“We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn,” declared protest signs at marches over the last two years. That’s essentially the premise of Netflix’s THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA. Adapted from the comic by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the series is a far cry from past versions of the teenage witch. This dark Sabrina has deeper roots in the realm of witchcraft and all of its sociopolitical implications.

Witches have been a feminist symbol for almost as long as they have been persecuted. (Or should I say an excuse to persecute any woman deemed threatening to the white supremacist patriarchy?) The uncontrollable, feminine power of witches is an enticing image for feminist creatives. The once-derogatory “witch” is having a moment in pop culture as an ambitious and assured woman unafraid of her own power.

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Protesters march in New York City in January 2017. Courtesy of The Cut.

But most versions of witches ignore their origin story. In Western culture, witchcraft is historically seen as derived from consorting with the devil and used to serve his purposes. It’s not hard to imagine why the creators of shows like BEWITCHED or the ‘90s version of SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH abandoned that premise. THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA very much leans into it. And so it raises a question not often asked on TV: Can you be a feminist and worship the devil? Is THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA’s version of female empowerment truly feminist if it’s in service of a darker power?

THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA Heat Things Up

Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka), whether of the ‘60s, ‘90s, or 2018, is a classic case of a girl caught between two worlds. Her warlock father married a mortal woman — very much not allowed by witch law — and upon their death, infant Sabrina grew up with her aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto) as both mortal and witch. On her 16th birthday, she must make a choice: leave her mortal friends and boyfriend behind to become a powerful witch, or abandon her powers and keep her happy normal life.

THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA doesn’t necessarily flip this script, but it throws some new material into the mix. Sabrina’s sweet sixteen comes with a dark baptism — her initiation into the Church of Night, the coven’s Satanist governing body. More than just the sacrament known to most Western religions, her baptism includes signing her name in the Book of the Beast and pledging her body, mind, and spirit to the Dark Lord in exchange for a longer life and stronger powers.

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A classic case of the devil on one shoulder and… well, the devil on the other shoulder, too. Courtesy of Netflix.

But, like the Sabrina’s of yore, this Sabrina is still not about to make that choice. Despite the efforts of her aunts and Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle), the high priest of the Church of Night, Sabrina doesn’t believe that giving up her free will is worth the power she’d gain, nor that giving up her power is the path to personal fulfillment. Like so many women before her, Sabrina insists that she can have it all.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA unabashedly draws inspiration from horror and fantasy classics, both on the big screen and small. Some appear just as Easter eggs, like references to CARRIE and SUSPIRIA, while others are infused with its DNA. Two classic works stand out as major inspirations for SABRINA’s brand of empowerment: BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and ROSEMARY’S BABY.

Especially in the episode “Dreams in a Witch House,” BUFFY is the most direct inspiration for SABRINA’s overall tone. The epitome of ‘90s girl power, Buffy and Sabrina share the “Chosen One” role. Their power is preordained and they have no say in the matter. And like the forced creation of the First Slayer at the hands of men in the BUFFY-verse, Sabrina’s destiny seems sealed by the betrayal of a man — her father — turning her into a tool for the Dark Lord against her will. As with Buffy Summers, Sabrina Spellman will have to decide whether she can trust an institution that grants her power to also give her moral guidance.

the chilling adventures of sabrina
THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA vs. ROSEMARY’S BABY — coincidence? Courtesy of Netflix and Paramount Pictures, respectively.

Devil in a Red Dress

In one of her first forays into darkness, Sabrina dons an ensemble similar to Mia Farrow’s in ROSEMARY’S BABY. Problematic of a film though, (a rapist making a movie about rape gets a no from me, sorry), the parallels between Sabrina and Rosemary are more than sartorial. Rosemary is gaslighted and exploited, sold by her husband to Satanists to unwillingly give birth to the devil’s child.

Sabrina herself is betrayed by several people in her life. Her father signs her name in the Book of the Beast when she is born, Ms. Wardwell lies to her and builds her trust in order to manipulate her into the Church, Father Blackwell misleads her about the true meaning of signing the Book and even her aunts have questionable ideas about what is in Sabrina’s best interest. Though we don’t know what the Church of Night truly has in store for Sabrina, it has time and time again been more concerned with what use it can extract from her. It’s made very clear that, as part of the coven, her soul and body belong to the Dark Lord.

Take Us to Church

Like Buffy and Rosemary and many others, Sabrina’s conflict is her own desires versus the intentions of people around her. Can she have both free will and power? Can she be an individual and part of the institution? Sabrina refuses to sign the Book because she isn’t willing to blindly serve the Dark Lord in exchange for power. But by the end of the series, she submits to the Church of Night.

The Church of Night is a thinly-veiled stand-in for the Christian church. A major difference, though, is that the Church of Night is seemingly reverent to women. Witches seem more important to the power of the coven than warlocks, and their persecution by followers of the “false God” has sanctified them. All the while, the Church is helmed by men. The Dark Lord is a man, and his earthly representative is a high priest obsessed with having a male heir, so much that Zelda fears he would’ve murdered his newborn daughter.

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Not exactly a position of power Sabrina is in. Courtesy of Netflix.

