The internal conflict of an LGBTQ Latino stemming from the original Charmed‘s importance to queer people and representation of POC in the new.
On 7 October 1998, the world was introduced to a trio of sisters. Prudence, Piper, and Phoebe Halliwell graced the screen (respectively portrayed by Shannen Doherty, Holly Marie Combs, and Alyssa Milano) on the then-WB Network’s Wednesday night line-up. For the twenty-something years that the Halliwell sisters had existed prior to our introduction to them, they were just like any other adult siblings. Prue, the eldest, was a hard-working museum auction expert with unwavering focus, set and achieved goals, sharp leadership skills, and a belief in only what could be seen and held. Piper, the middle child, played the mediator between her other two sisters, a chef-turned-club owner longing to succeed and show her skills (and later the fierce, sharp-tongued eldest sister after Prue’s death in 2001). Phoebe, the youngest Halliwell (or so we thought for three years), was the directionless little sister whose spats with Prue often put Piper in awkward situations. Her curiosity and imagination led her not only to be a renowned magazine columnist, but also led to the discovery of the sisters’ centuries-old heritage as witches, descended from their great-great-great-great-great-great-something grandmother straight out of Salem, Melinda Warren. Of course, then there was Paige Matthews, the true youngest Halliwell sister given up at birth for fear the girls may not inherit their Charmed powers (more on this below), and reunited with Phoebe and Piper after Prue’s death.
Charmed was a modern take on the novel idea of witchcraft, but was truly the first of its class to incorporate not only mythological magic and creatures from all spectrums of folklore — from Romanian gypsy magic to Greek gods and titans — but also modern day Wicca with an emphasized magical v. magickal twist. The story followed the three sisters (in both groupings) as they discovered their supernatural powers (Prue’s telekinesis and astral projection, Piper’s ability to freeze time and blow things up, Paige’s ability to teleport herself and objects, and Phoebe’s foresight and seven hundred other powers she gained and lost over the eight years Charmed ran). But they, of course, were not just any witches. No, no. The trio of sisters congregated to become the Charmed Ones — the most powerful witches to ever exist destined to rid the world of evil.
That’s right. This feminist powerhouse of a show led by three women at a time portrayed a world in which demons from literally Hell (or, the Underworld) got their asses kicked every week for roughly twenty weeks out of the year and banished to oblivion. But that was one part of the beauty of Charmed, it’s feminism. The other part that seemed so genuine was just how involved their magic was in their real lives. Because, as show producer E. Duke Vincent once put it, this was not a show that was about three witches who happened to be sisters. This was a show about three sisters who just so happened to be witches. Charmed succeeded because — while fantastical, and in later seasons even a little cartoonish with the monsters — the loglines of each episode were rooted in the lives of the sisters, not in the battles of the witches. For eight years, four leading ladies and countless writers, producers, directors, and crew members challenged the status quo of super-heroism all the while making sure not to lose sight of the core value: a group of sisters who meant more to one another than anything. Women who fight for women. Bad ass women, to boot.
The show, which ran from 1998 until 2006, went on to become one of the most successful female-led series in television history, at one time even earning the trophy for longest-running hour-long TV series led by a female ensemble cast over its 178 episode run, not beat out until six years later in 2012 when Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives ended with 180 episodes over its own eight seasons. Although, over the course of its history, Charmed, its cast, and its crew were nominated for Saturn Awards, TV Guide Awards, and more — albeit never an Emmy, which many believe was due in part to the networks (first the WB before it became the CW) lack of promotional advertising. But Charmed did so much more than just break the glass ceiling — which there is no doubt that it did. It also inspired a sort of renaissance of witch-centric shows that came for years after, each following Charmed‘s structure that sort of became the formula for many witch shows, novels, and movies to follow. While Charmed, Practical Magic, and The Craft of the 90s were all very different in formula — their ideas and runs were novel even for the time — witch media that followed were not quite as original. The Secret Circle (although written originally as a series of novels by Vampire Diaries author L. J. Smith in 1992) followed the same formula, straying from its basis book of the same name; Witches of East End (also first a book before a Lifetime television series) bore striking similarities is the sister-witch formula and also strayed from its source material greatly; and even American Horror Story: Coven (though a fan favorite) struggled to present anything that hadn’t already been done by boy wizard Harry Potter or the Charmed Ones first. All these shows began to incorporate mythology, or books of shadows and other Wiccan traditions, and the storylines soon followed suit. But that’s what has kept Charmed so popular, even as newer generations who did not grow up with it the way that many of us in our 20s and 30s did: it as the OG. (OW?)
