© Copyright 2018 Abdullah Idrees, Ryerson University.
The WB’s Charmed debuted in 1998 as a television series that portrayed witchcraft and other magical elements as metaphors for primarily female, as well as gender equality, empowerment. With a female-led cast, the show followed the story of Prudence, Piper and Phoebe Halliwell, and later Paige Matthews, as witches who are bestowed with the responsibility to save the world from insidious forces. By incorporating comedic, dramatic and mystery elements into multilayered plot points and series-spanning arcs, the writers infused Charmed with a subtext that represented the complexity and parallels of the experience of empowered women. By focusing on the sisterhood dynamics of the show and their analogical relations to the feminist movement and family values, the show pushes a subversive cultural movement that shares knowledge and power with a diverse audience (Feasey, “Watching Charmed” 3). Finally, the dense mythology of the series’ magical world and its presentation through technical production methods serves as an enlightening perspective on the otherwise overlooked superheroine genre, and the symbolism that the supernatural contributes to how women and alternative lifestyles are portrayed in the media.
Multilayered Plot Points in the Television Medium
Without a coherent plot, the Charmed Ones would not have a metaphorical base to present their characters and their journeys through (Beeler et al. 131-133). The pilot episode reunites Prue and Piper Halliwell with their rebellious sister Phoebe, who sleuths through their family manor long enough to unbind the sisters’ magical powers through the sequestered Book of Shadows. This represents the journey of a woman seeking knowledge and how the discovery of said knowledge empowers those that are more accustomed to the societal concept of a normal life, such as 9 to 5 careers and picket fence families (Beeler et. al 59). This truth of a power beyond what conventions accept is met with hesitancy in the pilot, with Prue’s accusation being, “You’ve turned me into a witch” and Piper denying such a power exists that could balance the scales of gender equality by saying “we are not witches” (Burge). This is a metaphorical representation of the immediate cognitive dissonance one would experience when they are chosen as part of a movement that threatens the seemingly invincible patriarchy and fallacious “normality” present in the world (Beeler et al. 48). Phoebe’s response to her sisters’ fear of a global social responsibility is met with “You were born one [as a witch]. We all were. And I think we better start learning to deal with that,” serving as a message to both her sisters and the audience of the power each individual holds within themselves to advocate for social change, equality and personal empowerment (Feasey, “Watching Charmed” 8; Burge).
The Individual in the Collective
In the Season 3 episode “Pre-Witched,” the rediscovery of their powers is further expanded upon, indicating that their grandmother required for them all to be living under the same roof to be given their powers. This concept pushes the importance of a support system, whether in feminist communities or in family structures, where uniting for a large cause (such as fighting evil) allows for a safe environment to nurture one’s individual development and cooperative capabilities (Beeler et al. 42-43, 48). An example from the series would be the sisters’ receiving not only the power to cast powerful group spells but also their own individual set of powers. Short-tempered Prue is given telekinesis, visually presented as invisible but lethal enough to fling two grown men out of her way. Her character is, therefore, a presentation of her inner battle with her emotions, self-control and the balance she learns to find in between. The writers clearly kept this representation of a concerned, yet powerful woman in an oppressive world alive, making sure to put her character through a temporary empath transformation in Season 3’s “Primrose Empath” to comment on the good and bad that comes with empowerment (Burge; Beeler et al. 45). Piper Halliwell, who has the power to freeze time, adheres to having the best of both worlds. She is unwilling to dedicate her entirety to a feminist movement because she holds some cultural traditions dear to her (Beeler et al. 50-51). This can be seen with her being both a housewife and a club owner. Her power metaphorically represents her ability to manage both lifestyles, with the writers adding molecular combustion to her powers as her inner frustration in a world that expects her to choose a lifestyle when she shouldn’t have to. For the audience, this reinforces the idea of a visual culture that represents the sacrifices one individual must experience to ease the lives of those in future, and hopefully, more open-minded generations. Speaking of the future, Phoebe’s powers are seeing into a probable future that can be changed for better or worse based on the actions of her present. Season 7’s “Witchness Protection” shows her vision of a perfect world without demons, making her and the audience understand that a world with minimum injustice is a possibility, but one that only the actions of members of the present can affect (Burge). While Paige Matthews has a form of telekinesis similar to that of Prue’s, it’s her whitelighter ability to teleport or “orb” across the earth that shows the global relaying of the message of the Charmed Ones: to battle injustice, spread peace, enforce empowerment in the helpless, give hope to the hopeless, and promote a world where the concept of patriarchy is frivolous and equality reigns (Hughes 2). With audience members interacting with what the sisters stand for on a weekly basis for eight years, the reinforcement of these values encourages a change in the world we live in today, where female characters are not used as one dimensional love interests but as multilayered advocates who experience love, loss, and perseverance in their daily life to improve the lives of all beings (Beeler et al. 163-164).
