How a Bottle Served as a Living Room—and a Prison—for a 2,000-Year-Old Genie

The vessel from 1960s sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie,” now on display at the National Museum of American History, could not contain the exuberance of the beloved character

I Dream of Jeannie publicity still
"I Dream of Jeannie" stars Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman FilmPublicityArchive / United Archives via Getty Images

In reality, it was just a painted glass bourbon decanter. But to the millions watching on television, it was a fanciful genie bottle that evoked tales of magic.

The prop was the centerpiece of the sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie,” which ran from 1965 to 1970. On the show, a buttoned-up astronaut named Tony Nelson (played by Larry Hagman) finds the bottle on a beach. When he uncorks it, a young, female genie named, of course, Jeannie floats out in her customary poof of pink smoke and pronounces herself his servant. The show draws its comedy from the tension between Jeannie, who ultimately wants to marry Tony, and the astronaut, who regards her both as a convenience (for granting wishes) and as an imp he needs to keep hidden from his superiors, friends, dates and neighbors.

But beyond its use as a plot device, the bottle was both Jeannie’s living room and a prison of sorts. It was the place where, as a 2,000-year-old genie, she went to escape the pressures of trying to conform to the ideals and expectations of the time and of the humans who inhabited the world around her. It was also the place where she would be locked in by her “master,” Tony, when he became irritated with her occasionally mischievous and defiant behavior.

Jeannie’s bottle is on display through next year at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, in a case prominently placed near the entry to the museum’s “Entertainment Nation” exhibition. The exhibition features artifacts, displays, music and video clips that explore how pop culture and American culture evolved together.

How a Bottle Served as a Living Room—and a Prison—for a 2,000-Year-Old Genie
Barbara Eden played Jeannie during the sitcom's 1965-1970 television run. Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images
Opening Sequence | I Dream Of Jeannie

Actress Barbara Eden, who played the namesake character, donated the bottle to the Smithsonian in 2022. The prop was given to her on the last day of shooting the show. “It meant a great deal to me,” says Eden, who is now 92. “It was a wonderful five years for me.”

Smithsonian entertainment curator Ryan Lintelman says he hopes the bottle will spark conversations about how “I Dream of Jeannie” presented women, gender roles and ideas about the Middle East.

The TV show in part had what would now be construed as colonialist, stereotypical views of that region, says Lintelman. That lens cast people from the Middle and Far East as exotic, or demons, or infantile, and technologically and culturally inferior to the West, he says.

Jeannie, dressed in balloon pants and a midriff-baring top, conjured a stereotype of a Middle Eastern woman and winked at the trope that women from that part of the world were hypersexualized and often part of a harem. Jeannie’s desire to “serve her master” fits in with that notion, Lintelman says.

“All the trappings are there to suggest that she’s from this culture even though there’s no depth presented to that at all,” he says. “It’s all just the tropes and the stereotypes.”

Those misrepresentations are harmful to those they purport to represent, denying them their humanity and authenticity, he adds. But, he says, it’s likely that the show’s creator, writers and actors “weren’t very thoughtful about the way that their work was going to play out. It was ephemeral, it was just to get people to laugh in the moment.”

“I Dream of Jeannie” also “has this complicated take on women’s liberation at a time that that was a major contemporary conversation in American life,” says Lintelman.

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, considered a hallmark of the second wave of feminism, was published in 1963, two years before “I Dream of Jeanie” premiered. Discussions about women’s roles were swirling, but “you wouldn’t necessarily know that from looking at the sitcoms of the 1960s,” says Andrea Press, chair of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of the upcoming book Cinema and Feminism.

Jeannie was a little different, however. The show had “a really unique take on man and woman and their relationship,” says Lintelman. He adds that while Jeannie is subservient, she always speaks her mind and often subverts Tony’s wishes, providing much of the show’s humor.

“She was a little uppity,” says Press, noting that Jeannie did not “accept being confined to that living room,” by Tony. “My image of the show is her sitting on that couch crossing her arms, glaring that he’d locked her in the bottle and trying to figure out how to get out of the bottle,” Press adds.

Even though Jeannie often was empowered by thwarting Tony, she was still under her master’s thumb, says Press. Tony “could just put her away any time he wanted,” she says.

At the time the show ran, “I don’t remember a lot of criticism of how much power he had over her,” Press says. “I remember that being shockingly acceptable, like it was just sort of fine that he could confine her to this living room.”

NMAH artifact
The National Museum of American History acquired a prop bottle from the show in 2022. Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

The show pushed boundaries in other ways. Sitcoms that had come just before Jeannie or overlapped—like “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” or “The Donna Reed Show”—depicted women as traditional housewives, and without much imagination, Press says. “It was the beginning of newer roles for women than just being housewives and mothers on TV,” with shows like “Bewitched,” “That Girl,” “The Flying Nun” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” coming along around the same time.

The studio employees responsible for enforcing its standards and practices had trouble with Jeannie’s pants and top, says Eden. They made the costumer add a liner to the pants, saying they were too transparent, even though Eden says she customarily wore pantyhose and tights underneath. “It was just stupid,” Eden says.

She was warned against exposing her belly button, which was considered too risqué. The show was also not allowed to depict Jeannie’s bottle in Tony’s bedroom. Eden thought that ridiculous, given that Jeannie once slipped under the closed bedroom door in smoke form and reappeared in full in the room.

But Eden says she never considered Jeannie to be sexy. “Jeannie to me was like a tomboy,” she says. “That’s how I approached the character.” Jeannie was also “a fish out of water,” says Eden, adding that no one should ever construe her to be human. Jeannie “was an entity,” she says.

Eden recalls that the show was a fantasy, modeled on classic tales like One Thousand and One Nights, and cautions against reading too much into how Jeannie and Tony interacted. Neither the show’s creator, Sidney Sheldon, or any of the predominantly male writers ever discussed women’s liberation or feminism, she says. “It just wasn’t that kind of show,” says Eden.

“I did not see her ever wanting to change what she was,” she says. Jeannie, was, however, disappointed that Tony seemed to never find her wonderful for who she was.

Even so, the writers and creators decided in the show’s fifth season to have Jeannie and Tony get married. Theoretically, Jeannie was supposed to lose her magical powers when she got married, but she did not.

Eden was not a fan of the marriage. “From the beginning I objected to the wedding,” she says. The comedy was partly based on the idea that an entity thought she could marry a human, says Eden. Once Jeannie became a housewife, “it was just wrong, for the concept,” she says. Eden felt that the show fell flat for the remaining 15 episodes of the last season.

In a way, the marriage showed that Jeannie was powerful because she got what she wanted, says Lintelman. Even so, “it’s really ironic that what she wants is a normative relationship with a man,” he says.

“Even after they got married, she called him master,” points out Press. “She got what she wanted in the end, but what she wanted was the guy,” which has been a typical scenario for women in TV and film even into the present, says Press.

The show was canceled after the fifth season but was, and has remained, incredibly popular. Eden says she continues to receive fan mail from all over the world. Recently, someone she was working with on the set of a commercial told her that Jeannie had been a life-saving retreat for him to escape a troubled home environment.

Jeannie was an uplifting character, says Eden. Though “it’s sad that she was trying to be something she wasn’t, on the other hand she was so full of life,” she says. “She was so interested in everything. You can’t be unhappy if you’re interested in looking for new things constantly and trying to be productive and positive, and that’s what she was.”

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