I don’t hide my love of Charmed. I’ve referenced it in my books, discussed it on my podcast, The Writer’s Mindset, and regularly post about it on social media.
There seems to be more and more articles lately discussing the show and how it was surprisingly forward-thinking for its time.
And those articles are great. They talk about everything I love about the show.
But those articles are usually written by passive watchers of the show.
They’re not written by people with an encyclopaedic knowledge of it.
Charmed and me
Growing up, Charmed was my lifeline. It offered an escape from the monsters in my head. I was even member of the month on a Drew Fuller fan site I was so obsessed.
I watched every episode, dissected (almost) everything I could.
There were very few things about Charmed – in front of and behind the camera – that myself and my forum friends didn’t know. We watched every episode as soon as it aired, and I also watched the repeat on +1, even for season eight.
I really was obsessed.
It was spooky but not scary, sexy but family friendly. It had action, romance, comedy, fantasy, and a little bit of horror. There was something in it for everyone.
Even now, twenty years later, it’s still one of my comfort watches.
But, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started watching it differently.
My studying of storytelling techniques means I analyse the show differently. My understanding of film theory means I see different things in each episode.
My beliefs as a feminist mean I take different things away from it.
Even though I love it, I can pick it apart with a fine-toothed comb.
I don’t do that to be critical or mean or to downplay it. I do that because I know that nothing is perfect. Not having it on a pedestal makes me love it more. It also reminds me that it’s ok if I’m not perfect, too.
The problems with Charmed
There are rumours of bullying and harassment on set between cast and crew.
This isn’t ok. And I am by no means condoning it.
Nothing created is ever without problems behind the scenes, whether that’s a TV show, book, or film. Marketers work hard to keep these things hidden. Many times, it works and we never find out.
As this type of behaviour becomes less acceptable, we’re finding out about it more and more. And it’s often ruining people’s experiences of their favourite shows, films, and/or books.
I do believe it’s possible to find someone’s behaviour unacceptable while still enjoying the finished work. No one person creates a TV show or film. There are hundreds of people involved in every season of a show like Charmed.
And, once any form of content is out there, it takes on its own life, and its ownership is taken over by the fans.
Or at the very least, the network who owns the rights.
Reprehensible actions should have consequences, and it’s a positive that we’re seeing that happen more and more.
But this isn’t what the post is about, I just wanted to make it clear that I’m not dismissing, ignoring, or condoning anything that happened behind the scenes.
In this post, however, we’re here to talk about what happened on screen.
I want to go right back to the beginning and focus on the first couple of seasons in particular, which included Prue. (Sorry Paige fans. I do love her, but it’s less relevant to what we’re discussing and you’ll soon see why.)
Most of the episodes I pull out also feature a female writer, which was a rarity in TV at the time. And still is in a lot of cases, although it’s somewhat better.
The first couple of seasons had a female show runner. The show’s creator, Constance M. Burge.
She was ousted as show runner at the end of season two because she and Brad Kern disagreed on the introduction of Cole Turner. While Cole is a popular character, the show’s tone and direction changed when Constance became a consultant for seasons three and four, then when she left completely before season five.
In the first couple of seasons, it’s about family first, magic second. That was always what made the show unique. These were women with lives, loves, and careers who just happened to be witches.
And, to be honest, I don’t think many TV shows, films, or books have replicated that formula since. Too many still focus on the magic first.
(That’s part of what inspired me to write Afterlife Calls. It’s a mother/daughter story first, and a ghost story second.)
As the show progressed, it became less about their sibling relationship and more about their love lives. Particularly Phoebe’s.
At the start of the show, Phoebe is lost, like many women in their early twenties. She’s just moved back in to the family home after being unable to make it in New York, and she’s no idea what to do next.
And she’s quite happy to have no-strings attached safe sex. Which she even says in Dream Sorcerer.
By the end, she’s two-dimensional and boy-obsessed. This will always piss me off, because it did her character a disservice. Her relationship with Coop could’ve been cute, healthy, fleshed out…but it ended up being rushed and forced.
I’ll stop my season eight rant there. That could be a post in itself. (If you’d like to hear/read my rant, let me know.)
It wasn’t just their relationships, though.
The outfits changed, too.
Their outfits in early seasons are what you’d expect women in the late 1990s to wear. Slightly strange but functional.
In later seasons, the outfits got skimpier and skimpier. (Just search for Phoebe in Y Tu Mummy Tambien, or The Mummy’s Tomb, and you’ll see what I mean. I feel like sharing a photo of that will distract from the post.)
Even the later promo images show them – particularly Phoebe and Paige – in skimpier outfits.
