Julie O’Reilly, Bewitched Again: Supernaturally Powerful Women on Television 1996-2011 (London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2013). 248pp. £33.95. ISBN 9780786447114.
Julie O’Reilly’s Bewitched Again: Supernaturally Powerful Women on Television 1996-2011 (2013) is an enlightening scholarly text that is easy to read, and yet possesses a forceful and persuasive argument about television’s complex and sometimes paradoxical depiction of supernaturally powerful women. The thesis of her argument is that despite women having supernatural powers in many Science Fiction/Fantasy television series, these women are not empowered because they have various social mores restraining their abilities, or they are governed by institutions that regulate them. Her book opens with a clear link from past television shows that founded this character type (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman) to the main sources of her investigation (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Dark Angel, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and Witchblade). This creates a clear progression of this female character type throughout television’s history. As O’Reilly, an Assistant Professor of Communication and Women’s and Gender Studies at Heidleberg University, Ohio, puts it in her introduction, Bewitched ‘was the first show to connect the supernatural with the feminine, but far from the last’ (p.2). Thus, Bewitched Again covers more than just the dates referenced in the book’s title – 1996-2011 – and her expansion both before (from the 1960s) and after (referencing shows beginning from 2011) creates a strong linear narrative thread that establishes, supports and expands her main argument.
Bewitched Again’s target audience is not directly stated, but scholars of Women’s and Gender Studies, as well as those studying Media, the History of Television, or Science Fiction/Fantasy will benefit from O’Reilly’s research. As an academic text it includes a bibliography, ten pages of ‘television episodes, telefilms, and feature films cited’ (pp.219-28) so the reader can navigate the amount of shows referenced and which episodes are specifically used in her analysis, and an index that comprehensively includes the shows’ titles, actors/actresses, main themes and theories. Readers will also appreciate the inclusion of illustrations selected from certain broadcasts, which usefully highlight aspects of her analysis, such as the symbolism of Wonder Woman’s costume (p.36).
To develop the work being done on this fascinating and worthwhile topic, O’Reilly’s introduction provides a substantial literature review detailing scholarly research on this character type, referencing such texts as Dawn Heinecken’s The Warrior Woman of Television: A Feminist Cultural Analysis of the New Female Body in Popular Media (2003), Sherrie A. Inness’s Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture (2004) and Andi Zeisler’s Feminism and Pop Culture (2008). Nevertheless, she authoritatively states these previous texts do not ‘deconstruct the very notion of why these characters are (or are not) considered powerful in the first place’ (p.10). Thus, the gap in the field that her text fulfils is an examination of how these women are supernaturally powerful, but are not necessarily empowered. In fact, her research reveals that these women more often than not ‘reinforce the same hegemonic power structures that they challenge’ (p.3). Despite this rather disappointing outcome of her analysis – that supernaturally powerful women are not as authoritative and librated as one would expect – O’Reilly notes that her analysis ‘provides one way to make oppressive gender inscriptions visible, potentially leading to the dismantling of such practices’ (p.15); scholars must understand the limited and damaging effect this representation has so that it can be improved in the future.
The main focus of her research is a compare/contrast narrative of these television shows’ protagonists: Max (the Dark Angel), Prue, Piper, Pheobe and Paige (the witches from Charmed), Sara (wielder the Witchblade), Buffy (the vampire slayer) and Sabrina (the teenage witch). In order to illustrate her examination of these characters, O’Reilly breaks her analysis down into five main themes, which are usefully highlighted in the chapter titles – ‘Female Body’ (visual representations), ‘Selflessness’, ‘Surveillance’, ‘Trial’ (of their powers and agency) and ‘Sacrifice and Sanctuary’ – creating a clear and progressive structure to the book. Organising her text by theme rather than by case-study has the added advantage of an easier cross-comparison, and, as O’Reilly notes, ‘viewers of one series of this type are likely to view others’ (p.17). She expects the audience to have an intertextual knowledge of several different series, which then informs the audience’s understanding of any given individual series, episode, or protagonist. Thus, these themes and connections ‘become equally – or perhaps more – important than the content of any individual series itself’ (p.17). Furthermore, to create an all encompassing critique of the supernaturally powerful woman, O’Reilly also examines her counterpart, the supernaturally powerful man. This cross-comparison illuminates several noteworthy points, for instance, although supernaturally powerful men and women may face the same trials, the outcomes vary considerably. For example, when facing an authoritative institution, men are considered worthy opponents, while women are objects to be controlled. Thus, O’Reilly’s research covers a vast amount of material which she adeptly manages to control, pulling together these significant tropes and examples into a cohesive argument.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is how O’Reilly combines the different waves of feminism to the varying portrayals of these women across the decades. She argues that the beginnings of this character type were born out of second wave feminism, where women employed their abilities outside of the home; that the dearth of supernaturally powered women during the 1980s and early 1990s has its basis in the backlash to the feminist movement; that third wave feminism gives rise to the character’s resurgence in the late 1990s to 2000s in relation to the ‘girl power’ movement; while her brief reference to television shows beyond 2011 gives a nod to an emerging fourth wave that will hopefully release this character type from the confines with which she is manacled.
For me, while the waves of feminism are the most relevant to FWSA’s readers, the most interesting sections of O’Reilly’s analysis are when she examines supernaturally powerful women in relation to the word ‘freak’, psychoanalytic theory, panopticism and critical legal studies. Such a diverse critical approach fully encapsulates the complexities of these characters and their representations, revealing just how subtly these women appear to have agency, but are effectively limited as to how and when they can use their power. The final cross-comparison O’Reilly undertakes is how supernaturally powerful women relate to or can represent ‘real’ women throughout the different decades. This aspect is the least developed part of the text and more extrapolation is needed to fully realise the potential of the association between fictionalised women and their real-life counterparts.
If there is any other criticism to be levelled at this book, it is that O’Reilly unfortunately needs to outline the story of and characterisation within each television series so the reader is familiar with the narratives, and this creates some long plot descriptions which slow down her forceful argument. They are much needed, though, and could not be dispensed with without compromising the clarity of her examples. My final comment is that because O’Reilly confines her research to live action shows, she neglects other formats that would suit both her definitions and timeframe, such as animation. Numerous examples sprang to mind of animated shows which similarly depicted supernaturally powerful females, such as The Powerpuff Girls. Admittedly, a change in style will come complete with its own conventions, nevertheless, an analysis of possible differences in the representation of supernaturally powerful females as depicted for girls and women would have broadened her scope and may have revealed a difference in their representation of power and empowerment. This, therefore, indicates another area with which O’Reilly’s fascinating work could be expanded.
Overall, Bewitched Again expertly interrogates the supernaturally powerful woman’s lack of empowerment within television series and is, therefore, a call to dismantle these restricting sociological constraints so that she can be set free to use her powers as and when she sees fit. In this respect, Bewitched Again is a welcome addition to scholarship on how women are represented in the media and on television, even if she indicates there is room for improvement in this character type’s depiction.
University of Hull