Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a new series, but is already having a bit of an identity crisis. And it’s about how the show handles sex. For being a series about a group of pansexual witches and warlocks—according to one of the actors, they might all be pansexual—there are some pretty disappointing takes on sexuality.
Before we get into it, I do want to say that there are some things the show does well regarding gender identity and sexuality, though it does come with caveats. Sabrina’s friend Susie Putnam, played by non-binary actor Lachlan Watson, is a character who doesn’t conform to gender norms and is in the midst of exploring her gender identity. Watson is a fantastic actor who brings a lot to that story. But, as my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore put it, it also holds back in ways that make it hard to follow Susie’s journey.
Then there’s Sabrina’s cousin, Ambrose Spellman (Chance Perdomo). The character is pansexual, meaning someone who’s attracted to others regardless of gender identity. This is an established part of the character, and it comes across onscreen—through flirtation, sexual activity, and his relationships.
In promoting Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Netflix has made a big deal out of the fact that Ambrose is pansexual—not only because it matches his portrayal in the comic books, but because there aren’t many pansexual characters on television. However, it seems the series may have a whole lot more representation in that regard. During my Vancouver set visit, Adeline Rudolph, who plays Agatha (one of the Weird Sisters), proposed that all witches and warlocks on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are pansexual.
“What I love is all warlocks and witches are pansexual, so we swing both ways, which I love. I love that idea of freedom and just being open to anything,” Rudolph said. “This idea of these witches just having no problem with their bodies, regardless of what their shape is or how they look, and being as sexual as they want to be. It doesn’t matter which way or how much.”
It’s unclear whether this is one actress’s interpretation of the characters that she and the others are playing, or a bona fide part of the show (we reached out to showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa for clarification). But if Rudolph is correct and all witches and warlocks are pansexual in the series, the show has done a poor job of showing it (and discussing it, as “swing both ways” means attraction along the gender binary). When it comes to depictions of sexuality, this isn’t the show’s most significant misstep.
All three of the actresses playing the Weird Sisters, along with Gavin Leatherwood (who plays Sabrina’s possible beau Nicholas), described their characters as being very sexually liberated, something that they say comes across in the series itself. In the second episode, Sabrina and the Weird Sisters use their bodies as bait while casting a spell on some young men who were bullying Susie. Here’s Abigail Cowen, who plays Dorcas (another Weird Sister), describing the scene during the set visit:
Our first scene that we ever shot was us in our underwear, so we had to strip down into our underwear, which was a little terrifying but also liberating. It’s like we’re in charge, we’re the women that are in charge. We get what we want and we go for what we want.
Sadly, what they went for was pretty upsetting. The bait scene ended with the witches tricking the young men to make out with each other so Sabrina could blackmail them. This falls into “gay panic” stereotypes—made worse by the fact that we later learn one of the jocks is attracted to his friend and is publicly outed by Sabrina’s Aunt Hilda. These guys might have been terrible bullies, but playing to homophobic tropes while traumatising someone who keeps his sexual identity secret doesn’t put Sabrina on the high ground, and it certainly isn’t “liberating.”
Another dated attitude is the idea that women are “promiscuous” because they’re acting out against their fathers or father figures. And guess what: We’ve got that here too. During the set visit, actress Tati Gabrielle said the fact that Prudence didn’t grow up with her father—who we eventually learn is Father Blackwood—is her reason for being sexually active.
“Every girl growing up, of course, always wants a father. That’s your first love, that’s where you learn to love. I think a lot of Prudence’s somewhat promiscuity kind of stems from the fact that she was never properly loved by the first man in her life,” Gabrielle said.
This type of mentality—while supported by the occasional study—can come across as regressive. Especially when it goes against what the others suggested, that witches and warlocks are sexually liberated on their own terms. If the reason for Prudence’s sexual behaviour is something that chalks up to “Daddy Issues,” that’s not her being sexual because that’s what she wants. She’s reacting to a man, even if that man isn’t present. Her sexuality is, in essence, controlled by someone else.
Finally, there’s the issue of love versus lust. During the final episode of the season, Nicholas tells Sabrina that witches and warlocks aren’t allowed to love other people because Satan is the jealous type. But it’s not so much that Satan puts a chastity belt on people once they sign his book, turning love into a forbidden pleasure. During the set visit, Leatherwood said witches and warlocks don’t even experience love, only a raw sexual drive. It is true that some people have sex without being in love, and others fall in love without having sex. But Leatherwood insists that love is something witches and warlocks don’t understand. Therefore, Nicholas is attracted to Sabrina because she, as part-human, feels love in a way he’s never known.
“I feel like he really wants to discover what love is, because witches and warlocks don’t have that. It’s all about lust and passion and sex,” Leatherwood said. “This thing that Sabrina possesses is this understanding of the other side, the other world. What humans experience as love is a very powerful thing.”
This love/lust dichotomy not only muddles the plot, but it creates issues for its characters.
You could blame the witches’ and warlocks’ lack of love on the fact that they’re evil. That’s the case with Father Blackwood, who actor Richard Coyle described as not only unapologetically evil, but also a “voracious slut.” But Leatherwood also described Nicholas as being “good at heart,” so there’s at least one warlock who isn’t evil but still follows that “no love” rule.
So maybe they’ve signed their souls over to Satan, and with that came a demand that they don’t experience love for anyone but him. But is that lack of love by choice, or something Satan physically took away from them? If it’s the former, they wouldn’t need to “discover” what love is. They’d already know it, and feel it. They’d just be repressing it, which is not the same thing. And the latter is impossible, as it is clear Aunt Zelda and Aunt Hilda both love Sabrina. Oh, and let’s not forget how Hilda spiked Ambrose’s friend Luke’s coffee with a love potion—to feel that thing, you know, warlocks aren’t supposed to feel. Whoops.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina gives us a group of witches and warlocks that are coded as sexually liberated, but are actually quite damaged. This would be all right if it came with some sort of deeper understanding, but it doesn’t. Their sexuality comes from a place of loss and pain, but it’s not presented that way. They just focus on the tawdry, without exploring what’s underneath.
And now that Sabrina has signed the Dark Lord’s book, we’ve entered a whole new realm of problems that the show isn’t ready for. Does it mean Sabrina has lost her ability to love as well, or experience anything other than sexual gratification? Might be hard for us to root for her and Harvey to get back together if she’s lost her ability to love again. It’s clear the answer is no, that they will “Special One” her out of the situation. But that won’t fix the larger problem of sexuality on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It’ll just be one girl’s exception to a really bad rule.