I was really excited for Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a dark new series which resurrects beloved ’90s Sabrina and gives off serious Harry Potter meets Stranger Things vibes.
Based on the Archie Horror comic of the same name, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) is a half-mortal, half-witch, torn between having fun with her high school friends and abandoning the mortal world entirely. Her witch aunt, Zelda, wants her to join her coven—and while Sabrina isn’t sure she wants to, she’s up against some supernatural coercion.
The OG comic material behind this reboot was full of ’60s-era feminist imagery, and this new series not only channels those themes, but also brings intersectional feminism to the fore—which, obviously, felt timely and overdue. In the Netflix adaptation, Sabrina’s immediate crew includes Suzie, a white trans and/or non-binary person, Roz, a Black cis woman, and Ambrose, a Black, pansexual warlock. Even Sabrina’s boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle, who is a white straight cis teen, appears to be progressive. He never manspreads or mansplains—in fact, he is so one-note in his inoffensive supportiveness that there isn’t a whiff of white male entitlement to him. (Which feels like an antidote to white male fragility that we’ve been bombarded with lately.)
Though on the surface the show, which starts streaming on October 26, is about a teen witch trying to decide whether to live in the mortal or magic world, the deeper layer in this reboot is about women and trans people in both worlds being forced to endure what the men in charge want. But what starts out as a powerful feminist series lost me the moment that Sabrina turns on her sisterhood to help her boyfriend.
The new Sabrina isn’t a campy teen witch, she’s a fierce feminist warrior
In the first episode, Sabrina’s friend Suzie is violently bullied for her non-binary gender expression by their high school’s hyper-stereotypical football squad. Sabrina reports the violence to the principal and he implies that Sabrina is “suggesting a witch hunt” against boys in the school. This confrontation is cringingly relevant, given the rise of men recently arguing that they are enduring a witch hunt because of #MeToo (looking at you Henry Cavill). In response, Sabrina sets up an in-school peer support group, which she describes as a “club to topple the white patriarchy.” When the principal tries to block the club’s formation, Sabrina uses magic to hip-check him out of her way.
While Sabrina is dealing with relatable high school drama, she’s also faced with some um, unique demands at home. On her sixteenth birthday, the teen witch is being pressured to sign her soul and free will away to The Dark Lord (a.k.a. the devil, who is seemingly the source of the witches’ power). If Sabrina were to sign on with the Dark Lord, she’d have access to more magic, but in exchange, the Dark Lord would forever be able force her to do his bidding. Sabrina’s aunt Zelda notes that when she chose the Dark Lord’s world, it was a different time. “We girls didn’t have choices in those days,” she says, a nod to women historically not having rights, no matter the realm. Sabrina ultimately refuses to sign away her soul, insisting that she wants “freedom and power.”
To be honest, a lot of the show’s depiction of women, trans and non-binary people forging their own power in the midst of constant patriarchy is often painfully on the nose (like when Sabrina describes their high school club as, “Women protecting women. You know, sort of like a coven”). But I was into it. Even when the feminist messaging was over-the-top obvious (like naming the high school club the Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association, or WICCA—thanks writers, we made the connect!), it still felt exciting to see women and trans people claiming their power this way. That is until Harvey Kinkle enters the mix.
The moment that Sabrina gives up her power
As the season progresses, Sabrina finds out that Harvey comes from a family that historically hunted and stole land from witches. (Gasp! Now we’ve got a Romeo and Juliet dynamic—star-crossed lovers from enemy families, what will these kids do?) Sabrina suspects that an act of revenge might be coming from fellow teenage witches Agatha and Dorcas, so she places a protection spell on her boyfriend, which keeps Harvey alive but results in his big brother dying in a mining “accident” instead.
Sabrina can’t stand to see her boyfriend grieving, so she deep-dives into the darkest of dark arts, necromancy, to bring his brother back to life. But here’s where things take a questionable turn. To execute this spell, Sabrina slits Agatha’s throat. Talk about being ride or die.
Harvey is adoring, innocuous and seemingly only ever wants to confess his undying and single-focused love for Sabrina. For that reason, it’s easy to buy into Sabrina stepping up as his noble protector. But that gender role-reversal doesn’t undo the fact that Sabrina enacts mental torment and fatal violence on another woman in order to protect him.
After Agatha’s murder, we learn that Sabrina also plans to bring *her* back to life, which I guess is supposed to make us feel totally chill about the girl-on-girl murder scene. But Sabrina never gave Agatha a head’s up about the resurrection and she never asks for Agatha’s consent to enact this dangerous plan. Instead, we watch a young woman, crying, terrified and being killed by a group of her schoolmates. What happened to WICCA??? Agatha is positioned as a villain so that the idea of “women protecting women” seems to no longer apply. But characterizing Agatha in this way only serves to enforce that she doesn’t deserve rights because she isn’t nice—which is the kind of toxic logic we often see applied to women.
While this reboot steps away from the homogenous whiteness of the ’90s Sabrina and addresses violence against trans people, how Sabrina treats Agatha undermines the underlying feminist bent of the series. In The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, when there’s a big and obviously bad man around, women, trans and non-binary folks support each other, and in the times we’re living in, maybe that’s still something valuable to see modelled. But what happens to that solidarity when there’s a humble, good-looking, nice guy in the mix? Sorry, but there’s nothing bewitching about women killing each other for the benefit of some dude.