Historically, witch narratives follow two, often parallel, paths. One is the patriarchal narrative, where men demonize women who threaten their authority and power. Independent women. Loud-mouthed women. Women who veer from their prescribed roles. These women must be constructed as under demonic influence, must have made deals with the Devil, because women in their natural state cannot be this independent, acting under their free will because that threatens the entire patriarchal structure. This argument can be seen in many woodcuts that show witches, such as “Witches presenting wax dolls to the devil”, featured in The History of Witches and Wizards (1720), where the dark devil image is centered in the image, with the women surrounding, under his control.
The other narrative is more recent, and perhaps more familiar to audiences; that of the witch narrative as representative of female empowerment, rewriting and revising historical narratives and modern retellings as feminist narratives. Particularly in the 1990s, the decade of “Gurl Power,” this was a common and popular image, as seen in television shows like Charmed (1998-2006), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1993-2003), and moves like The Craft (1996). While these narratives may be presented as examples of feminist power, they rarely acknowledged the original threat witches posed to male power and authority. Some examples are Salem (2014-2017), The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017), The Originals (2013-2018), The Witches of East End (2013-2014), American Horror Story: Coven (2013-2014), the short-lived Eastwick (2009-2010), a shallower version of the 1987 movie The Witches of Eastwick, and The Good Witch (2008 movie, 2015-present). The television show Grimm (2011-2017), with its hexenbiests, and Practical Magic (1998), with its familiar curse because of men who betray, are rare entries that even hint at the patriarchy.
The 1996-2003 Sabrina the Teenage Witch landed in the middle of the 1990s trend of interest in the supernatural. It fell on the campier side of witch narratives, more fluffy entertainment that darker, sexier revisions. Aunt Hilda for comic relief, Aunt Zelda for seriousness, the talking cat Salem, and being a witch as metaphor for the drama and tragedy of high school.
The new Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is none of these things. The show is as much a hot mess as a show can be, but worse. It’s clearly a television show constructed by a male creator, representing the worst male fantasies about women and witchcraft. As has become all too common, a show that has serious issues trots out their diversity tokens, praises the advances made as a type of pre-emptive strike against criticism. It doesn’t work here either. Yes, Tati Gabrielle is an interesting actress. But she’s not the best thing about Sabrina. In fact, her character and her representation is incredibly problematic, if not outright racist. There is a long history of constructing minorities, particularly black people, as demonic, and to have Prudence constructed in this way is not just racist but lazy. And the show’s creators should be absolutely ashamed of themselves for the lynching scene in episode 4, “The Witch Academy.” And it is a lynching scene. If you hang a black person from a tree, it’s a lynching. Given the rise in hate crimes, the attack and murder of black bodies, this scene isn’t just in bad taste it’s ignorant and racist. Prudence could have been so much more that a bastard love child of an immoral, unethical headmaster.
Likewise, Roz with her blindness and “cunning” could have been an opportunity to put her on equal footing with Sabrina, to represent actual black power, but instead she is relegated to side-kick status, only serving to prop up Sabrina and her plotline and – if the ending scene in Episode 10 is any indication – discarded once she is no longer of use. Susie similarly gets short shrift. Like Prudence, Susie is showcased as a defining role, groundbreaking and Lachlan Watson, who plays Susie, has supported this narrative in interviews. But while the other characters’ acceptance of Susie is nice to see on television, her portrayal is flat, and uninspired. The revelation of a gay uncle for inspiration? One that is killed off once his sexuality is revealed? Roz’s grandmother, Nana Ruth, “sees” Susie’s true self, calling them “nice young man,” but it’s not how Susie’s friends identify or see her, so rather than presenting a portrayal that is accepted and natural, the show seems to be feeding into bigoted expressions of who people “really are.” The pansexual Ambrose, played by Chance Perdomo, is also touted as “the best part of Sabrina,” which, again, is lazy as well as untrue. Does the media think if they throw enough characters labelled as “diverse” at audiences, they can excuse not having fully fleshed out characters or plotlines where they are anything other than motivation for the white blonde girl? Ambrose, like Susie, and Roz, and Prudence, could have been a featured character, interesting, new, different, but I don’t know what his purpose is other than to be convenient for Sabrina, seeming only to serve her, or Hilda, or Zelda, a problematic / racist portrayal of a black actor. He is literally enslaved to their family and that house, having no life of his own, no freedom, no purpose.
