The Legacy of Sabrina the Teenage Witch
ABC’s “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” aired in September 1996*. I was eight years old and lived in Virginia Beach, where the warmth, ocean, and daylight held my attention far more than any television show or cartoon. Flash forward two years, and my family had moved to Northern Minnesota where the bitter cold and deep snow lead to longer hours spent inside, and thus more hours spent in front of the TV. The live action “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” Season 3 had just started airing, and I stumbled across it on ABC’s infamous TGIF block of family programming. I remember also enjoying the Olsen Twin’s show “Two of a Kind” as well as the show “My Brother’s Keeper“, but Sabrina was the star of the evening in my book.
Actress Melissa Joan Hart had been introduced to me years earlier in the show Clarissa Explains It All on Nickelodeon, which had spoken earnestly to my nascent pre-teenage angst and mirrored the difficulties I felt I had with my own younger brothers.
Editor’s Note 7/15/2015: In a recent E! article Melissa Joan Hart mentions she was approached for a reboot!
“Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, on the other hand, was more grown up. It held the hands of us teenyboppers into puberty, middle school, relationships, and ideas about careers in the way distant, too hard to imagine, world of adulthood. I remember watching Season 5, when Sabrina goes to college, and daydreaming about life as an undergraduate, working as a journalist, and having *gasp* roommates!
As a result of this show I adored anything witch related, leading to a book shelf filled with thin YA paperbacks that all had the word “witch” somewhere in the title. I watched the movie, I owned the soundtracks, and I enjoyed the animated cartoon that followed the live action show’s success.
But that was then. What happens when you re-watch all 7 seasons (163 episodes) of your favorite childhood show as an adult?
Turns out, you have your love reaffirmed and bolstered with gratitude. “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” did nothing but give me great role models, awesome messages, and an introduction to feminist ideas. It’s no wonder the show’s creator and executive producer, Nell Covell, ended up helping Cheryl Sandberg write Lean In over a decade later. Even now, in my late 20’s, I enjoy the show as if I’m watching it for the first time. Amazon Prime has the entire 7 seasons available to stream, but you can also purchase the DVD set for around $90. You can also watch the first 9 episodes of season 1 for free on CBS online.
Across the 163 episodes of all seven seasons it would be hard for this show to NOT earn all 15 points on the Scale of Inclusivity. It is not offensive to women (1 point), features many women as main and supporting characters (2 points), passes the Bechdel test every episode (3 points), and is definitely artistic and entertaining (4 points).
Why did this show endear itself to me and so many other young girls? It was (dare I say it?) magical.
Sabrina Spellman is an ordinary girl who, much like Harry Potter, is half mortal and half witch. Keep in mind, the show premiered in pre-Harry Potter America (hard for you younger folks to imagine, I know). Sabrina lives in the mortal realm with her two aunts, Hilda and Zelda, while going to a normal high school and dealing with her parents’ divorce. She doesn’t find out she’s a half-witch until her 16th birthday, and then her magical training begins.
Where the show exceeds its peers (earning the last 5 points) is how multi-dimensional the characters are and how downright feminist the show is. Ironically, the show’s most loveable character is Salem Saberhagen, who acts as a foil to the show’s feminism. He is a former dictator sentenced to live for 100 years as a cat by the Other Realm Witches Council. He lives with Hilda and Zelda because Hilda was one of Salem’s followers during his dictator days.
Salem is practically a straw misogynist (context: straw feminist), but has too much presence of character to be “straw” anything. His sexist remarks are corrected by Sabrina, Zelda, and Hilda, and are also usually punished in some way. His piggish ways also thwart his attempts at romancing women. However, it is apparent after 163 episodes that his machismo is a charade and that he genuinely cares about the Spellman family he lives with.
Occasionally we meet Sabrina’s father and mother, but her guardians are truly her two wacky aunts. Hilda and Zelda are simply the best. Who wouldn’t want to live with two 600+ year old women? Their frequent recounting of history (and the historical figures they dated) are a source of a amusement equal to the anachronistic humor of the cult classic Xena: Warrior Princess. They mentor Sabrina through her ups and downs, come to Sabrina’s rescue, come to each other’s rescue, and are rescued by Sabrina on multiple occasions. Other Realm hijinx often result in someone getting kidnapped or imprisoned!
Zelda is the genius of the family, trying to cure diseases and teach college kids astrophysics in addition to her mastery of potions. Hilda is Zelda’s complete opposite: disorganized, flighty, and fun. It’s the witch version of the “Odd Couple”.
And then there is Sabrina herself. An imperfect, brash, feminist, smart, compassionate, clumsy, and doesn’t-always-think-things-through girl who gives us episode after episode following the same pattern: she makes a mistake, she tries to fix it with magic, the magic fails or backfires (as shortcuts always do), she does her best to really fix things, learns her lesson, and grows as a person. What I loved about her is that she does not act constricted by any social mores. She is fearless in many ways, and the episodes where she starts to feel pressured by society (ex: to be thin), she learns that it is a mistake to listen to those voices and that she should be true to herself. That is probably one of the strongest messages I got from the show.
If you didn’t watch the show as a kid you might have seen Melissa Joan Hart in other places too. Did you realize that she starred in Britney Spears’ official music video for her hit song “You Drive Me Crazy”? The show itself also featured Hanson, the Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and many others. Rewatching those episodes takes me back to my childhood!
“Sabrina the Teenage Witch” has many moments that showcase feminist themes. In season 1, episode 2 “Bundt Friday”, Sabrina puts truth sprinkles on a cake she made in Home Economics so she can give it to her nemesis Libby. Inadvertently the entire class eats a slice of that cake, leading to all sorts of truth telling. Most notable are the confessions of the teenage boys:
Harvey (Sabrina’s crush): “I didn’t just take Home Ec cuz’ coach told me to. I like to cook. I like it a lot!”
In the hallway –
Boy 1: “Come on, how far did she let you go?”
Boy 2: “How far? I didn’t even try to kiss her.”
Boy 1: “You didn’t?”
Boy 2: “Nah, I’m not ready. Didn’t I tell you I’m a virgin?”
Boy 1: “Really?! Me too!” (nods head & smiles enthusiastically)
Boy 2: “Excellent!”
One of the other feminist moments that comes to mind is from an episode where the entire town wakes up and it’s the 1970s. Sabrina goes to a college fair that day, only to discover the college she was interested in thinks she’s joking when she asks about applying. Turns out the school was historically an all boys college, and they suggest she go to a less rigorous, more female friendly institution. Sabrina is shocked, and more determined than ever to go there.
“Sabrina the Teenage Witch” is a timeless classic, telling a story that rings true and remains heartwarming and funny even a decade later. I look forward to the day I can watch it with my own children.
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*Sabrina the Teenage Witch originally started as a low-budget animated show in the 1970s. That show was inspired by Archie Comics‘ Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Sabrina’s character showed up in Archie’s universe for the first time in 1962. You can still buy Archie Comic’s starring Sabrina today.