The Awareness of Bewitched

Humans have a wired need to make comparisons. In an episode of Brain Games, people found differences between pairs of jeans despite the jeans all being from the same manufacturer (of course, that doesn't mean the jeans weren't different--nothing manufactured is ever exactly the same).

Unfortunately, the search for differences often leads to the insistence that once upon a time society was "more than" or "less than" it is now. The 1950s was more conservative and more traditional and more invested in middle-class suburbia than 2019.

There is some truth to that. Just watch end-of-war-propaganda videos in which women are instructed to return to their homes now that hubby is returning from war.

Here's the thing: many of the women in factories worked before the war (only at more domestic jobs). The women who could return home to care for their children mostly belonged to the suburban middle-class. And not everybody's hubby came home.

In other words, as Tom Wolfe repeatedly points out in The Right Stuff, every age has a Victorian gent who decides what the "norm" of that age should be. And yes, the 1950's had that. (And yes, the Mercury astronauts were expected to live up to it.)

The error is in believing that people of 1950s and 1960s weren't utterly aware of their own culture. The search for differences unfortunately often evokes the insistence that THEY were not like US. THEY had all these cultural absolutes that people were suppose to strive for UNLIKE US. It the dumbness of Rent, only slightly more understandable.

Bewitched (1964-1972) challenges social assumptions about what people "back then" understood. Bewitched is as fully aware of what it is using/spoofing as any Joss Whedon episode. It is not entirely tongue in cheek--the tone is slightly different--but that awareness is as consciously cultivated as a Monty Python raised eyebrow.

Samantha--who knows very well that the television
repair man was planning to cheat her.
The result is more than a series of political statements (after all, why should 1960s writers/actors/audiences be political for our sakes?). When Samantha instantly cleans up her kitchen, this is not 1960s female wishful thinking (Oh, if only I could be liberated!). This is indifference to any sort of work ethic at all. When she demolishes the reputation of an arch-rival, she isn't clinging desperately to her husband; she's throwing anarchy into the way of flirtation.

"Just one big happy family," Endora says dryly, looking at her normally sanguine husband, Maurice, who lost his temper at learning that Darrin (Donald, Darwin) is mortal; her daughter, Samantha, who threatened to never speak to Maurice again; and her son-in-law who was recently disintegrated by Maurice. 

Now, granted, Bewitched aired at the very beginning of the sexual liberation movement in America. But television is never that prescient (despite its claims). For the sake of entertainment, the writers were tapping into attitudes and awareness that already existed.

See Norman Rockwell's wry cover above. Or google "1950s magazine covers," even, specifically, "1950s women magazine covers"; it is amazing how few of them include pictures of women in kitchens. Women of the time were reading about actresses and women travelers and fashion models and female sports figures and the Queen of England as much back then as they do now.

It reminds me of my master's program during which fellow students insisted that lower class people believe everything they see on television; they are victims of advertising (unlike "us"). The assumption was as aggravatingly naive and condescending as assumptions about the 50's: They couldn't possibly be as wise to the ways of the world as we are. It's not all that different from the 10-year-old who insists that he is so much more sophisticated than the 8-year-old--or, rather, the 10-year-old insisting that he is so much more sophisticated than other 10-year-olds.

We all exist in a social context full of trends and attitudes and values. We might rebel against that context. We might accept it. We might ignore it. We might think it is pointless to fight it. We might use it.

The reason why people make different choices regarding social context is a post for a different time. But it isn't usually due to lack of awareness.

(Thanks to Joe for putting me back in touch with Bewitched!)

4 comments:

FreeLiveFree said...

Well, the 1950s are viewed as some sort of golden age where Men were Men and Women stayed in the kitchen or a time of horrible oppression by the Patriarchy depending which side of the political spectrum you were on. I imagine anyone living back then would find both views as odd at the very least.

When you mention that your students thought the lower class was more likely to believe in advertising, I rolled my eyes. A lot of lower class people are more cynical (and reasons to be) and skeptical then many of the upper class.

Joe said...

I've long observed that it isn't the lower/working classes that "believe"--quite to the contrary, they are fully aware that even the low brow stuff is fantasy--but rather the upper/chattering/intellectual classes.

In connection with this, despite their haughty protests to the contrary, advertising is far more effective with the upper classes. In part because they are very status conscious in a very predictable way which makes it far easier to tailor advertising for them. They then project their weakness onto everyone else.

Joe said...

An interesting subtext in Bewitched is that Darren maintains that magic is corrupting, Samantha disagrees, yet the parade of wizards and warlocks repeatedly proves Darren's point. Samantha pointedly fails to appreciate how much her own parents are layabouts, though this sincere and naive belief in good intentions is a very important element.

Katherine Woodbury said...

Yeah, I got a kick out of Darren's nightmare of what it might mean if Samantha is pregnant (Season 1). His images of children floating about, zapping each other in and out of existence was hilarious--precisely because it was so entirely possible based on the underlying rules of magic in the show.