How The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina explores feminism through the imagery of witchcraft

*WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS*

Witches are old, untamed, nasty hags with a twisted face so ugly they could scare the life out of you faster than any hex could. Or, at least, that’s how the old stereotype goes. Modern feminism has adopted the identity of “witch” and have re-envisioned the stereotype. The solitary, weird “hag” in the woods has now become a free-spirited, independent woman uninterested in fitting in with social norms. This new interpretation of witches are of “early feminists that fought against the dominant, oppressive phallocracy” (Anczyk & Malita-Król, 2018). Witch trials specifically have been labelled as a form of gendered (and religious) oppression as prosecutions were often aimed at women who challenged the patriarchal standard and led men to feel weak or emasculated (Bever, 2002). In our modern day, this oppression is still practised; one need only remember the amount of witch related abuse Hilary Clinton received during the presidential candidacy, with memes from the right depicting her as the Wicked Witch or even chants from Bernie Sanders supporters calling to “Bern the Witch” (Sollee, 2017). Due to the heavy ties between witchcraft and feminism, many modern fiction depictions of witches include analysis of feminist ideology and Netflix’s new series – The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – is no exception.

It is thought that certain branches of feminism adopted witchcraft as it too is a group largely dominated by women, providing power to fight against the societal norms that keep men in power. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina takes this predetermined symbol and questions the true freedom of femininity and witchcraft. While doing so, the series also explores the inclusiveness of feminism and the trials women are often subjected to in everyday life.

Sabrina is a young half mortal/ half witch, who is fast approaching her sixteenth birthday, which traditionally is the witch’s initiation day where she must sign her name to the Dark Lord’s book and promise her soul to Satan in exchange for her full power. Sabrina has misgivings about the coven and wishes to not leave her mortal life behind, so she refuses to sign her name. This act of defiance triggers a series of events that discredits the coven’s “free and empowering” image and reveals its true problematic nature to the audience.

Despite the coven being largely populated by women, the two leaders with the most power are still male figures, i.e. the high priest and Satan. Both these figures are worshiped by their followers and can exert their power to persuade control over anyone within the coven. The first conflict of the series comes when Sabrina refuses to sign her soul away to the Dark Lord and promise subservience to them. For this act of disobedience, Sabrina is punished, put on trial and her aunts have their full powers revoked. The Dark Lord was praised for allowing his followers more freedom and power than the false God, however that promise is shown to be a lie. Despite the supposed power of women in the coven, they are still limited by male influence. Their power is only allowed if they continue to follow and serve men. In a similar sense, modern feminism is still limited by men. Men can allow a certain degree of freedom for women but only what they’re comfortable with. According to a 2017 Guardian article, only 23% of world leaders are women; for as long as men are predominantly in power, feminist freedom is a lie and can be revoked at the snap of the fingers or the signature on a legislation form.

Sabrina represents the defiant youth that rebels against the “old way”. She refuses to give herself fully to the Dark Lord and wishes to retain some of her freedom by still attending a mortal school and keeping her human social life. Sabrina is eventually granted this cause however her “success” is not forgotten, and the rest of the series is spent pushing her away from her chosen life by wreaking havoc on it, until she is forced to sign her soul away to protect the ones she loves. Sabrina’s loved ones are confused why being “gifted” the power of witchcraft isn’t enough for her. Why must she demand more? The same sentiment is met when calling for more gender equality in our society. Women already have enough power – why must they have any more? In this sense, Sabrina represents a modern wave of feminism, still fighting for better conditions. Wanting to “have it all” by having a nice “normal life” with her boyfriend and school mates but also power and authority over herself.

An important discussion of gender equality comes early in the series with Sabrina’s court case. Sabrina is effectively sued by Satan for breach of contract when she refuses to sign her name in his book. For this “crime” she is put on trial in front of her peers. At one point during the proceedings, Sabrina is told that to access a fair trial and to prove her innocence, she must strip bare in front of the court and her coven while they search for a mark that will prove her witch heritage. This literal stripping can relate to how many women must bare their all in court when reporting crimes like sexual assault or misconduct. These types of trials are known to be gruelling and intrusive, inspecting every private element of a survivor’s life. In the series, Sabrina is told she must either endure this distressing strip search or simply give up and sign her name to the Dark Lord’s book. This is a similar scenario to real life crime reporting where survivors must decide if it’s worth going through the traumatic experience of a trial or simply let the crime go unchallenged. At times, the most chilling thing about this series is how closely the coven’s barbaric traditions mirror our society’s norms.

Contradicting the traditional, stilted and flawed system of the coven in the series is a woman’s support system Sabrina and her friends made in their school. WICCA (Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association) is a group made for women, by women. The group stands for intersectional feminism, fights discrimination against non-binary identities in school and supports a more diverse reading list. This group represents a different division of feminism than the coven. While the coven was built on a male system, still allowing male privilege, WICCA is a “gurl power” type of group and is accessible to all women and non-conforming gender identities. Despite the coven’s promise of power to women, it’s still a largely privileged group. Witches are born, not made, which suggests that access to female power is only available to women who are born into this privilege. In the real world this type of pre-determined feminist privilege exists and is often termed “white feminism”. This type of feminism is restrictive and often only applies to white, middle class women. In The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, this type of pre-determined privilege to power is represented by the birth right of witches, leaving the mortals to fend for themselves. WICCA, on the other hand, represents a type of intersectional feminism that anyone can access – it’s built for shared community support rather than individual power that only those born into can access.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina accurately portrays womanhood as an uphill battle, fighting against the patriarchy and even other women who support the traditional power imbalance. However, in our heroine we still have a great representation of modern femininity, one that fights for her right to power, while also keeping an empathetic heart and loving nature for her friends and family. Though the series closes with hints of a darker nature brewing in Sabrina, having been “defeated” by the bewitching pressure of the Dark Lord, the second series will hopefully see Sabrina continue to rebel against the restrictive coven. The first series sets up a warlock-power-grab storyline that will likely develop next season – will this attempt by men to oppress women in the coven even further be enough to wake up our rebelling feminist heroine from her spell-induced trance? We pray to the false God and the Dark Lord it will.

 

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by Michaela Barton

Michaela is a freelance journalist living in Glasgow who watches far too much Netflix so might as well make a career out of it. Her one true love is procrastination but she’s also a fan of feminist and queer theory, ugly dad shirts, and abducting cats.

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