By Christina Schultz
Warning: This review contains spoilers of Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
“Netflix and chill” has long become routine for folks who shell out the dough for a monthly subscription. And with the vast array of shows and movies available on the VOD giant, you can binge-watch to your heart’s content.
And binge-watch I did when I first heard about Riverdale (The CW, 2017-)* and later on about Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix, 2018). There’s something about sexy, angsty teenagers we just can’t resist. Add a feminist, LGBTQ+ discourse to the mix, and you’ve upgraded those old-fashioned Archie Comics to the 21st century.
That’s what makes these shows, loosely based on the comics, so refreshing: pleasantly “different” characters. Yet the shows are not without their flaws, although I have a clear feminist favorite. By that I mean one of the two shows features a more diverse cast of strong, independent female characters who have multiple scenes or plotlines not revolving around their lovelife and who are not overt sexual objects of lust (although they might use their womanly charms to get what they want on occasion). Here’s a FemFilmFans breakdown of Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS).
In the original Archie Comics, Betty and Veronica were frenemies par excellence, pettily and pathetically vying for Archie’s affections. Riverdale quickly overcomes the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle - after Betty reveals her feelings for Archie and he firmly places her in the friend zone - by pairing off Betty and Jughead (#bugheadforever), although this represents a totally disappointing departure from the asexual Jughead in the comics. A positive departure is that Betty does not pine away for Archie, plotting ways to get him back from Veronica. Boy problems solved. However, it seems as if the be all and end all of the show is to have an s.o. Can’t anyone be single for two seconds? Asexual, questioning, or just plain single viewers don’t have much to identify with. In any case, B and V become inseparable, sticking up for one another and for just about anyone needing help (they mercilessly took on Riverdale High’s slut-shaming jocks, for example). This is a positive, empowering female friendship much needed in today’s media landscape.
But all that female empowerment sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Cue Cheryl Blossom (played by Madelaine Petsch): rich, beautiful, egocentric, domineering, and hell, let’s call a spade a spade, bitchy to the core. Even though she winds up dating Toni Topaz later on in the show, a (generally) positive development for her character, she initially stirs things up with everyone. Let’s put it this way, you wouldn’t want to be on her bad side, because she could make your life hell. We have nothing against strong female characters who speak their mind and get what they want, but not only does her combative cattiness make her problematic, it’s her overall presentation, too. Call me old-fashioned, but Cheryl always looks as if she’s about to head to work at the strip club. Betty and Veronica dress more conservatively, but you see a lot of toned midriffs and cleavage in the show. Where are the nerdy kids, the average, chunky or even plus size characters, the kids with disabilities, even kids with glasses? There’s Ethel Muggs (played by Shannon Purser), but that’s about it. Even though we have gay, lesbian and bi characters, and Veronica, Josie (of Josie and the Pussycats) and their mothers Hermione and Sierra respectively as women of color, we’d still like to see more diversity, especially for people of all shapes and sizes.
Equally problematic is Riverdale’s very own cult “The Farm” with its male leader Edgar Evernever (played by Chad Michael Murray). The fact that mostly women, like Betty’s mom Alice Cooper, her sister Penny - and eventually Cheryl and Toni - join and offer themselves up body and soul to this man chills me to my feminist core. Betty is the only one who truly sees through The Farm (or does she?) but in the end she learns that her mother needs to heal and can only do so with her new family (and, with Betty’s suspicions confirmed, through some sort of “marriage” to Edgar). What happened to smashing the patriarchy? Or is the show trying to low-key undermine religious or cultish groups by showing how backwards they can be? I would need to do some more digging to get to bottom of this (or just keep watching), but The Farm plotline leaves me cold. We also have the return of the Black Hood, The Gargoyle King and Hiram Lodge on the loose, three more male figures wreaking havoc on and thus controlling the town, albeit in completely different ways.
Yet Riverdale gets kudos for directly referencing the Bechdel Test, featuring the musical number “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage” (Season Two, Episode 16 - “Chapter Twenty-Nine: Primary Colors”), subverting the male gaze as Betty, and thus the viewers, watch Archie through her bedroom window and having Jughead’s mom, Gladys Jones (played by Gina Gershon), show up to town only to reveal she wore the pants in Riverdale’s criminal underworld all along. Shocker!
