How Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Thinks About Female Power
The dark new Netflix series presents a surprisingly complex vision of what women could do with supernatural abilities.
In September, as the future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh gave testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about allegations of sexual assault leveled against him, a photographer present captured a moment that instantly went viral. The actress Alyssa Milano, her hair severely swept up in a topknot, lowered her black-framed glasses in the hearing room to stare intently at Kavanaugh’s back. The Entertainment Tonight writer Meredith B. Kile posted the photo on Twitter, adding, “I’ve never wished so hard that Alyssa Milano was a real witch.”
Milano, of course, played Phoebe Halliwell, one of three witch sisters in the WB’s long-running supernatural drama Charmed. Although the question of that show’s authentic feminist credentials has resurfaced in the wake of the CW’s recent reboot, there’s something undeniably thrilling about the idea of Milano’s real activist self endowed with the powers of her most famous character. In a moment when so many women seem to feel powerless—when speaking out, the only option they have for seeking justice, often appears to be futile—the fantasy of witchhood is extra alluring.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Netflix’s sumptuous new teen drama based on the Archie Comics character, is, in that sense, right on cue. The story stars Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina, who, on her 16th birthday, will have to choose “between two worlds: the witch world of her family and the human world of her friends.” Sabrina, whose father was a powerful Satanic priest (this is not your ’90s teen-witch drama) and whose mother was a mortal, is expected to pledge allegiance to the Dark Lord, Lucifer himself, and renounce her human ties. In return, she gets unfathomable power—for total fealty.
Chilling Adventures, which was developed by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who also created the CW’s Archie series, Riverdale), is infinitely darker than the last time Sabrina came to the small screen, in the ABC series Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Shipka’s Sabrina is still as cute as a button, with her requisite headband, her fluffy angora sweaters, and her earnest approach to things like blood curses and hexing a school principal. But she’s also a character deeply of her moment: a teenage witch for the Teen Vogue generation. Sabrina is savvy enough to sense entrenched injustice in both her worlds, and she’s brave enough to challenge it. She’s essentially good, but susceptible to the darker allure of having control over others.
In that, Chilling Adventures ends up being a surprisingly complex interrogation of power, aware both of the necessity of women claiming it and of the consequences that usually follow when that power is used for revenge. Like the cult 1996 movie The Craft, about a squad of high-school misfits who form a coven, the Netflix series uses witchcraft to explore the dynamics of unchecked authority. At Baxter High School, Sabrina stands up to bullies and founds a women’s intersectional cultural and creative association (WICCA) to provide vulnerable students with support. As a witch participating in various ceremonies, she publicly (and dramatically) objects to the controlling behavior of none other than Satan himself.
The series has a quirky spirit, and its tongue-in-cheek invocations of satanic practices (cannibalism, human sacrifice) don’t always gel with its essentially loving portrayal of Sabrina and her various relationships. Still, the portrait it offers of a teenager gaining supernatural abilities that help her “topple the white patriarchy,” as she and her friends jokingly put it, is exhilarating. Even if, as the show documents, it’s not without cost.
Sabrina Spellman the comic-book character debuted in 1962, one year before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and two years before Samantha Stephens first appeared in the ABC comedy Bewitched. The timing wasn’t coincidental. Witches in popular culture had long been an archetype used to showcase the perversion and danger of women who sought power of their own, or who didn’t conform, or who simply wanted solitude. In fairy tales, witches lurk at the edges of the woods or worm their way into the affections of gullible and wealthy kings. Stories about witches prepare children for suppressing their own desires later in life, analysts have theorized, by acting out the inevitable punishment of free thinkers.
But Sabrina and Samantha made the witch more malleable, while coinciding with a growing movement for women’s liberation. Even if they were wholly good (and largely innocuous) in their employment of magic, Bewitched at least had elements of subversion. Samantha’s “efforts to balance the demands of a suburban housewife with her husband’s frail ego and her own supernatural abilities charted a course for women weighing the challenges of home, hearth, and their own awakening ambitions,” the literary critic Chris Norris wrote in The New York Times in 2005.
