Essays · TV

Sabrina, Buffy, and the Evolution of Fantastical Female Empowerment

One show’s feminist ideology picks up where the other’s left off.
Sabrina Spellman Wardwell
By  · Published on November 5th, 2018

There’s a popular B-movie style poster image from Buffy the Vampire Slayer that’s emblazoned on merch along with the phrase “Demons! Darkness! Dangerous Women!” This unofficial slogan would work just as well as a tagline for Netflix’s latest original series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. The DNA of Buffy is visible in the very fabric of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Sabrina, which looks, sounds, and feels much more like Joss Whedon’s influential fantasy series (as well as its comic universe cousin Riverdale) than it does the ‘90s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch. There are, of course, core differences between Buffy and Sabrina, but the two are inextricably linked by a thread of female autonomy and empowerment, represented through supernatural abilities–and responsibilities–and embodied by a teenage girl taking on a “destined” role within a corrupt system.

Sabrina’s feminism more or less picks up exactly where Buffy’s left off fifteen years ago, going wider and deeper than Whedon’s show did from the start. Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) spent much of BtVS’ seven-season run firmly within the patriarchal structure of the series’ vampire slayer tradition. She spent early seasons trying to juggle her slayer responsibilities with her modern girl sensibilities, and although she was empowering in her confident mix of femininity and badass heroism, in the early years Buffy rarely questioned the system that ordained her as a slayer. Her first clear rebellion against slayer lore comes in the season one finale, “Prophecy Girl,” during which Buffy faces a death prophecy that essentially tries to place her in the role of virgin sacrifice, leading her to wonder if her abilities come at a fair price.

Buffy Summers

By the end of season three’s “Helpless,” which sees Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) violating Buffy’s trust by secretly putting her through a brutal Watcher’s Council test, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has finally made the inherent exploitation of its patriarchal system–an age-old power structure which relies on outdated traditions that hold slayers back–obvious. For the rest of the series, Buffy steadily bucks the system, although the show is consistently more personal than political in its journey toward female autonomy. By the series finale, Buffy has learned the complex truth behind her legacy as a slayer after witnessing the First Slayer’s forced creation at the hands of her tribe’s shaman, and as a result, Buffy decides to scrap the entire system. “In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule,” she says and goes on to literally empower women worldwide by granting all potential slayers their full abilities with no strings attached. It’s a beautiful if imperfect sentiment, and at the time BtVS was as powerful and nuanced a portrait of young womanhood as TV had to offer.

The long and winding feminist journey Buffy Summers took leads us, finally, into the world of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. This time, our heroine is also part of a rigid, male-led society which both gave her powers and tried to restrict her, but Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) knows this is whack from the start. The Church of Night is Greendale’s Satan-worshipping coven whose stale and harmful traditions bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the Catholic Church and other organized religions. The series’ first two episodes serve as a sort of two-part pilot which follow Sabrina as she blatantly questions the Church of Night’s traditions. She’s resistant to signing her name in the Book of the Beast, a ceremonial rite of passage which is akin to a confirmation or even a marriage contract. From the jump, Sabrina makes it clear that she bows to no man, and that includes the Dark Lord himself. “I want both. I want freedom and power,” Sabrina says early on, reimagining the “either-or” question that plagued Buffy as a “both-and” and beginning a pattern of stubborn truth-telling that follows her to the season’s end. It’s 2018, and this girl doesn’t have to go through hell to know what she’s worth and demand it.

Despite her feminist awareness, Sabrina’s journey to autonomy is poised to be just as tricky as Buffy’s. Her lack of self-doubt is at times emboldening, a trait used to push through barriers and archaic traditions set up by the Church of Night, but it’s also a sign of naivety in the face of dangerous power structures that she hasn’t stopped to fully understand before trying to dismantle them. Her boyfriend’s brother Tommy (Justin Dobies) is the most obvious casualty of Sabrina’s rash idealism; when he dies, her overconfidence and desperation lead her to attempt a resurrection which goes wrong. She can do it, except when she can’t, and the underlying assertion that understanding a problem doesn’t automatically grant you a solution is another example of Sabrina working on the heavy lifting that Buffy left behind with its deus ex machina ending.

In Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s first season, the heroine’s journey is more or less that of a young activist, aware of her values but still unlearning her influences and rushing face-first into the fray whether she’s ready or not. Sometimes she’s the fresh blood needed to push the traditionalists around her into the 21st century, but just as often she hasn’t considered all the factors influencing her, primarily the sinister Ms. Wardwell’s (Michelle Gomez) nudgings toward darkness. Wardwell herself uses feminist ideology to lure Sabrina into ultimately signing the Book of the Beast, saying, “I know you’re scared, Sabrina, because all women are taught to fear power. Own your power. Don’t accept it from the Dark Lord. Take it.” She markets the selling of Sabrina’s soul as its own form of empowerment, and although it’s unclear whether or not Sabrina genuinely buys into her speech (that last-second wink though!), there’s a difficult but important conversation about commodified feminism and faux-empowerment simmering beneath the surface of this climax.

Sabrina Weird Sisters

So far, Sabrina’s ideology is at once more overt and more multiform than Buffy’s, as well as much more intersectional; the former’s debut season begins to skim the surface of tackling dynamics of gender and power through the lens of a non-binary character, a Black disabled character, and a working-class male character, as well as characters of various ages, bodies, and sexualities. The series has its flaws and hasn’t come close to BtVS in terms of narrative impact, but it’s already a standout among the many descendants of Buffy. With one self-serious season under its belt (Sabrina would do well to take a page out of Buffy’s book, tone-wise), there’s no telling how far Sabrina will take its conversation about autonomy and gender. One thing we can do, though, is look back and survey the ideological distance these two shows have traveled: the view from here’s a good one.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)