'Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina' Is Undeniably Feminist — But Here's Why Kiernan Shipka Won't Call Sabrina A Role Model
As a fierce young half-witch rising up against an oppressive patriarchy, the heroine at the center of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina makes a strong case for becoming one of the most iconic characters in recent TV history. Netflix's dark reimagining of the classic Archie comics character, which is based more closely on the 2014 Archie Horror comic of the same name, takes what you think you know about Sabrina Spellman and twists it into something both more topically relevant and more sinister than previous iterations.
CAOS finds Kiernan Shipka's Sabrina struggling to balance her dual nature — half-witch, half-mortal — and figuring out how to be the best ally to her friends and loved ones, all while standing against the evil forces that threaten her, her family, and the mortal world. And she's doing it all while keeping her witchy ways a secret from her boyfriend and best friends. Not bad for a teenage witch!
Sabrina is certainly heroic, loyal, and strong-willed. She stands up to bullies, creates a safe space for women at her high school, and fights corrupt men in power in both the mortal and immortal worlds. But according to Shipka, Sabrina isn't perfect, and not every decision she makes is a good one. Like any teen, she's still figuring things out.
"One of my favorite things is that the show is just jam packed with powerful badass women who are exercising their power and just being awesome and cool and have depth and flaws," she tells Bustle along with a small group of reporters on set in Vancouver. "That's what I'm obsessed with. To play a character like Sabrina that is making mistakes and making good choices and just figuring herself out, that's something that I think is really exciting. I really hesitate to ever call Sabrina a role model because she's 16 years old."
Think back to how you acted when you were 16 and it's immediately understandable why Shipka doesn't want to put Sabrina up on a pedestal. But despite the mistakes she makes, Sabrina always has good intentions, and that's important, too. "I'm very excited that some 13-year-old girls are going to be watching this show and have her as a character to think about or be for Halloween," Shipka adds. "She's a really strong, smart, educated girl and I couldn't be prouder to be part of a show that has very clear intentions on that front."
In the series, Sabrina is told a lot about what will be expected of her once she fully embraces her witch heritage on her sixteenth birthday, including the fact that she must give up any and all connections she has to the human world, including her relationship with her boyfriend Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch). But she doesn't follow orders; she questions and pushes for honest dialogue and stands up for what she believes in. It's something Shipka hopes young girls — and anyone who watches CAOS — learns is important.
"A theme that I really think everyone can resonate with on the show is this concept of individuation and individuating yourself from whatever you were brought up to believe," Shipka says. "Sabrina's at that age where she starts to question things, and where she starts to make decisions for herself and form opinions. I think she's right at the beginning of that very important stage of her life."
She's been brought up to follow the Church of Night, a coven of witches who worship Satan. But she's also half human, and has connected with humans at her high school to the point where she doesn't just blindly believe everything she's told about humanity.
"There's a lot of conflict because on one hand, the Church of Night is what she knows and it's the typical route for someone like her to go," Shipka says. "At the same time, she has this other life in the mortal world and she's exposed to more than just that and I think that sparks a lot of curiosity. It's very coming-of-age... and it's so important. It's so important to ask questions all the time and I think that it's really cool to see a character that is truly questioning these beliefs that people around her have, and is just figuring out what's right for her."
Shipka also hopes that Sabrina's unwavering loyalty to her friends inspires viewers. When Sabrina sees her best friend Susie (Lachlan Watson) getting bullied and sexually harassed by jocks for not appearing feminine enough, she immediately jumps into action. She forms an intersectional feminist support group at school, stands up to the bullies, and even uses some of her witchy skills to get her revenge on them. And that's just one instance of her showing up for her friends whenever they need her.
"I think that the friendships in this show are so wonderful and beautifully written," Shipka says. "Sabrina is really passionate about fighting for what's right and fighting for her friends and being there when they need her. She's figuring it out. She's not in the easiest of situations to do that, but her intentions are always so there and so right, and without giving too much away, her friends always have her back too, which is important. It's a mutual thing."
She pauses, then adds, "It's strong and it's powerful, and I think that's a big part of the show. It's definitely at the core of the show, and I don't see that ever going away. No matter how many seasons we do, the friendships between the characters — [Sabrina and] the mortal characters — are so just beautiful and strong and wonderful."
And what makes Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the perfect TV show to watch now is its "undeniable" feminism, according to Shipka. "I definitely read the first script and I loved the feminist spin on the whole thing," she says with a big smile. "I saw it weaved in and I definitely made that clear. That kind of excitement was felt all around, especially having a lot of women in the writers' room and female directors as well, and strong female leads. I can't really take credit for all of it. I think it was just the way to go, almost the unanimous sort of thing."
So cancel all your weekend plans, gather up your coven of witches, (magical or mortal) and start streaming as soon as Chilling Adventures of Sabrina hits Netflix Friday.