why ’sabrina the teenage witch’ was one of the best shows of the 90s and 00s
Feminism, flan-based humour and a bi-curious talking cat. Can the new horror-inspired Netflix version ever compete?
Images via Twitter
This Halloween, we’re getting the glossy and mysterious Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Netflix reboot to binge with our trick or treat sweets -- about the teen trying to figure out how to do the whole half witch/half mortal thing, while stopping evil forces from taking over the world. It promises to be a much darker and more disturbing take on the legendary 90s sitcom. And while horror is having a moment, and it’s easy to pass off a sitcom as cheesy entertainment in comparison, the original was more than silly fluff. It was important. It was a feminist-leaning gem threaded with LGBTQ themes, which taught angsty teens and tweens that being different was ok — nay, great. And also that everyone loves oversized flans.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch assumed many forms. Not just the time the she morphed into a cat, or used magic to inflate her muscles like a pale Love Island contestant on steroids. The Sabrina character started life as an Archie comic in 1960 about a teenage witch who lived with her two aunts and a talking cat called Salem. Then came the animated 1970-74 animated TV show, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or as it was occasionally known, Sabrina and the Groovie Goolies. Later, the Melissa Joan Hart-starring 90s sitcom galvanised the hearts, brains and magic wiggly fingers of burgeoning young witches worldwide. It spurned a series of computer games, a couple of films, and a magazine range complete with a collectible very official magazine holder that fuelled many a healthy tweenage obsession and, for some of us particularly obsessive readers, the genesis of careers in media.
In 2014, the comic got a spinoff called the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Now that spinoff is getting the full Netflix treatment, starring Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men fame. Forget the sitcom’s slapstick scenes such as when Sabrina got stuck in a fire-fringed pit of quicksand and snakes; this version’s been described as tonally closer to Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. It’s also scored the highly coveted pre-Halloween release date that was scored last year by Stranger Things 2, a show so buzzworthy that it fuelled an entire Topshop range, an Eggo card game, a themed Monopoly, an ouija board and an “immersive” Spotify mode that changes its colours and tells you what character you are based on your listening habits.
Fortunately there’s no Sabrina Spotify, yet. But there is a lot of hype. Which makes sense -- partly because it’s being written by the creator of another very successful Archie-comic-turned-teen-focused-TV-juggernaut, Riverdale. And also because the last time it was a television show, it was one of the best television shows out.The OG Sabrina sitcom started in 1996. It was written and created by Nell Scovell, a women who’s made a point of promoting diversity within the writers’ room -- and by extension, on screen. She was the second ever female writer on Late Night with David Letterman, but quit after less than a year in due to staggering, if not surprising, inequality in the writers’ room — an experience she later detailed in a damning report for Vanity Fair. “The problem,” she wrote in her recent memoir, “is that people want to hear about interns in the bedroom, and I want to talk about gender in the writers’ room.”
“They showed how a household run entirely by women could be full of power and wonder.”
Nell’s embrace of genuine female perspectives in all their strange, gross glory filtered into Sabrina. “Sabrina was my attempt to create a show that I would’ve loved as that weird young girl who grew up to write for Letterman and Spy and The Simpsons,” Nell told the Guardian. “She cared about being a good friend, making good choices, and doing well in school. The magic was a metaphor for a young girl learning to control her desires and emotions, as well as an excuse to showcase a 6ft flan.” In the episode in question, Sabrina’s mocked by her nemesis, Libby, for getting a massive wart on her forehead, so Sabrina turns her into a goat. But instead of it turning into your typical revenge plot, Sabrina gets locked in a mirror by actual major league baseball player Brady Anderson, who won’t let her out until she makes amends and recognises she was in the wrong too. She then celebrates by feeding her classmates with a giant flan. It’s classic Sabrina: a display of decent morals, and also fucking weird.
Fan Camilla O’Connell, who got hooked in the late 90s, was drawn to the number of multifaceted female leads -- a rarity at the time. “Most of the important characters are women, and they don’t just talk about boys,” she says. “Sabrina was hard working and very ambitious, almost as a given, which is nice to see.” The same applies to Aunt Hilda and Aunt Zelda, who looked after Sabrina: “both are ambitious and get shit done. Great role models.” Kelsey Parker, a longtime fan who once wore a Sabrina-inspired dress to her formal, agrees. “They easily could have been portrayed as old maids who were nursing their regrets about being childless through taking on Sabrina, but instead they were portrayed as wise witches selflessly teaching the next generation,” she says. “They showed how a household run entirely by women could be full of power and wonder.”
