TV

Netflix’s ‘Sabrina’ Is The Angry Young Feminist We’re Looking For

The rise of witches in pop-culture mirrors the rise of angry young feminists.

Witches are officially back. Between The Chilling Adventures of SabrinaSuspiria, the Charmed reboot and Lana Del Rey’s hexes against Trump, witches are officially making their presence known in the mortal realm.

While they’ve certainly been circling the zeitgeist — The Craft, Practical Magic and Hocus Pocus, always in referential reach — 2018 stews a deep cauldron of witchy iconography to tie us well into the next decade.

But the most exciting project was the resurrection of teenage witch, Sabrina Spellman, in Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

On the big screen Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 horror, Suspiria, joined the latest Fantastic Beasts installment, The Crimes of Grindelwald, while AHS: Apocalypse reprised a supremely seductive coven alongside a reboot of beloved TV sisterhood, Charmed.

But the most exciting project was the resurrection of teenage witch, Sabrina Spellman, in Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

This new Sabrina is a darker, more politically charged manifestation than what Melissa Joan Hart cast between 1996 and 2003. Black cat Salem slinks between scenes, far less sassy, never speaking a word. Aunt Hilda and Zelda continue to rake in the humour — in a more menacing, murderous way. Harvey is just as doe-eyed and generally useless as ever.

But our enchanting soon-to-be sixteen, Sabrina, is as curious, brave and endearing as we remember. The show centres on ideas of friendship, morality, justice; providing key themes that form backbone to Sabrina’s motivations and desires as she navigates life as half witch, half mortal.

While the bubbling tension between Sabrina’s split life makes for great television (like Hannah Montana but with Satan) the real magic of the reprise lies less in its practice of day-to-day spells, hexes and incantations (we rarely see Sabrina flex her fingers), and more in how it transfigures into a vehicle for young transformative feminism.

The end result is an unapologetic, supernatural window into the modern teen’s politic.

Not Today, Satan

The first ep kicks off at the eve of Sabrina’s sweet sixteenth: her Dark Baptism, a common ritual where she quite literally signs her name away to Satan.

But Sabrina has doubts: “I have reservations about saving myself for the Dark Lord. Why does he get to decide what I do with my body?”

“Because it is witch law” Zelda reminds.

“But why?” Sabrina pokes back. What she fundamentally craves, beyond wicked legislature and cobwebbed tradition, is a choice over her body.

The mortal half of the episode continues to spotlight Sabrina’s effervescent defiance: her first friction with authority is with Principal Hawthorne after learning that best friend Susie (who identifies as non-binary) is being bullied by the High School jocks.

“You’re suggesting a witch hunt?” asks Principal Hawthorne, “I don’t care for that term. But Susie doesn’t feel safe here, in your school. She is living in a constant state of fear.”

When Sabrina comes to the realisation that almost all men in power are spineless and ineffective, she takes a more radical, grassroots approach. Alongside bff Roz, Sabrina establishes the Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association, or WICCA. The focal aim? “taking down the white patriarchy.”

WICCA

A quick flick through the history of the women’s movement would easily anchor Sabrina’s pursuit to the late 1960s and well into the 70s.

The idea behind “consciousness raising” was simple yet effective: groups of women would meet and speak on what was troubling them, quickly sobering to the fact that these problems weren’t individual at all, but rather collective, structural. The feminist groups, bound by shared values and experiences, could then build capacity around fundraising and advocacy to achieve broader structural change — both legislatively (reproductive rights) and culturally (sexual liberation).

The essential difference between WICCA and the second-wave feminist New York Radical Women from 1967 — aside from much, much greater attention paid to intersectional voices (though only time will tell with how the show handles its queer and POC characters beyond its cis white protagonist) — is that Sabrina’s only a child.

Sabrina Isn’t Alone

But young Sabrina, invested in amassing both power and change, isn’t a TV outlier.

In both The Handmaid’s Tale and Sharp Objects [spoilers ahead!] it’s the younger women who ultimately shock and disturb audiences most.

It’s Eden, the child-bride — first introduced as docile, god-worshipping — who becomes the rebel: attempting to escape Gilead with her lover and, once caught, chooses to drown alongside him instead of “renouncing her sins”.

It’s Amma, the crazed half-sister, suffering at the hands of her sickly mother, who’s revealed as the town killer: positioning each plucked tooth so strategically in the dollhouse. Interestingly, it’s this very image of the powerful — yet dangerously underestimated — young girl that finds potency in 2018 television.

Angry Teens Rule

Just as the tired prophecy portends, “life imitates art,” we find echoes of young radical activism in our own global narratives.

2018 started shaky for the teens: an epidemic throughout the US saw youngsters popping Tide Pods as if they were pez. But by February the focus on laundry detergent quickly dissolved as America fell victim to its deadliest high school shooting in history, with seventeen killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Only three days after, student survivor Emma González gave an 11 minute speech in front of the Broward County Courthouse –“We Call B.S” — pledging to advocate tirelessly against gun violence, “we are going to be the last mass shooting.”

In Australia the School Strike 4 Climate Action saw thousands of children leave the classroom in favour of political protest against an ineffective government.

Like Sabrina, fourteen year old Jean Hinchliffe, a lead organiser of the Sydney contingent, saw little faith in the ruling elite, “most young people feel the same way about it, because [climate change is] such an enormous issue that is just being completely ignored. If we saw politicians really putting in an effort to make change, then it wouldn’t be something I’m so concerned about.”

The underlying thread that binds this youth-based political activation, mobilising, and defiance is one unified feeling: anger.

A New Coven In Town

Anger is what motivated feminists in the 60s and 70s to demand legislative and cultural change. Anger is what drove Sabrina to start WICCA, Emma to join Never Again, Jean to lead on the School Strike 4 Climate Action.

Anger, writes Soraya Chemaly, “bridges the divide between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility.” But anger as a fully expressed emotion is systematically denied to girls and women, as Chemaly argues in Rage Becomes Her, to the dire consequence of their health and humanity.

For “when a woman shows anger in institutional, political, and professional settings, she automatically violates gender norms.”

As discourse around women’s anger grows — stirred and spiced by cascading narratives from the #metoo movement — the return of the witch begins to make greater sense. The historic persecution of witches came at the consequence of their perceived deviance, their disruption of the status quo and any ‘natural order.’

The return of the witch is a sign for what’s to come, a battle cry for women’s anger: to lead, destabilise, take matters into their own hands.

There’s a new young coven flying into town and we can be sure it’s coming for change.

Dejan is a freelance writer whose words spin around queer history, feminism, pop culture and policy. He enjoys watching RHONY, eating dirty vegan food, skateboarding and crying while refreshing his Twitter feed @heydejan