Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a show! It’s about a handsome 1960’s ad man who has a wry, silver-haired, vaguely alcoholic boss; he marries a beautiful blonde who’s kind of a witch and they move to the suburbs where she is beset by nosy judgmental neighbors. I bet it would run for eight seasons.
Well, before there was “Mad Men” there was “Bewitched,” a sitcom about an actual witch who falls in love with a Muggle, er, mortal, and settles down for an ordinary middle class married life. Premiering in 1964 with Elizabeth Montgomery as the beautiful witch Samantha Stephens, the show trailed only “Gunsmoke” that year as the country’s second-most popular TV series.
I’m hardly the first to point out the similarities between “Bewitched” and “Mad Men,” including this promo from Me-TV touting “Bewitched” as the “original ‘Mad Men.’” What interests me, though, is the role that both these shows played in the culture wars. Last month I wrote a piece (“Television as Archeology) arguing that television can offer important clues into an era’s social history. Well, here’s a case study. On the one hand, we have a 21st Century TV show that looks back not-so-fondly at the 1960s, and on the other hand we have one that was actually produced in the 1960s. Which is a more accurate depiction of the period?
The view of Sixties society that these two shows present could not be more different. In “Mad Men,” the suburbs are toxic and Betty Draper nearly breaks under the pressure of keeping up appearances, but in “Bewitched” the suburbs are happy places to which one naturally aspires.
Of course a sitcom and a drama are going to take the same circumstances and draw different conclusions. In “Mad Men” the drinking is a pathological way to escape pain, but in “Bewitched” drinking is fun. In “Mad Men” the tut-tutting of the neighbors is repressive, but on “Bewitched,” the same tut-tutting only occasions eye-rolling from Samantha.
Part of it has to do with the temperament of the housewives themselves. The remote and emotionally fragile Betty Draper can’t take the pressure of keeping up. Like a classic case from the Feminine Mystique, she is a college educated woman (she speaks Italian!) who is bored and unfulfilled because she gave up her career (in modeling) to raise a family. Samantha on the other hand, is self-confident enough to stand up to her mother, who wants her to return to the wizarding world, and more than capable of brushing off the neighbors who bug her or the ad agency clients who make a pass at her.
Although not overtly political, “Mad Men” and “Bewitched” occupy different ideological positions on the television spectrum. “Bewitched” is essentially propaganda for the social conformity of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Samantha could have had a more exciting life as a witch but she actually likes being a housewife; it’s a choice she fully embraces. She’s a powerful woman and smarter than her husband Darrin, but is happy to play second banana. In this regard “Bewitched” subtly undermines the patriarchy it appears to glorify because although Darrin may THINK he’s in charge, we know that Samantha is really calling the shots. Women are not as weak and powerless as they seem (a message that was reinforced in hundreds of “screwball comedies” from Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, by the way).
Matt Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men” was not alive in the 1960s, so much of what he knows about that decade comes from books and stories he’s heard. It’s Hell to be a woman in Weiner-world and the ninth circle of Hell is housewifery.
I love “Mad Men” but the Sixties that I remember were a lot closer to “Bewitched.” My own mother probably would have been bored as a housewife although we’ll never know since she always worked. Having a career then wasn’t as difficult or stigmatizing for women as we’re led to believe today. Having said that, most of the other mothers I knew stayed home; all seemed happy to make that choice and none seemed subordinate to their husbands.
This might have been a matter of class. Our family was in the very middle of the middle class. Neither of my parents went to college, so my mother, who unlike the upper-middle class Betty Draper, didn’t receive an anthropology degree from Bryn Mawr and subsequently didn’t feel intellectually stunted in our little ranch house. On “Bewitched” Samantha apparently hadn’t been to college either (unless you count Hogwarts) so didn’t feel deprived of a richer intellectual life.
In a country as large and diverse as the U.S. in the 1960s no one TV series could hope to represent the reality of every housewife. Undoubtedly there were millions of bored at-home women in the Sixties, especially in the affluent suburbs, but as “Bewitched” indicates, the Sixties were not one long horror show. The families who moved to the suburbs had lived through the Depression and World War II and were in the middle of one of the great economic booms in history. They had a lot to be happy about and that joy in getting a fresh start in a new neighborhood is what is most striking to me about “Bewitched” now, 50 years after the fact.