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How Netflix’s Sabrina updates the witch fantasy of the 1990s

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina smartly confronts the way that witch stories regulate women’s power.

Kiernan Shipka on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Sabrina has to make a choice: power or freedom? But first, a tasty snack!
Courtesy of Netflix
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

When the first Sabrina the Teenage Witch debuted in 1996, it came in the midst of a pop cultural witch Moment. It was the era of The Craft and Buffy, of witchcraft as a metaphor for puberty, of feral teen girl witches either learning to handle their magic as the adults in their lives instructed them to or else spiraling gloriously out of control.

More than two decades later, Netflix’s updated take on the Sabrina comics, the horror-soaked Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, is emerging into a pop cultural witch moment of its own — a moment of witchy pop stars, of casting binding spells on the president, of witchcraft as resistance, of witchcraft as self-care.

If the witch fantasy of the ’90s was all about teen girls coming into a power that they could not fully control, that they had to learn to understand and moderate and use responsibly — and for which they were punished if they didn’t — the witch fantasy of the 2010s is about women grasping onto power with both hands in a world that does not want them to have it. It’s about embracing the image of the transgressive woman, the shrill woman, the scary woman, and turning her against those who abuse their own power.

The new Sabrina does not quite fit into this modern witch fantasy. Instead, it’s in conversation with both newer and older ideas about witchcraft, and doesn’t seem to quite trust either. It is equally suspicious of the ’90s idea that power must be controlled and moderated, and of the 2010s idea that it is possible to unleash the power of the witch fantasy onto the world without losing anything. It sees traps lurking everywhere — and behind every trap is a powerful man, using the witch fantasy to tell women what to do.

In the ’90s, witchcraft was fun, but it still had to be respectable

Melissa Joan Hart in Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Look how wholesome ’90s Sabrina was!

In the ’90s, the witch fantasy had two poles: controlled and uncontrolled. And in 1996’s The Craft, the witches are out of control. The four teen girl witches at the center of the movie use their powers selfishly and for personal gain, even harming others, in ways not countenanced by Manon, the masculine source of their power. (While Manon is officially genderless, the movie consistently refers to him as a he, and the witches sometimes mockingly call him “Daddy.”)

That the witches are out of control is the chief appeal of The Craft. The joy of the movie lies in wickedly smirking Nancy drawling, “We are the weirdos, mister” to a befuddled bus driver; in watching the four girls stalk down their school hallway in matching black outfits; in watching them terrorize the date rapist jocks who they target. But the movie is also structured with the understanding that eventually, the witches will have to submit to someone’s control. Eventually, they will have to be punished for using their powers in ways that Manon doesn’t approve of — that is, for using their power to disobey men.

So the film ends with the four witches turning against one another, until Sarah — the only witch to follow Manon’s instructions for using her powers — defeats the others. And Nancy, the most rebellious and unruly and power-hungry of all the witches, is consigned to an insane asylum in a straightjacket, because she is an uncontrolled woman and must be restrained. Only obedient good girl Sarah can be trusted with her power.

Sabrina the Teenage Witch, in contrast, is all about using magic responsibly. Sabrina’s magic, like the magic of the girls of The Craft, is subject to certain rules and regulations, and her regulations, too, come mostly from men. (Sabrina’s magic doesn’t have a single source like Manon, but it’s regulated by the officials of the Other Realm where witches live, and those officials are nearly always men. While Sabrina’s day-to-day guardians are her aunts, they, too, must abide by the laws of the Other Realm.)

Sabrina occasionally indulges in the mildest of rebellions — using magic to purchase a fake ID so that she can get into a cool club (but not drink, of course), secretly making a magical clone of herself so that she can attend two parties at once — but every time she transgresses, she is duly punished.

The magic fake ID renders her magic fake, too, leaving her unable to fight off the magical pirates who invade her house (honestly, this show was a trip); the magic clone agrees to go streaking through a teen house party because she’s too simple-minded to say no. And once Sabrina makes it through her punishment, she has learned a valuable lesson about how to use magic as responsibly as possible.

The arc of the ‘90s Sabrina is one of Sabrina learning how to wield her power while continuing to follow the rules, of learning to be a teen witch and a squeaky-clean and positive role model. Witches like The Craft’s Nancy might be appealingly wild, but they always got punished in the end. Sabrina was a well-behaved witch, like The Craft’s Sarah, and she was rewarded for it. She got to keep her power.

That’s the moral system of the witch fantasy of the ’90s, where witchcraft stands for the power girls come into at puberty. It is their duty to use that power “responsibly,” which means “as the men in their lives dictate.” When witches behave, they’re allowed to keep their power. When they rebel, it’s thrilling — but in the end, a rebellious witch must still be brought in line by the men around her. She doesn’t get to have both power and freedom.

The witch fantasy of the 2010s is a fantasy of untrammeled power

Counter Protests To The Cancelled Alt Right Rallies Take Part Across Country In Solidarity With Charlottesville
Counterprotesters in witch costumes hold up signs after a march to the “Free Speech Rally” at Boston Common on August 19, 2017, in Boston, Massachusetts.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Until this year, the witch fantasy of the 2010s has existed primarily as a religious practice, a political practice, and an aesthetic. While there has been the occasional witch movie in this decade (like 2016’s The Love Witch, for example), it wasn’t until this fall that the witch fantasy made its way into major long-form pop cultural narratives, with both the new Sabrina and The CW’s revival of Charmed.

That means that until now, the witch fantasy of the 2010s hasn’t had to reckon with the traditional story structure that molded the witch fantasy of the ‘90s into its most culturally influential forms, where a witch’s power is never truly unbridled. Rather, it’s been allowed to exist mostly as a power fantasy, one without boundaries. In the new witch fantasy, the witch gets to have both freedom and power, because she uses her power to become free.

