Why I stopped watching Netflix’s ‘The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ during the first episode.
The show promises its viewers a politically radical narrative that draws on real-world issues, yet the most radical thing about ‘Sabrina’ is its legal battle with the Satanic Temple.
When I first heard that Netflix was streaming a reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, I was pretty excited. Growing up in the 90s, characters like Sabrina, Buffy, and Xena made my childhood; and while I was never as familiar with Sabrina as I was with Buffy and Xena, she was still very much part of a fantastical world I was excited to revisit.
However, as the title suggests, I wasn’t really thrilled when I started watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. In fact, I was so disappointed I couldn’t finish the first episode, and I’ve even gone so far as to rant about it right here, on Medium. Some of my concerns have already been explored by others, who have noted that despite the show screaming from the mountain tops about how woke it is, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina falls woefully short of having any meaningful social commentary that transcends its lip service to leftist jargon. I’m inclined to agree, and my contribution to this critique focuses on the creators’ approach to storytelling and characterization.
The show emphasizes Sabrina’s moral perfection so heavily that it sidelines its supporting cast and makes them irrelevant, save for the role they play in reaffirming Sabrina’s wokeness. As if terrified of having Sabrina be perceived as an ignorant white girl, the show tries so desperately to absolve her of the pitfalls of white feminism, that it ends up furiously reinforcing them instead. Sabrina, like the supporting characters, is denied complex personhood; unlike Orange is the New Black’s Piper Chapman, who is both symbolic of the problems of white feminism and nonetheless a compelling, not-entirely-terrible human being, Sabrina Spellman can be nothing less than the perfect ally.
Woke AF, Unrealistic Teenagers
My irritation with the show began immediately. At the pilot episode’s outset, we are greeted by Sabrina, her best friend and boyfriend as they are leaving a movie, after which they zealously discuss a political analysis of its themes. Within 5 minutes of the show’s beginning, I had to fight the urge to roll my eyes; I teach at a university, and most of my students can’t even grasp a basic critique of nationalism and modernity. Their idea of fun is playing video games until 2am, then hating themselves in the morning when it’s time for class. They watch K-dramas and YouTube videos in lectures with their headphones on, and greet me in tutorial with vacant expressions and silence. There are exceptions, but they are certainly not representative.
The heavy-handedness with which we are assured that Sabrina and her friends are smart, independent, politically and socially conscious young adults equipped with all the right socio-political critique is not just off-putting, it’s disingenuous as well. That isn’t to say that fictional characters can’t be exceptional compared to the average person, but the posturing evident from Sabrina’s opening scenes makes me question what the creators are trying to accomplish with their characterization of these highschoolers.
The Powerless Victim & Evil Victimizer Trope
Very quickly, we are beaten over the head with the show’s politics; the characters strike less as fully developed people and more as mouth pieces for feminist buzzwords. Sabrina is introduced as a character who revels in her own wokeness and is quick to outrage at any display of social injustice; as far as the creators are concerned, she can do no wrong — politically, anyway.
This is exemplified by her demand that the entire boy’s football team be interrogated, and the perpetrators weeded out and punished, after a queer classmate, Susie, is bullied and sexually harassed. We are pushed to take Sabrina’s side when the headmaster not only refuses to take action, but suggests Susie find another school.
Now, don’t get me wrong; these kinds of things happen far too often in the real world. The toxic masculinity and misogyny of school administrators is painfully real, but what bothers me about this scene is the way it introduces characters as unanimously good or bad based on their willingness or unwillingness to help a random character we know nothing about. I think having Sabrina stand up for a marginalized classmate could prove very powerful — had that classmate and her bullies actually been bestowed some purpose beyond acting as props for Sabrina’s characterization.
All the people that are actually relevant to this conflict — Susie and the football players — are rendered impotent, stripped of their autonomy as Sabrina berates the headmaster with her righteous allyship and leftist rhetoric.