Fast-forward to the present day when Hollywood is constantly running out ideas for television series that are original (witch-related or not) and is rebooting literally everything. From the still-hilarious and successful Will & Grace to the less successful and canceled X-Files reboot, no old favorites are sacred any longer. And in this age of reboots, Charmed was not going to get away without at least a try. Sure enough in 2013, CBS Television Studios (the company which owns the Charmed franchise) tried to reboot the show as a retelling of the original featuring four sisters (sound familiar?) who discover their witchcraft and have to kick demon ass and … well … you know the rest. But that version never came to fruition on film; and in 2017, it was announced that Jane the Virgin creator Jennie Snyder Urman had been tapped to pen yet another reboot script — this version following a trio of sister witches in 1970s New England for the CW. The network passed on this version of the script, as well, but kept Snyder Urman on board to executive produce and retool the show in the present day.
And in January of 2018, that version got the greenlight for a pilot — eventually becoming a story about three sister witches of color (two having grown up together and one long-lost) who discover their magic after their mother dies and use it to fight not only demons, but the injustices and evils of the #MeToo era (which stars newcomers Madeleine Mantock, Melonie Diaz, and Sarah Jeffrey as sisters Macy, Mel, and Maggie). And at just that, it sounds like a truly amazing show. What more could we ask for in 2018 when the President of the United States is still holding office after admitting on tape to grabbing women “by the pussy” and when men in all fields of work are slowly but surely being brought to justice for rape and other sexual misconduct in the workplace?
The answer? The only thing more that Charmed fans new and old could ask for is the one thing the show will not feature: its original cast.
Here lies the dichotomy of the situation, at least as it pertains to me and some friends I’ve discussed this with more in-depth. On the one hand, Charmed was and remains to be the success that it is today because it has always had such a loyal fan base. To this day, stars Holly Marie Combs, Shannen Doherty, and Brian Krause make rounds at Comic-Con conventions around the world talking about the show they created and starred in for nearly a decade. And Charmed fans are nothing if not loyal. They came to the aid of Doherty when the media smeared her as “hard to work with” and a drug addict after her departure from the show in 2001, but still stuck around to watch Rose McGowan step into to fill her shoes. They have kept up-to-date with the ventures of Alyssa Milano (from the sometimes unpleasant ABC drama Mistresses to her newest work Insatiable), not to mention even tuning into the then-ABC Family drama Pretty Little Liars just to catch glimpses of the never-aging Combs throughout the series’ run. And let’s not forget standing up beside both Milano and McGowan as they’ve fought tirelessly in the #MeToo movement to free women everywhere from the shackles of sexual assault and rape.
But on the opposite side of that token, and in a time where the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, and POC have never been more important or closer to the precipice of being lost, isn’t it time that we see a show about ass-kicking women of color? One of them even a lesbian! I don’t think any of the original fans would disagree. But still, therein lies a hesitancy. And there certainly has been a similar reaction from the cast of the original series, as well. While Shannen Doherty has done her best to be supportive, she couldn’t help but point out that part of what makes the reboot so problematic lay within its marketing. The original show, which was nothing if not a feminist manifesto and call-to-action, has been unintentionally smeared by the new version in its PR moves, as the new production earlier touted itself as a “feminist reboot” of the original.
Doherty, however, did carry out a constructive conversation with followers of herself. She pointed out how important it was to create more jobs for women, asked fans their thoughts about the reboot, and postulated how everyone would feel if the show had similar elements under a different name. She even said:
And finally offered this nugget of information regarding her opinions of the reboot:
“Let me say first that I appreciate the jobs and opportunities the Charmed reboot has created. But I will never understand what is fierce, funny, or feminist in creating a show that basically says the original actresses are too old to do a job they did 12 years ago. I hope the new show is far better than the marketing so the true legacy does remain.”
So, the question remains: are Combs’ frustrations founded?
… Yeah. I think so.
For me, as a Latino, gay man, I began watching Charmed when I was four-years-old in 1998. I’d always been fascinated with the idea of magic, specifically that of witches, and Charmed was one of the few shows that presented it in a brand new, modern, real life sort of way. And for a very long time, it was unclear to even me why I’d been so obsessed with the show — even hoping I’d inherit my own magical powers after my mother gave birth to her third child. Although, as I grew up, it began to make a helluva lot more sense to me.
I identified with the Halliwell sisters. Weird, right? A child, then teenager, than adult male understanding the Halliwells and relating my life to theirs? It sounds silly, but when you take into account that I grew up Latino and knew that I was gay from a very young age, it’s not that hard to wrap your head around. And, if I’m not being presumptuous, I think it may be similar to many queer people’s connection to the show, even those who don’t realize it. You see, one of the center struggles of the Charmed Ones was that which pertained to their sense of identity. It started out the way it does for a lot of LGBTQIA people when they’re young (and if you think about it, the Charmed girls had to start their lives over when they realized they were witches, like children who have to learn everything for the first time). It was the question of: why am I this way? Why am I the one who has to be different? And in the throes of trying to understand all of that came the fact that the sisters were made to feel by society that they had to hide their witchiness from the world — a stark parallel to the expectations set up in the real lives of queer people, both those raised liberally and conservatively. And as the years progressed, and the witches were able to reconcile this within themselves and accept who they were (another queer parallel), they finally became capable of sharing their secret with the people they loved. But even still, there was a hesitancy for them to be completely … well … out.
