How Sabrina the Teenage Witch Critiques Institutions
By Joseph Kim
By the time this article is released, Halloween will have already have past. But let’s still consider this the Halloween edition of the Red Summit Productions blog. Also, potential spoilers discussed.
The magic is back! 15 years after the original sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart aired its finale, Sabrina Spellman returns to television, but in a dark, dramatic reboot on Netflix. The new show, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, mainly based off the 2014 comics of the same name, stars Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina, a half-witch, half-mortal teenager, who must undergo the challenges of high school, growing up, and a Satanic coven.
A major difference between the show and its ’90s predecessor is the embrace of witch culture, specifically traditional witch culture and lore. With blood pacts, exorcisms, and even some brief appearances from the Lord of Darkness himself, the creators are definitely taking advantage of Netflix’s lack of censorship. But don’t worry: the darker tone won’t deter fans of both the sitcom or the original Archie publications. The show is a culmination of everything Sabrina. There are elements of ’90s campiness in several episodes (a highlight in episode 6), and a sense of timelessness with the show that harkens back to the original comics.
Yet, to me at least, the most interesting part of the new series is, surprisingly, the social commentary in the show. Sure, there have always been themes of otherness in the series, with Sabrina facing judgment, from the magical and mortal worlds, for her life choices. But by taking the institutions around Sabrina’s life, and highlighting the flaws within their individual systems, it illustrates how complex the show can be.
Take Sabrina’s witch heritage. Instead of it solely being a fact of her life, like “Oh, and you’re a witch: isn’t it cool?”, Sabrina’s upbringing is part of her religious identity. Her family line has consisted of mostly witches and warlocks, with Sabrina’s aunts, Zelda and Hilda (but mostly Zelda), sticking close to tradition and religious roots. With the benefits of and an established connection to magic, there really isn’t a bad reason for her to join a coven. But when the High Priest of the coven lies about the terms of baptism, Sabrina realizes that, other than Satan himself, there are dark forces working against her.
Sabrina isn’t able to trust the Church of Night after the lies that they fed her. Her faith is tested, at its most pivotal point. But it’s not just religion that gets uncovered. Sabrina’s perception of her family history, specifically her late mother and father, is tested when the truth of her conception and birth are revealed. The discovery of the exaggerated romance between her parents, and the price of their love, presents the further corruption of several once-sacred institutions, in this case family. Would you be able to trust an organized religion, or any organized institution, that corrupted its values to take advantage of you? Am I, or the show, being too on-the-nose about current political climate? Perhaps.
And I can keep listing examples all day of how the show tears down institutional and systemic issues: book banning, sexism, school hazing, etc. The only reason I stopped was to move on.
Now, the show isn’t simply denouncing religion, government, or other establishments. It acknowledges the benefits of organized efforts, such as social structures and familial connection. There is a poignant scene between Sabrina and Aunt Zelda, discussing Sabrina’s right to her own body in the context of her Dark Baptism. Not only is this an excellent and clever way to discuss women’s rights, but also it highlights how people with different ideological beliefs can act civilly without backing down. There is a spectrum of people along every issue, every facet of our society, and it’s ignorant simply to dismiss the entire subject solely because of one negative part. Again:
Institutions aren’t inherently evil. The corruption of institutions, and the abuse of their powers, is.
I’ll be one to admit that the show isn’t the best at moral commentary. It is still a teen drama, focused on telling the story of a young woman finding her place in the world. But you have to give credit where credit is due: any show that makes an effort, with story and insightful observations, deserves some level of recognition.
All 10 episodes are available now on Netflix, so let me know what you think in the comments below!