Written by Carolina Eleni Theodoropoulos
The realm of magic was always governed by women. Women are nymphs, they are jealous goddesses; they are lustful and vengeful monsters like Medusa, and dangerous women yielding destructive power like Pandora. In fairy tales they are witches, they are crones, they are evil stepmothers and hags. The norm in history and in the literature seems to be that magical women are to be burned, contained—but what happens when they resist?
The Brothers Grimm kept women from overstepping their bounds by planting them in the forest and giving them away as wives. When they weren’t casting the spells themselves or impeding the hero’s journey, women were used as collateral, bound to silence for years. They were forbidden to laugh or even defend themselves from accusations made by mothers-in-law and jealous sisters of eating their own children. Until liberated they were still expected to perform their duties: to accept marriage, obey their husband, and give birth. All were performed passively, without fret, and like dolls in glass coffins they lay still for people to marvel at their blond hair, fair skin, and dead eyes.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were a product of their time; their values were characteristic of their middle-class, religious upbringing. They believed in hard work and in being repaid for one’s toil. They believed good, kind people were rewarded by God and that immoral acts were punished. They were cognizant of social caste but still rooted for the underdog emerging from rags to riches. As for gender norms, they were stringent: in their patriarchal society, women were property; marriage was practical, not a romance. Lovers were chaste (the most scandalous exchange being a kiss on the cheek) and female sexuality—well, let’s not even talk about that.
In such a context, magic, i.e. the power to overthrow these clearly defined boundaries, was feared. Magic sparkles ubiquitously in fairy tales. But upon closer inspection, it is women—or things associated with women—that have magical powers: nature, helper figures, objects (women were property too, then, remember?). Leading fairy tale scholar, Jack Zipes, writes that male heroes withstand “the forces of magic, chaos, nature, and sensuality”; they apply their reason “instrumentally to banish magic and establish male governance” (97). Being crowned king at the end is a “socially symbolic act of achieving self-mastery—as well as mastery over outside forces that include women and nature” (98). Feminist-Jungian readings will say that men denied women their fundamental instinctual nature, suppressing their sexuality and their creativity, shrinking them to a male ideal of what a woman should be.
Modelled after Homer’s Odysseus, heroes were cunning, self-possessed, and rational. Arriving home at the end of a fairy tale marked “a rational closing of the narrative, which is also the rational enclosure of the future,” thus slamming the door on the magical world. And so women were confined to ordinary lives, and the men rested easy having conquered the unknown, tamed the wild, and restored order to chaos (98). Sitting in their quiet homes they must have forgotten that women really did have voices—and when they next spoke, they would demand to reconstruct their narrative.
Bewitched may not be the first nor the most significant example of women reclaiming their identity, but it is an entertaining example that works well in juxtaposition with the Grimm vision of the home. Samantha, who went by her masculine nickname Sam, was a witch married to a mortal who asks her to give up her powers to be a conventional housewife. As expected, she defies Darrin, who in every episode is ridiculed, ignored, and tormented by his bold, self-sufficing, and disapproving mother-in-law, Endora, or another member of Sam’s family.
Samantha was a heroine whose magical powers gave her an obvious advantage over her husband. She swelled beyond the household and had adventures across continents and history. Whenever she twitched her nose for purposes unrelated to making dinner or doing the dishes, “the male world was turned completely upside down,” says Susan Douglas, leaving men impotent and looking foolish (126). The concessions of the show were keeping her proper, pretty, and prim to placate social anxiety by “domesticating the monster.” But Sam was bursting at the seams: a precursor to female political, economic, and sexual liberation, standing at the “intersection between middle-class definitions of the ideal young wife and rebelliousness against those definitions” (128).
Darrin Stevens was the Grimm hero’s nightmare: held hostage in a matriarchal home left to reckon with forces larger than him. He was not cunning and could not unravel himself from the magical net that Sam’s family used to trap him. Sam always saved and redeemed Darrin in the eyes of his male superiors, who were easily persuaded, dim as they were too. Still, the audience knew who wore the crown—who tugged at the strings making the puppets dance. As in the Grimm tales, every episode ended with the wife and husband reconciled and the husband relishing the order reinstated. But there was no fooling the audience—magic would unquestioningly disrupt the household again, cracking a deeper fissure between the spouses.
The impetus of the show was that Sam’s magic could not be contained. Despite her devotion to Darrin, her magic burst and continually tested the boundaries of marriage and the home. Sam, unlike the women in the fairy tales, knew how important her powers were and what they symbolized; she would not be reduced to a secondary character relinquishing her independence or her identity—not even for the man she loved. In the Grimm stories the seesaw of power clearly rested on the side of the males and the same gender norms they nurtured, applied until, gradually, women gained momentum to challenge them.
In popular American culture (and in the context of this article) it started with Betty Friedan’s bestselling book, The Feminine Mystique, which ruffled the status quo and awakened a mass of (previously, quietly) unsatisfied women. Rising social tension demanded this “woman’s issue” be addressed leading to shows like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and The Flying Nun. Namely, what is the woman’s proper place? Where does woman belong? The seesaw of power began to creak and to lift, raising the men, shocking them awake from an unopposed slumber, letting them dangle mid-air, wondering how far they would fall. The question became: would men realize what women already knew?
A woman’s only proper place has always been in the wild.