'Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina' Is A Fearless Take On Femininity
The latest Netflix series is nothing like the '90s sitcom you remember.
In 1996 Clarissa Explains It All actress Melissa Joan Hart gave audiences a new character to fall in love with, the teen witch Sabrina Spellman. Sabrina, the Teenage Witch was a staple of ABC's TGIF line-up that combined spooky hijinks with typical teen girl dilemmas (and accompanying fashion). But a lot has changed with women in the two decades since Sabrina debuted and Netflix's new take on the material, appropriately titled the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, showcases a teenage girl who isn't interested in playing it safe.
Between The CW's reboot of Charmed and now Sabrina, being a witch is "in" at the moment, and it's not really a surprise. With so much happening to women, politically, watching a 10-episode series about a teen girl banding together with other women to take down the patriarchy is utterly refreshing.
Kiernan Shipka's tenacious take on Sabrina Spellman is a far cry from Hart's easily digestible rendition. Sabrina's adventures in the late '90s were safe, from reenacting The Crucible with her friends (where Sabrina is declared, gasp, a witch!) to creating a fake boyfriend out of a substance called "Man Dough." The situations then were aimed at pre-teen girls whose greatest issues were dealing with boys and trying to find their own self-confidence — many of Hart's Sabrina episodes ended with morals like not telling lies.
The 2018 version of Sabrina is a young woman torn between her own desire for autonomy and her adherence to a higher religious order. Nearly half of the series showcases Sabrina dealing with her decision to attend her "dark baptism," a rite of passage for witches wherein they sign their souls over to Satan. For Sabrina, the desire to fulfill her family's legacy is important — her parents died under mysterious circumstances when she was a baby — but she also wants to enjoy her mortal life, filled with friends and a boyfriend. Like most supernatural focused media aimed at girls, they can't have it all: It's either power or individuality. The latest take on Sabrina challenges the viewer to wonder why a choice should be made at all. Why can't Sabrina have it all? The majority of the season seeks to answer that very question, with the teenage witch receiving a variety of different answers from a predominately female cast.
Netflix couldn't have predicted it at the time, but the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is rife with social commentary on what's happening today. After Sabrina forsakes her "dark baptism," Satan puts her on trial for breach of contract. What follows over the course of an episode is a trial sequence not unlike what we've seen recently on the news. Sabrina is interrogated by the High Priest, Father Blackwood (played by Richard Coyle), who compares Sabrina's decision to a bride running away from her groom and criticizes her decision to wear a wedding dress, although she eventually changes her mind about donning the dress. Without explicitly stating "rape culture," the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina calls out the male-dominated world of victim-blaming with Sabrina never waffling in her commitment to proving her point, that her autonomy is paramount. Hearing Father Blackwood chastise Sabrina for what she's wearing, and asking her how she could possibly change her mind in the middle of the act hits incredibly close to home. These are statements we're hearing at the highest echelons of government, let alone within the cloistered halls of American high school, and to watch Sabrina demand that she will not be judged for her behavior — but that Satan himself is engaging in unbecoming conduct — is a rallying call for all women.
Compared to the '90s original series, Netflix's Sabrina is filled with feminine allies and enemies, with men being there merely to create flies in the ointment. Sabrina is aided by her aunts, Zelda and Hilda (Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis, respectively), who present two contrasting versions of femininity. Zelda, though taciturn and committed to "the Dark Lord" is given moments of extreme vulnerability, usually in service to her love for her niece. Hilda is a sweet-tempered young woman whose goodness has caused her to become a bit of a punching bag for her sister, Zelda. Sabrina also has her friends, Roz and Susie (Jaz Sinclair and Lachlan Watson) who, despite being mortal, are also blessed with special gifts that never put them beneath their witchy best friend. The first episode sees the trio band together to start a club, called WICCA, committed to protecting the girls at their school, Baxter High.
Even mortal enemies of Sabrina are feminine allies in certain situations. Sabrina has an on-going war with the "Weird Sisters" who are led by Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), but when Sabrina's good friend, Susie, is wronged, Sabrina employs Prudence for some much-needed revenge. For Prudence, her dominance is already established, providing a solid foil for Sabrina. When Sabrina discovers a plot against Prudence's life, the two can knowingly put their differences aside. For them, saving each other as young women is more important than anything else. It also continues to provide additional depth to Sabrina's constant questioning of the Satanic patriarchy she's being forced to submit to. Why should she listen to a formidable man whose retort is: "This is the way it's always been done?"
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the perfect blend of spooky feminism and entertaining drama women need right now. Shipka's take is far different from the sweetly simplistic world that Hart established in the '90s, but what's amazing is both takes on the character can peacefully co-exist. In the end, both shows are about promoting strong, empowering women who are born with just an extra dose of magic.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina drops on October 26th on Netflix.