The Halliwells, though accepting of themselves, still struggled to exist in a world that wasn’t entirely accepting of them. And look at where queer people are today. Pride parades across the country are plagued with protestors, trans murder rates are at an all-time high, and the sitting Vice President and many Washington big-wigs are staunchly against queerness and the rights of LGBTQ people. Is that not a clear parallel? Then let’s discuss how the sisters had to struggle with their identity even further — trying not to be defined by the fact that they were witches. Yes, they knew it was a part of them and that it always would be, but Piper was not just a witch, but a chef and business owner! Phoebe became a famous magazine columnist; Paige juggled being a healer and a teacher. These weren’t just witches — they were women and sisters, at that. They had lives, children, spouses, families, jobs, and purposes outside of saving the world. And haven’t we all felt that way to some extent as queer people? Yeah, we might be gay or trans or nonbinary or asexual … but haven’t we always wanted to escape the label? To be known as writers and soldiers and activists and doctors and chefs as an aside of the labels of our sexual orientations or gender identities? That’s how these characters felt. Even after trying — and failing — to give up their witchhood (as I’m sure many LGBTQ people have tried to do with their identities) and then finally accepting it, they still wanted to be remembered not as Witches #1, 2, 3, and 4, but as just Piper, Prue, Phoebe, and Paige. And isn’t that something we’ve all struggled with at Thanksgiving dinner when our obnoxious aunt has made some gay joke in poor taste, even if just trying to relate to you? Or what children thrown from their homes have been through because their parents could no longer believe that they were still their children, simply because of who they fell in love with or which gender they identified with?
And sure, for a lot of us (as well as for the Halliwells) we get to a place of acceptance. Certainly not all of us, mind you, but a some of us. Still, there’s an outrageous number of queer people who take their own lives, who are murdered by bigots, and who hide in closets their entire lives because acceptances in this world are few and far between. Queer people have historically been (and continue to be all around the world) the subject of witch hunts. And that was the struggle of the Halliwells, too, albeit a bit more literally. But the Halliwells were a beacon of hope for us over those eight years. Because, by the end of it all, the sisters hadn’t just accepted being witches and fought against being witches and struggled through being witches, they’d learned to have pride in being witches. Certainly it was not their only identifier. But at least at the end of it all, as they learned and as they taught their children to do after them, the witches of the Halliwell line reveled in who they were so as to be able to begin to normalize something the world didn’t understand.
That, my friends, was the true magic of Charmed.
And for those of us who are true and loyal fans of the original, seeing that legacy replicated without those women who felt like our very own sisters is difficult. Charmed — at least for me — got me through my coming out, through my identity crisis, and through a lot of nights of feeling like no one understood me, that no one accepted me, that no one would ever love me, and that no one cared. And we have Doherty, Combs, Milano, McGowan, and the entire talented team behind Charmed to thank for that. Sure, it was a sometimes silly show about witches and magic; but at its core it was a show about family — and family, especially chosen family, is what we queer folk call our fellow queer friends. Isn’t it?
But with all of that in mind, I do think that we have to extend that opportunity to the new batch of witches, as well. Do we have to watch it? No. Will we? Maybe yes, maybe no. But herein lies the opportunity for a new generation to get to tell that story all over again for people younger than many of us that need to hear it. And, sure, they could just as easily hear it by rewatching the show on Netflix. But if there’s a chance to extend that message to we people of color by representing us on screen, as well as we queer people by representing us on screen, I think it might just be worth the try. Do I wish they weren’t using the Charmed brand to do this? Yeah. I seriously do. And I seriously hurt for the show’s original stars and crew who put so much into a show and to not be given the option to return for a second go-round, especially when it seems like every other show in the world of its time is being resurrected with its original casts. But more so it hurts because I think that the original leading ladies could really tackle these issues of the #MeToo era in a really beautiful way — especially when two of the former stars commit so much time to fighting such injustices — while also incorporating into the program people of color and who identify as LGBTQ. But if nothing else, and I think that all the original Charmed Ones would agree, we should at least hope for the successes of the new, some queer and some POC Charmed Ones and hope that they spread the same kind of message to their incoming fans that Doherty, Combs, Milano, and McGowan spread to us from 1998 to 2006 and well beyond.
Nevertheless, I am grateful for the Charmed that was, as I’m sure many queer people are. And though I want to see both the new and old continue to succeed, this is my love letter to the original Charmed — specifically to Holly Marie Combs, whose Piper I identified and continue to identify with daily. I’ve watched the series a dozen times through, own all eight seasons on DVD, and have on my list on Netflix forever. The show even inspired my second novel, Witches of the Deep South (which you can preorder by following this link). It’s my love letter for all of those reasons and one more: because those sisters of the Halliwell coven made queer people feel not only less alone, but magical in our very own way.