While witches represent the untamable power of women, it’s not just the Puritans who sought to tame them. They might not be burning them at the stake, but the Church of Night contains the power of witchcraft just as effectively as witch hunters. The men of the Church created an institution in which they wield power over women, literally having them sign over their bodies and souls to Satan himself, and giving warlocks the gavel in enforcing His rules. Witches like Sabrina can be powerful as long as they are in service of these men. Even Madam Satan (Michelle Gomez), Lilith herself banished from Eden for refusing to be subservient to Adam, is now serving the Dark Lord and manipulating another woman for him.

A Deal with the Devil

Sabrina seems to recognize this dissonance and it is the root of much of her disillusionment with the Church. But by series’ end, Sabrina is all-in with the Church of Night, signing her name in the Book of the Beast, and enrolled full-time in the Academy of Unseen Arts. Her hair has gone platinum and her lipstick is a deep red — she must be on the dark side now. Watching her growth through the first nine episodes of THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA, we still believe that Sabrina believes in her autonomy as both witch and mortal and that she is the moral heart of the show that we are to identify with. So she must have a plan for her time at the Academy, right?

That begs the question: can you subvert an institution from within the institution?

Breaking the Wheel

This is very much a real-world issue. Women are constantly faced with the choice of playing along with sexist standards to get ahead and maybe affect change from the inside, or sticking to their own ideals and trying to topple the system from the outside. Until the final episode, the series seems to venture towards the latter. Sabrina learns that she can’t perform an exorcism, but she finds herself a group of powerful witches and does it anyway, calling on the strength of her magical foremothers. Th coven tells her to take shelter and leave the Greendale Thirteen to kill all the mortals, but again she sticks to her personal moral compass and stays to defend them.

But her actions sometimes support the former. She’s at the Academy when she ends the harrowing and gets revenge for the children who died from it. And she (sort of) ends the ritual sacrifice of a young woman during the Feast of Feasts.

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Welcome to the Academy of Unseen Arts. Courtesy of Netflix.

Sabrina’s inspiration for many of these things is her father, the former high priest of the Church of Night. He was a reformer at the Church, but even Edward Spellman was hardly a role model when it came to women’s autonomy: he sold Sabrina’s soul to the Dark Lord before she was even born so that he could marry her mother. He was as powerful as possible in this system and even he couldn’t affect change without harming his own daughter.

[Heading redacted so the Satanic Temple doesn’t sue us]

One of my main issues with THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA is that we never really have a reason to root for Sabrina to join the Church of Night. It’s hard to put ourselves in her shoes since there are very few redeeming qualities to her signing the Book. We know that she will be a more powerful witch, but we don’t see any “good” that the Church does. We only really see the evil — the manipulation, the hymns written by Charles Manson, the lawyer made to free murderers. Even Sabrina’s mother feared what it would do to her and took steps to prevent it. So we deduce that the Church itself is fundamentally dangerous and immoral (a very relative concept).

So can we think of Sabrina as a “hero” if she’s serving an immoral power? An anti-hero, maybe, but that’s not what the show posits her as. She is a feminist teen heroine. But her feminist potential is called into question by the moral code she is ultimately forced to serve. Women have been through a lot in the last, well, all of human existence, and we seek power wherever we can find it. But is turning to Satan really the “feminist” solution?

Do You Believe in Magic?

Sabrina seems to be at her most effective in the mortal realm, where she operates very much outside the system. When her principal refuses to protect her friend Susie from bullies, she exacts her own revenge with the help of the Weird Sisters and the Devil’s Lair. And when said the principal thwarts her attempts at playing by the book, she uses her own power to circumvent his sexism and create a sustainable system for women’s empowerment at Baxter High.

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Sabrina must choose between her friends and magic — but are they one and the same? Courtesy of Netflix

Maybe that’s what we should take away from THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA. In the real world, the one we live in, it takes a witch to get things done. Even Sabrina’s friends have a little bit of “witch” in them. Ros has her cunning and Susie has visions of her ancestor (the real feminist hero of this story). That doesn’t have to mean literal magic; magic can mean the persistence, creativity, and courage it takes to subvert powerful institutions. And that is often the image of real-world witches we see nowadays. Modern witchcraft is about finding strength within oneself and acting with conviction, knowing your power and defining it outside of how others want to define you.

The Devil Works Hard but Netflix Works Harder

As with anything, it’s near impossible to say whether THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA is wholly feminist or not; it’s always more complex than that. This is especially true because the series is just as much a teen drama as it is anything else. Sabrina faces the internal struggles of adolescence just like any other teenager. It’s just that the typical selfishness, impulsiveness, defensiveness, and well-meaningness manifests in things like necromancy and deals with the devil. Sabrina is growing, changing, and adapting as a 16-year-old should. But her burden as a character also includes being a symbol for the feminist movement.

It’s a testament to the talents of the writers and actors of THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA that a teen horror drama can take on such controversial topics as religion and women’s empowerment without ever feeling overwrought or losing sight of its humanity. Between the sleep demons and gargoyle cats, there is an inherent feeling of realism. None of us have literally been in Sabrina’s situation, but we’ve all been there. We’ve struggled with morality and power, and how much of each we are willing to exchange for the other.

We’ve fought to maintain ourselves in the face of powerful institutions and made sacrifices to rise within them. And we rarely get to find out if we’ve made the right choices in the end. So, can you be a feminist and worship the devil? I think we’ll need more than one season to answer that one.

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