These aren’t the only issues the show has with damaging characters and storylines while touting their own diversity and enlightenment. In the second episode, Sabrina wishes to get revenge on jocks who have tormented Susie, and she seeks out the Weird Sisters to do it. Their “revenge” is first, to have the jocks assaulted, a disturbing presentation with the focus the last couple of years of #MeToo and all the conversations we’ve been having about consent. The young men first believe they are making out with the Weird Sisters, the bewitchment serves to deceive them, and rob them of their ability to consent. But it turns out this vision is a trick as well, the men are instead making out with each other, which when they realize, they recoil in horror. Blatant homophobia. The boys then disappear from the narrative for the majority of the rest of the series, so their only purpose was to make this homophobic joke. Two of them appear towards the end, where they encounter Susie in the bookstore, and start to bully them again. Hilda intervenes and seems to hint (1) that one of the young men was abused as a child, and (2) that the other young man is gay and likes his friend. They then leave the bookstore, scared off by the truth.
In 2018, there is no excuse for these portrayals or storylines. Analyzing scenes like these makes it starkly apparent that these scenes serve no purpose whatsoever other than to make racist or homophobic statements. In addition to these bigoted, ridiculous scenes, there is the treatment of other instances of sexuality. Michelle Gomez is fun to watch, but I’m unclear why the entire show required her breasts to be the main thing to focus on. The surprise reveal at the end of the series that her character of Mother of Demons is Lilith – popularly constructed as a demon, a monster, rather than a woman who refused to submit – is, again, more lazy storytelling which just seems to be the default of the show. Prudence as Queen of the Feast forcing Sabrina to wait on her presented an opportunity to have some fun, but the orgy Prudence holds at the Spellman house gets more air time than their interactions. These serve no narrative purpose. There is no reason to present Gomez this way, or to show her “eating” a high school age pizza delivery boy, or to sexualize the black body of Prudence, in an episode that focuses on her sacrificing herself for the mostly white witch coven? A racist trope they repeat at the end of the season with Lady Blackwood dying, having served her only purpose of giving her white husband a son.
Prudence, Roz, Susie, each of the female characters are presented as nothing more than tired, stereotypical, tropes. These are bad enough. But the entire presentation of Sabrina, and the entire plot line of all ten episodes presents a jumbled and confused male fantasy of women, and a distinctly male vision of the devil, demons, and witchcraft. Aunt Hilda is presented as a joke, in no small way because she is a virgin in the Church of Night, having never submitted to a Satanic man. Aunt Zelda, supposedly presented as a strong, female role model, in the later episodes is used then cast off by Lord Blackwood, accepted only when she submits, crawling on knees and having sex with him, and even then, not earning any status.
Sabrina starts the season refusing to submit to the Dark Lord, refusing to sign away her free will in exchange for power, yet by the end of the season, she’s undone ten episodes of fighting and submits, not necessarily for the greater good, but for power. She is presented as a woman who will betray her principles for power. That’s a male fantasy, and a damaging one. By the end of episode ten, the audience is supposed to “see” her internal transformation as reflected in her outer one, her blonde hair turned white, her total embracement of dressing in blood red, her alliance with the Weird Sisters, Prudence, Agatha, and Dorcas. But the light blonde hair to barely platinum, and the change from red coat to red dress does not argue for a total reversal and transformation, but rather seems to suggest that despite her protestations, and ineffective actions throughout the season, this was what she was all along. It’s a disturbing message. Women want to be forced to submit to male power and authority? Given everything that’s happened the last year, that’s an atrocious message, especially for a show aimed at, what, teenage girls?
