Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a show that wants you to know exactly how progressive and feminist it is. But the show’s messages about female empowerment are severely undercut by the way it mishandles one of its most prominent characters of color.
Tati Gabrielle’s Prudence Night is introduced as one of the first antagonists Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) encounters just as her 16th birthday rolls around. It’s the age at which Sabrina is meant to finally embrace her witchhood, the Church of Night, and a spot at the Academy of Unseen Arts.
Prudence—and her personal squad of fellow orphaned, mean-girl witches (collectively known as the Weird Sisters)—make a point of targeting Sabrina, in large part because she is half-mortal and accepted into Greendale’s magical community despite being secretly baptized in a Catholic church as a baby and, at first, refusing to sign her name in the Book of the Beast. To Prudence and her sisters, Sabrina’s an outsider whose presence in their orbit presents a very real threat because of her fondness for mortals—and the very real potential that her attachments to them could reveal the existence of their coven, putting them all in danger.
For Sabrina, on the other hand, the Weird Sisters are simply bullies trying to give her a hard time for being different and, as the heroine of the show, she sets out to take them on as the season unfolds. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this particular kind of premise in a vacuum, in the ways that The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina approaches the conflict, the show begins to dabble in some extremely problematic, racially-charged imagery and messaging that has left a number of people put off.
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In “Chapter Four: Witch School,” the Weird Sisters target Sabrina in hazing ritual known as “harrowing” in an attempt to convince her to leave the school. In the process, Sabrina comes to learn about the dozens of ghosts haunting the campus.
When Sabrina’s decided that she’s had enough of the other girls’ psychological torment, she confronts them, and with the help of the ghosts, she fights back by using her powers to lift the Weird Sisters into the air by their necks in front of a tree where 13 witches were hanged in the distant past.
Because Sabrina’s focused on witches, it isn’t surprising that hanging is a recurring theme throughout the show, but the practice takes on a different meaning in that particular scene because Gabrielle is a black woman. We live in a country where the public lynching of black people was frequently used to terrorize black communities throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and the imagery associated with lynching is still used to send threatening, racist messages.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina never really engages with race in any meaningful ways within the text of the show itself. Greendale is an American town with a diverse population that’s lived in the area since the country was first colonized by Europeans. The show gives you the sense people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds have peacefully coexisted in the town since its founding. While that makes for an idyllic concept, it reads as decidedly out of touch with reality when one considers how minority populations have actually been treated in the U.S. historically. Did the town’s black population endure slavery or Jim Crow? Who knows? All we’re ever told is that, in the past, mortals exterminated witches during the late 17th century right around the Salem witch trials and that’s...about it.
But while the show might not want to engage with ideas about the complexities of race, it’s impossible to watch it without them running in the back of one’s mind, especially when a black woman is being hanged on screen.
Even though it probably wasn’t the intention of the show’s production team to evoke the racist legacy of lynching, that’s precisely what it manages to do, both because of the scene itself and the way the show generally glosses over any kind of commentary about race. Other fantastical, genre shows like American Gods have tackled plots featuring the hanging of black characters, but what American Gods does that Sabrina fails to do, is to actually address the hangings and all of their real-world cultural significance. It communicates to the audience that the show understands how complicated and painful the history of the practice continues to be by having its characters actually acknowledge and react to the lynching itself and its racial implications. In not putting in that work, Sabrina’s hanging scene comes across is tone deaf at best and culturally ignorant at worse, especially considering that the moment is meant to be a turning point for Sabrina, who finally begins to assert herself as a confident witch at the Academy.
Just before the Weird Sisters are hanged, Sabrina urges them to stop their own plans to hang her by giving a speech about how the original witches of Greendale would be appalled to know that women like them—their descendants—might one day try to harm one another in a place where witches come together to learn about and hone their craft:
“13 witches were hanged here by witch hunters. Those women couldn’t possibly have imaged a place like the Academy—a school where witches would be safe. Even if they could, they’d never believe that the women inside its walls would turn on one another like this.”
Message-wise, Sabrina’s speech is meant to be a kind of thesis statement about the show’s feminist ideals, but it rings somewhat hollow because of the way the show clumsily handles Sabrina’s retaliation. Ultimately, there’s no real reason the Weird Sisters had to be hanged and so one can’t help but wonder why Sabrina couldn’t think of literally any other way to fight back.
The lynching scene would have been more than enough to make The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina difficult to sit with all on its own, but Prudence’s character arc continues to be somewhat off-putting as the season continues. Later on, it’s revealed that she’s the illegitimate, abandoned daughter of Father Blackwood, the Church of Night’s High Priest (and Dean of the Academy), who happens to be a white man married to another black woman who isn’t Prudence’s mother. It’s a surprising plot point that recontextualizes Prudence’s use of the slur “half-breed” to refer to Sabrina. Following the twist, their rivalry morphs into a story about a white woman seeking to unseat a multiracial, black woman from her social station—specifically by exposing the truth about her heritage. The term “half-breed” should be seen as quite loaded in this context.
It’s great that The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina went out of its way to make sure that characters of color like Prudence play such integral parts in its larger plot. But it’s important to understand a show involving characters of color should be fully aware of its use of racially charged imagery. These scenes from the first season should have been glaring red flags from the jump--and one can only hope that the show will be more mindful in its upcoming second season.