Riverdale thus receives a score of 2/3 Fs (Finely Feminist)
*Special thanks to Ji Strangeway for tipping me off to the show!
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS)
At first I was skeptical when I saw the ads for the Sabrina reboot. Even our FemFilmFam voted for Melissa Joan Hart as their favorite Sabrina in our Insta Story, so I know I’m not the only one pining away for our favorite witch of the 90s.
While Sabrina is an attractive petite blonde, sticking to the norms of “Western” beauty standards - the rest of the cast makes up for this lack of diversity - she is a modern feminist hero we can get behind. Sabrina Spellman (played by Kiernan Shipka), half-mortal, half-witch, has an uncanny knack for witchcraft, although she is not a full-time student at The Academy of Unseen Arts. She comes from a powerful Satan-worshipping family, headed by her Aunt Zelda and Aunt Hilda. Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) is cold, ambitious, strong-willed and clever. For example, she marries Father Blackwood not for love, but for the power and privilege with which such an alliance comes. Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) at first appears to be the exact opposite of her sister: meek, kind, motherly. However, Hilda reveals her true colors in Season Two - she is not to be trifled with. She also keeps Sabrina grounded and reminds her that the mortal world isn’t all so bad. Sabrina’s aunties thus provide the basis of one of the most badass witch matriarchies around and are great role models for Sabrina (and for female viewers).
Sabrina also receives (mis)guidance from someone whom she thinks to be her favorite teacher Ms. Wardwell. It turns out that she is actually Lilith, Madame Satan herself, the first wife of Adam (yes, that Adam from the Bible). Lilith is the ultimate OG Biblical, or rather Satanic feminist, having refused to submit to Adam, which led God to banish her from the Garden of Eden. Eventually Lilith meets Lucifer Morningstar, aka The Dark Lord, who was an archangel banished from Heaven by God. Lucifer gave Lilith power in return for her help, making her the first witch. But everything comes with a price: she was bound to him as his handmaiden. Throughout Season Two, we see two sides to Lilith/Ms. Wardwell. First, her vulnerability during her struggles to outsmart The Dark Lord and second, her lust for power as she uses Sabrina as a pawn to become Queen of Hell. Despite her life of servitude, the fact that she was finally able to beat The Dark Lord (at least for now) makes her a true feminist warrior. She simply would not accept her fate and bend to His will (and talk about long game).
Other strong (albeit problematic) female characters include The Weird Sisters, and especially Prudence, although they are more malicious than weird and are often at odds with Sabrina until the latter proves herself at The Academy. Prudence has some serious Daddy Issues, but it is a welcome change to see a strong, black, pansexual witch. But we can’t leave out the mortals when talking about strong female characters. Sabrina’s bespectacled black gal pal with beautiful natural hair, Ros(alind) Walker, finds out she has powers of her own (“the cunning”). Having inherited this gift from her grandmother, Ros has psychic visions, which helps Sabrina on numerous occasions. She is also outspoken about issues that matter to her and I was pleased when she founded a feminist book club at Baxter High.
It is important to mention that CAOS also includes a trans character. Susie in Season One becomes Theo in Season Two, played by non-binary actor Lachlan Watson, and the character has been a cause for debate among some viewers. Whether or not you like Theo, it is still important to see trans characters included in mainstream media. The show is creating space for characters like Theo and the ones mentioned above. In my book that’s a definite plus.
And now back to Sabrina - what makes her feminist as f*ck is her power, confidence, persistence and yes, even her arrogant hubris at times. Rather than pandering to the “damsel in distress” stereotype often attributed to women like her, she literally can’t wait to run off and try the most difficult magic (and when she succeeds at it, she amazes everyone) - she gets shit done, no matter what anyone tells her. She also sticks to her guns in her relationships, not allowing herself to be pressured into having sex. Her virginal, good girl vibe is refreshing, especially when compared to shows like Riverdale (although there are some steamy scenes with Nicolas Scratch). She, like Lilith, also fools The Dark Lord and plans on future deceit and trickery with her eclectic bunch of family members and friends by her side. Needless to say, we cannot wait for Seasons Three and Four!
With a multitude of strong, diverse female characters, CAOS receives a score of 3/3 Fs (Fabulously Feminist)