Super women and the changing face of feminism

Samantha Stevens, the lead character in the 1960s sitcom, Bewitched, is a woman with special powers – a witch who can make anything happen with a slight twitch of her nose. She first appeared on television just as the first rumblings of second wave feminism were being felt. Samantha symbolised the ideal suburban housewife, and on the surface Bewitched is not a particularly feminist programme. Her powers are mostly restricted to the private world of the home because of a promise made to her husband, Darrin. However, Samantha had powers to disrupt the male world, to break free of domestic constraints and influence the public sphere. While second wave feminism was emerging, a time when women were beginning to realise that they could be more than housewives, Samantha’s supernatural abilities hinted at women’s potential beyond housework and child-rearing.

The programme first screened in the US the same year Betty Friedan’s influential feminist text, Feminine Mystique became a best seller. This famous book, which became emblematic of second wave feminism, uncovered what Friedan called “the problem with no name”. It articulated the stifling and oppressive conditions experienced by many housewives in the mid-twentieth century. Susan Douglas argues that within this context of emerging feminist agitation, new kinds of female characters arrived on television – women with special powers – a witch, a genie and a flying nun. Furthermore, she proposes that these new representations of women suggest that

“the pop culture moguls were trying to acknowledge the impending release of female sexual and political energy, while keeping it all safely in a straitjacket.”
(Douglas 1994: 126)

Bewitched highlights a defining moment in the history of women. Early second wave feminists vocalised women’s sense of oppression as housewives and sought the path towards autonomous selfhood. For example, Johnson and Lloyd (2004: 14-15) suggest that Betty Friedan “drew on a familiar trope of modernity in which the modern self leaves behind the banality or everydayness of home life to become such as self”. This narrative of the journey from suppressed housewife to liberated, self-governing individual became one of the key themes of the second wave.

Samantha was representative of suburban domestic ideals. However, at a time when women were beginning to have their horizons broadened, Samantha’s supernatural abilities conjured up the promise of women’s liberation and the unleashing of female power that was to come.

Fast forward thirty years and another young woman with super powers appears on television. This time she is not a witch, nor a housewife. Instead, she is a teenaged girl, the “Chosen One”, the Slayer. Her duty is to slay vampires and save the world from evil. Samantha’s life revolved around the domestic sphere – the daily tasks of a suburban wife, who must try to suppress her powers and do things the normal – mortal – way. Buffy’s life on the other hand, revolves around the world of the immortal.

Buffy uses her powers to protect society from vampires, demons and the occasional apocalypse. While a proportion of the storylines are centred on her personal and family relationships, the major focus of the show is her ‘slaying’ work, performed in public at night. Buffy exemplifies how women’s roles have shifted.

Coming of age in the wake of the successes of second wave feminism, many young women take equality and career opportunities for granted. This is something I found in my thesis research. A belief in the basic tenets of feminism is almost goes without saying because they have never known anything different. As prominent third wave authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards (2000) proclaim,

“for our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it – it’s simply in the water”
(2000: 17)

The emergence of what has been called a new ‘wave’ was paralleled by the publication of several books in the 1990s, claiming to be the voice of the next feminist generation. Although I am cautious about assigning labels, some salient themes of the third wave are its embrace of ambiguity and contradiction; a concern with celebrating femininity; and a focus on difference and diversity.

It is within this context that ‘girl-power’ shows like Buffy materialised. In contrast with the 1960s representation of super-woman as homemaker, the 1990s female hero is empowered, independent and courageous. Buffy is an icon of a time when women have grown up feeling they can do anything. Today’s young women do not feel confined to the domestic sphere as women who grew up watching Bewitched may have.

As Susan Hopkins suggests in her book Girl Heroes,

“if the popular culture texts of previous decades taught girls to sacrifice their own interests for the good of husband and child, contemporary pop culture prepares girls for a future of action and independence”
(Hopkins, 2002: 176)

Buffy’s confidence and autonomy reflect the way today’s young women feel about themselves. Buffy portrays and promotes the ideal of the confident, empowered young woman, while at the same time exploring some of the darker aspects of postmodern life. Despite the opportunities available to today’s generation of young women, as Buffy highlights, there are still some patriarchal demons to slay.

