TV Reviews

Sabrina Fights the (White, Straight) Patriarchy in Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”

While a dazzling reimagining of its source material, the show isn't as "woke" as it thinks it is.

Warning: this article contains spoilers for Part One of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Stories that explore the occult are rife with opportunities to explore identities typically "othered" by white patriarchal society, including women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals. Witches and warlocks can inhabit our world as seen through the eyes of outsiders, and thus provide the perfect opportunity for storytellers to take a hard look at what (or who) we give priority, meaning, and power.

It's clear from the first episode of Netflix's The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina that this retelling of Sabrina Spellman's, the half-human, half-witch orphan who must choose between the two worlds, story is not a reboot of the ABC '90s sitcom. In the first ten minutes, a lonely, socially-awkward schoolteacher is murdered and possessed by a demon-witch, which gives the audience a small indication of the show's shift toward the comics' darker inclinations. The episode ends with a vision of hanging witch corpses and the horrifying goat-man Baphomet, AKA the Dark Lord, rising from the pits of hell. Oh, and there are no talking cats (Praise Satan).

Creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Chilling Adventures takes a bold approach to the teenage witch's choice between life as a mortal and life as a spell-casting sorceress, framing her decision to inhabit both worlds as a middle finger to the patriarchal Satan. As Sabrina approaches her 16th birthday and prepares for her long-awaited dark baptism, a witch's rite of passage where she signs her name in the "book of the beast," she is told that the ceremony is largely symbolic. However, when she realizes that one must wed Satan and obey his every whim to join the coven, Sabrina chooses to flee and keep her freedom instead. Throughout Part One's ten episodes she casually plots to dethrone the Dark Lord—an intriguing idea despite its inherent lunacy.

Netflix

Sabrina's human squad has also been reimagined. In the age of #MeToo, they are in charge, mad, and not willing to put up with their bully white guy principal any longer. Watch out, because they are "woke" teenagers adept at analyzing the influences of "civil rights" and the "collapse of the nuclear family" on zombie D-movie plotlines. Together with her black best friend Roz and gender-non-conforming Susie, Sabrina founds the first-ever WICCA club at Baxter High, which stands for the Women's Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association. This is where the eye rolls begin.

Sabrina is a White Feminist Ally™ and while the show relishes its "intersectional" tag, it's mostly just paying lip service. This is Sabrina's story, and any character who isn't straight or white is sidelined for her arc, which again and again reinforces the myth that only white people are powerful enough to solve the world's problems. For a show that spins itself as a feminist manifesto, it misses many opportunities to highlight race and LGBTQ+ issues for its large and diverse cast.

There are a number of warlocks and witches of color in the series, including Ambrose Spellman, Sabrina's pansexual English cousin, and Prudence Night, the leader of the antagonist witch trio the Weird Sisters. Neither character is used to their fullest capabilities.

Ambrose is maddeningly on house arrest for most of the story and is thus relegated to Sabrina's helpful, rule-breaking warlock sidekick. His pansexuality is referenced by his romantic and sexual interests with both men and women, which is refreshing to see, but also could be explored more deeply since pansexuality is likely an identity your average viewer is still confused about. The character feels like he's being tokenized, thrown in to pander to its socially liberal viewership.

Netflix

Prudence on the other hand is a hell-raising, devoted witch who has it out for half-blood Sabrina. Of course, while audience members are invited to grow attached to Prudence throughout the series, her character is clearly the evil counterpart to Sabrina the "good witch." This dynamic is tired in 2018, as it paints yet another woman of color as the "angry black woman," and another white person as her moral superior. Too often the subtle choices we make in casting characters for television or film can reinforce inherent racial prejudices. Prudence is even surprisingly lynched by hanging (but does not die) in a tone-deaf choice by the show's creators in the fourth episode.

In a recent io9 piece, Beth Elderkin and Charles Pulliam-Moore critiqued the scene perfectly: "This should not have to be explained, but it is in extremely bad taste to depict black people being hanged on television without an extraordinary amount of context and care that make it clear that (a) the creators of the television show understand the significance of that imagery, and (b) said hanging serves a narrative point."

