Thursday, August 07, 2014

Values Dissonance

This is a term used on It refers to fiction (in whatever medium) written and-or set in a different time or place, in which the characters and-or the author cheerfully and unquestioningly embrace values that seem strange or downright immoral to contemporary American readers. I thought of Values Dissonance last week while watching the first few episodes of one of my favorite old sitcoms, BEWITCHED. Having never seen the very earliest episodes, I was eager to make up for the omission.

The early 1960s were a different world in several ways, starting with the oddity (from today's perspective) of a perfectly healthy, intelligent, childless middle-class woman (not a wealthy lady of leisure) staying home and doing nothing but take care of the house. The depiction of smoking as a ubiquitous activity—Darren and Samantha don't seem to smoke but do offer cigarettes to visitors as a routine gesture of hospitality—didn't surprise me, since I'm old enough to remember when almost all adults smoked everywhere. (I WAS shocked, though, upon viewing TWILIGHT ZONE episodes in which characters even smoked in a doctor's office.) But I did find the BEWITCHED characters' drinking habits jarring, because alcohol use wasn't part of the 1950s-60s subculture in which I grew up, except maybe champagne for the adults on New Year's Eve or an occasional beer in summer. In BEWITCHED, Darren seems to have a cocktail every afternoon upon getting home from work, and "I need a drink" is his typical response to stressful moments. Alcoholic beverages are everywhere, including in Darren's office! From the viewpoint of today's more health-conscious culture, those people look like alcoholics in the making.

A deeply unsettling instance of Values Dissonance, however, occurs in the episode "It Shouldn't Happen to a Dog." A client of Darren's advertising agency, during a party at Darren and Samantha's home, makes an aggressive pass at Samantha, even getting her alone outside and physically cornering her. In desperation she turns him into a dog. When Darren finds out about the incident, he doesn't believe the man's behavior justified the punishment, is more worried about losing the account than about Samantha's feelings, and angrily declares that a "normal wife" (i.e., one who isn't a witch) would have found a less drastic way of dealing with the situation. He eventually apologizes and knocks out the guy (now restored to human form) with a clean punch to the jaw, but only after catching the man pawing Samantha on the office couch. In other words, he doesn't take his wife's testimony about sexual harassment seriously and effectively blames her for the incident! To a modern viewer, Darren's apology after viewing the client's caddishness with his own eyes looks like too little, too late. Yet Samantha readily forgives him, and the writers clearly expect the audience to accept this outcome as a happy reconciliation. In another episode, Darren is having trouble with an ad campaign, and Samantha gives him some ideas that strike him as brilliant. After thinking them over, though, he jumps to the conclusion that she must have created them by magic. When she assures him she didn't, he doesn't believe her. This man who's supposed to be madly in love with his wife calls her a liar and implies that she couldn't possibly have the intelligence and creativity to produce good ideas on her own. Again, he changes his mind only upon being presented with proof, in this case the fact that the client rejects the new slogans instead of jumping at them. This is supposed to be a good marriage?

Of course, for many viewers BEWITCHED has an essential problem at its core—Darren's insistence that Samantha abstain from magic (a condition that gets violated every week, of course, as desperate situations justify exceptions). In the words of Endora, Samantha's mother, he's refusing to let his wife "be herself." His prejudice against magic seems to run no less deep, even if less violent, than the typical witch prejudice against mortals. Admittedly, as a comment on TVTropes points out, Darren could never survive in Samantha's world. (On their first meeting, her father disintegrated him, albeit only temporarily.) And Samantha does seem happy to embrace the mortal lifestyle. But she's doing it only to make her husband happy, and her constant "lapses" hint at dissatisfaction with the status quo. Nowadays, would we accept as funny and romantic a series whose whole premise relies on a man's readiness to accept his wife as long as she's willing to suppress her own identity and "pass" for "normal"? The writers seem to present the show's theme as an ongoing affectionate compromise between two people trying to succeed in a mixed marriage. To a viewer nowadays, it may look as if Samantha makes all the concessions.

What common attitudes and customs reflected in today's media might look shocking or bizarre to future audiences?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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