The year was 1964, and marriage equality was a hot topic across the United States. In more than half of those states, it was illegal for an individual to marry outside his or her own “race.” Some states, like Oklahoma, were specific in defining race (people of “African descent” were not allowed to marry people of “non-African descent”). Others were vague. Social conservatives, once again citing the Bible as grounds to prohibit such marriages, fought tooth and nail against more progressive elements trying to redefine what marriage was, and even periodically brought up ammending the Constitution. Interracial marriage would, they argued, destroy the American family. The Supreme Court finally ruled on the issue in 1967, ending this form or marriage inquality in Loving vs Virgina, but in ’64 it was a very contentious issue. And that was where a popular television program took a highly subversive stand.
I’m talking about Bewitched.
Don’t let Elizabeth Montgomery’s blonde tresses and girl-next-door looks fool you. The witches and warlocks in Bewitched were very intentionally presented as another race, rather than just a class or profression. You were either born one or you weren’t, and they came with their own exotic culture and customs. Sure, Samatha could “pass” as a normal suburban housewife, but then again lots of Americans could. Even in 1970, when my parents were married, my father was cautioned by his Catholic priest that my mother’s name, “Judith,” meant “Jew woman.” It wasn’t always about African Americans.
The issue of stereotypes and prejudices came up in the show time and time again, all cleverly concealed behind a thin layer of slapstick and special effects. When Samantha became pregnant, there was even some concern “what the baby would be,” and they didn’t mean a boy or a girl. Bewitched was taking aim at civil rights opponents and advocates of anti-miscegenation laws with its tongue firm in its cheek, and people were tuning it for eight years for reasons other than just seeing Durwood-Dumdum-What’s-His-Name being tormented by his mother-in-law.
And it wasn’t just racial discrimination. The key distinction between Samantha Stevens and many other television wives at the time was that she was no one’s subordinate. There was never any question that Samantha held all the real power in the relationship. She would consistently “yes dear” Darren and then do as she pleased the moment he went off to work. The Nickelodeon network years later would ask its voters who was more “powerful,” Samantha or Jeannie. One of the best answers came from a viewer who said it was obvious; Samantha never called her male partner “Master.” She definitely did not, and got her own way as often as he did. There was a feminist streak in Bewitched a mile wide.
And let us not forget Uncle Arthur, for whom Samantha was always asking people’s tolerance and understanding. In the late 60s, if you want the message loud and clear that the “eccentric bachelor uncle” may be light in the loafers you cast the spectacularly camp Paul Lynde in the role. Lynde’s sexuality was a well-known “open secret” in Hollywood, and he seemed to hall a ball with it in the show.
The message of acceptance even went to class distinctions. Watch the first few seasons, and Agnes Moorehead’s splendid Endora. Later in the show she was just whacky, in a moo moo and beads, but early on she was elegant, like an aged movie star. She was always jetting off to exotic locations in her life of leisure, and disappointed her daughter had “married down” into a life of domestic servitude.Bewitched’s live and let live extended to economics as well.
All in the Family and The Jeffersons would cover much the same ground, but Bewitched beat them to it. It would drive its point across with a smile, mock the prejudiced with laughter, and speak out for those discriminated against with a wink. It was spectacular sleight-of-hand.
And that was the most magical thing about it.