I am obsessed with Bewitched. It was my favorite show as a kid because of the magic but it’s my favorite show now because of the nostalgia – not nostalgia for my childhood memories, but for an era I have no memory of…the Sixties that existed in the pregnant pause before the cultural revolution–that long tail of the post-war Baby Boom that would fuel the counter-culture that changed it all.
But the show is also amusing on its face and even my modern kids enjoy it. I don’t let them watch TV or use electronics on school nights mostly because they fight too much over who gets what for how long. A month or so ago, however, I made an exception and bought the first season of Bewitched. Now we watch one episode per night as a family. We all love it. But when we first started watching it, I grieved for American innocence lost–a culture of etiquette and gentility that perhaps skewed corny but was fundamentally good. Then the outdated terms of the husband-wife relationship broke through to my consciousness and it occurred to me that really this might just be a white-washed version of the ugly culture depicted in Mad Men. Darrin Stevens and Larry Tate were the original mad men and the cigarettes and martinis and gender roles ring true in both versions. I was a little disturbed by this possibility, but also a little relieved because I didn’t have to have Good Ol’ Days syndrome – maybe those days weren’t so good after all.
To check my instincts on this, I took advantage of an opportunity to get an unbiased impression of that era as I was driving in the car with my 8-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. My 9-year-old had announced at dinner the night before that she “accidentally” stumbled across the word “sexist” in the dictionary while looking up some “other word.” It didn’t take me long to come up with a list of “other words” she might have been looking for on that page, but I let that pass. I did, however, use that information later in the car to ask, “Hey, since you know what the word ‘sexist’ means, let me ask your opinion on something. Do you think the show Bewitched is sexist?” I was so amazed by their answers, I decided to share them….
I made sure the kids knew what the word “sexist” really meant and I gave them a moment to reflect. My son was ready first. He said, “Yes the show is sexist because it’s really all about women, all the witches are women, there are few warlocks and the women have all the power.” My daughter then chimed in, “Yeah and there’s a lot of smooching…Darrin likes to smooch but I think Samantha just does it to make him happy–I think there’s something else going on there. And yeah, it’s sexist cause it’s all about the women. All the men always look at the women, listen to what they say, stop everything to talk to women, talk ABOUT women…and if a beautiful woman says something, they always listen and agree with her. Larry was even reading a WOMEN’S MAGAZINE in bed one night.” (I didn’t correct her misimpression, though I remembered my horror a few nights previous that Larry was reading a girly magazine while his wife brushed her hair at the vanity beside him!)
The children seemed to be missing the point entirely! So I said, “Yeah, but do you notice that all the people in the workplace are men?” My daughter replied, “But even there, there are women, while at home there are no men.” “But all the men are the workers and all the women are the secretaries,” I insisted. “Yes,” my daughter answered, “but even there, they will always focus on the woman if there’s one around.” Now sure, what she’s talking about is the very definition of sexism, but in her perception it gives the woman the advantage! Why? Because she sees that women had power over men. She wasn’t thinking in terms of who was more respected because of their work, she was just thinking about attention, deference, influence. Sure, you might argue, but she doesn’t understand the power of the economic superiority men had over women – it’s all about money, after all.
It’s true, money has a lot to do with it. My mother had 9 children during the ’50s and ’60s and my father was as sexist as they come. I always knew if I wanted any power in a marriage or any sanity in my life (my mother had neither), I would have to have some economic security and independence. I took that informed opinion and went to Harvard to study economics as an undergrad and got a JD-MBA from Stanford, I became an investment banker and married a fellow JD-MBA – an “enlightened,” thoroughly non-sexist man raised by liberals (Texans though they are!) I am highly satisfied with my choice to ensure that I be treated with respect at home and in the world by commanding it through knowledge and accomplishment, and I can’t tell you how much I resent the condescending glance from a foreign man who hails from a “sexist” culture.
But I can’t ignore the information in my daughter’s perception of traditional gender roles: there was some power in the role women shrugged off. Maybe there wasn’t enough power, maybe some had more than others (that’s not fair!), but there was some power. I assume it stemmed from possessing a then-scarce commodity men valued more than money; perhaps it was more complex than that. No matter where it came from, though, or where it went, it was real, and regardless of how today’s women are trained to feel, Samantha Stevens seemed happy to work real magic with Feminine Mystique alone.