And she uses her power to protect herself. When America elects a president who’s been caught on tape bragging about sexually harassing women, the witch of the 2010s puts a binding spell on him. When that president appoints a Supreme Court justice who is accused of sexual assault by multiple women, the witch of the 2010s casts a spell of gratitude for his accuser. When a filmmaker accused of sexually assaulting children describes the #MeToo movement as a “witch hunt,” the witch of the 2010s responds, “Yes, this is a witch hunt. I’m a witch and I’m hunting you.

As witches begin to turn up in movies and TV shows in 2018, more and more often, they are angels who avenge the misuse of male power. In the AMC series Dietland, members of the feminist vigilante collective Jennifer wear witch masks when they target predatory men. In the revived Charmed, the first demon that the witches must fight is a man who was accused of sexual harassment and went unpunished; the first line of the pilot is, “This is not a witch hunt. It’s a reckoning.”

The witch of the 2010s doesn’t stand for a man putting restrictions on her power the way the witch of the ’90s had to. She takes her power for herself, and grabs it with both hands.

Netflix’s Sabrina puts the ’90s and the 2010s into conversation with one another

Tati Gabrielle, Kiernan Shipka, Abigail Cowen, and Adeline Rudolph on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Prudence (left) gives Sabrina (center) some hard truths.
Courtesy of Netflix

But in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Sabrina doesn’t have the option of taking her power for herself. She wants that option, and she spends most of the show’s first season searching for a way to get it. But like the witches of the ’90s, Sabrina can’t just take her own power. It’s granted to her by a male source, and he has put restrictions of it.

The key distinction between The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and the witch stories of the ’90s, however, is that The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina presents those restrictions as sinister and unfair.

In this case, the male source is Satan. And in order to gain access to her full powers as a witch, Sabrina must sign her name in the Book of the Beast, pledging herself in body and soul. It’s a move about which Sabrina has some doubts, and she expresses them in decidedly feminist terms.

“Now that you mention it, I do have reservations about saving myself for the Dark Lord,” Sabrina remarks in the first episode, upon being reminded that she has to be a virgin when she signs her name in the Book of the Beast. “Why does he get to decide what I do or don’t do with my body?”

Throughout the show’s first season, various adults try to convince Sabrina that when she pledges herself to Satan, she won’t be sacrificing freedom in exchange for power. She’ll really be coming into a new kind of freedom, one that is stronger and better than the kind she had before.

“Free choice, child. That’s the bedrock on which our church is built,” one witch tells her. He assures her that if she wants to leave her life as a witch behind and rejoin the mortal world after she signs her name in the Book of the Beast, she’ll be free to do so. (Notably, he is both a male witch and has been granted enormous institutional power as the High Priest of the Church of Night. There are comparatively few male witches on this show, but all of the High Priests we get to see are men.)

“I know you’re scared, Sabrina, because all women are taught to fear power,” another witch tells her in the season finale. “Own your power. Don’t accept it from the Dark Lord. Take it. Wield it.”

But one by one, all of those adults prove themselves to be liars. Sabrina’s coven won’t let her leave her life as a witch behind if she decides to forgo her powers and become a mortal. Satan isn’t just going to let her do whatever she wants with the power he gives her, no questions asked.

The only person Sabrina can count on to tell her the truth is her fellow teen witch, Prudence, who gives it to her straight.

When Sabrina tells Prudence that she wants both freedom and power, Prudence laughs in her face. “He’ll never give you that,” she says. “The Dark Lord. The thought of you, of any of us, having both terrifies him.”

“Why is that?” Sabrina demands.

“He’s a man, isn’t he?” says Prudence.

This is The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina putting the moral structure of the ’90s witch fantasy in conversation with the moral structure of the 2010s witch fantasy. The ’90s witch fantasy requires a male force to regulate the power that it otherwise grants to women; it requires that when women are given power, they be pushed into following certain norms. But the 2010s witch fantasy refuses to accept any such limitations. It is a pure power fantasy, and the idea is that with power will come freedom.

Accordingly, while The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina revels in the idea of the power that becoming a witch will grant Sabrina, it does so in a cautious, ’90s-inspired mode. Like The Craft, it pours all of its emotional energies into the thrill of imagining Sabrina spiraling gloriously out of control, growing wild on magic. And like The Craft, it builds its story around the idea that there will eventually be consequences for that spiral; that if Sabrina goes full witch, terrible things will eventually happen to her.

But unlike the witch stories of the ’90s, this new Sabrina doesn’t inherently trust the idea that its heroine’s powers should be regulated and restricted. It aspires to the 2010s witch fantasy, to the idea of Sabrina using her power without fear or limitation.

What Sabrina herself wants, essentially, is to bridge the gap between the two eras of witch stories, to leave behind the ‘90s model of witchcraft and head into the 2010s, to use her power to unlock her freedom. But at every step of the way, men are working to hold her back, to keep her stuck in the power-versus-freedom binary — and Satan is the most persistent and most undermining man of them all.

What The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina ultimately suggests, then, is that perhaps the witch fantasy of today is too potent, too transgressive, too unsettling, for pop culture to embrace it wholeheartedly. We don’t yet have a story structure that allows witches to be powerful for long stretches of time without men holding them back. And what makes the new Sabrina so exciting is that it seems to be trying to build that story structure itself, in real time, to find a way to let Sabrina have her power and her freedom.

It might fail. But if it does, it will be a glorious and worthwhile failure — the type that comes with trying to pioneer a new kind of story.

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