Three sisters born from a long female dynasty of powerful witches to be the greatest force to fight the demons and powers of darkness that threaten our world: seems like a feminist fantasy geek’s dream come true. What more could one ask for—magic powers, strong female bonds, and the fact that passing the Bechdel test is an actual likely possibility! Add in gorgeous and (in my opinion) talented actresses and the inimitable fashions of the late 90s/early 2000s, and Charmed goes down in history as one of the most memorable supernatural dramas to grace our small screens. But was it really the feminist dream-come-true it had potential to be? Let’s take a look.
TV shows with a female main character weren’t that uncommon in the late 90s (Buffy, Dark Angel, Alias, Xena are a few that come to mind); however, with not one but three main female characters, Charmed had the potential to be a truly women-centric show. The bonds of three very different sisters supporting each other through the trials of demon-fighting (and also careers and love lives) really put female-female friendships at the forefront, and the fact that they were part of a legacy of powerful women magic-wielders could have made the show downright matriarchal! As I’ve written before, the show also painted a nuanced picture of womanhood, showing that every woman has different feelings and makes different choices about things like relationships and starting a family. So where did things go wrong?
To start with, outside of the sisters, there are not really a lot of female characters of note. The sisters juggle dating, careers, and demon-fighting, so there’s not much room for social lives; though they occasionally mention female friends, it’s clear there’s not a lot of time for girls’ nights out. The most frequent interactions with non-supernaturals are either attempts at dating (all the sisters are of the male-dating variety) or with their loyal cop friend, a man named Darryl. The matriarchal aspect unfortunately also falls flat, as the girls’ mother died when they were children and their grandmother who raised them died shortly before the first episode. While technically the collective wisdom of their female ancestors is compiled in their family Book of Shadows, and their mom and Grams even make a few guest appearances here and there, it woulda been so nice to have experienced female mentors directly guiding the current generations of women heroes as they journey and grow. Instead who do we end up with?
Early in the first season we were introduced to Whitelighters, essentially guardian angels of witches. Though we later meet female Whitelighters, they always seem to be a vast minority among an overwhelmingly male Whitelighter population, up to and including the upper echelons of Whitelighter leadership, a mysterious group known as the Elders. This leads us to a problem I’ve tackled before: the unfortunate case of ubiquitous male oversight. In the first few seasons, the sisters’ Whitelighter, Leo, functions as kind of a deus ex machina—he’s there to heal the girls’ wounds and provide the random but necessary information needed to vanquish baddies, literally popping in and out of the scenes with the characteristic Whitelighter form of teleportation known as “orbing”. This makes for a benevolent, but still patriarchal, dynamic of a man coming in to save the day, or at least clean up messes when the women need help.
However, starting in the second and third seasons, the Elders takes an increasingly active role in the show. Firstly, they seek to interfere with the relationship between Leo and Piper, since witches aren’t allowed to fall in love with their Whitelighters. But more than just being the meanies causing the dramatic tension in an overdone star-crossed lovers plotline, it becomes increasingly obvious that the sisters are nothing but pawns for the celestial patriarchal hierarchy. The majority of demons and warlocks (evil witches of either gender, in Charmed parlance) on the show are male, including the Source of Evil—while this could have been played as the sisters as women taking on the predatory and violent masculinity fueled and upheld by patriarchy, the fact that the highest powers that be (the Elders) are also male means the ladies are still working for a male power. The audience is left feeling that our great heroes whom the show should in theory revolve around are nothing more than footsoldiers in the war of Good against Evil, with stuffy old men calling the shots.
As the show went on, this decline of female agency manifested in an interesting way. For a classic “misadventure of the week”, the Charmed Ones were frequently prone to magical transformations into things like wendigos and banshees, often accidentally but sometimes on purpose. Starting in the “middle years” of Seasons 4–6 or so, these transformations seemed to happen even more often. We see the sisters become everything from mermaids to superheroes to actual goddesses at the mercy and whim of others. This was probably spawned more out of writers just running out of good ideas five seasons into a show than anything else, but it was still unsettling on some level to watch. It was bad enough it felt like the sisters weren’t in charge of their own destinies as warriors against evil—but it made it feel more intimately violating to have them lose agency over their own bodies when, for example, a young guy whose drawings comes to life changes the sisters into superheroines with the requisite skin-tight pleather outfits.
Sadly, somewhere along the way, Charmed lost its way as a possible paragon of female-centric television. At the same time the sisters were slowly losing their agency, male characters like Cole, Leo, and Chris got to have more complex, frankly cosmic, dilemmas that let them showcase free will in ways the sisters no longer did. The births of sons into the Halliwell line of witches also opens up questions: are the children of Charmed Ones destined to be even more powerful than the Charmed Ones themselves? If so, does the role of Champion Against Evil give way to the role of Mother of Champions Against Evil, fitting into the old scheme that women have their most important roles as wives and mothers?
I just recently finished Season 7 and began Season 8. It’s too early to say, but I’m having a glimmer of hope that we just might see a bit of reversal in the final season of this show. Once I finish it, I’ll let you all know in another post. Until then!