The 1990s, the undisputed era of Girl Power, saw a new wave of good witches in popular culture. Sabrina the Teenage Witch debuted in 1996, casting the character played by Melissa Joan Hart as a powerful—if scatty and maladroit—force for positive magic. The Craft, a darker interpretation of how power might affect witches, premiered the same year. Charmed debuted in 1998, partly as a response to the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another show about a blond teenager with the power to save the world (and a show with its own witch character, Willow, who became addicted to dark magic).
In many ways, Shipka’s Sabrina shows her lineage to ’90s witches. She’s intelligent, tough, strong-willed, and—for the scion of a family of devoted satanists—surprisingly sweet and kind. In the show, Sabrina’s father was a high priest of the Church of Night while her mother was a mortal, giving her a foot in both worlds. She’s been raised by her aunts, the fearsome Katharine Hepburn–esque Zelda (Miranda Otto) and the gentler, more blowsy Hilda (Lucy Davis). The contrast between the two makes for much of the show’s comedy: Zelda gets a glint in her eye thinking about roasting children for dinner, while Hilda gardens and has a yen for bold prints and eccentric jewelry.
But modern Sabrina also has a vocabulary and a comprehension of sexual politics that root her firmly in the 21st century. Although Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, like Riverdale, seems to exist in a strange time warp where all the cars are from the 1950s and people talk on rotary phones, Sabrina and her friends Ros (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson) talk fluently about intersectionality and equality and the patriarchy. Susie is played by a nonbinary actor; Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) is depicted as pansexual. (Oddly, like The Handmaid’s Tale, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina seems to be set in a post-racism world, which allows for the inclusion of an impressive number of characters of color but also rules out the opportunity to explore issues of injustice on that front.)
Chilling Adventures is self-aware about the history of storytellers using the supernatural as a metaphor, so much so that Sabrina and her friends gather frequently to discuss the subtext of the old horror movies they’ve seen at the local theater. (The Fly, they decide, is about body dysmorphia and STDs, while zombies represent the collapse of the nuclear family and anxiety about the Cold War.) Sabrina might be a witch, but she’s also a teenager torn between two worlds, in ways people from devout families and the children of immigrants might understand. At home, she has one identity; at school, she has another. Trying to explain the tradition of her upcoming “dark baptism” to her boyfriend, Harvey (Ross Lynch), Sabrina compares it to her classmates’ “Shoshanna Feldman’s bat mitzvah or Guadalupe Lopez’s quinceañera.”
And yet what Sabrina’s witchhood seems fundamentally about is bringing down male power. At Baxter High School, Sabrina battles the headmaster, Mr. Hawthorne (Bronson Pinchot), after discovering that certain books with adult content have been sneakily removed from the library. And as she approaches making her lifelong contract with Satan, she begins to ponder his motives while questioning the crueler traditions that are embedded in the patriarchal history and practices of the Church of Night. Sabrina bristles at the idea that she’s supposed to “give the Dark Lord dominion over [her] soul,” even more so when another witch, Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), tells her that Sabrina will only be giving up freedom for power.
“But I want both,” Sabrina replies. Impossible, Prudence replies. The Dark Lord will never allow her, or any woman, to have both. Why? “Because he’s a man, isn’t he?” Satan’s gender is emphasized throughout the show, adding an extra element of misogyny to the Church’s traditions.
The scenario the series sets up is that Sabrina might be the one girl with the power to change the world, able to take on the patriarchal and repressive practices of Satan and challenge the culture of impunity that allows football players at Baxter High to get away with assault and abuse. Both prospects, Chilling Adventures suggests, are equally important. And both potential revolutions are rife with missteps. In meting out vengeance to bullies, Sabrina becomes a bully herself. In embracing her full power as a witch, she indulges in arrogance and grandiosity that puts her loved ones in danger.
Chilling Adventures, like so many Netflix debuts, feels like a prequel: It leaves its primary character in a fascinating and dangerous position, with her family and friends poised to join or reject her. But it also sets up a world where the upending of the current order feels inevitable. Too many women have seen how hierarchies protect themselves to keep on accepting the status quo; too many women have been deceived—or hurt—not to try to fight back. Sabrina, like the Charmed sisters in the current CW reboot, often feels like a revenge fantasy in which women suddenly gain power they never knew they had, power they use to fight men who abuse women. But Chilling Adventures also warns against the idea that simply having power is the goal. That way, it suggests, lies darkness. And not just for Sabrina.