What If Betty Draper Had Been A REAL Witch?

Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a show!  It’s about a handsome 1960s ad man who has a wry, silver-haired, vaguely alcoholic boss; he marries a beautiful blonde who’s kind of a witch, and they move to the suburbs where she is beset by nosy judgmental neighbors.   I bet it would run for eight seasons.

Well, before there was “Mad Men” there was “Bewitched,” a sitcom about an actual witch who falls in love with a Muggle, er, mortal, and settles down for an ordinary middle-class married life.  Premiering in 1964 with Elizabeth Montgomery as the beautiful witch Samantha Stephens, the show trailed only “Gunsmoke” that year as  the country’s second-most popular TV  series.

I’m hardly the first to point out the similarities between “Bewitched” and “Mad Men,” including a promo from Me-TV touting “Bewitched” as the “original ‘Mad Men.’”  What interests me, though, is the role that both these shows played in the culture wars.



Last month I wrote a piece (“Television as Archeology") arguing that television can offer important clues into an era’s social history.  Well, here’s a case study.  On the one hand, we have a 21st century TV show that looks back not-so-fondly at the 1960s, and on the other hand we have one that was actually produced in the 1960s.  Which is a more accurate depiction of the period?  

The view of ‘60s society that these two shows present could not be more different.  In “Mad Men,” the suburbs are toxic and Betty Draper nearly breaks under the pressure of keeping up appearances, but in “Bewitched” the suburbs are happy places to which one naturally aspires.

Of course a sitcom and a drama are going to take the same circumstances and draw different conclusions.  In “Mad Men” the drinking is a pathological way to escape pain, but in “Bewitched” drinking is fun.  In “Mad Men” the tut-tutting of the neighbors is repressive, but on “Bewitched,” the same tut-tutting only occasions eye-rolling from Samantha.

Part of it has to do with the temperament of the housewives themselves.   The remote and emotionally fragile Betty Draper can’t take the pressure of keeping up.  Like a classic case from “The Feminine Mystique,” she is a college-educated woman (she speaks Italian!) who is bored and unfulfilled because she gave up her career (in modeling) to raise a family.  Samantha, on the other hand, is self-confident enough to stand up to her mother, who wants her to return to the wizarding world, and more than capable of brushing off the neighbors who bug her or the ad agency clients who make a pass at her.

Although not overtly political, “Mad Men” and “Bewitched” occupy different ideological positions on the television spectrum.  “Bewitched” is essentially propaganda for the social conformity of the 1950s and early 1960s.  Samantha could have had a more exciting life as a witch but she actually likes being a housewife; it’s a choice she fully embraces. She’s a powerful woman and smarter than her husband Darrin, but is happy to play second banana.    

In this regard, “Bewitched” subtly undermines the patriarchy it appears to glorify, because although Darrin may THINK he’s in charge, we know that Samantha is really calling the shots.  Women are not as weak and powerless as they seem (a message that was reinforced in hundreds of “screwball comedies” from Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, by the way).

Matt Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men,” was born in 1965, so much of what he knows about that decade comes from books and stories he’s heard.   It’s hell to be a woman in Weiner-world, and the ninth circle of hell is housewifery.  

I love “Mad Men,” but the ‘60s that I remember were a lot closer to “Bewitched.” My own mother probably would have been bored as a housewife — although we’ll never know, since she always worked.  Having a career then wasn’t as difficult or stigmatizing for women as we’re led to believe today. Having said that, most of the other mothers I knew stayed home; all seemed happy to make that choice, and none seemed subordinate to their husbands.

This might have been a matter of class.  Our family was in the very middle of the middle class. Neither of my parents went to college, so my mother, unlike the upper-middle-class Betty Draper, didn’t receive an anthropology degree from Bryn Mawr and subsequently didn’t feel intellectually stunted in our little ranch house.   On “Bewitched,” Samantha apparently hadn’t been to college either (unless you count Hogwarts), so didn’t feel deprived of a richer intellectual life.

In a country as large and diverse as the U.S. in the 1960s, no one TV series could hope to represent the reality of every housewife.  Undoubtedly there were millions of bored at-home women in the ‘60s, especially in the affluent suburbs, but as “Bewitched” indicates, the ’60s were not one long horror show.  The families who moved to the suburbs had lived through the Depression and World War II and were in the middle of one of the great economic booms in history.  They had a lot to be happy about — and that joy in getting a fresh start in a new neighborhood is what is most striking to me about “Bewitched” now, 50 years after the fact.

4 comments about "What If Betty Draper Had Been A REAL Witch?".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Ruth Ayres from Harte-Hanks, August 18, 2015 at 9:17 a.m.

    Thank you. My suburban mom--also a beautiful blonde--had survived crushing poverty in the depression. Marriage to my devilishly handsome and badass dad (who did not always behave) and a home and five children in the suburbs was heaven. A heaven where there were no pampers so washing diapers was like a zen activity in-between taking care of lively young ones, but heaven compared to what had gone before.  There were Betty Draper-ish women in her sphere of acquaintences but she didn't understand them.  Nor they her--but they envied her happiness, her willingness to throw theme birthday parties on a dime, her cheerful chauffeuring (she didn't trust those tipsy moms to drive her kids) etc. etc.  Always different sides to stories. Glad I was in hers.

  2. Rob Frydlewicz from DentsuAegis, August 18, 2015 at 1:35 p.m.

    Of course Samantha was a lot happier than Betty.  She had magical powers that, although she didn't like to use overtly, she tapped into to do housework, get her out of jams, get even with annoying people, or to help Darrin.  In addition, she had a loving mother and a support team of relatives, albeit very eccentric.  Betty had none of this and she had a philanderer for a husband to boot.  Not to mention she smoked, which was her downfall.   

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 18, 2015 at 2:20 p.m.

    Diet pills. They were given out like candy in the 60's (50's, too). Bennies, Dexies. Even Black Beauties. Today there are considered drugs. Matt Weiner touched on it, but did not nearly dive into how they effected women at home and at work. Their families did not know if they could keep them from them. And row houses, lots and lots of row houses. I remember the women on our block with black eyes, weren't seen for days and others who were bored and stifled. The men who wrote the Samantha character were the ones in control of the character as well as the studios and remember her belly button was not allowed to be shown. 

  4. Barbara Lippert from, August 18, 2015 at 4:56 p.m.

    Great article. But my takeaway is that by marrying the white collar male muggle, Samantha on Bewitched was NOT ALLOWED TO USE HER POWERS. how is that for a metaphor? 
    Lucy (in I love) had to plot and plan and manipulate to get out of the house to use her powers.
    Betty is an extreme character, (most women were not models, most models had not gone to Bryn Mawr, etc. etc.) but much of what she was feeling was chronicled, as you said, in The Feminist Mystique, which was about upper middle class educated women.
    Otherwise, the women who came up in the 40s and 50s were taught that their number one job was getting and keeping a husband.

Next story loading loading..