In these fractured, contentious times, the one thing that we can all agree on is that Bewitched was a super duper gay show. Right? It’s not just me?
Like the rest of you nerds, I’ve been thinking about Bewitched a lot lately, ever since it got a little homage on WandaVision. I used to watch Bewitched religiously as a kid (in reruns! I’m not that old) and in my memories it was extremely queer. But why? It's a little strange to think of it as queer since it never actually had any explicitly gay characters or same-sex couples. It was about a straight couple. It never had a queer coming-out episode.
Other sitcoms around the same time (M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore) all had gay one-offs, but Bewitched never did. So why do I remember it as being so gay — gayer, in fact, than any of those other programs?
I’ve spent the last few weeks tumbling around in an obsessive re-watch of the series, browsing old newspaper archives for articles about it, reading up on the private lives of Paul Lynde (depressing!) and Agnes Moorehead (intimidating!). And yes, many of the show's cast members were queer, or queer icons (even one of the twins who played Tabatha grew up to be a lesbian), but I don’t think that fully explains Bewitched's queer vibe.
For that, I think you have to sniff a little more cautiously around its subtext. From the very beginning, queer allegory was woven into its DNA. The show, based on the films I Married a Witch and Bell, Book, and Candle, was fundamentally about secrets; it was about a minority group, threatened by mainstream society, able to hide in plain sight. In one season one episode, unsubtly titled “The Witches are Out,” featured a group of witches lamenting their hiding during a coven coffee klatsch. “I don’t know why we don’t just tell people,” one of them sighs, before remembering that the last time they tried that, witches were burned at the stake. (A common urban myth is that stake-burnings were also the origin of the slur “faggot.”)
By the end of that episode, the witches are able to rehabilitate their public image, somewhat, with a protest that bears a striking similarity to the real-life protests that LGBTQ+ organizers had staged in Washington DC.
Further parallels to queer life are littered throughout the series: Samantha warns her daughter Tabatha that “we live in a world that’s not used to people like us, and I’m afraid they may never be.” In another episode, Samantha’s repression of her witchcraft starts to overwhelm her, until a fellow traveler (who plays a tiny Liberace piano) urges her, “you must stop feeling guilty about doing witchcraft.”
Years after these episodes aired, Elizabeth Montgomery confirmed that they knew exactly what they were doing. “It was a neat message to get across to people at that time in a subtle way,” she said in a 1991 interview.
I wish the show could have gone gayer — to give Uncle Arthur, played extremely broadly by Paul Lynde, a boyfriend. If the show were ever to come back, I’d like to imagine Arthur played flamboyantly by Billy Eichner, with a dignified partner played by Guy Branum whose acerbic wit complements his lover’s campy jubilance.
But as an artifact of the late '60s and early '70s, Bewitched still succeeds without explicitly gay content. Queerness is indelible in its central metaphor, far more than the one-off gay-of-the-week episodes that TV would provide until the late '90s. Samantha was right that “we live in a world that’s not used to people like us,” but thankfully, she was wrong that “it never will be.”