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Pop Culture Rewind: Sabrina the Teenage Witch


The titular character of Sabrina the Teenage Witch was a feminist icon for the ‘90s. Created in 1962 in Archie Comics Archie’s Madhouse Issue #22, Sabrina was a half-witch character who was intended to be a trendier, sexier version of Samantha Stephens from Bewitched. Sabrina’s main foil was the fact that if she ever fell in love, she would lose her powers.

Because it was the ‘60s - and because Sabrina was created by men, Sabrina was both independent thanks to her witchcraft and rebellious without ever challenging the patriarchal power structures of the period. By focusing on her daily issues as a high school student; making love potions and bewitching her classmates, the comic writers were able to avoid any serious discourse. The premise of Sabrina’s story was simple; like Samantha Stephens, she held more power than was normal for a woman at the time without ever overtly challenging the social and systemic sexism present in her world.

From 1970-1974 Sabrina had her own comic series titled Sabrina the Teenage Witch and CBS aired an animated series along with this. Eventually in 1996, the ABC premiered Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the tv classic starring Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina. Throughout her many reincarnations there have been constants in Sabrina’s story. She has always been half witch with a witch father and human mother. She lives with her two aunts Hilda and Zelda. She has a cat named Salem who is actually a witch in cat form as a punishment for witchy crimes. She also has a boyfriend named Harvey Kinkle who is often portrayed as naive and unaware of Sabrina’s magical abilities.

All of this incredibly important background information brings us to the current and most talked about adaptation of Sabrina the Teenage Witch: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina starring Kiernan Shipka.

Based off of the 2014 comic of the same name, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina aired in 2018, produced by CW and available for streaming on Netflix. CW are the creators of several other notable shows aimed at young audiences such as The Vampire Diaries, Riverdale and Supernatural. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa who also created Riverdale which was based on the Archie comics. This shouldn’t be surprising because both series take place in the same world in the comics. Sabrina lives in Greendale which is on one side of Sweetwater River while Archie and friends live on the other side in Riverdale. In the comics Betty and Veronica are briefly featured in Sabrina’s story as members of Riverdale’s coven.

The characters in Riverdale are far darker and broodier than their comic counterparts and this seems to fit the trend of grittier and more disturbing television shows for young people. But this has also been criticised by fans of the comics who ask why all their favourite characters need to be made darker and why events need to be more violent and disturbing. Another more extreme example of this would be the new Netflix Winx Club adaptation which I will die mad about.

This relationship means that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the younger of the two shows was always going to be a dramatic reboot and we should have expected much darker themes. Season one was good and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Season two was decent and I happily flew through it. But something happened during season three. The show’s writers forgot how to write. When Sabrina is faced with the revelation that she will play a key role in the apocalypse, she responds “Sorry, but I have school”. Even if Sabrina cared at all about school- which she obviously never does, this line is jarring in contrast to the very serious matter being discussed; the actual end of the world. It's clearly meant to be a joke, but Sabrina isn’t comedic relief, so it lands weirdly and jolts the viewer out of the story. The tone in this show is very strange. Emotionally intense scenes either feature weirdly out of place jokes and comments or totally unrealistic responses.

The world in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is in a constant state of apocalypse. Every season has some new existential threat; Satan, The Green Man, the Eldritch terrors. Every series needs to have a plot and plots rely on complications and problems which need to be solved. However, when every episode in season four is just another big bad villain needing to be stopped, the end of the world stops feeling like a significant threat. It feels as though the Eldritch terrors were introduced because the showrunners realised that now that Satan was out of the picture, they needed a new bigger and evil figure which is hard to find seeing as Satan epitomises all that. This is almost exactly the same problem which Supernatural, CW’s fandom favourite faced; right down to defeating Satan and desperately searching for a new threat to the universe.

Sabrina’s showrunners ultimately decided to just outsource HP Lovecraft’s stories with the new Eldritch terrors plotline and really tried my patience. It's a good thing Lovecraft is long dead because he must be rolling in his grave right now. Each episode of season four is just a new Lovecraftian monster who threatens humanity. Despite the magnitude of this threat and the sheer power each creature carries, they are all easy enough to defeat in the space of an episode. Even the characters in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina acknowledge that the apocalypse has really happened too many times. It's very meta and tongue in cheek of the writers. But my beef with this is that it feels lazy rather than clever. The writers and showrunners know they have messed up with the melodramatic large-scale conflicts taking place and instead of actually fixing the plot, they decided to just point it out to show how self-aware they are and continue on their merry way ruining everything. It's an easy way to acknowledge your errors and pretend the problem has been solved.

Sabrina the Teenage Witch followed Sabrina’s high school antics; going on a school excursion to Salem or using her magic to rig a football game so the team her boyfriend is on wins. It was light-hearted with often silly plots that also attempted to teach lessons about jealousy, bullying and stereotypes. Sabrina would get herself into a bad situation and Hilda and Zelda would help her fix it, ultimately helping her grow as a character. This was a goofy but meaningful show however the sitcom style has inevitably fallen out of fashion.

In the 1996 show the Spellman household is a family of women who get shit done. Hilda and Zelda were wise aunts working to pass down their knowledge to the next generation of witches. Sabrina the Teenage Witch has also been read as a queer narrative; Sabrina is a teenage girl with a big secret, she lives with her sympathetic same sex surrogate parents, to enter the magical “Other Realm” she has to go inside a closet. Salem is a sassy cat who reflects the stereotypical queercoded male characters such as Jafar from Aladdin and Scar from the Lion King. Rupaul is even featured in an episode as a hairdresser. Obviously, there is no concrete evidence witchcraft was intended as an allegory for queerness and Sabrina the Teenage Witch was also an imperfect show. There was no real queer representation apart from maybe Salem who is possibly bi-curious because he expressed his crush on Harvey Kinkle and the cast were all very white. This lack of diversity inevitably led to some problematic story lines and not all the shows episodes aged well.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina makes a much more heavy-handed effort to show how fundamentally feminist it is. To help her black friend Ros, Sabrina founded WICCA, the Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association and nothing really happens because of this in the plot. It just serves to show that Sabrina is a great white saviour. When Theo is bullied for being gender nonconforming, Sabrina steps in and saves the day. She is a model white ally. This also means that whenever her woke antics are foiled, Sabrina becomes the white victim. One of the many disappointing things about this reboot is that witchcraft and its persecution has a long and sordid history drenched with sexism, classism, and racism. But instead of putting any effort into exploring these aspects of witchcraft, the writers have shown a clear desperation to let you know how woke and intersectional they are. The result of this is that while it’s a clear effort to make Sabrina into a woke feminist icon, much of the time this comes off as forced and as clearly reactionary to the real world.

Ultimately, Sabrina the Teenage Witch was a heart-warming and entertaining show to watch, whilst the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is an example that darker plot lines do not necessarily make a show better.

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