I’ve mentioned several times on this blog that I’ve never been into Western comics the way I got into manga. However, that’s not exactly the truth. When I was younger I was obsessed with Archie Comics—my family had boxes and boxes of the series running from the publications from the 90s to the re-prints of the older comics from the 50s. Riverdale may have been home to one of the worst cases of boring love triangles in the existence of everything, but for some reason I was enthralled. These days, I’ve fallen out of love with them—I barely even cared when the powers that be produced the “Archie finally got his shit together and married your choice of Betty or Veronica” specials—but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the spin-offs they created, especially Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
In the main canon of the Archie-verse, Sabrina showed up to cast a spell trying to help, only to have it go weird and the characters had to deal with the outcome. However, mostly it seemed to me like she played a sort of Addams Family role, which is to say that as a teenage witch she is living in extraordinarily weird circumstances, but her magic powers end up seeming normal compared to all the drama everyone else gets wrapped up in. She is, somehow, the normal one in Riverdale. More recently, Archie Comics published a new Sabrina series (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), but I’m much more interested in the 90s film simply called Sabrina the Teenage Witch. As the 90s was the era for the girl power boom, I thought it’d be interesting to see how being a witch played off of that, or even how the film could have given life to the 1996 television series of the same name (which, in full disclosure, I have never seen and have only read the spin-off books of). However, despite my initial excitement, I found that the movie, while having some good messages, ended up becoming a victim to its time, and that time’s sexism.
Sabrina’s only been living with her aunts in Riverdale for three months, and the pressures of going to the most 90s high school to ever exist are finally settling in on her. While her aunts Hilda and Zelda are worrying about Sabrina’s witch powers manifesting before she’s allowed to know about them (she’s only allowed to know on the first full moon after her sixteenth birthday, because of course that’s how it works), Sabrina is more focused on trying to fit in with her peers and trying to get the dreamy senior Seth to notice her. With her best friend Marnie and her other friend Harvey, who has a crush on her, Sabrina seems to be weathering the social storm moderately well despite some blowbacks from Seth’s ex-girlfriend, Katie. But ever since her birthday, things have been going more Sabrina’s way than ever, as every statement she begins with “I wish” ends up coming true. She even lands herself a spot on the track team because of this.
Not all is well, however: after being humiliated at the track team party (thrown by Katie, of course), Sabrina is devastated. Her devastation doesn’t last long, luckily enough, because her wardrobe starts glowing and upon exiting the other side—in a new white get-up to boot—she finds her aunts waiting for her. They explain to her that she, as well as everyone in her family, is a witch. At first, Sabrina’s not cool with it, already feeling more different from her peers than she’d like, but as soon as her aunts literally change time itself to make it so the fiasco at the track team party didn’t happen, Sabrina warms up to the idea immediately.
Unsurprisingly, Sabrina begins using her magic for the kind of things you’d expect a teenager to use magic powers on, and ultimately she tries making Seth fall in love with her. Luckily, it doesn’t work. Bemoaning her one failure to her aunts, they are quick to tell her that the witches’ council collectively decided that magic should never fuck with love, so no witch can use magic to directly sway another’s heart. Furthermore, if a witch wins a non-witch’s heart by anything related to magic at all, then the moment they kiss, the witch will turn into a familiar, like the family’s cat Salem did.
Taking this to heart, Sabrina begins legitimately training to impress Seth at the track meet, hoping to be asked to the Spring Fling dance if she wins the most events. She and Katie are neck-and-neck, but at the final race Katie cheats and knocks Sabrina over. Immediately going back on her resolve, Sabrina enchants her shoes, ends up winning the race magically, and gets asked to the dance by her crush. At the dance, Seth turns out to be a real asshole and ignores Sabrina for most of the night. Before he whisks her off to
makeout Lookout Point, she’s confronted by Katie, who broke into Sabrina’s locker, found the magical tome, and is now threatening to tell the whole school she’s a witch. Sabrina frets for just a moment before turning Katie into a dog and going on her way. Finally at Lookout Point, Sabrina rejects Seth’s advances and ends up coming across Harvey (remember him? Sabrina’s guy friend who has a crush on her?) who followed them in order to rescue Sabrina from Seth’s grossness. They share a dance and Sabrina ends up magic-ing them back to the school just in time for the slow dance song. Harvey gets his girl, Katie stops being a dog, and everyone is happy.
Narratively, this film was an utter failure. I love me some schlocky 90s films—one of my favorite films of all time is 10 Things I Hate About You—but there absolutely has to be something at stake for it to matter at all. Sabrina never had anything to lose, not just because she could magic her way out of it but also because there were no real threats to her. So she was going to lose the track meet to Katie and not go to the dance with Seth: who cares? Even if she didn’t magic herself to victory, Sabrina’s life wouldn’t have been over if she didn’t go with him. Katie threatening to tell the whole school Sabrina was a witch might have been an interesting conflict, but A) it happened in the last ten minutes of the film and B) Sabrina had the logical response of “uh, I’m a witch? Lmao, okay Katie. Sure,” so it completely destroys any sense of tension that could have existed.