Like most cultural representations of witches, Chilling Adventures focuses on white women both as heroes (Sabrina) and also as the victims of social prejudice, as with the case of the Thirteen, a group of white witches who were hung and seek revenge in the show's final episodes. This ignores the victimhood of slaves and other people of color who had non-Christian religions that were demonized as witchcraft in real life. For example, Tituba, an enslaved woman of color, was accused of teaching and using curses on the girls on trial in historical Salem, and some historians think the racism against her was a great source of the mass hysteria that ensued.

Netflix

The show also doesn't seem to know what to do with its much-touted non-binary character Susie. While the inclusion of the character seems to be well-meant, especially since they are played by non-binary actor Lachlan Watson, they are written to be a sad, misunderstood teenager who is constantly harassed by bigoted boys at school for not being feminine (Susie's pronouns are never revealed, but Watson prefers they/them pronouns). The word "non-binary" is never even spoken in the show, but Susie's identity struggle is obvious, especially with their nightly visitations from a cross-dressing ancestor whose ghost spills the tea on the Spellman family's secret witchcraft. Audience members feel a bit like they're in the '50s with the handling of gender identity on the show. And again, Sabrina is cast as the savior, ganging up with the Weird Sisters to taunt Susie's bullies with a weirdly homophobic gag, tricking them into thinking they're making out with the witches when they're really kissing each other (the horror!).

At the end of the day, Netflix's Sabrina is a teenage melodrama, so perhaps some of these critiques are unfair. It has its positive aspects, like its, at times, terrifying supernatural flare, a cast that gives mostly rock-solid performances, and an interesting take on Sabrina vs. the patriarchy/Satan.

However, the show is too obviously catering to millennials and Generation Z-ers in the age of #MeToo and hyper social justice. It screams its feminist intersectional allyship from the mountaintops, but clearly doesn't know what it's talking about. Rather than investing in meaningful plot lines that heighten the outsider's perspective of characters that are LGBTQ+ and people of color, it treats them as puppets to indulge its youthful base and make them feel "woke."

In reality, viewers are being fed the same old inequitable narratives that keep those at the top and bottom in their "rightful" place. If you're going to take the time to create a show with as much diverse, fantastical potential as this one, then you need to act on that promise.

Take note, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Do more with season two.

Rating: ⚡⚡


Joshua Smalley is a New York-based writer, editor, and playwright. Find Josh at his website and on Twitter: @smalleywrites.


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Culture Feature

Drew Brees Exemplifies How NOT to Be a White Ally

The quarterback said "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country." And then he tried to apologize. And only made it worse.

Drew Brees, a man who makes literally millions of dollars for throwing a ball, has come under fire for insensitive comments he made about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.

"I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees said in the interview with Yahoo Finance. He clarified that this was in part because he envisioned his grandfathers, who fought in World War II, during the National Anthem. He continued, saying, "And is everything right with our country right now? No. It's not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together. We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution."

This isn't the first time Brees made it clear that he cares more for the idea of a make-believe unified America than he does for actual human lives. In 2016, he criticized Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem, saying it was "disrespectful to the American flag" and "an oxymoron" because the flag gave critics the right to speak out in the first place.


Colin Kaepernick Kneeling Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest of racist police brutality


Of course, the flag's alleged ideals have been proven to only be applicable to wealthy, white men—men like Brees. Sure, his grandfathers did a noble thing when they fought under the US flag during WWII, and no one, including Kaepernick, has ever said that sacrifice isn't worth respecting. Thanks to the sacrifices of many people (including the enslaved Black backs upon which this country was built, including the scores of routinely abused Black soldiers who fought for American lives), America has offered opportunity and peace for many, many people. In particular, Ole' Glory has been very kind to men like Brees: rich, white men who still control the majority of the power and the wealth in the United States.

But what about the rest of us, Drew? What about George Floyd whose neck was crushed by a police officer who kneeled on him so casually that he didn't even take his hand out of his pocket? What about Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot for the crime of being Black and going for a jog? What about Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was murdered by police in her home in the middle of the night for a crime that had nothing to do with her? What about Tony McDade, Drew–have you heard his name? Have you heard about the 38-year-old Black trans man who was gunned down in Florida last week? Do you understand why these people's family's may harbor just a bit of disrespect for your precious flag?

