Sabrina the Teenage Witch VS Bell Hooks
Updated: Jan 3
SPOILER ALERT: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Season 1
In this corner, the Netflix Orginal Adaptation of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. In the other corner, Bell Hooks and her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre.
These two works could not be further from one another in medium, style, content, or genre. What they have in common is that they both claim to add to Feminist discourse and to show what it means to practice this movement. The trouble is that the values shown in either source are diametrically opposed to each other. Today, I want to take a deep dive into the various waves and transformations the Feminist movement has gone through in the last 100 or so years. Bell Hooks is one of the most prominent authors whose ideas have given rise to Third Wave Feminism - the theory most academics, governments, and non-profits prescribe to today. In comparison, I would argue that The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is at best demonstrating an outdated model of Feminism and, at worst, is aggressively contradictory to the goals of Feminism.
My problem with this is twofold. First, the many varied interpretations of what Feminism is and its goals are, specifically regarding topics of sexual violence, misandry, and white saviour/colonial Feminism, as seen in the show, can strip credibility from the movement and make it difficult for activists to make headway. The second, and I would suggest a more critical problem, is that this is not an isolated case of popular media aligning itself with a "buzzword" movement without listening to experts in these fields or doing due research. We saw this most egregiously recently with Netflix Originals like 13 Reasons Why and Insatiable. When a creator claims to be diverse or to support marginalized communities, without putting the bare minimum of research in, they do more harm than benefit to everyone involved, exacerbating stereotypes and creating confusion about certain serious topics.
To start, I want to clarify why I have chosen The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to pick on in this topic. In terms of the actual show's content, the characters can behave in less than savoury ways, especially when the characters are witches and therefore are inherently twisted and kinda evil people. The problem for me started when I saw the shows marketing, specifically article after article proclaiming the show to be the height of girl-power and feminism for our generation. These are only a few examples:
If The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the best mainstream television has to offer Feminism, I am utterly disappointed. In full fairness, I personally lost interest after the first season, and in researching this piece, I saw the news stories starting to shift away from the use of the word feminism in praise to active criticism. (Let me know how you think the new seasons handle Feminism; I'd be happy to do an update if there are improvements!) But, what I saw on the screen in 2018 does not match what I understand Feminism to be. Proclaiming that it does is a disservice to the movement and all the hard work being done right now by those in the fields of gender studies and politics.
There are three specific aspects of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina that specifically drew my attention. The first two deal with Sexual Assault, the second with the White Saviour/Colonial attitudes that plagued the first two waves of Feminism.
For those not in the know, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a Netflix Original reboot of the comic series Sabrina the Teenage Witch. In the first season of the show, we meet Sabrina, a half-witch, living with her two aunts. She is preparing for her "Dark Baptism" and preparing to write her name in the book of the beast.
In the very first episode, we find out that Sabrina's friend Susie Putnam was cornered in a locker room by four football players, punched, and had her shirt lifted. In response, Sabrina demands Susie tell her details about the event and then marches to the principal's office and tells him what happened. She then tells several of their mutual friends and other teachers. Sabrina's reaction is effectively the opposite of everything most sexual assault centres (centres that are often based on feminist research and principles) suggest a friend do should a friend disclose such an incident. This is a small infraction, but coming so early in the series, is the first one that indicates that this show had not done the due research to call themselves "Feminist." This scene is also our first instance of Sabrina, assuming she knows better and is more capable than the other women around her, assuming that her concerns, desires, and fights also belong to them. This is an issue that reoccurs throughout the series that we will touch more on later.
For reference, if a friend discloses to you that they experienced sexual violence, the recommendation is to:
SUPPORT Let your friend know that you are there for them unconditionally and have their back
LISTEN Let your friend know that you are willing to listen if they want to talk, but do not press them or ask intrusive questions. These events are traumatic and can be difficult to discuss. I recommend saying, "Is there anything else you want to share or talk about?" as opposed to specific questions.
BELIEVE Trust that your friend is telling you the truth and let them know that you believe their story and have their back
EXPLORE OPTIONS Let them guide the conversation about what they want to do next and let them make their own decisions. Offer resources and ask how you can help or support them within your own boundaries.
Throughout the season, the secondary male characters (i.e. any male character that is not Harvey or Ambrose) are shown to blatant patriarchal stereotypes (I say patriarchal stereotypes and not hegemonic masculinity here because the men in this show seem to only exist to oppress the female characters and have no further arc beyond this). This depiction alone is a little dicey in terms of misandry. Having an arc that addresses this and perhaps gives growth to the male characters or examines the systems that allow these behaviours could play into Feminist themes. Instead, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina chooses to enact a revenge fantasy that shows clear and unforgivable misandry. In Season 1, Episode 2: The Dark Baptism, four football players attack Sabrina's friend Susie. In response, Sabrina recruits the three weird sisters to lure the football players into the mines, where they use magic to trick them into stripping and then kiss each other. Then Sabrina takes pictures of them and threatens to blackmail them if they ever harm her friends again, followed by Prudence doing something unseen to the boys in the dark that causes them to flee and making them impotent for a few weeks. This is unbelievably wrong on multiple counts - first, it is homophobic. Second, it is blatantly sexual assault. There are many women with just reasons to be fearful or suspicious of the men in their lives or to demand that men, in general, do better and work harder to support and respect women. There are many people who have survived domestic abuse and sexual violence who deserve justice but, in our corrupt systems, may never get it. These are important topics to address that deserve consideration. However, the answer for any media claiming to be feminist cannot be a sexual assault against men played as a laugh and a powerful moment.
