to be pleasure-seeking eccentrics. Note that many of the problems that Samantha solves through twitching her nose could also be solved by writing a check. Samantha’s children also have magical powers. These inherited magical powers could be a metaphor for trust funds that Samantha’s parents would have set up for their grandchildren, against Darrin’s wishes.

Why Samantha loved Darrin

Once you realize that Samantha’s “powers” serve as a metaphor for inherited wealth, the characters’ attitudes and the conflicts in the show become much more understandable. Samantha had become bored with the instant gratification that she experienced in her life as a wealthy socialite. She was attracted to Darrin because he was self-reliant and because he fell in love with her, rather than with her money. (That’s why she didn’t tell him about the money until after the wedding.) If living like a middle-class housewife is the price of admission for true love, she is willing to pay it. Nevertheless, it is clear that she is just “playing house.” She can still use her witchcraft (i.e., she controls her own dowry). Note that this is a clear break from the traditional system in which the husband would control all of the wife’s assets. Samantha’s challenge is to avoid using her witchcraft so much or so obviously that she would lose Darrin’s trust.

Why Darrin was against witchcraft

Why was Darrin so steadfastly against witchcraft? When I was a child, I thought that he was just being ridiculous. Yet as I got older, I realized that he was fighting for his dignity, in terms that were understandable to my father’s generation. Working-class men who grew up during the Great Depression wanted to make such a good living that their wives would not have to work outside the home. To them, being a man meant supporting your family. If you let your wife support you, you were less than a man.

Wealth as a drug

The witchcraft in Bewitched! can be interpreted as a metaphor for inherited wealth. However, other television shows have given other metaphorical meanings to witchcraft. For example, the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer shows the character Willow Rosenberg becoming addicted to the use of magic, as if magic were like heroin. Yet instead of giving up magic altogether, Willow must learn how to use magic appropriately: for the right purposes at the right times, rather than for sheer self-indulgence or for the thrill of exerting power over others. However, wealthy people must learn the same lessons about how to handle their wealth.

What you can learn from Darrin

When I was a child, I thought that Darrin was a fool. Yet I have come to realize that he was wiser than you might expect. Darrin wants the genuine rewards that he earns by himself for his honest efforts. In contrast, drug addicts try to achieve that sense of reward artificially, without effort or meaning. Yet that would be like winning a sports trophy by paying off the referees, rather than by playing well. That is why magic can serve as a metaphor for inherited wealth or for addictive drugs. Samantha understands this principle, too, which is why she respects Darrin so much, and why she goes along with his “no-witchcraft” policy as much as she does. Darrin may seem like a kill-joy much of the time, but he understands the secret to real happiness.


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