Is it possible for you to realize, Drew, that your wish for "unity" is not a wish for progress, but a wish to maintain the status quo? When you call for unity under the American flag, you're talking about your flag, the flag that represents a long, sordid history of racial oppression and violence. There is no unity where there is no justice. When you say that "we are all in this together," what you're saying is that we all have roles to play in the version of society that has served you so well. For your part, you'll be a rich, white man, and for Black people's part, they'll continue to be victims of state-sanctioned murders– but hopefully more quietly, hopefully in a manner that doesn't make you uncomfortable?

When you say, "We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution," what you mean to say is that POC and their allies are at fault. Sure, you probably agree that Derek Chauvin took it a bit too far, and you probably feel a little self-conscious that he's brought all this "Black rights" stuff up again. But when you say "all," you place blame on the victims who are dying under a broken system. And what, exactly, do you expect POC to do differently, Drew? Ahmaud Arbery was just out jogging, and still he died. George Floyd was just trying to pay a cashier, and still he died. POC and their allies try to peacefully protest by marching in the streets or taking a knee at a football game, and still white people condemn and criticize. Still the police shoot.

After much criticism, Brees did attempt an apology on Instagram, where he posted a hilariously corny stock photo of a Black and white hand clasped together. His caption, though possibly well-intentioned, made it even clearer that his understanding of the movement for Black lives is thoroughly lacking.


Highlights of the "apology" include his immediate attempt to exonerate himself from culpability, claiming that his words were misconstrued, saying of his previous statement: "Those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This could not be further from the truth, and is not an accurate reflection of my heart or my character." Unfortunately, Drew, white people like you are the "enemy," as you put it, because by default you are at the very least part of the problem. No one is accusing you of being an overt racist, Drew; no one thinks you actively and consciously detest Black people. But your lack of empathy, your apathy, and your unwillingness to unlearn your own biases are precisely what has persisted in the hearts and minds of well-meaning white Americans for centuries.

Next, you say, "I recognize that I am part of the solution and can be a leader for the Black community in this movement." No, Drew. Just no. Black people don't need white people's savior complexes to interfere in their organizing; what they need is for us to shut up and listen. What they need is for us to get our knees off of their necks.

Finally, you say, "I have ALWAYS been an ally, never an enemy." This, Drew, is suspiciously similar to saying, "But I'm one of the good whites!" The fact of the matter is that feeling the need to prove your allyship is not about helping a movement; it's about feeding your own ego. Not only that, but your emphasis on "ALWAYS" does a pretty good job of making it clear that you don't think you have a racist bone in your body and that you have taken great offense at any accusations to the contrary. I have some news for you, Drew: Every white person is racist. Sure, the levels vary, and while you may not be actively and consciously discriminating against POC, you have been brought up in a racist system, and your implicit biases are as strong as any other white person's. Your job now is to unlearn those biases and confront those subtle prejudices in yourself and in other white people. Maybe the first step in doing so is just shutting your f*cking mouth about kneeling at football games. Maybe you should even consider taking a knee yourself.

For other non-BIPOC trying to be better allies, check out one of these 68+ anti-racism resources.

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#WomanCrushWednesday: Raye Zaragoza

Check out a socially conscious singer/songwriter with a deep passion for speaking her mind through music

"As women, we get to inspire each other to rise up in the industry."

Women are killing it in the music industry, and the world of song lovers couldn't be happier! In our column, #WomenCrushWednesday, we'll feature an awesome lady whose tunes are blowing up our playlists and ask them about their musical journey.

This week we're shining the spotlight on singer/songwriter Raye Zaragoza, who is firing up the world of music with her politically-charged ballads. This multi-cultural singer has previously taken on the topic of Standing Rock Sioux and the Dakota Access Pipeline and with her latest single is focusing in on the destruction of the Trump administration. She talks to us about how she got her start in song writing, how her background has influenced her work, and what she's most excited about coming up next.

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