The Collective in the Individual
While the individual is emphasized as the one leading to a group that shares similar incentives, it is the power of the collective that grounds the stories in Charmed. Without each other, the Charmed Ones are mere mortals who neither good nor evil can benefit from in the larger scheme of things. This is observed in the premiere episode of the series when the warlock Jeremy waits until the sisters have their powers before he attempts to kill them as that is the only way to steal their powers and utilize them for evil (Burge). With their powers combined, however, the show provides commentary on the unparalleled strength of a community as compared to that of an individual (Feasey, “The Charmed Audience” 4). In “Déjà vu All Over Again,” each of the sisters had to use their powers in order to defeat a threatening time demon. With the help of Phoebe’s premonition power persevering through time reversals, the amalgamation of Piper and Prue’s powers contribute to trapping the assassin who wants to end the Warren [their bloodline] line (Feasey, “The Charmed Audience” 4). The writers also explore how the separation of the sisters leads to devastation in their lives. When the demonic assassin Shax kills Prue, Piper’s grief worsens in Season 4’s “Hell Hath No Fury” and turns her into a being known as the Fury that kills those who commit injustice, humans included (Burge). Without the help of Phoebe and her half-sister Paige, Piper would have made a decision she would have regretted by murdering a human and would be no better than the immoral bounty hunter that is responsible for the loss of her eldest sister in the third season finale (Burge). These stories built upon the original premise of Charmed echo not only the importance of women supporting women but of like-minded individuals supporting like-minded individuals, such as members who believe in the same cause as well as family members who are always there for each other. The writers employ themes through examples such as these by incorporating them in story arcs and embellishing them with the supernatural (Beeler et al. 131). That sense of metaphor is derived from experiencing the series, such as showing the confidence, courage, and assertiveness when the Charmed Ones are united by their powers versus the fear, confusion, and intimidation they experience when they avoid their responsibilities.
The idea of sisterhood separate from the many supernatural elements of the show further connects the audience from a more human perspective rather than one that would require viewers to utilize their imagination. After all, stories about human beings are what other human beings connect to and Charmed balances the superpowers with family drama and interactions that are free from witchcraft. When all three of the Halliwell sisters move into their childhood home, they contribute financially to the upkeep of the house. However, their sense of keeping a communal peace by keeping the bills paid does not interfere with their wants of pursuing jobs that are actually fulfilling as opposed to being fiscally rewarding. When Phoebe returns from New York to San Francisco, she is jobless (Burge). Instead of being cast out into the street by her sisters, Prue, the most affluent of the three, agrees to get Phoebe a job at the auction house so she can gain experience for her resume in the first season episode “The Wendigo” (Burge). In a similar turn of events, when Piper wants to open a club and focus on her establishment full-time, her sisters pitch in to make sure that she can pursue her dream of being an entrepreneur (Burge). Even when Prue decides to quit her job and become a photographer, the sisters don’t give her a hard time and encourage her to follow her dreams instead of being stuck in a dead end, unfulfilling occupation (Burge). This kind of familial encouragement represents the same post second wave feminist values of women being both independent in their identities but dependent on people who unconditionally support them, within good reason of course (Feasey, “Watching Charmed” 5). On matters removed from a financial perspective, the sisters even show solidarity in rules of love. When the Elders forbid Piper and Leo’s love, shown to be mainly male higher beings, Prue and Phoebe support their sister’s decision to marry someone who comes from a different magical background than her, even organizing a secret wedding for the two (Burge). Prue has come a long way from the first season, saying, “… rules are meant to be broken ” in Season 3’s “Magic Hour” in relation to the patriarchy forbidding the love between a witch (Piper) and a whitelighter (Leo) (Burge). Basically, these ideas show that even though these sisters are part of something bigger, this is not reason enough to compromise their individual identities (Beeler et al. 48-49, 57-58). This is similar to concepts of people who advocate for free speech to empower, knowing that one person’s free speech may differ from their own but it is the end goal of freedom for everyone that strengthens the bonds of solidarity.
