The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the Feminism of Nightmares

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a “feminist” dystopia. On the surface, it invokes a delicious power fantasy — the sort of vengeful female world that misogynists fear — but in reality its power is another trap, luring rebellious girls into even greater restriction and oppression.

Back to the 1950s

Greendale is a highly traditional and patriarchal society, and that’s reflected in the show’s 1950s aesthetic. The show’s title cards make clear that this is happening in modern day, but everything from the music to the cars creates the sense that this is the era of the comics, and not the era of today. People watch old TVs and use landline phones, and with a couple of rare exceptions, computer technology is nowhere to be seen. It invokes the old Archie comics feel, but it also visually represents the attitudes that Sabrina and her friends face in Greendale, both in school and beyond. From Harvey’s frightening father, who insists he must “man up” and stop doing sissy drawings so he can work in the mines, to the principal who excuses any kind of harassment with “boys will be boys,” Greendale teens face oppressively old-fashioned attitudes that many people would like to pretend have been left in the past, but are still pervasive today. It’s a society that insists Susie, not her bullies, should be the one to change or leave, and where books aren’t banned, exactly, just subtly taken away.

Feminist Witches, Bathing in Blood

It’s in direct contrast to this that we first see witching society. To Sabrina, this is world defined by her two aunts, a world with bullies, yes, but female bullies. Women can be free in this world. Women can have power. When she helps start a new feminist club in her school, she even names it WICCA — magic and witchcraft is a world of independence and female strength. And its the allure of both this power and this freedom that convinces Sabrina to agree to attend her Dark Baptism and sign her name in the Book of the Beast in the show’s early episodes. She’s afraid that she’s going to be restricting herself by choosing either the mortal or the magic world, and the High Priest assures her that the Dark Lord is all about freedom. By signing the book, she’ll get the power to fight for herself and her friends, and if she doesn’t like it? Well, she can always choose to leave.

To a certain anti-feminist viewer, Sabrina’s magical world must seem like a female-run dystopia. This is the “feminism” that people fear — a girl setting a horrifying horde of spiders on an authority figure, girls using mind tricks on boys in the mines — a world where “feminism” means rebellion and revenge. The witches will bathe in the blood of their so-called male oppressors, and feminist viewers will revel in that fantasy of power.

Servants of the Dark Lord

Yet the witching world isn’t free from the show’s 1950s aesthetic, and even as the High Priest speaks of freedom, all the signs of its oppression are there. Sabrina wants to be part of witching society, just as she wants to be part of mortal society, so she allows the High Priest’s comforting words to soothe her misgivings, but she has already seen the beings of misogyny that run through that world, even more explicitly than in the mortal world. Girls must remain pure for their Dark Baptism with Satan. Authority arrives in the form of the High Priest.

Even after Sabrina learns that signing her name means becoming a tool for Satan’s will, the oppression of witching society still has a friendly, supportive face. Father Blackwood only wants to help, as did Sabrina’s own father when he signed her name all those years ago. It’s easy to accept that these characters are evil Satan worshippers, despite their kind faces, but their misogyny is subtler, perhaps because it’s more familiar. When the church sues Sabrina for breach of promise, Father Blackwood uses the traditional conception of marriage against her — and, notably, focuses on a precedent designed to protect women. When the church wishes to punish Hilda and Zelda, it does so by taking away their powers — but the most noticeable result is that they age.

And still I wonder if this is what some people imagine when they think of feminism. Not a world where women have dominance, but where women fight (unreasonably) against the status quo of their inferiority. Their actions cannot upset the true order of things, but they can appeal to Satan for the the power to hurt individual men, and that is terrifying.

Getting Sexy for Satan

Which leads to the show’s clear connection between female sexuality, evil, and power. Seduction is a major element of female “power.” It’s how the Weird Sisters help Sabrina get revenge on the bullies. It’s how Madam Satan catches sacrifices and eventually kills the principal. Based on the ending, embracing Satan is embracing sexiness.

But again, it comes back to this idea of dangerous or frightening feminism, and the shallowness of that power. We see a societally recognisable image of threatening female power, of sexiness and also threatening unnatural ness. When Sabrina signs her name in the Book of the Beast, she adopts the Weird Sisters’ style of very dark lipstick. She dyes her hair platinum blonde. She becomes a mix of dangerous and alluring, the kind of style that “Nice Guys” say they hate on social media — too much makeup, too unnatural looking. She’s sexy and she knows it.

And, like the Weird Sisters, she’s dressed very modestly, in that old fashioned dress with the Peter Pan collars and lace sleeves. Their makeup screams rebellion, but their clothes are almost child-like, Victorian.

And this makes sense, because this sexy transformation is not a sign of power, but of submission. It’s an illusion of power, not power itself. All the Weird Sisters dress the same, and when Sabrina signs the book, she joins them in this uniform of evil. She has the power to channel Hellfire and stop the Thirteen, but she’s also lost herself. She’s part of a violent, cruel society that has a cult-like obsession with obedience, where the witches have a “rightful place” as servants to the warlocks.

This might be clearest when it comes to choosing the Queen of the Feast — the witch who gets the honor of being killed and eaten to commemorate another witch’s sacrifice long ago. The Queen gets whatever she wants for the few days before her death. She is considered blessed, and many witches generally want to be chosen by Satan to dwell alongside him. When Prudence sits on the throne at the ceremony, she looks powerful — but she is about to be literally slaughtered and eaten. Father Blackwood talks about what a blessing it is, and how he wishes he could be sacrificed, but alas only witches are allowed. Men become High Priests and set the rules, and women become Queens of the Feast and get slaughtered. It’s presented as power, but it’s nothing of the sort.

Hideous Vengeance

But one group of witches are noticeable not sexy. The Thirteen, the women who were hung by the town of Greendale hundreds of years ago, are the sort of witches horror movies are made from. They’re ancient, their faces contorted, and they hunger for vengeance, seemingly indiscriminately. But these are the witches that were abandoned by the order. The same patriarchal coven that works to entrap Sabrina in modern-day Greendale left them to suffer and die in order to protect its own interests. And notably, again, the thirteen are all women. The men are safe, and the women die to keep them safe. This is the true face of both the evil of the coven and the place of women in it. Because even these abandoned witches do not act in their own right. They do not harm anyone. They only open the doors for the Red Angel of Death to enter. They’re presented as having terrifying power, but in reality, they can do nothing alone.

There’s so much more to say about Sabrina — about her character arc, about her aunts — but that, I think, is what stands out the most. It’s a show that is very up-front and “fuck yeah!” with its feminism. Witches fighting the patriarchy! But subtler threads run underneath it, questioning what, exactly, we expect female power to look like — and how these trappings are not necessarily power at all, but another form of repression.

What do you think?