Monday, March 26, 2012

I love vintage TV shows: Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie

When I was a little girl in the 1970s two of my favorite shows were reruns of popular 1960s shows: Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Even as a mere child who knew nothing, I was fascinated by the messages these shows were broadcasting. I also simply enjoyed their humor and the fact that the female leads in both shows had magic powers. My grandmother and I would try to wiggle our noses and cast spells just like Samantha in Bewitched.

In case you have not had the pleasure of watching these vintage 1960s classics, I'll briefly explain what the shows were about.


Suburban housewife Samantha is a witch from a family of witches. She has significant powers, but she has fallen in love with a lowly powerless human male named Darrin and married him, much to the dismay of her mother Esmeralda. When Darrin marries Samantha, he gains her promise to not use her magic. They are going to get by just as two normal people. Of course, in every episode Samantha ends up using her magic, usually to help smooth over problems with clients of her advertising executive husband or save him from the hexes of his permanently disapproving mother-in-law.

I Dream of Jeannie

As her name implies, Jeannie is a genie, as in she is magic and trapped in a bottle. Major Tony Nelson is an astronaut in the U.S. Air Force. He returns from orbit and washes up on a remote island beach where he finds a strange bottle. He opens it and Jeannie emerges. She has been imprisoned in the bottle for a long time. She is most grateful and informs Major Nelson that he is now her master and she can grant wishes for him. He takes her home to Florida and she starts living with him in secret. She still sleeps in her bottle because 1960s network executives refused to broadcast the reality that people slept with each other.

Major Nelson tries to hide Jeannie's existence from his superior officers and, once again, makes her promise to never interfere in his life with her magic. Of course, the story of every episode is driven by her powerful meddling. Although she can grant wishes upon Major Nelson's command, she also can work magic on her own and does so often, usually just to be nice but always inadvertently causing trouble. Jeannie by the way was played by Barbara Eden, who was dreamily gorgeous in the show. She wore harem pants, a halter top, and a headdress. There's even a famous scandal in which the network executives required her costume to cover her belly button because showing the navel was too provocative. I guess belly buttons were just too much on top of the premise of an Air Force officer cohabiting secretly with a compliant and adoring slave girl who always addressed him as "Master."

As a bright-eyed grade schooler I absorbed these wonderful shows, but even my young mind was troubled by the message in both shows that said the women must not use their powers. I was baffled as to why the men in both shows would not want their wonderful women to use their powers and make their lives fantastic. Why did they want to hide them and keep them in powerless obscurity? OK, Major Nelson had some reasons. Can you imagine what nefarious experiments the Cold War crazy U.S. Government would have tried to inflict on Jeannie? Of course, she would have blinked away the goons and gone out to lunch in Paris, but Major Nelson was still motivated by a good heart.

In Bewitched, Darrin was basically just stupid to try and contain Samantha's powers. He was always struggling at his demanding job and his life would have been much less stressful if he had only let Samantha use her power. Everyone who watched Bewitched thought Darrin was stupid, but it was the premise of the show, so that was OK because it was funny.

My takeaway from both of these shows was that society wanted to suppress female power so that men could run the world and take all the credit. (Why they want credit for war, poverty, and pollution I don't know.) Although this was a disturbing message for a young girl, I also saw the companion message in both comedies. It was that women have great power and they are constantly using it to save their bumbling men, but it was best if they helped without their men realizing it. Another sad message but still kind of funny. The most brilliant humor is dark.

It's no surprise to me that these shows emerged during the 1960s when reliable birth control was spreading throughout society and women were doing anything they wanted to do, including having sex with no intention of getting married or becoming a mother. (Awesome!) I don't think that either of these comedies can be characterized as backlash against female empowerment. They appear to be satirical commentaries on the pointless oppression of women that created a world in which men labored stressfully in demanding occupations while the talents of women are forever ignored.

Of the two shows, I liked I Dream of Jeannie best because Major Nelson was more sympathetic and I really liked him. The pressures society placed on him to hide Jeannie's powers were visible. In the show he feared being declared insane if he came forward with the news that he lived with a magic genie. Then he would lose his chance to fly space ships, which was understandably important to him. In Bewitched, however, Darrin was just a self-centered dick who wanted to be the sole source of success while Samantha sat home running the vacuum cleaner. I have to agree with Esmeralda and wonder what Samantha ever saw in him.

It's a pity there aren't shows made like this anymore. The 1960s seemed to have been a golden age of television when writers and producers were willing to be dopey and frivolous. All those reruns of 1960s shows that I got to watch while growing up are precious memories to me now. I still wish I could blink away my problems like Jeannie, but my powers are not so easy to wield.

I've found some clips from both shows on YouTube. Enjoy.