The show became less about feminism, and more about femininity.
Charmed and feminism
I am a proud feminist. And I think a lot of that is to do with being raised by a matriarch and the pop culture around me in the 1990s.
The late nineties was full of feminist icons like the Spice Girls and Charmed.
But they introduced feminism in a very clever way. They made it palatable. Subtle messages were sent to their target audience, ones that critics may not have noticed, or that parents wouldn’t have thought to be unhealthy.
What Would the Spice Girls Do?* takes a really good look at the impact of the Spice Girls on the millennial generation and how their music sent subtle messages around friendship, ambition, and consent.
Charmed was both more overt and more subtle. It was about sisterhood first and foremost. Even when Prue and Phoebe hated each other, they were still there for each other. And, over time, they grew close (even as the actors portraying them grew apart).
It goes much further than that, though.
In Dream Sorcerer, behind Darryl’s desk is a poster about domestic violence. I only noticed this during my most recent rewatch. I’m not sure if that was because of the higher definition of the Blu-Ray, or because I just happened to be studying the background.
Props are intentional. If directors don’t like what’s in the shot, it gets removed.
And it seems highly coincidental when you look at what else happens in Dream Sorcerer.
Prue Halliwell: ahead of her time
We’ll return to Dream Sorcerer in a moment. First, let’s talk about Prue.
Prue makes regular, pretty overtly feminist comments.
Let’s consider this Prue-ism:
She quits her job in Something Wicca This Way Comes because Roger is an arse.
She has absolutely no qualms about quitting despite not having a backup plan. She knows she’s awesome and can get something else. She knows her worth, dammit.
Aaaand she refers to herself as ‘looking for work’, when she speaks to Andy.
Not ‘unemployed’ but ‘looking for work’.
That’s a very small distinction but can play a huge role in our mindsets. One is active, one is passive. One puts us in control, one puts the rest of the world in control.
Then there’s this Prue-ism:
She sounds cynical, but she’s also honest. And when women too often mince their words in favour of people-pleasing, it’s refreshing.
At the time, many people dismissed Prue as the ‘bossy’ or ‘unlikeable’ one (or at least people my age did). Now that I look back, most people say that Prue is a favourite of theirs.
And, much like the Spice Girls, because each sister was unique, there was someone everyone could relate to.
Prue was the take-charge, responsible one; Piper was the mediator; Phoebe was the fun one.
In later seasons, Piper was the matriarch; Phoebe was the agony aunt/mediator; Paige was the fun and knowledgeable one.
Shows which revolved entirely around women were rare. Even shows like Buffy, with a female protagonist, had her going to a white, heterosexual male for answers.
Sure, there was Andy, Leo, Darryl, and Cole. But, particularly in the early seasons, the men didn’t have the answers. They weren’t the problem solvers. The men were several steps behind the women – the witches – and their Book of Shadows.
And they trusted the women to have those answers and save the day.
There’s even a line in season two episode Chick Flick where Phoebe tells Billy:
Messages like that are important, especially to younger, influential viewers like ten-year-old me. If the Charmed Ones can save the world from demons, why can’t I fix everyday problems?
Charmed and romance
Dream Sorcerer – which was written by the show’s creator, Constance M. Burge – is truly a goldmine.
The main plot has an important message. It’s about a man who can’t handle rejection using his experiment in dream sorcery to visit women in their dreams and control them.
He takes a liking to Prue, but she rejects him because she’s seeing Andy.
Prue being on the receiving end of his anger shows that even the strongest or toughest women can be targeted by predatory men.
In her dreams, he tells her she’s powerless. He tries to make her believe that she needs him. Which is exactly what happens in an abusive relationship.
Prue overpowers him because of the love from her sisters and Andy…bringing to show back to its powerful message about love.
The episode’s subplot revolves around Phoebe and Piper casting a love spell Phoebe finds in the Book of Shadows.
Before they cast the spell, they each talk about how they want different things from a man. This sets an example – it’s ok to want a different type of relationship to your sibling, colleague, friend, etc. What’s important is what/who makes you happy.
I particularly love this exchange:
Prue: Men are no different from women. We all want what we can’t have. Which is why we need to stop thinking about what men want and start thinking about what we went in a man.
Phoebe: Tons of fun, lots of heat, and no strings attached. That’s what I want in a man.Dream Sorcerer
The show doesn’t shy away from romance. Because there’s nothing wrong with liking a little bit of romance (or a lot of it).
In the same episode, Phoebe also says that she, and her love interest Hans, had ‘a lot of safe sex.’ That’s a strong message to send in a time where messages around safe sex – and female pleasure – were rare.
