Proto-Feminists on Classic TV

Who were the feminists who were feminists before we knew much about feminists? Who were the role models for young women when role models for young women were thin on the ground? Lately, people have been looking to vintage TV for the answers to those questions.

The first woman that many people think of as a proto-feminist is Samantha Stevens of Bewitched. Samantha was powerful, rescued her bumbling husband from unpleasant situations, and generally made life better with her superpower. (Although occasionally it went wrong.)

Recently, though, I’ve heard the sitcom deconstructed from a feminist viewpoint, and I can’t argue with much of what they said. Samantha gave up her vocation for the man she loved and had to sneak behind his back to work magic. (At least it’s not like the film Bell, Book, and Candle where, when a witch falls in love, she loses her powers entirely. (Also, irrelevantly, I consider BBaC a Christmas movie in the same way that Die Hard is a Christmas movie.) But I digress (three times in one digression)).

Where was I? Oh, yes, Bewitched. When Samantha did use her magic to benefit Darrin, he berated her, yelled at her, and shamed her. Instead of ripping him a new one or even pointing out that he’s an asshole, she meekly acquiesced and promised to do better. And they call this feminism?

In the 1970s, we had the Mary Tyler Moore Show. This sitcom had more going for it, feminist-wise. Mary Richards was a single woman, living on her own, and working at a responsible, possibly high-pressure, job in a newsroom. Mary wasn’t what you’d call an outspoken campaigner for women’s rights – but that’s okay. She was an example and a role model just by the way she lived, without dependence on a man.

The show had some episodes with more overtly feminist themes. There was one in which Mary discovered that she was paid less than her predecessor in the same job. Her boss admitted it was because she was a woman and spouted the now-recognized-as-drivel drivel about a man needing more money to support a family. There was another where Mary championed hiring a woman as a sportscaster. Perhaps most revolutionary of all was when Mary tacitly admitted that, despite being single, she took birth control pills.

Bridging the time gap between Samantha and Mary was the late-60s-early-70s That Girl, featuring Marlo Thomas as Anne Marie, an aspiring actress living on her own in New York. Anne was presented as kind of ditzy, but Thomas found it significant that her character wasn’t married off to her boyfriend in the series’ final season, and she had wanted to name the show Miss Independence.

Later in life, Thomas became a staunch and visible feminist. She once said, memorably, that getting married was like putting a vacuum cleaner to your head and sucking out your brain. She later married talk-show host Phil Donahue, apparently with no vacuum cleaners present at the ceremony. Thomas was also responsible for the ground-breaking 1972 Free to Be…You and Me, an album, illustrated book, and TV special which contained empowering content for children, including feminist themes and stories.

My personal favorite feminist icon in popular culture is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Back in the ’90s, she was the kick-ass embodiment of girl power. Almost 25 years ago (so I guess it was classic TV, though not a sitcom but an action show with comic elements), the teenage Buffy was the “Chosen One” who could, well, slay vampires. The new slayer, who was called when the previous one died, was always a young woman. Series creator Joss Whedon specifically said that his purpose in creating Buffy was to upend the dominant paradigm that the cute young girl was always the victim in need of rescue. Buffy rescued herself and others in every episode. True, she had an unfortunate love life, but many feminists do.

(By the way, I was hooked on Buffy because my husband introduced me to it. The TV series. The movie of the same name was much less good, except for Paul Rubens’s death scene, which was worth the price of admission. But I digress again.)

Now feminist characters are everywhere in TV and movies. We’ve had TV dramas with women as US presidents, women as superheroes, women as crime solvers, women as hospital administrators, and more. It’s good that the industry has finally caught up with the way feminism has changed our culture and contributed to it. I don’t watch sitcoms anymore, so I don’t know if there are strong women in them, but I bet there are. Female heroes and feminist characters have gotten a lot of pushback from the bro brigade, but I think they’re here to stay. Personally, I think we need all the feminist role models we can get. And if my husband likes them too, so much the better.

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3 thoughts on “Proto-Feminists on Classic TV

      1. Not only was Xena a warrior, but she was also a big woman, not what was expected at the time. It took me a while to get used to her figure and see it as sexy. I had been brainwashed well.


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