Art imitates life: Professor explores female TV superwomen

Aug 5, 2013

Julie O'ReillyHeidelberg communication professor Dr. Julie D. O’Reilly is the author of a new book that explores superhuman female television characters through the idea of power vs. empowerment.

There’s a definite difference, O’Reilly says. She uses female leads from “Sabrina, The Teenage Witch,” “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” and “Charmed,” as well as from numerous other series, to demonstrate that just as in real life, the powers of these characters are limited by the institutions and universes in which they live.

O’Reilly’s “Bewitched Again: Supernaturally Powerful Women on Television,1996-2006” was published by McFarland and Company Inc. in July. “It looks at the idea that these characters either have innate power or they develop power, but not always a lot of empowerment,” she says.

Although the book focuses on series that aired 1996-2011, as the title indicates, the topic has its genesis in the popular ‘60s sitcom “Bewitched.” The lead character, nose-twitching Samantha, represents the first female primary character with superpowers. “’Bewitched’ really was the one that had the most impact in terms of early shows,” O’Reilly says. “Its themes track through the rest of the shows and point to where it all began.”

O’Reilly originally started writing on the topic of female TV characters with superpowers in the fall of 2001 when she began work on her Ph.D. degree. “I went in knowing I wanted to write about shows featuring these characters. I just didn’t know the angle. But I knew that they fascinated me,” she says.

When she began work on her dissertation, her research came into focus. The book is an updated, expanded, revised version of her dissertation.

In 1996, there was an influx of superhuman female characters who could materialize objects, defeat evil and have premonitions.

The abilities of these characters “showed resistance to traditional gender roles,” she says. However, they experienced infringements on their abilities in ways superpowered male characters did not. Therein lies the paradox at the center of her research: Are the female characters ever truly powerful, much less superpowerful, if they cannot fully utilize their abilities?

“The superwoman has endured as a metaphor for women trying to ‘have it all,” O’Reilly says. “Therefore, the travails of these television examples parallel those of their off-screen counterparts.”

For her research, she watched hundreds of episodes in total, from more than 60 series. Although O’Reilly has noticed that the themes are shifting in more recent series, she says she’s “exhausted the topic … at least for now.”

Still, there are lessons to be shared with her students. “I tell them that you have to love your subject matter. I worked on this for 12 years. When you find something you love that much, it makes your research that much better.”

A Kindle version of O’Reilly’s book is available through Amazon.com. Hard copies are available from the publisher at http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4711-4.