From Housewives to Heroes: The Evolution of Female TV Characters

The 1960s were a time of great cultural upheaval, and television reflected this transformation. The small screen brought a new kind of entertainment that allowed young girls to explore their wilder nature, but only through the lens of magic and fantasy. Two iconic shows that encapsulated this phenomenon were Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.

Magic Women, Apprehensive Men

Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie were groundbreaking television shows that portrayed iconic females with magical powers, sexy, daring, and confident. However, both these female characters had men, their husbands, that were apprehensive, overly conventional, and borderline oppressive. They were always interfering in order to contain their wives’ extraordinary skills.

In Bewitched, Samantha Stephens (played by Elizabeth Montgomery) was a witch who had married a mortal, Darrin Stephens (played by Dick York and later Dick Sargent). Darrin was often apprehensive about Samantha’s powers and tried to keep her from using them in front of his colleagues and friends. Meanwhile, Samantha chafed under Darrin’s attempts to suppress her true nature.

Agnes Moorehead’s portrayal of Endora, Samantha’s witty and powerful witch mother, made her a favorite character for many. Endora knew how to wield her witchy and feminine powers to great effect and couldn’t understand why her daughter would submit to her husband’s oppressive expectations. She despised mortals, especially her son-in-law Darrin, whom she refused to address by name, instead calling him Derwood, What’s-his-name, Darwin, and Dum-Dum to his chagrin. Endora’s character was the saving grace of the show for many young girls, as they eagerly anticipated the day when Samantha would finally overcome her domineering husband, only that never happened.

The same formula was repeated in I Dream of Jeannie, where Tony kept his own personal wish-granting blonde bombshell and her remarkable abilities under wraps and sealed in a bottle.

In I Dream of Jeannie, the titular character (played by Barbara Eden) was a genie who was discovered and freed from a bottle by an astronaut, Tony Nelson (played by Larry Hagman), only to realize that simply being released from the bottle did not guarantee her freedom to do as she pleased, no matter how good or selfless her intentions might be. Tony was initially amazed by Jeannie’s powers but soon became apprehensive about the chaos she could unleash. He spent much of the show trying to keep Jeannie’s magical abilities under control and hidden from the outside world.

Unconventional Female Characters Of 60s TV

The Avengers, featuring Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg), paved the way for the evolution of female characters as portrayed on TV. Emma Peel was a spy who could hold her own against any male adversary. She was confident, intelligent, and independent, making her a refreshing and inspiring role model for young girls.

Many shows continued to portray women in traditional roles, such as homemakers or secretaries and presented them as subservient to men. Examples include Donna Reed Show, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver.

From Bewitched to Wonderwoman

The evolution of female characters on TV has been a slow but steady process. It wasn’t until the 1970s that shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda presented women as independent and self-sufficient, with careers and personal lives that didn’t revolve around men. These shows paved the way for future shows like Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman, which featured strong, capable female protagonists who could hold their own against male adversaries.

Today, female characters on TV have evolved even further, with shows like Killing Eve, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Big Little Lies presenting complex, nuanced female characters who are flawed but relatable. These characters are no longer constrained by the male gaze or the limiting roles of traditional gender roles, and they are free to explore their wilder nature and individual gifts and potentials without constraints.

Women are no longer relegated to traditional gender roles, and they are now portrayed as complex, multifaceted characters who are capable of achieving greatness. One example of this is the show Killing Eve, which features two female protagonists, Eve (played by Sandra Oh) and Villanelle (played by Jodie Comer). Both characters are intelligent, confident, and unapologetically themselves. They are not defined by their relationships with men, and they are not afraid to take risks and pursue their goals. Killing Eve subverts the traditional male-female dynamic by presenting two equally matched female adversaries, who are both intelligent, skilled, and capable of outsmarting each other.

The Crown, which follows the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (played by Claire Foy and later Olivia Colman). The show portrays the Queen as a powerful, intelligent, and dignified leader who is not afraid to stand up to men in positions of power. Throughout the show, the Queen is faced with various challenges, including the sexism and misogyny of the era, but she remains steadfast in her convictions and never wavers in her commitment to her duties.

Finally, there is the show Orange is the New Black, which features a diverse cast of female characters who are all struggling to navigate life in a women’s prison. The show explores themes of friendship, loyalty, and empowerment, and it presents its female characters as complex, multidimensional individuals who are not defined by their crimes or their pasts. The show subverts the traditional male-dominated prison narrative by focusing on the lives and experiences of its female characters.

The 1960s were a time of great change for women, and television played an important role in reflecting and shaping this transformation. Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie were groundbreaking shows that portrayed magical, confident women, but on the other hand they also clearly highlighted the apprehension and oppression of their male counterparts. These shows were a clear reflection of an era when TV Studios knew the time had come to change the narrative, yet they remained adamant about giving female characters any free rein.

The 1960s marked a significant period of change for women, and television played a vital role in both reflecting and shaping this transformation. Two shows, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, were pioneers in portraying magical and self-assured women. However, these shows also highlighted the unease and oppression experienced by their male counterparts. These programs were an apt reflection of a time when TV studios recognized the need for a narrative shift but were reluctant to give female characters complete autonomy.

Shows of the era, such as The Avengers, paved the way for the evolution of female characters on TV, leading to more complex, nuanced, and relatable characters in today’s shows. As the world continues to change, the representation of women on TV will undoubtedly continue to evolve and improve.

Published by Maddalena Di Gregorio

“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in” Robert L. Stevenson

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