The patriarchy is alive and well, even in the world of witches.
Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina premiered last month, giving us a decidedly darker version of the fun-loving teenage witch we’ve come to love. This time-warped reboot, starring Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka, as the titular heroine was less concerned with making light of Sabrina’s dual nature and more interested in exploring the character’s horror origins. Instead of clueless boyfriends and talking cats, we were treated to Satanic rituals and demon possessions — a far cry from '90s sitcom fare.
But there’s a reason the show decided to lean in when it comes to Sabrina’s wicked nature. After all, how else is she going to defeat her great nemesis: the patriarchy?
Oh, did you think we were talking about Satan here?
Silly witches, as often as the Devil is evoked throughout Season 1, it’s not Lucifer who poses the greatest threat to Sabrina and her coven; it’s what he represents.
Men. Men with terrible agendas. Men willing to sacrifice women to fuel their own need for power and control. Satan, you see, is just a man, but he’s also a symbol of the patriarchy, and by pitting Sabrina against him and his cohorts, the show gives us something we didn’t know we were looking for from a supernatural teen drama such as this: a feminist revenge fantasy. And an immensely satisfying one at that.
For centuries, witches have been used as a rallying cry against oppressive institutions. They’ve positioned themselves against monolithic religious organizations and corrupt societal conventions; hell, even as you read this, witches are probably hexing President Donald Trump and his fascist regime. In a world governed by men, witches represent the wild nature of women, a nature that couldn’t be tamed.
And yet, in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, that’s exactly what the men of Glendale try to do.
The show’s received some flack for that narrative choice. It’s bothered people to see Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) serve as High Priest of Sabrina’s coven, effectively ruling over the women in her life. It’s troubled fans to watch Sabrina teeter in her decision to effectively sign her life away to the Dark Lord.
I get it. For women living in the same world Sabrina lives in on the show, the idea that this supernatural heroine might face the same injustice and oppression as us mortals is a bit of a letdown. We wanted to conjure spells and witness malevolent hexing and enjoy more occult action, not see scenes of Sabrina bowing to Blackwood’s will or Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) blindly upholding patriarchal pacts. In short, we could’ve used more Weird Sisters action — tormenting football players in Satan’s lair — than history lessons and WICCA meetings about banned books. The latter feels fun, the former all too real.
And yet, what makes Sabrina such a compelling heroine isn’t her magic; it’s her will to live her life the way she sees fit.
Sabrina doesn’t need truth-telling cakes to uncover Father Blackwood’s deception. She’s positioned herself against men in power from the beginning. She suspects him before there’s anything to suspect. She refuses to fall prey to his power play, actively rebelling against his belief that “the old ways are best.” The old ways are best for those they benefited. Most of the time, those beneficiaries were men.
It’s why when the Feast of Feasts rolls around, and a witch is to be sacrificed in the name of Satan, Sabrina fights against the archaic, barbaric ritual. It’s why she takes issue with having to remain a virgin before her Dark Baptism. It’s why she forges a club of female students at her mortal high school in opposition to a principal who lives by the “good ol' boy” motto and doesn’t believe that books preaching free thought, tolerance, and revolution should be convenient reading.
In every battle Sabrina fights, she topples the patriarchy of her worlds, both witch and mortal, one block at a time. And it’s not just Sabrina who finds justice against her oppressors. Aunt Zelda, a woman raised in the Church of Night, a devout believer in Satan, a devoted follower of his teachings, comes to find her own agency through the first season of the series. The woman clutching her pearls at Sabrina’s defiance of her master in the first few episodes of the show is the same woman who finds identity and belonging, not in a man’s religion, but in her sisters, the women she calls family.
Sure, Sabrina, Prudence Night (Tati Gabrielle), even Madam Satan (Michelle Gomez) use magic to bend men to their will. In that way, the show delivers its promise — a vision that affirms that if magic existed and women controlled it, the world would be a very different place. But we don’t need magic to see women wield power in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. The revenge fantasy doesn’t materialize through conjurings or castings or rituals. It’s born through a woman’s desire for free will and her commitment to ensuring that ideals she values — equality, individuality, justice — live on, despite the men trying to tear them down.
And even when Sabrina ultimately signs her name to the Dark Lord’s book, an act that could be viewed as a kind of surrender, we see the witch rebel, with a wink, a sly grin, and the feeling that Satan, perhaps the patriarchy itself, has just invited a fox into its henhouse.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina probably isn’t the show most of us expected. It’s better. Better because, instead of giving us an imaginary world where witches always get their way, we’re given something more. A fantasy, yes, one that trades in the supernatural, borrows its power from spells, but one that also feels imitable. A revenge fantasy whose magic, we can only hope, may spill over into the real world one day.