It’s been a while since pointy hats and warts were de rigeur in the world of witchcraft. In Netflix’s latest adaptation, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the eponymous Sabrina Spellman is more likely to be found carrying a copy of The Second Sex than a broomstick.
Given the a real-life context of pussy-grabbing presidents and #MeToo scandals, there’s a certain timeliness to this new version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which follows the 1970s Archie comics and beloved 1990s sitcom with Melissa Joan Hart.
In this world, even magical powers cannot protect against the patriarchy.
Starring Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka, Chilling Adventures is darker, sexier and a lot more explicit about satanic worship than its predecessors. As it charts the teenager’s struggle to reconcile her life as half witch and half mortal, it is as much about what it means to be a woman as what it means to be a witch.
On her sixteenth birthday, Sabrina must choose whether to turn her back on her mortal connections and fully commit to her witchy roots by signing the Dark Lord’s book – it’s made clear that the Dark Lord in question is Satan himself. In this world, even magical powers cannot protect against the patriarchy: the Church of Night, the coven keen to claim Sabrina, is led by a High Priest and the Dark Lord is unwilling to allow women both freedom and power. She is expected to save herself for him, which she challenges: “Why should he get to decide what I do with my body?”
In one of the show’s most powerful scenes, Sabrina decides that she won’t sign her name away; that the chance to define her own identity is important to her in both of the worlds in which she walks. Symbolically, she’s wearing a wedding dress at the time, and the High Priest of the coven accuses her of fleeing at the moment of consummation. All this, without ever directly mentioning the word ‘feminism.’
Sabrina looks and often behaves like one of television’s ‘conventional’ good girl clichés. She’s the virginal blonde who invites her painfully shy teacher to dinner; she’s very caring, and deeply in love with her deeply boring boyfriend. At times her earnest intensity becomes almost irritating.
Abusive high school misogynists find themselves magically lampooned with their own homophobia
But she’s not the Mary Sue she first appears. Sabrina is saved from predictability by her willingness to get her hands dirty. She makes morally dubious decisions, dabbles in necromancy, and employs some fairly nasty magic – a PTSD-inducing spider attack on her headteacher as she fights against his male privilege is a case in point.
In fact, for those of us in need of some good old-fashioned revenge fantasy catharsis, there’s plenty to satisfy: abusive high school misogynists find themselves lampooned with their own homophobia and subject to a magical (albeit temporary) castration. The gloriously creepy Weird Sisters delight in tormenting mortal boys, especially the “handsome” ones, as they gleefully announce. It’s ‘eye for an eye’-style justice, true, but it’s still nice to see the women-as-victims trope turned on its head.
The show is blatantly sex-positive too: the suggestion here seems to be that part of the appeal of witchcraft comes in its rejection of social conventions. There are references to female desire in a number of different forms – there are hints of a BDSM frisson for one of Sabrina’s aunts, and a female-centric orgy scene is presented as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Non-binary gender is as visible as magic, as Sabrina’s friend Susie falls victim to school bullies because of her unwillingness to fit neatly into a box labelled ‘male’ or ‘female.’
The show is none too subtle about its ‘woke’ credentials. Sabrina and her friends form WICCA – The Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association – and there’s an episode where the gang campaign to restore ‘banned’ books to the class library. But it never comes across as preaching: instead, flawed characters are shown coping as well as they can within a flawed system. In their world, the odds are stacked against women: witches and mortals alike. There, Sabrina’s status as teenage feminist is just as important as her status as teenage witch.