I’ve been re-watching a lot of the early seasons of Charmed lately, specifically the first through fourth; to be honest, they’re the only ones I’ve watched before. Though I did make sure to keep abreast of everyone’s favorite Bay Area witches even after I stopped actively watching, for this post, I’ll focus on the the seasons I know best. As anyone who has ever watched this show (or any show that used to air on the WB) knows, relationship drama was often a big plot point. The sisters found themselves in a variety of dating scenarios, from the very casual to extremely serious, but said scenarios were almost always fraught with complications of some sort. How do the portrayals of some of these relationships engage with gender issues and tropes?
Spoilers for Charmed, especially seasons 1–4.
A word first on relationships on the show in general before I delve into more specific examples. Something I loved about the show is that it didn’t present all women as following just one dating ideal or path, such as implying that all women are obsessed with marriage and children. At the beginning of the series, each sister in some ways represented various archetypes of women’s relational possibilities—Prue, the responsible eldest sister, often prioritized career and familial responsibility over personal romance; Piper, the gentle middle sister, tended to be long-term relationship oriented; Phoebe, the free-spirited youngest sister, was more interested in casual dating. However, none of the sisters was shown to be completely static or stuck in these modes.
Piper’s longest and most famous relationship was with Leo, the sisters’ Whitelighter (guardian angel, basically). Their relationship seemed pretty ideal: Leo was a super sweet and kind guy—he was, after all, literally an angel—and since they were both supernatural beings working on the same side, there was no anxiety due to having to hide secret identities, often a problem for superpowered individuals. It wasn’t all totally peachy, however; there was an element of forbidden love with potential serious consequences, as witches were forbidden for falling in love with their Whitelighters (I will also readily acknowledge that in later seasons, Leo’s increasing responsibilities in the celestial hierarchy led to major marital conflict, but as I said, I’m focusing on the earlier seasons for this post). Despite all this, their relationship was the longest-lived on the show, which allowed them to begin to address the idea of starting a family. Piper became the sister who explored the idea of the working mother, if by “working” you mean “being supernaturally obligated to protect the innocent”. In spite of the domesticity of her relationship to Leo, culminating in marriage in the third season, she had major reservations at first to the idea of having children, worrying about whether they would fit into their high-stress and very dangerous lives. This showed a woman who wasn’t baby crazy and didn’t feel pressured to start having children just because she was approaching/entering her 30s, but rather was being rational about family planning.
Phoebe was always the wild child of the bunch and seemed the least likely to settle down. However, in Season 3 she met Cole, with whom she would share a long-term relationship. This being TV, naturally there were dramatic complications, namely the fact that Cole was secretly a half-demon who had been sent to kill the Charmed Ones. Unfortunately, the whole saga of their relationship ended up treading in some overdone and harmful gender stereotypes. It was Cole’s love for Phoebe, as well as her love for him, that threw a major wrench into his original mission to kill the sisters, and this love also acted as a control to pacify his demonic nature and let his human side become prominent. This plays into a really awful trope that Lady Geek Girl recently critiqued: that women must be the moral guide for men that saves men from themselves. Putting the burden on female characters to provide the love that morally grounds male characters is in many ways an iteration of the antiquated notions that paint women’s highest or truest role as that of mother or wife. In addition, the idea that men have some sort of inherent bestial, violent aspect to their nature was taken to a very explicit level in the character of Cole—as a half-human/half-demon, he literally had a human side and a demon side that could only be tempered by the love of a woman.
I saved my example with Prue for last, as I think it more or less completely inverts typical gender stereotypes and tropes. In the first season, she reconnects with police inspector Andy Trudeau, whom she had known growing up and dated in high school. As their budding relationship as adults unfolds, we see Prue in scenarios more frequently reserved for male characters. For an early example, they sleep together on their first date, and Prue quietly exits before he wakes up the next morning. Andy seems the one more eager to further the relationship, making phone calls and trying to set up dates, whereas Prue is more hesitant and even avoidant at times because she is concerned about how he would deal with knowing that she is a witch. Keeping a love interest at arm’s length to protect a secret identity, and all the angst involved in doing so, has been a mainstay of male heroes from Clark Kent to Peter Parker. In a major gender reversal, Andy is fridged at the end of Season 1 so that Prue will have Very Strong Feelings at the beginning of Season 2, having to come to terms with her repressed grief, self-doubt, and guilt, blaming herself for being unable to save him.
There are a variety of ways Charmed interacts with gender tropes and stereotypes when it comes to relationships. Sometimes, as with Phoebe and Cole, there’s mostly regurgitated, unhelpful tropes like implying a woman’s love is needed to tame the savage beast that is man. At other times, like with Prue and Andy, gender tropes are turned upside-down, and we see the exact opposite of what is usually found on television. Because of this, it’s hard to make a sweeping statement about how well or poorly Charmed handles these issues. I think we can at least say this: we get to see three very individual sisters each navigating the world of relationships in her own way, each dynamic and complex.