Wanting a perfect romance backfires on Piper and Phoebe, though, as the guys become obsessed. They can literally do nothing wrong. Which Piper realises isn’t true love. Sharing more messages and morals about knowing what you want in a partner, but not looking for perfection.
And that if someone seems too good to be true, they probably are. They could be changing themselves to be what you want, rather than being who they are, which is a massive red flag.
Charmed’s influence on the wider world
Charmed was one of the first shows to have die-hard, internet-based fans. I met many friends over the years because of Charmed, one of whom went on to be a beta reader for my books. She’s now one of my oldest friends. (Hi Chelle, if you’re reading this!)
While many people focus on Buffy or Xena when talking about 1990s fantasy, I would argue that early seasons of Charmed have had a much more significant impact than people realise.
A remake started in 2018, and is going into season four. So, Charmed had enough fans to garner a remake, but not enough for it to be seen as untouchable – or to invite past cast to return.
(Side note: Shannen didn’t go back for the finale because she didn’t like what they had planned for Prue, which feels very loyal to her character.)
Charmed was also unique because it had female directors. This was rare back then.
Shannen directed several episodes in season three, including her final episode, All Hell Breaks Loose.
And, I have to say, I’ve always loved her directing style. As someone who considered going into directing herself, it was really inspiring to know such a great episode was directed by someone I already looked up to.
Then of course, you have the morals of episodes like Dream Sorcerer, which demonstrate that even a popular TV show can have a message behind it.
I haven’t recently rewatched the whole series, but it would definitely be interesting to do so and see if any others have similar messages to Dream Sorcerer.
Seemingly small things – like getting Shannen to direct an episode – paved the way for other females to direct the shows they starred in. It’s now pretty common for actors to direct an episode or several of the long-running shows they star in. One Tree Hill and Supernatural are just two of the shows which have done this.
And why shouldn’t those actors get a chance at directing?
Who knows the characters better than the people who live with them for eighteen-hour days, several months a year?
And, let’s not forget, those more subtle feminist undertones were in the show in 1998, when issues like domestic violence were brushed under the carpet, and magazines were talking all about how to please your man.
A product of its time
Charmed was not a perfect show. Like many older shows, it’s been criticised for its lack of diversity. But this is unfair. It looks at the show from a present-day perspective and undermines what accomplishments the show did make in its time.
Until recently, networks wanted shows that focused on straight white people. They didn’t think anything else would be popular, or make them as much money from advertisers. Advertisers were scared of anything that was too new or different.
Early episodes were more inclusive, even if they were more stereotypical. That’s still progress if you look at it through the lens of the 1990s.
In Dream Sorcerer, the antagonist’s wheelchair is a reason they discredit him. The episode shows differently abled people can think, feel, and act independently.
As a differently abled person, I like that they had someone in a wheelchair as an antagonist. For a while, differently abled people were portrayed as two-dimensional saints or boring side characters. Or just not represented at all.
The character’s permanent injury after a car accident is a common fear and a common occurrence, making his backstory relatable.
Ditto his issues with rejection (although I’d like to hope most of us wouldn’t respond in such an extreme way).
Darryl Morris and representation
The fact that they had one recurring person of colour for seven years was rare. Admittedly, it could be argued that he was the token Black guy. But, unfortunately, sometimes diversity does start with tokenism, like token women in boardrooms or token POC in TV shows or films.
It’s the only way to show what those people are really capable of, and that they can do just as good of a job – if not a better job – as a straight white male. (Not a dig at any straight white guys, I happen to be in love with one. It’s a dig at the patriarchy and its love for only straight white guys.)
Darryl was a good, underused, and under appreciated character. Every urban fantasy story needs a sceptic to ground the story, and he played that part well.
Not only does Darryl contrast with his partner Andy, who does believe in the occult, but he also suffers from the irony that we know how wrong he is, and he’s utterly clueless.
Which gives us some power over him until later in season two, when he inevitably finds out. But he’s also a police officer, which puts him in a position of power. As they adjust to the new normal, so do we.
It felt like he was always kept at arm’s length compared to other, later additions (like Billie, who basically replaced him). We never really got to know him as a person, we just saw fleeting glimpses. You compare that to characters who are in just a handful of episodes, and there’s often a lot more provided on their backstory.
Dorian Gregory, who played Darryl for seven years, also has lighter Black skin, and you could argue that was an intentional choice to make him more palatable to a white audience. Especially as there aren’t that many other characters of colour in the show.