Thirdly, it is critical to note that Sabrina is a young white woman who has limited to no experience with the other witches' culture and rituals (who are predominantly women of colour). Despite this, at several points in the show, Sabrina presumes to speak over and for these characters, taking it upon herself to convince the other women that their practices are barbaric and must be stopped. She bursts into spaces she is neither welcome in nor invited to and attempts to impose her own will, blindly convinced that she alone is right. This is blatantly indicative of either a white saviour or a colonial mindset.
Let's back up and talk about the difference between "White Feminism" and "Intersectional Feminism," also referred to as First, Second, and Third Wave Feminism.
As an all-encompassing term, Feminism, in general, refers to a series of political, social, cultural, and movements that are meant to make women themselves, as well as the roles and characteristics considered feminine to be considered of equal value to men and their roles in society (See this piece for a more detailed explanation). The specific goals, values, and principles of the movement have, however, changed throughout history in response to our changing understandings of gender and identity. These changes are often described as "Waves" of Feminism.
The first wave took place in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. This wave is widely known as the Women's Suffrage movement and focused on securing women's voting rights. The second wave arose in the 1960s and focused on women's legal and social rights. It was during this wave that the slogan, "The Personal is Political," was coined.
While all of these rights are important and these women undoubtedly accomplished great things, these movements, especially the Second Wave of Feminism, are also often referred to as White Feminism. When we say "White Feminism," we emphasize that the people with the power to fight for rights were largely upper-class white women and that the rights they fought for were predominantly needed by and only served white women.
I have three examples of what this means. First, when we talk about the dates women achieved various rights, we need to acknowledge that white women gained rights, such as the right to vote, before any other women, and they often stopped campaigning once their own rights were secure. For example, in Canada, the right to vote was granted to White Women for the 1918 election, largely thanks to the "Famous Five": Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney, and Henrietta Edwards. However, while Canada celebrated the 100th anniversary of women having the right to vote in 2018, they forgot that Asian women were excluded from voting rights in Canada until the late 1940s, and Indigenous women could not vote federally until the 1960s. So, when we talk about "White Feminism," in part, we are discussing that white women fought for the rights of white women, not all women.
Some white women actively fought against the rights of women of colour. One of the major tenants of Feminism is bodily autonomy, the right to have control over your own body and reproductive capacity. In Alberta, Canada, in 1928, however, women like Nellie McClung, who had fought so hard for suffrage, supported the Eugenics act, which allowed women to be surgically sterilized without consent, an act that was not repealed until 1972. Specifically, this act was used against 2,832 Albertans, predominantly women and predominantly young women who were either disabled, neuroatypical, and/or indigenous. This is a prime example that, for the first two waves of Feminism, or "White Feminism," powerful white women fought for their own rights. Not the rights of marginalized communities.
In the second wave of Feminism, focusing on social and legal rights, white women claimed that all women faced the same struggles and had the same needs; thus, the work they were doing benefitted all women. This, however, was just not true. A key example of this was the right to work. Upper and middle-class white women in North America were expected to be housewives and to raise children. Thus, they fought for more inclusion in the public sphere. However, at the same time they were fighting for the right to work, women of colour, namely black women, were already expected to working long hours, namely as maids and nannies, and were fighting for the option to stay home with their own families or to take higher leadership positions. So, where white women claimed they fought for everyone, they actually only recognized and fought for white women's needs, leaving other identities to fight for their own needs. I highly encourage you to read the Combahee River Collective Statement for a deeper insight into this concept from an original source. This same pattern played out across various intersections of women's identities, such as ignoring the struggle for the right for Lesbian women to marry while fighting for divorce rights.
Enter thinkers like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Bell Hooks, and their contemporaries. They responded to the failures of the previous two waves of Feminism to support marginalized women, ushering in third-wave Feminism, also known as intersectional feminism. I have an article here on the full definition of intersectionality. In short, this third wave of Feminism acknowledged that women hold multiple identities based on various factors such as their race, sexuality, class, or religion. Thus, when discussing women's issues, we cannot universalize them and must understand the differing needs of different groups of women and then fight for them all. This is the theory of feminism that is currently most frequently referred to by the majority of prominent feminist academics, governments, and organizations.
So back to Sabrina. One of the moments in the show that most overtly points to the creators' desire to align themselves with Feminism while keeping their witchy vibes is Sabrina's creation of the "W.I.C.C.A." or "Women's Intersectional Creative Cultural Association." Based on this title and the show's marketing, I would expect Sabrina to demonstrate at least some values held by third-wave or intersectional Feminists. But she doesn't. Instead, Sabrina enters situations as an outsider and assumes she knows better than other women and that her fight, needs, and values encompass those of all women. She does not consider the experiences, cultures, and identities of those around her, instead choosing to bully to get her own way. If this is Feminism, this is at best White Feminism - vague girl power and claims for rights, without recognizing that the rights she is fighting for benefit only her. At worst, given her forsaking body autonomy, it just isn't Feminist at all.
The media we consume is not done so in a vacuum. Once the show is watched, the book is read, the song is sung, we as the audience talk about it. Before we ever interact with a piece, we interact with the marketing. We might know our favourite authors, actors, artists, and their views going into the experience or research them afterward. All of these factors impact how we view a given piece, and in turn, the art we interact with impacts our understanding of the world around us. So, when a popular show says, "This is girl power - it looks like misandry and colonialism," that's a problem because it informs a sect of the public that those values are representative of the current Feminist movements when this could not be further from the truth.