The critique of patriarchy is a constant theme in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy’s feminist credentials can be seen throughout the series. It is the final season of Buffy that is the most blatantly feminist because of its portrayal of collective action against an overtly misogynistic demon. Buffy rounds up an army of “Potential Slayers” from around the globe and the biggest evil they face takes the shape of a preacher named Caleb.

As Pender puts it, Caleb “is a monstrous but familiar representative of patriarchal oppression propounding a dangerous form of sexism under the cover of pastoral care” (2004: 168). This season indicates the strength of Buffy’s feminist convictions and highlights another element of the third wave – diversity. At the end of the final episode, we are shown a montage of clips from around the world as young women everywhere take up the power and fight back against their oppressors. In transferring Buffy’s power to “a heterogeneous group of women from different national, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds Buffy’s final season addresses…the issue of cultural diversity that has been at the forefront of third-wave feminist theorising” (Pender 2004: 170). The transmission of Buffy’s superpowers to young women around the globe underscores the third wave’s critique of second wave feminism as a predominantly white, middle-class endeavour. More significantly, it suggests feminist possibilities for the future.

In assembling a force made up of women from every corner of the earth, what the final season of Buffy hints at is the potential of a feminism that acknowledges and celebrates women’s differences, but does not preclude the possibility of a collective project. When Buffy defiantly declares, “Every girl who can stand up will stand up. Every girl who can fight will fight”, she conjures up the image of a universal battle against patriarchal injustices.

________
References

Baumgardner, Jennifer, & Richards, Amy. (2000). Manifesta: Young women, feminism and the future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hopkins, Susan. (2002). Girl Heroes: The New Force in Popular Culture. Sydney: Pluto Press Australia.

Johnson, Lesley, & Lloyd, Justine. (2004). Sentenced to Everyday Life: Feminism and the Housewife. Oxford & New York: Berg.

Miller, Jessica Prata. (2003). “The I in Team”: Buffy and Feminist Ethics. In James B. South (Ed.), Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale. Illinois: Open Court Publishing.

Pender, Patricia. (2002). “I’m Buffy and You’re…History”: The Postmodern Politics of Buffy. In Rhonda V. Wilcox & David Lavery (Eds.), Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Lanham, Maryland: Rowan and Littlefield.

NOTE: I can’t remember where I found the images included in this post. If I’m breaking some kind of copyright, please let me know and I’ll rectify. Thanks.

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5 Responses to “Super women and the changing face of feminism”

  1. Suzysiu Says:

    Great quote, very true – “feminism is like fluoride…”

  2. 2010 in review: some blog stats « Pondering Postfeminism Says:

    […] Super women and the changing face of feminism February 20101 comment 3 […]

  3. second wave of feminism Says:

    Second Wave feminism…

    […]Super women and the changing face of feminism « Pondering Postfeminism[…]…

  4. Seasons of the Witch: Perceptions of Witchcraft in Movies and TV | Pagan Radio Network Says:

    […] Pop-cultural moments come and go, and the witch has had its share. Each time the figure of the “Witch” means something slightly different, though often focused on the power of women. In the 1940s and 1950s, films like I Married a Witch (1942) and Bell, Book and Candle (1958) showed a witch’s power conquered by their love of a “mortal” man; a trope that was subverted in the 1960s and early 1970s by the television series Bewitched, where it’s clear that Samantha is the smarter, more powerful, partner. […]

  5. Seasons of the Witch: Perceptions of Witchcraft in Movies and TV | PRN Says:

    […] Pop-cultural moments come and go, and the witch has had its share. Each time the figure of the “Witch” means something slightly different, though often focused on the power of women. In the 1940s and 1950s, films like I Married a Witch (1942) and Bell, Book and Candle (1958) showed a witch’s power conquered by their love of a “mortal” man; a trope that was subverted in the 1960s and early 1970s by the television series Bewitched, where it’s clear that Samantha is the smarter, more powerful, partner. […]

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