When we meet Susie, they are little more than a blubbering mess, helpless and in need of saving. We know literally nothing about them, and they are given no other qualities but their queerness and victimhood; they are reduced to their oppression.
The football players are even further dehumanized — we don’t even meet them during this conflict! Their misogyny and homophobia, the creators tell us, are crimes grave enough to make them undeserving of even the laziest attempt to write them into the script beyond a passing mention.
I learned later that we do briefly meet these idiot boys, but I think the point still stands: in this formula, Susie and the football players are reduced to a simple binary of victim and victimizer, and divested of any meaningful personhood. They are not here to grow, learn, be humbled, challenged, or empowered; they exist solely as tools for the woke witch to establish and cement her wokeness. And any politics that seeks to validate the perfection of its most privileged advocates first and foremost is not a good politics.
It’s as though the creators of Sabrina were so self-conscious about their decision to cast yet another white woman in a leading role, they felt the need to overcompensate with their heavy-handed approach in convincing us that we need not worry: Sabrina the white witch is also a woke bitch.
Good Intentions, Bad Results
The result is cringe-worthy: 15 year old kids who act and speak like outraged college students after their first encounter with critical theory; contrived dialogue that sounds like it was lifted from an Everyday Feminism article; and conflicts that are little more than poorly veiled attempts to address broader societal issues and fall painfully short of any sort of realism.
For example, let’s take the main plot conflict introduced in the first episode: that of Sabrina being forced to choose between witch society, and human society. She is understandably upset that the former is forcing her to forsake the latter, and is unsettled by the demand that she submit, both body and soul, to be a part of her father’s world. Yet Sabrina’s argument with her aunt about bodily autonomy rings hollow; if this is such a point of contention, worthy of uprooting and challenging the entire patriarchal structure of witch society, how the hell has it never come up before? Why did Sabrina agree to become a part of witch society, going so far as to say goodbye to her seemingly perfect boyfriend and token black bestie, if she was aware of these conventions?
It just doesn’t make sense. How can she use catch phrases like “topple the white patriarchy,” yet abruptly realize only on the cusp of her 16th birthday that the ritual she has been preparing for — a contract requiring her to worship Satan and relinquish her interpersonal connections and autonomy — is probably not in line with her principles? Rather than allowing Sabrina to organically develop into the kind of person who realizes something is terribly wrong with the world she wanted to be a part of, she is presented as someone who should already know, rendering the entire conflict non-sensical.
It’s absurd. It’s artificial. It’s a veneer with no substance, and a cautionary tale of how forcing politics into narrative doesn’t just result in poor storytelling, but entirely misses the point of meaningful socio-political critique in art and media. Instructing teenagers to spew leftist jargon on TV doesn’t help anyone; it doesn’t draw attention to the colonial history, the racism and misogyny that resulted in the oppression of Indigenous, Caribbean, and African peoples who actually practiced what we call witchcraft. It doesn’t empower Susie, or offer Susie’s abusers the chance to be challenged in their views. It’s even a disservice to our woke witch, who is simply not allowed to be flawed in ways that would actually make sense for her character.
This kind of forceful politicizing serves no other purpose than to act as moral padding for the creators of the show, who so desperately and transparently yearn the approval of a demographic they appear to woefully misunderstand. It’s self-congratulatory, and it’s meaningless.
There are effective ways of weaving political commentary and social critique into art and media. Showing new perspectives and drawing attention to oppression need not be accomplished through verbal badgering; in fact, this likely won’t accomplish anything. The only people who will be impressed by this are those who already preach the sermon and are happy to have their ideologies externally validated.
Having a white girl yell about the patriarchy and demand retribution for its crimes within the first fifteen minutes of the pilot episode is boring and lazy; it’s the biggest sin in the creative world — a bad case of telling, and not showing. Changing minds and changing hearts, however, takes work; it’s messy and uncomfortable, and it often requires earning people’s emotional investment. And if the goal of infusing Sabrina with such blatant socio-political commentary isn’t to change minds and change hearts, then what is it even there for?