How The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018- ) Demonstrates Difference, Power, and Discrimination
By Natalie Godwin
After 22 years of silence, Sabrina the teenage witch from Archie Comics is back–and she stands for more than high school love triangles and petty drama. Since the 1996 television series Sabrina the Teenage Witch aired, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018) has rebirthed Sabrina, the main character, as a coming-of-age heroine with a social agenda that goes deeper than the boys that she’s dating. Topics such as gender, feminism, sexuality, and the effects of the patriarchy are all hot topics included in the show, alongside the normal boil-and-bubble of Sabrina’s witch life. Not only does Sabrina fight demons and ghosts, but also for the rights of herself and others, all while standing as a symbol of light and equality.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina goes beyond the average supernatural drama by intentionally touching on prominent social issues, making it a prime example of how modern television shows are beginning to explore topics of social importance like difference, power, and discrimination (DPD) in their storylines. Sabrina’s coming-of-age story demonstrates the struggle of being an independent young woman in a patriarchal system of witches. Forced to choose between the life of a witch and the life of a mortal, she must also consider her willingness to follow the Church of Night’s belief system stemming from an ages-old patriarchal system led by Satan himself. The television show is more than cheap entertainment and actually depicts realistic social issues through displays of Sabrina’s character and the plot of her story.
From the beginning, Sabrina intertwines a large pool of people to create a story rich with multi-ethnic characters of varying sexual identities, backgrounds, social statuses, and lives. Although the main character is a white female who is able-bodied and straight, the show makes a point to normalize people who do not fit that description without interrupting the season’s plot. In seasons one and two, plenty of different sexual identities considered “outliers” in present society were introduced to viewers in normal light; including polyamory, bisexuality, pansexuality, heterosexuality, and others. Sexuality was not the only inclusive aspect of the show’s cast, as each of the characters are equally diverse and have different ethnic backgrounds that help to diversify the story. The only topic the show has not touched on so far are people of able versus disabled bodies. However, with the inclusivity of gender, sexuality, and race, the show does not simply ignore the discrimination that people of these identities faced. Much of the plotline is centered around the points made in the original Archie Comics, yes, but the show also goes out of its way to create sub-conflicts around the freedom of choice. An example of this was when Sabrina founded the Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association (WICCA) in spite of their school principal after he banned students from reading multiple free-thinking books. Sabrina recognized such oppression of free will and acted against it for the benefit of all of her fellow students. In conclusion, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a fresh take on the problems of modern-day society when it comes to issues involving DPD and the oppression of free will.
In DPD studies, the word “difference” refers to the gap in social opportunity between separate groups of people. In Sabrina, the difference has the same connotations. In fact, much of the show’s conflict centralizes around differences – differences in rights, differences in positions of power, even differences in authority. The entirety of Season One is about Sabrina’s choice between the Church of Night and the humans in her life – basically, choosing between her family or her friends. Although it is her birthright to follow the ideology of the witch, she heavily disagrees with signing her soul (and independence) away to the Devil. By doing so, she would be at the mercy of those in higher positions of power than her with little to no say in the matter. As she puts it, “I have reservations about saving myself for the Dark Lord. Why does he get to decide what I do or don’t do with my body?” (David). She hates the idea of losing her right to live freely. Plus, the witch’s society mirrors the same “one nation under one God” mentality that today’s American society does. Although both the human world and the witch world appeal to her for separate reasons, they each possess their own issues in terms of the word difference. Humans are naturally abundant in issues when concerning difference because society has a preconditioned system that separates people into boxes and then pits them against each other. Witches, however, exist in a highly organized caste system that pushes the weak down to the bottom and lifts the powerful high, producing a vast difference in positions of power. The show depicts this by creating two societies that Sabrina exists in simultaneously, making a paradox for Sabrina: whichever side she chooses will have extreme differences, but she must choose one. Anyone looking to overcome said difference must use their willfulness to forge a path of their own, where the concept of “difference” is less acceptable and more of an issue in need of being resolved.
The topic of power in Sabrina is often the main drive behind the show’s conflicts and resolutions. Power is defined as “the possession of control, authority, or power over others” and it is clearly highlighted as a recurring issue in the television show. Each time conflict rises, it can be directly traced back to the people in positions of power who abuse their rights as leaders. The most prominent example of this in the first season would be the leader of the witches. The coven is ruled by a white, male priest of supreme and unquestionable power named Faustus Blackwood. Blackwood represents everything wrong with the Church of Night: he is corrupt, evil, and generally incredibly sexist. As Fandom quotes, Blackwood “took over the throne as the embodiment of Satan’s will on earth, restoring some practices fallen into disuse or considered barbaric.” He enforces ideas in the Church that subdue powerful women and push the males, or warlocks, to the top, like a patriarchal system that unevenly disperses power amongst the witch community. This directly mirrors what frequently happens in American society to females in positions of power. There have also been discussions of racial inequality in the show. Although I, a white female, did not have an issue regarding race while watching the show, many critics pointed out the show’s use of turning one of the women of color in the show into “the angry Black woman who attacks the misunderstood, small, blonde, white girl” (Crumpton). Some of the viewers believed that this was a serious offense in terms of power that the show overlooked. However, the show attempts to maintain a diverse perspective that includes all issues concerning power and how said issues impact the story and its characters and did not intentionally mean to create a gap in positions of power between the two characters.
