Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a strange mix of feminist power and oversexualisation

Regardless of whether you watched the ’90s classic TV show, it’s clear to see that Netflix is trying to do something a bit different with Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (opens in new tab). This adaptation of the comic book of the same name is darker, gritter, and presents a Sabrina who’s reinvented. She’s a “woke witch” as Sabrina actress Kiernan Shipka calls her in an interview with Variety (opens in new tab); headstrong, a touch stubborn, independent, utterly determined, and definitely not scared to stand up for what she believes in. And all of that comes across, even in the opening episode. But, it’s strange then that the show does so much to undercut that focused presentation by regularly oversexualising her with gratuitous nudity, strong sexual overtones, and a general voyeuristic obsession. 

For anyone who’s not watched the series, the story goes that Sabrina Spellman is on the cusp of her 16th birthday, at which point she’ll have to undergo her ‘dark baptism’. At this special ceremony she’ll inherit her magical powers, live forever, and be inducted to the Church of Satan. All she’ll have to do in return is sign her name in the Book of the Devil and “obey without question any order you may receive from the Dark Lord or any figure he’s put in authority”. Sounds legit, right? Understandably Sabrina isn’t down with the whole loss of free will thing and – *spoiler alert* – flees from her baptism to go on to fight the Dark Lord and his cronies for her rights in court. 

So far, so strong female lead right? Standing up to the Man (who also happens to be the Devil himself) and rebelling against the idea of signing away her freedom is an incredibly powerful statement. Shipka plays her incredibly well, with a combination of blonde innocence and Buffy-style determination, with just a hint of dark devilishness that works perfectly with the storyline. But what doesn’t work though, is that there’s a generous helping of scenes that serves to undercut her role as heroine, presenting her instead as an oversexualised young girl – and just remember the fact this takes place around and before her 16th birthday. 

Take the first episode for example. Sabrina’s decides to set up a women’s club to fight bullies at her school and help protect her friends, but later, in the same episode, she has a vision during her bath of her deceased parents, where she, of course, must emerge from the bath in a gloriously gratuitous full body camera pan, complete with a moonlit side boob shot. 

The second episode is even worse. The episode starts with Sabrina taking revenge on some football players (with some help from older witches in the coven) after they physically abuse and bully Susie, Sabrina’s genderqueer friend, which just happens to involve all four witches stripping down to their underwear and wrapping their legs around the boys. Remember again, that this is before Brina’s sweet sixteenth. And then her actual Dark Baptism is laced with sexual symbolism. She enters in a virginal white wedding dress, and although it’s eventually turned black to represent her impending witchood, the baptism requires her to be undressed before Father Blackwood by her two aunts, revealing a very white, very figure hugging, silken nightgown underneath. 

Couple that with the fact that her fleeing the baptism (still in her tighty whitie I might add) causes the prosecution during the trial to say she was “courting” the Dark Lord, and then fled “at the moment of consummation”, and not before someone from the courtroom shouts “Tramp!”. That imagery is a theme then that runs through the subsequent episodes, with the witches at the Academy warning a warlock that Sabrina would “cocktease you like she did the Dark Lord”. 

And these are all just a few of Sabrina’s sexual or nude moments during Chilling Adventures. It’s particularly prevalent in these opening scenes, especially surrounding the trial and the failed baptism (another example being making Harvey search her half naked body for a witch’s birthmark, clutching her white bra to her chest, rather than, you know asking one of her two female aunts, or just looking in a goddamn mirror). It doesn’t help that in the comics of the same name Sabrina is regularly scantily clad either, so you could argue that her presentation is being true to its source material. However, in a show so strongly focused on female empowerment, the sexualised scenes really do jar. There’s a startling dissonance between these scenes and those where Sabrina is taking her life into her own hands, and fighting for what she thinks is right. 

On the one hand she’s pushed as this feminist icon, pushing back against the patriarchy of the devil, and the staff at school. But on the other she’s also this oversexualised young girl who is regularly naked for no reason at all, and it’s rarely her choice to be so scantily clad – she’s forcibly undressed at the baptism; there are cries for her to strip so the court can search her body for the birthmark in the courtroom itself. Or it’s gratuitous, making no sense in the grand scheme of the show’s narrative. The way it’s presented feels voyeuristic, which is why so many viewers have commented on its awkwardness and uncomfortable viewing in the shows opening handful of episodes. It demeans everything else Netflix is trying to do with the show, especially as it continues into Chilling Adventures of Sabrina season 2 (opens in new tab).

Soooooo sorry Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. The show’s beautiful, atmospheric as hell, and really interesting. The gratuitous nudity that only avoided being illegal because they hired an 18 year old? Yeah not about it.November 4, 2018

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Woah, okay hold off there @netflix ! “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” looks interesting & all but near-nude scenes of what’s supposed to be a 15 year old girl makes me HELLA-uncomfortable.I’m not even out of episode one and I feel like I shouldn’t be watching this.October 27, 2018

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We’ve done three episodes and yes, slightly uncomfortable every time.November 6, 2018

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The inclusion of such teen nudity in a show that otherwise champions a feminist unafraid to question the status quo, push back against the patriarchy of the Dark Lord and the staff at school, feels like a mistake. This, after all, is a modern show with modern ideals that should be applauded. We just need to cut out the gratuitous nudity and treat the characters as the heroines they truly are. 

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina ending explained (opens in new tab) – everything you need to know after watching

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