'Sabrina' reboot carves a path for darkly pleasing LGBT+ authenticity
It was a few weekends ago when I was best figuring out how to best spend my Saturday when Cherry editor Devin gave me the nudge I needed to watch a much-talked, -giffed and riffed-upon show: Netflix’s “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” And, praise Satan, I’m glad I checked it out.
I grew up on the antics of Sabrina Spellman as a middle schooler. Watching reruns of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” the late 90s / early 2000s live-action Sabrina, was my before-school treat. I enjoyed this Sabrina’s predicaments the same way I enjoyed those of Raven Baxter on “That’s So Raven.” Their troubles were disastrous, but not dire; more humorously nail-biting than genuinely fear-inducing. I enjoyed her aunts’ goofiness and Salem’s smart mouth.
When the goth leapt out in high school, “Sabrina: The Animated Series” was lowkey everything to me. It had the supernatural-ass-kicking-meets-bubblegum-drama of “Winx Club.” It had the morbid playfulness of “Growing Up Creepie” and “Making Fiends.” It had the young feminine melancholy of Emily the Strange (real 90s kids and goth girls know). And it capitalized on a generation’s love for everything badass and witchy: “Twitches,” the “Halloweentown” series, “Hocus Pocus” and all of that good stuff.
And so enter this newfangled “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” I’m tough on remakes (buy me a pint and get me started on the hierarchy of Marvel’s live-action Spider-Man’s). But I trust Devin and I trust Netflix, too. So, I took the plunge. I was about four or five episodes in before I was thinking to myself, “Oh my God, this show is really slaying my life right now.”
Basic premise? We hop into half-witch Sabrina’s life on the eve of her 16th birthday. Kind of like a quinceanera or a bat / bar mitzvah, she’s approaching a rite of passage ceremony in which she signs over her soul to Satan or the Dark Lord, as he’s called. Caught between the witch community and mortal society, she’s conflicted. And, complicating matters, she’s not “out” as a witch in her mortal school. (Note: the concept of equivocating witch marginalization and LGBT+ marginalization is not too far-fetched.)
So, the tug-of-war for Sabrina’s heart and literal soul ensues. This mist-kissed, blood-flecked narrative comes not without self-reflection, witch development and regular-degular life lessons along the way. In addition to the show’s general foundation from “Sabrina: The Teenage Witch,” the reboot is doused in references — from horror flicks such as “Carrie,” “The Shining,” “Halloween,” and “Rosemary’s Baby” to pop culture nods to “Thriller” and Archie Comics cousin “Riverdale” to name a few. The showrunners have clearly done their homework.
They also managed to give Sabrina a strong moral compass despite all the spell-casting, human-sacrificing, demon-confronting and double-crossing. The lesson isn’t just “family first” or “be yourself.” No, “Sabrina” is a study in dismantling heteropatriarchal institutions and navigating life in the intersection of identities. Sabrina’s biggest learning curve stems not from coping with magic, but with practicing successful allyship for their greater good.
Sabrina’s marginalization as a half-witch is a major theme in the show. There’s also a queer thread. It comes in two very visibly queer characters: Ambrose Spellman, Sabrina’s brown British housebound warlock cousin, and Susie Putnam, a non-binary kid whose Sabrina’s best friend.
Ambrose’s attractions, even if misplaced, are shown in a way that leaves no equivocation. Susie responds to “she / her” pronouns, presents in an androgynous way and is referred to, warmly, as a young man. Susie is played by a non-binary actor, Lachlan Watson who further affirms the character’s identity.
Referring to their character with they / them pronouns, Watson explained in a red carpet interview that there’s much to be gained from a character like Susie — both through the message of their story arc and for furthering empowerment of gender-nonconforming individuals. Susie is, to use Watson’s words, “something the world may not have seen before: a strong, unapologetically non-binary person.”
Speaking of Susie’s bravery, Watson said, “As an anxious little queer kid, it’s something I could never really find in myself. So, it’s so incredible that I get to portray that — and kind of find that — in myself through Susie.”
Likewise, Chance Perdomo has been vocal about how Ambrose’s identity fits into the text of the show. In a Q+A with Mic., Perdomo said, “We established that it was part of Ambrose’s storyline and who he is fundamentally, and after that we kinda just get right along with the story and didn’t try to explain it. I think the reason that it’s put in the character breakdown, that he is a pansexual necromancer, is because of people like myself who may not have been aware as much about pansexuality within the LGBTQ community.”
For Perdomo and the writers, it was all about the nuance of sexual identity when creating Ambrose. He also made it clear that, as an actor, he focused on what fuels Ambrose without pandering to people and “oversimplify[ing] his journey.”
In his Q+A with Them, Perdomo goes further to talk about the importance of Ambrose being both brown and queer. His take is similar to Watson’s, in that ultimately these characters are here to empower.
“It’s like when Black Panther came out. I know I rushed to the cinema. I look up to Batman as far as superhero stuff goes, but if Batman were Black, it probably would’ve had a greater subconscious effect on me than him being a white man,” Perdomo said.
“‘Oh, he’s like me? He looks like me. He feels like me. I can relate to him more. To have these narratives play out and be written with depth, care, and truth, I’d say it would have that similar kind of effect.”
2018 has already shaped up to be a hell of a year for LGBT+ representation. When it comes to “bisexual+” representation, media watchdog GLAAD recorded that 27 percent of TV characters (in broadcast, cable and streamed TV shows) fell into that category. GLAAD also noted that trans and non-binary characters are up from TV last year.
But more than bumping the number of queer faces on screen and helping showcase the complexity of queer characters’ identities, “Sabrina” takes great pains to show us that spaces, witch and mortal, are on the right side of history when they’re LGBT+ inclusive. Although the witches’ Church of Night is still radically pro-witch and high-key patriarchal — and really, honestly, set up as major shade to the Catholic Church by mirroring all of organized Christianity’s maddening idiosyncrasies — it’s definitely LGBT+ inclusive.
The most popular kids in the Academy have (healthy) sexual appetites fueled by same-sex desires, young lust and no shame about it. Moreover, witches and warlocks, young and old, are very cool with polyamory. Father Blackwood explicitly bemoans the monogamy that the dominant mortal society imposed on witches.
The show is not infallible, of course. A question that’s been brewing is: how are real-life (queer) witches and brujas feeling about this show? That’s the valid criticism I need. The production designer of “Sabrina,” Lisa Soper, is Pagan. Soper, along with other members of the show’s production team, told Refinery29 that they are “sticklery” for authenticity when it comes to wiccan spells and practices. Meanwhile, the Satanic Church is currently suing Netflix for $150 million for depicting their religion — through direct reference to a Baphomet statue — in an unflattering light. And you know what?
That’s super fair. The witchy aesthetic is fun to experiment with, but shows like this one (and the highly visible but commercialized seasons of Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos) might be frustrating for witches.
As far as cinematic viewing pleasure goes, the bottom line is that giving “Sabrina” a try is a no-brainer. If you can stomach a “Harry Potter” film or “Stranger Things,” the show is about that level of TV-14 terror. The most horrifying aspect of the show is truly the transphobia Susie faces.
“Sabrina” is a bubbling concoction of coming-of-age narrative, a subversive sociological case study, and an exercise in delivering thoughtful and mysterious teen drama storylines. 🍒