But I think Darryl was a great character, and Dorian played him well, regardless of why he was hired to begin with. (I do like to hope it was because he plays Darryl so well and not because of tokenism, but we’ll never know.)
When it comes to LGBTQ representation, as far as I remember, there was one lesbian relationship, featured in season seven. Admittedly there wasn’t much depth given to that relationship – the Charmed Ones helped an innocent find her girlfriend.
In 2004/5, this was considered radical for its time. LGBTQ relationships were rarely represented on screen, particularly in shows which centred around straight people and their love lives. (And, let’s face it: latter seasons did focus on their love lives.)
Dawson’s Creek showrunner Greg Berlanti had to fight to show the first ‘passionate’ gay kiss on network TV. He threatened to quit to get them to show it. I can’t help but wonder, if he hadn’t been a white man (admittedly a closeted gay one back then), if they wouldn’t have just replaced him.
That kiss (featuring Kerr Smith, who played Paige’s love interest Agent Brody in season seven) may have happened in 2000, but that doesn’t mean networks were more open to LGBTQ relationships on TV. They were still seen as controversial.
Will & Grace was one of the few shows to have openly gay lead characters in the same era, although that was a comedy so didn’t have as much emotional depth as a show like Dawson’s. And even with the popularity of Will & Grace, an LGBTQ lead would continue to be a rarity until recent years.
Obviously now, it’s the opposite. Reflecting the diversity we see everyday is what sells. Most shows have at least one LGBTQ main character and the cast reflections a wider range of races and ethnicities.
Remake vs original
The Charmed reboot does do a better job of being inclusive than the original. The sisters are Latina and Black, and the middle (soon to be oldest) sister is a lesbian.
(I watched the first half of season one and stopped after that. I know someone who keeps watching it and tells me about it.)
But to say that the original wasn’t feminist is unfair.
It was more subtle, because that was the best way to make it palatable at the time. But it still had an impact on me, and thousands of others just like me all around the world.
The remake, meanwhile, pushed the feminist angle as a marketing ploy, implying it would magically solve all the problematic elements of the original. Even though, right from the start, their go-to person for advice was…a cis white guy.
We can document the changing times and attitudes like never before through our popular culture. But dismissing things that showed attitudes which misalign with what we believe dismisses how far we’ve come and what we can learn from those attitudes.
Studying history is an important part of learning from mistakes, growing, and ensuring we don’t repeat them.
It’s perfectly possible to enjoy something that has problematic traits now. Plenty of people still enjoy Friends even though it has jokes and storylines ripe with sexism and transphobia. I never watched it growing up, so it doesn’t offer me the same nostalgia. But many of the people who rewatch it get a warm, fuzzy feeling from doing so – just like I do with Charmed.
No piece of pop culture is perfect. It’s a reflection of it’s time. But to completely dismiss anything that has problematic tropes in it means that you’re left with very little left to entertain you, especially as we all have different beliefs.
Instead of judging things with a modern lens, we can observe and learn from them so that we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.
We can’t dismiss history because it disagrees with our modern viewpoints. It’s there whether we like it or not. More of it is documented now, which is why we can analyse it more. But if those past events hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be making the same progress we are now.
There’s still a long way to go, but pop culture reflects mainstream viewpoints.
And representation has come a long way.
Dismissing, judging, or acting like problematic shows and tropes didn’t happen doesn’t solve, prevent, or protect any of us from anything.
Plenty of shows which still sit on pedestals are just as problematic, if not more so, when viewed through modern lenses. The only difference with Charmed is that it was always sold as a show about sisters.
And of course, women are held to higher standards. Heaven forbid we misstep. Or something we did in the past was less than perfect.
But that’s a rant for another time.
You may think I’m overanalysing the show, reading too much into coincidences. But a lot of work goes into a TV show. Decisions are made for a reason, even if they’re subtle or subconscious ones.
What someone writes is a reflection of what they believe.
It’s also a reflection of the time.
Would/could Pose have been made ten years ago?
Would Sex and the City be made now? (I mean the original with its biphobic comments and whiteness, not And Just Like That… which is out in December and so we can’t judge it yet.)
Some pop culture, which was forward-thinking for its time, can age badly.
Others, while not entirely faultless, age slower, reminding us that even though times have changed a hell of a lot, there have always been feminists, and feminist undertones in popular culture. You just have to know where to look.
If you want to see how Charmed influenced my writing, the first two books in the Afterlife Calls series are out now, and book three is available to preorder now.
- Read The Ghost’s Call (Afterlife Calls book one)
- Read The Mummy’s Curse (Afterlife Calls book two)
- Preorder The Necromancer’s Secret (Afterlife Calls book three)