is netflix’s sabrina reboot really as feminist as it proclaims?
Kiernan Shipka resurrects Sabrina as a strong, independent, outspoken witch. So why does the show keep reducing her to voyeuristic shots of her body?
Still from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Sabrina Spellman is a free woman. In the Netflix reboot of the classic series the teenage half-witch is headstrong, brave and woke as hell. Or at least, so we think. But the reality of the show is a little murkier when it comes to the politics it’s been lauded for even before it premiered. The premise of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is as follows: we open on a 15-year-old Sabrina who is approaching her ‘dark baptism’, the special ceremony where she’ll be inducted into the church of Satan and can finally inherit her magical powers. She’ll be young forever and a powerful witch, and all she has to do to get that power is to sign her name in the Devil’s book and give him dominion over her soul. Understandably, our teen witch queen has a little bit of a problem with that.
In the first few episodes of Netflix’s reboot, which dropped this weekend just in time for Halloween, we see Sabrina grappling with the idea of signing away her free will and the right to make her own decisions about her body over to a man, mythical or otherwise. In a political atmosphere where we’re seeing more and more rights being stripped away from women and trans and non-binary individuals, the plotline feels especially prescient. In one scene, as Sabrina is put on trial for abandoning her dark baptism (yeah sorry, spoiler) the line of questioning from the defence even uncomfortably echoes the issues of consent and victim blaming narratives we often see in sexual assault trials, as the prosecution taunts Sabrina for “courting the Devil” before backing out “at the moment of consummation”.
“She’s a woke witch,” star Kiernan Shipka says of her character, in an interview with Variety. “She’s a strong independent woman and she stands up for herself and does what she thinks is right.”
It’s true that 2018’s Sabrina 2.0 is a strong independent character, and Kiernan plays her as such, with a sort of darksided Betty Cooper meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer exuberance. We see her setting up a coven for her mortal friends to fight back against the institutionalised racism and sexism they experience at their school. In one scene she takes revenge against a gang of homophobic football players when they assault the androgynous, genderqueer Suzie. But under the very obvious wokeness the series wants to espouse, some of the decisions they make in portraying Kiernan undermine the very feminism she’s supposed to embody.
It makes sense that, with The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s focus on female body autonomy, there would be some focus on Sabrina’s actual body. But the focus on the character in various states of undress in the first few episodes of the show feel uncomfortable and exploitative. During her ‘dark baptism’, Sabrina enters in a virginal white wedding dress, before an older male character -- Father Blackwood -- demands that she’s undressed by her aunts and kneels before him wearing a silk white nightgown. In another scene, there are several shots of Sabrina getting in and out of a bath, complete with plenty of side boob, that feel unnecessarily gratuitous. It makes for uncomfortable watching especially when the narrative of the show is so focussed on Sabrina’s young age (her upcoming 16th birthday is mentioned in nearly every scene).
Suddenly the character goes from renegade teen sorcerer to wokest witch Lolita.
It’s not necessarily even the inclusion of so much teenage nudity in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina that’s the actual problem, but rather the way in which that nudity and sexuality is coded cinematically. Compare the scenes I’ve mentioned in Sabrina to sex scenes in Netflix’s sister show, Riverdale, and the difference is stark. When Riverdale’s own female protagonists, Betty or Veronica appear in lingerie (or less) it’s because they choose to, and that’s reflected in the show’s cinematography, which often shows them walking with purpose directly to camera. In contrast, Sabrina’s nudity feels inextricably linked to her own naivety and lack of choice, and the voyeuristic way it’s depicted feels more than a little bit pervy.
The weird dissonance between the show’s obsession with Sabrina’s body and its intended feminist message didn’t go unnoticed on social media either.
It’s true though, that for every tweet and comment about the weird decision to show teen nudity, there are 10 more praising the show for making the decision to properly update the show and give us the teen hero we need in 2018 -- an intersectional feminist unafraid to question the patriarchy. And as the 10-episode first season unfolds, we admittedly see less of a focus on Sabrina’s side boobs (thankfully) and more on a overtly modern depiction of witchcraft that, with our current cultural obsession with all things Wiccan, feels like it arrived at exactly the right time.
Is Sabrina perfect? No. But, maybe once we hit season three or four, an actual of-age 'Brina will be able to get naked on her own terms. And, gratuitous bath shots or not, the world needs more feminist heroes who will call out oppression when they see it (or, you know, just hex their oppressors into oblivion instead).