In terms of discrimination, Sabrina is a strong advocate for everything that stands against it. There are not many instances of overtly demonstrated discrimination in the series, but complicated subjects like gender and sexuality often bring up points of homophobia and sexism in the series’s storyline. The strongest case of this would be when one gender-noncomforming character, Theo, was being bullied by the school jocks. Instead of standing for Theo’s rights as a student, the principal then suggested that Theo switch schools to avoid being bullied for their identity. This is obviously an unacceptable response to any student being bullied, much less a gender-nonconforming one, and the show made a point to display the authoritative figure in this situation as a CIS white male with little to no support of the LGBTQ+ community. The directors of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina made sure to get through to the audience that discrimination, in any form, is unacceptable and should not be tolerated in modern society. Sabrina herself represents a force against injustice: as SyFy Wire wrote, “She’s positioned herself against men in power from the beginning. She suspects [them] before there’s anything to suspect. She refuses to fall prey to [their] power play, actively rebelling against [their] belief that “the old ways are best.” The old ways are best for those they benefited. Most of the time, those beneficiaries were men” (Toomer). As Wire stated, equal rights for the beneficiaries of injustice is not the same as equal rights for all, and that is what Sabrina stands for. In general, that is what all people should stand for, whether it be in a Netflix show or in real life.
Despite the show’s best intentions to represent all groups of people and their struggles, many critics disagree with the show’s intentions. One of the main counterarguments I researched was how The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina failed in representing its characters of color, like Prudence Night – the main black female character in the series. In an article published by Teen Vogue Magazine, author Taylor Crumpton described the situation between Sabrina and Prudence as if, “the show’s primary positioning of Prudence as an antagonist plays into a centuries-old myth developed by colonizers to dehumanize Black people for their traditional African spiritual beliefs and practices.” The author supported this claim by identifying a scene in “The Harrowing”, where Sabrina defends herself by holding the three antagonistic witches (Prudence and her sisters Dorcus and Agatha) in the air by their throats through a spell she had cast. The author describes that as “an image of a lynched Black woman in 2018.” Although this is a serious concern that someone sensitive to the topic of lynching may have been offended by such imagery, I do not believe that the show’s intention was to promote such hateful messages. One of the three witches in this scene was African-American, albeit she was the leader of the three. Plus, Sabrina did not attack them, she simply defended herself from them. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s purpose is not to entice harmful, awful concepts into the world of witchcraft, but instead to deliver lighthearted comedy with a secondary theme of inclusive, intersectional feminism that is easily applicable to present society as well.
Personally, I chose this television show to write my essay on because I think it is something that all kinds of people find relatable, relieving, and entertaining. It’s also one of the few shows featuring a feminist agenda that does not base its entire plot around it. Instead, it presents an average coming-of-age story with a darker appeal; integrating both the entertainment of supernatural fiction and the feminist side behind witch culture. After watching every season of Sabrina, I am excited for the next release of episodes and the concepts of social justice that I am sure will also be included within them.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina delves deeper into the complicated topics of modern-day social justice issues than other science fiction shows have by far. By tackling these topics head-on, Sabrina is crowned as both an icon of feminism and equality. With her reboot from the 1996 release Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Sabrina’s newfound agenda has left a noticeable impact on not only the Netflix community but the community of supernatural fiction fans as a whole. The production of this show should be recognized for its fully forward attempt at creating a “safe space” for people of all backgrounds, even if some critics believed it missed some markers to make it the perfect self-aware TV show. Overall, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina successfully integrates the topics of difference, power, and discrimination into its plot and displays how Sabrina’s shining feminism and equality can be a model for the rest of us to follow in modern society.
Bastién, Angelica Jade. “In Defense of Prudence Night on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” Vulture, 2 Nov. 2018, www.vulture.com/2018/11/chilling-adventures-of-sabrina-prudence-black-witches.html.
Crumpton, Taylor. “How ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ Failed Prudence Night.” Teen Vogue, 1 Nov. 2018, www.teenvogue.com/story/chilling-adventures-of-sabrina-failed-prudence-night.
David, Sara. “The Real Magic of Netflix’s ‘Sabrina’ Reboot Is Radical Teen Feminism.” Netflix’s Sabrina ‘Reboot’ Is About the Magic, Vice, 25 Oct. 2018, www.vice.com/en_us/article/9k7p37/netflix-sabrina-teen-feminism.
“Faustus Blackwood.” Archieverse Wiki, Fandom, riverdale.fandom.com/wiki/Faustus_Blackwood.
Loughrey, Clarisse. “How Each Incarnation of Sabrina the Teenage Witch Has Been Symbolic of Feminism through the Years.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 26 Oct. 2018, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/sabrina-teenage-witch-25-feminism-chilling-adventures-netflix-melissa-joan-hart-archie-comic-a8601336.html.
Toomer, Jessica. “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Is the Feminist Revenge Fantasy We Need Right Now.” SYFY WIRE, 13 Nov. 2018, www.syfy.com/syfywire/chilling-adventures-of-sabrina-is-the-feminist-revenge-fantasy-we-need-right-now.