The show also subverted stereotypes. In one episode, after being mocked by popular girl Libby (again) for joining science club, Sabrina turns Libby into a ‘geek’ to show her what it’s like to be picked on -- only to see Libby turn all her newfound friends against everyone else, in the same she rallied the popular cheerleaders. Basically, it doesn’t really matter if you’re good at twirling pom-poms or rearranging algorithms, if you’re a dick you’re a dick. And vice versa. In another episode, called The Crucible, after the famous Arthur Miller play about the Salem witch trials, Sabrina gets put on trial for being a witch in a reenactment. When Harvey -- Sabrina’s love interest -- tries to tell everyone that clearly she’s not because she doesn’t have warts or a massive nose or the tendency to melt when doused in a large glass of water, she retorts: “What you just described is a stereotype. I mean, how do you know witches are ugly -- have you ever seen one?” She adds, “Yes witches are different from mortals -- but different isn’t bad. Maybe there are witches among us right now, but you’re so closed-minded they can’t tell us who they are.”
"TV nowadays is so much less silly, which is sad -- but I guess it’s not the 90s anymore.”
Alternative reading: Sabrina was a metaphor for being gay in the 90s. As many people have pointed out: she was a young high school student with a secret she doesn’t want anyone to find out, for fear of being shamed. She was figuring out how to be comfortable with her real identity through the support and insight of two same-sex guardians who’ve gone through the same thing. She literally had to go through a closet to get to the ‘other realm’ where she could be honest about her true self. “I didn’t realise Sabrina was queer-relatable until I was an adult,” says 26-year-old Anthony Alonzo Gooch. “Looking back as an out adult, I see Harvey Kinkle and his hot witch-hunter friend Brad, two sassy women living together, a cat that plays that queer archetype you see in Disney roles (Scar, Jafar, Ursula). And a teenager realising who she was.”
Whether or not you noticed it first time round, there are a myriad of references to queer issues and culture. When Harvey’s old best friend Brad moves back to town, he ends up spending more time with him than with Sabrina. In fact, Brad can’t stand Sabrina, and they’re basically pitted against one another. It’s later revealed that the ~technical~ reason for Brad’s resentment is because he has a witch hunting gene, and not, say, because he’s actually jealous of Sabrina and Harvey’s romance. But that hasn’t stopped a fair few fans speculating.
Then there’s the episode where Ru Paul (pre Drag Race) plays a drag hairdresser doing up Sabrina, before revealing himself to be a member of the Witches’ Council. And, of course, there was Salem -- a 500-year-old male witch forced to live 100 years as a cat for attempting to take over the world. He’s a bi-curious black cat known for his cutting one liners, like when he says “Don’t toy with me, you sassy minx” to a tassled pillow. He’s also become something of a gay icon.
But for all its wittiness and acerbic felines, all its morals and flan-based humour, it wasn’t perfect. The show was very white. There were problematic storylines. And while it may often be interpreted as an allegory for being gay, in terms of actual diversity of sexual orientation, there wasn’t much. “I know a lot of people -- myself included -- would love to see Hilda and Zelda presented not as sisters, but as spouses,” says Kelsey. ”Why not make two women who live together and love each other a strong lesbian couple? We want representation!”
Perhaps Netflix’s 2018 version will address some of these issues. After all, they’ve already cast one actor of colour to play a pansexual warlock (although one does not maketh a diverse cast). But in terms of retaining some of the original sitcom’s original, erm, magic? Hard to say. Part of its charm was its ability to balance the tightrope between witty and weird, fun and smart. To address serious themes in an accessible, engaging way. This version is set to be darker, more serious, which has proved to be a success in the teen market -- see Riverdale, The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars and the likes. But as Camilla says, “I don’t think it will have the same message. TV nowadays is so much less silly, which is sad -- but I guess it’s not the 90s anymore.” Pumping Sabrina through the drama mill runs the risk of wrenching our beloved weirdo witch from the outsiders, the ones who walked the periphery and learnt, with a bit of help from Sabrina, to laugh through it. To quote the ever-quotable Salem: “Someone’s going to end up crying. Probably me.”