This post discusses some plot points from “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.”
It doesn’t take signing a contract with the devil for most of us to confront the elemental questions of the moment. But early in “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” premiering Oct. 26 on Netflix, 15-year-old half-witch Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) finds herself grappling with an important choice. “I want both. I want freedom and power,” Sabrina tells Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), a fellow teen witch, wondering why the Dark Lord wants to end her friendships with mortals and transfer her to a private magical high school.
The specifics of Sabrina’s dilemma are fantastical — and a departure both from the bubbly and bubble-haired comics character who made her debut in 1962 and the sunny 1996 sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart. For all its riffing on a long-running franchise and its gloss of 1960s style, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” couldn’t be timelier with its questions about power and how women might use it if they were free to act.
The show’s first season explores how the teen witch tries to strike a balance between gaining greater access to her abilities and winning increased latitude to use them as she sees fit. It’s easy to read the series as a resistance parable, full of non-binary actors and intersectional feminist high school clubs. But the series is more gimlet-eyed than that, full of observations about the compromises Sabrina’s aunts, Zelda and Hilda (Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis), have made over the years, and the occasions when Sabrina’s spellcasting leads her into morally dubious territory. If “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” merely cheered Sabrina’s independent streak, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as it is.
Instead, the show captures an important real-world dynamic: Moments like this one, in which previously marginalized people rise to power, are cause for celebration — and for wrestling with tough conundrums.
It may be true that feminism has something on offer for everyone: Men have plenty to gain from the revision of old gender roles that forced them to shut down their emotions, put pressure on them to be sole breadwinners and pushed them to be hyper-physical, or even violent. But it’s also the case that when women take on leadership positions in business and government, some individual men will feel as if they’ve lost out.
Women have overtaken men as the majority of college students, data that observers have used warn — or herald — the end of men. The wave of women running for Congress this year may give them record representation and bring the number of men in the legislative branch to a new low. And as a New York Times analysis found this week, nearly half of the powerful men who were ousted from their jobs after sexual misconduct allegations prompted by the #MeToo movement were replaced by women. These redistributions of power, especially in government and business, are long overdue. Still, they’re a reminder that even in a revolution as gentle as this one, some people have to lose out.
And as women take power, it’s inevitable that hoary myths about the differences between the sexes won’t stand up to the experience.
“When will the world learn? Women should be in charge of everything,” Ms. Wardwell (Michelle Gomez), Sabrina’s demon-possessed teacher purrs in her direction, encouraging her young mark to embrace the idea that women are wiser and fairer than the men who govern their lives. That conviction leads Sabrina and her friends Rosalind (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson) to get politically active and to push back against bad decisions by school administrators. But it also encourages Sabrina to torment her principal (Bronson Pinchot) and to terrorize and blackmail the football players who have been harassing and bullying Susie.
“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is hardly the only cautionary tale in this vein. Naomi Alderman’s novel “The Power,” released last October, chronicles the slide into dystopia after girls begin to develop the ability to deliver sharp electric shocks to men. Because women are human rather than angels, some of them become powerful crime lords, others dictators.
It doesn’t take the sudden acquisition of superpowers for women to tangle with these dilemmas. Women such as chef April Bloomfield and non-binary people such as “Transparent” showrunner Jill Soloway have had to grapple with sexual harassment allegations leveled against their professional partners and questions about the environments they created in the workplaces they ran. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) provided one of the decisive votes in favor of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, despite the sexual assault allegations against him.
Power, be it a seat in Congress, witchy abilities inherited from one’s parents or electrified palms, knows no gender. And it’s impossible to use gender to predict the ways in which people will use their abilities and their authority. There’s no question that it’s fun to watch Sabrina work her magic. But her sense of righteousness is a spell that she’s casting on herself, with potentially dangerous consequences.