Dense Mythology and Audience
The mythology of the show directly contributes to the visual culture that makes Charmed more engaging because it turns its leads into supernatural beings with powers. Said powers make use of special effects to dramatize the immediate gratification of powerful women, wives, sisters, and mothers. Prue’s telekinesis is visually presented as invisible, but deadly, requiring no special effects and making use of stunt coordination instead (Burge). With her astral projection, however, an orange glow is used to portray her physically manifesting her spirit to a location of her choice. Color-coding orange, as the color of psionic energy, is the producers’ way of adding their own gender subversive power set to the otherwise extravagant powers of the superhero genre (Beeler et al. 143; Burge). Keep in mind that none of the female leads are presented with the color-coded power of pink, a gendered “girly” color, with that having instead been ascribed to Cupid, a male, in the series (Beeler et al. 150). While superheroes like Superman and Wolverine derive their powers from the stereotypically male skill of strength, Charmed grounds its female leads to be able to triumph with intellect and strength (Beeler et al. 29). This further adds to the realism presented in the fantasy series, seeing as how unlike the previously mentioned male heroes, the Halliwell sisters can be killed with ease but manage to stay alive because of their smarts, instead of a mindless rage. With Piper’s powers, Wicca and science blend to add to the metaphysical logic on how their world operates, again pushing for a realism element that helps audiences connect to the authentic, yet embellished, lives of the sister witches (Beeler et al. 3). In Season 3’s “Exit Strategy,” Piper discovers that her ability to freeze time stems from her magic permitting the slowing down of molecules while her power to combust an object of her choice stems from speeding molecules up (Burge). She does not have a color code to her powers but the intensity of her hand gestures indicate the power she uses, with a severe flick resulting in combustion and a light one resulting in freezing time (Burge). Philosophical perspectives also enrich the show with Phoebe’s power of levitation being an evolution of her premonitions, with both abilities giving her a better view of the otherwise unseen. Her power’s individuality is presented in black-and-white, the color scheme in which her visions are presented to the audience. Paige’s abilities take into consideration genetics and family traditions, bestowing her with the late Prue’s powers that merge with her Whitelighter heritage to become projectile orbing, which is to teleport objects (Feasey, “The Charmed Audience” 2). In addition, her ability to teleport through orbing is similar to Prue’s astral projection. Similarly, Paige’s powers are color-coded blue, representing not only the sister’s pacifism but also her greater calling as a Whitelighter (Burge). Aside from the metaphorical components of the bridge between supernatural powers and how they are an essence to be lived through vicariously, the Charmed mythology impacts the most important message for women, Wiccans, and viewers everywhere with the idea that their powers will not be used for personal gain (Beeler et al. 9-10). This establishment prevents the sisters’ from engaging in selfish behavior and understanding that they are part of something bigger than themselves, visually presented through weekly episodes of moral witches who “protect the innocent, not punish the guilty” (Burge).
Charmed is a show that approaches various subjects such as gender equality, feminism, free will, empowerment, and family values through metaphysical, literal, philosophical, and subversive concepts. By amalgamating these morals into long-running storylines and imperfect but constantly striving characters, the show’s creators impart a fantastical world laced with a realistic pedagogy that ironically helps a not-so-supernatural audience relate (Feasey, “Watching Charmed” 2). The manifestation of these ideals is spread throughout each episode, dialogue, characterizations, special effects, and story purposes, the result of which is a strict-demographic defying series that serves to present women in an unconventional savior light. Bestowing these women with complex stories and responsibilities, the post-feminism world benefits from Charmed’s contribution to visual culture that presents said women as people who make individual and collective choices, rather than presenting them as the abstract, gendered concept of females.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.
- Beeler, Karin Elizabeth, and Stanley W.. Beeler. Investigating Charmed: The Magic Power of TV. I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2007.
- Burge, Constance M., creator. Charmed. Paramount Domestic Television and CBS Television Distribution, 2006.
- Feasey, Rebecca. “The “Charmed” Audience: Gender and the Politics of Contemporary Culture.” The Spectator, vol. 25, no. 2, Fall, 2005, pp. 39-48, ProQuest, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1496062791?accountid=13631.
- Feasey, Rebecca. “Watching Charmed: Why Teen Television Appeals to Women.” Journal of Popular Film & Television, vol. 34, no. 1, 2006, pp. 2-9, ProQuest, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/199416383?accountid=13631.
- Hughes, Sarah. “Spellbound: Why Witchcraft is Enchanting a Whole New Generation of Teenage Girls: It’s Like the Charmed Years of the Late 1990s Revisited, as TV shows, Books and Films Focus on Sorcery and the Supernatural.” The Observer, Oct 27, 2013, pp. 7, ProQuest, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1446456787?accountid=13631.
- Idrees, Abdullah. Covenhood and Sisterly Bond (CBS Studios, Charmed Season 1). 16 Mar, 2018. Private collection.
- Idrees, Abdullah. Sisterhood and Magic (CBS Studios, Charmed Season 4) 16 Mar, 2018. Private collection.