If the target demographics are confusing, so too is the Satanic iconography and lore used in the show. The devil, or Dark Lord as the show describes him, is shown as a demonic bridegroom, insisting on controlling and possessing the women who sign themselves over to him by signing their name in his book on their 16th birthday during their “Dark Baptism.” In case that is too subtle an argument, they have Sabrina wear her dead mother’s wedding dress to it. While Sabrina shows some male warlocks, there is no explanation of how this ritual works for them. Do they also submit to the Dark Lord? Physically, psychologically, sexually? The show presents Zelda cooking a fat child, albeit in a dream / nightmare, the majority of the witch coven participating in cannibalism of a witch who commits suicide, and ongoing imagery of the devil as a real person, the worst presentation of Satan and Satanism since the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Who exactly is the audience? Who does Netflix think is watching this show? Is it intended to be the same audience as Riverdale? Certainly the fact that it’s set in the same world, and executive produced by Greg Berlanti suggests that. But what do teenage viewers get out of the senseless violence, Sabrina slitting Agatha’s throat? The homophobia? The racism? The uplifting of a white heroine who does harm, acts impulsively, faces no consequences, and is rewarded for all this with great power? Her reward for betraying other women, the original thirteen witches, is status?
Taking a step back, these bad, lazy, bigoted portrayals seem unconnected and jumbled. However, if we consider the entire ten episode run through the lens of male fantasy, each of these gaffs and misrepresentations make a sort of horrible sense. Of course the women, and particularly women of color, are shown as only useful for their bodies, their mental and physical submission to men, the ultimate man, the original sinner, the devil. Women are only useful for what they can provide to men. Zelda is only useful for sex and as a midwife to Lord Blackwood. Hilda serves no purpose to male authority, so of course she’s excommunicated from the Church of Night and serves as nothing more than comic relief, literally the brunt of the majority of the jokes in the show. Prudence’s only purpose is to advance others to be willing to sacrifice her body, to goad Sabrina into being what the Dark Lord wants. Agatha’s only use is as sacrifice for Sabrina to continue down her dark path. Roz and Susie provide the tools and knowledge for Sabrina to accomplish what she wants, but even that doesn’t really serve Sabrina’s agenda but the Dark Lord’s.
It is a male, demonic fantasy to think that witchcraft is defined and detailed by male dominated tropes, of how women serve, of who has control over them, of eating children – the most counter move a woman can do, betraying her very biological nature. Containing women who want power they are not entitled to, and can only be trusted if a man controls it and them, limiting their use.
In light of all this, the other issues of the show pale in comparison, but I believe are still worth mentioning. Every scene between Sabrina and Harvey seems forced, like what someone thinks teenage love is but never experienced it themselves. The actors have zero chemistry, only making the writing and their on-screen interactions worse. Portraying the coal miners as flat, uninteresting, low-class, and uneducated, is also lazy storytelling. The scenes at the Unseen Academy seem nominally like a rip-off of Pratchett, and again, serve no purpose. Endless hallways, pentagon rooms? Why? While we’re at it, why make Salem (Sabrina’s familiar) a cat, when the actress playing Sabrina is allergic?
It’s not just that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is badly written, directed, and acted. (There is a lot of bad television to be had out there.) Some of it is campy. Some of it is entertaining. But Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is damaging and harmful. The fact that it’s badly done doesn’t bother me, although it made sitting through ten hours of it feel ridiculous. It bothers me that in 2018 we’re still telling stories that place women in tiny little defined roles, that tells young women they must be controlled by men, that this is their rightful role and place. In 2018 media should not normalize women being used and abused by men. It should not show women, but especially women of color, as only valuable for their bodies, the ways men can use them. Shows should not portray women as sacrifices, and they should not lynch them, for entertainment or any other purpose. The directors and writers of the show are relatively diverse. But they are operating off male fantasy source materials about the demonic, witchcraft, and women. There is no evidence of pushback, or attempts to revise the comic into something, anything else.
As with so much else these days, we need to do better.