What could have fixed this problem entirely is the actual inclusion of this witch council. If Sabrina actually had some restrictions on her magic that she got in trouble for breaking, forcing her to think about how she used her magic in the first place, then it would really show the audience the drawbacks of having this incredible power while also exploring what was important to Sabrina. Would she still have used her magic to impress Seth despite it breaking a rule or two? That’s compelling. As it was, her only possible punishment was kissing Seth and turning into a familiar, but there was no fear of that happening anyway since he was acting like a total douchebag.
Speaking of the witch council, for a movie about witches there was surprisingly little about witches or magic. The film never explains what the witch council is, or why their spells only have to rhyme sometimes for them to work: magic just sort of… is there. Which is fine, but even the existence of a witch council—which was powerful enough to nullify love magic forever—implies that there has to be some rules or something keeping the witch community in line. They even make the same tired distinction between “good” witches and “bad” witches in a more vague sense than Hansel & Gretel did. The only true distinction is that the good witches are the witches who are still alive, and the bad witches are the ones who died during the witch hunts, which is so laughably offensive that I still can’t believe that was actually in the movie.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to be said for “girl power” either. While Sabrina and Marnie, her best friend, did spend a lot of the movie helping each other, the film seemed much more interested in creating a superficial divide between the popular kids and everyone else with no intention of ever mixing the two groups together. Sabrina sits with the popular kids for one day—not ditching Marnie to do so, mind you—and Marnie acts like Sabrina burned her crops or something. And all the popular girls are just as vapid as you would expect. The main conflict between Katie and Sabrina wasn’t even because Katie didn’t like Sabrina on a fundamental level: they were just fighting over Seth. Honestly, I kind of ended up rooting for Katie more than Sabrina. Katie was shown actually working for everything she had—she trained exceedingly hard for the track meet—so if some stranger suddenly showed up out of nowhere and made me look like a fool, I’d be pretty pissed off too.
What I did like about the film, though, was its morals. Or most of them, anyway. Sabrina tries to tell its audience that it was okay to be different, and that their strengths came from the weirdnesses they have. The film never made it feel like it was a stupid idea to want to fit in, but instead tried to say that it would be easier to find your group of friends if you worked harder to please yourself than the people around you. The most important line of the film comes in when the aunts are teaching Sabrina to fly and one of them says, “When you are true to who you are and feel good about yourself, nothing can keep you down.” Though this sentiment falls into the “easier said than done” category, it’s still a good message to give to your audience. Yet all this good is essentially destroyed by the film’s creepy underlying messages on what being a teenage girl means. I’m not just talking about obligatory shopping scenes and crop tops for older men to ogle at. Sabrina more than dabbles in the virgin-whore dichotomy.
As the Spring Fling approaches, we get a random scene in their English class where, upon finishing a lecture on The Crucible, the teacher remarks that women during that time period were put to the stake for bewitching men, then compared that to how girls dressed at these school dances. Like, ew. Not only is that incredibly sexist, making a boy’s decision rely on the outfit choices of a girl, but also extremely inappropriate for a classroom setting. Not that I doubt that this has happened time and time again in real life, but the scene itself came out of nowhere and only served to remind the audience surreptitiously that Katie is bad and a slut because she wears crop tops and short skirts while Sabrina is a good girl who covers herself more. Furthermore, all of Sabrina’s bad decisions re: magic are emphasized with sexual overtones. Using Marnie as a mouthpiece, the movie immediately insists that since Sabrina has reached sweet sixteen, she should stop calling Seth “cute” because it’s too childish and that other boys like Harvey need to start thinking of Sabrina as an adult. Because sixteen is the perfect age to start being openly perved on by guys, right?
On a more symbolic note, the film has already associated good witches with the color white, so when Sabrina ends up picking a black bikini for Katie’s track party, it’s a clear way to get across to the audience that she is using her magic for “evil”—that wanting to look cool in front of the popular kids is a “wrong” use of magic. Plus, having Katie’s party be attended to by Chippendale’s dancers wearing leotards also strikes me as incredibly inappropriate.
This whole “bad magic synonymous with sexual undertones” thing culminates early on in the scene where the aunts explain the repercussions for love magic. Sabrina has been working through this whole magic thing on her own, so of course she wouldn’t know herself what magic was wrong (and let’s face it, who among us really read all the books we had for homework all the way through?). The aunts are shocked at this, however, immediately turning their disappointment on Salem, who was supposed to be in charge of taking Sabrina through her magical book studies. One of the aunts comments that Salem neglected his duties because “he wanted her for himself”, meaning that he secretly wanted Sabrina to turn into a familiar so he could have her. It’s even shown that he finds her attractive later on when he slobbers over the dress she picked out for the Spring Fling. So, again, ew. Salem has possibly been with the Aunts for as long as they’ve been witches—two hundred years, at least—and to have him suddenly potentially manipulating Sabrina into fucking up her life for nine months by becoming a cat is something that deserved more punishment than “Oh Salem, how could you” and a wag of the finger.
As far as made-for-TV movies go, I do think the writers were actually trying, but holy shit this film was certainly not as charming as the comics it was based off. Rather than focusing on the actual repercussions of being a witch, or how magic would interfere with trying to be a normal teenage girl, the film seemed more interested in creating another teenage love story with some magic thrown in to help the otherwise mess of a plot along. I would say that it was ultimately harmless, but despite some good messages at its core, the other creepier messages are much louder and did legitimately have some hurtful ideas with them. If you’re looking for a Sabrina fix, I’d recommend the comics or the television series over this movie.