How ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ is cruel to its Black characters
The Black characters experience the same tired, abysmal, often painful, and negative characterization many others before them have.
This essay contains spoilers for season one of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
by Briana L. Ureña Ravelo
Everything is all about Sabrina Spellman, at least in her understanding of the world. Her know-it-all attitude takes center stage in the white woman centric story the first season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina spends its entirety possessed by.
Sabrina is a teenage orphaned half-witch living with her aunts and cousin in the all-American town of Glendale. She is told her parents, a human mother and a powerful warlock father and former high priest of their coven, passed away in a tragic airplane accident when she was an infant.
Coming from powerful storied witch stock with a Shakespearean ill-fated love affair twist to add more drama to her existence, the story immediately shows itself to be a classic “Chosen One” narrative, much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a series which also spells chaos for its Black characters.
They exist in a sort of limbo, unable to be killed off too quickly or disposed of too obviously so the plot is not castigated as racist, but also not afforded much complexity or depth by the writers so they don’t outshine the easily basic white female lead.
The Black characters experience the same tired, abysmal, often painful, and negative characterization many others before them have. They are given occasional moments to shine in the mess, but those moments quickly turn on them or get snatched away. Like fools gold, it seems like a treasure at first, but reveals itself to be flat and unremarkable when looked at more closely.
The main Black characters are Sabrina’s cousin, Ambrose, a powerful pansexual warlock, Rosalind “Roz” Walker, one of Sabrina’s mortal best friends who we later find out inherits her own supernatural fate and ability through her family in the form of a curse, and Prudence, the orphaned head witch at the academy. They are all biracial. Unambiguously Black, but palatable enough for a white-centered audience.
Ambrose is capable, intuitive, and powerful, but quietly recalcitrant, as he has been under magical house arrest for over 75 years. Roz, while a clearly upright, smart, and socially aware, radical young Black woman, doesn’t break out from her supporting role or really get much of her own storyline until near the end of the season.
Prudence, though cunning and hardened as a defense mechanism, is characterized as sexually promiscuous, wordly, angry, mean, violent, brutal, and unquestioning of power to a fault. Albeit still independent, impeccable, and disciplined, the good aspects of her personality are seldom shown and always become turned around so she can remain an antagonist. She must be the enemy to poor Sabrina, who is characterized as pure, good, sweet, optimistic, gracious, kind, and forgiving in juxtaposition.
There is also Lady Constance Blackwood, the wife of high priest Faustus Blackwood, who we eventually learn has a fetish for Black women. She is a minor character who is merely present to play the jealous, conniving, but dutiful and coiffed incubator for his male heir. I kid you not, she dies while giving birth.
This universe is otherworldly, witchcraft and spells abound, yet the Black characters’ options in their characterization are painfully mortal in their limitations. Their options are incarceration, lackey, would-be lynching victims, abandoned, cruel-hearted malicious tyrant, the unclaimed child of a exploitative sexist white man with a fetish for Black women, and dying in childbirth.
Not only do the Black characters have no ties or relationships to one another, their only purpose within the context of the story is to push the character growth and plotline of the white characters. While CAOS might be a “Chosen One” fantasy for white women, it serves as a reminder for the rest of us of our place in the world and the little options we have, even in fantasy.
The “Chosen One” plotline in COAS like many others in the genre before it, relies on white christian hero narratives (like The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and the christianized aspects of the epic Beowulf) and the mythology around pure white womanhood. Sabrina’s struggle is against that of the oversimplified and whitewashed version of patriarchal society and constructs, though she will often act in its stead against other more marginalized and culturally dangerous women.
Her apparently egregiously unique half-witch, half-mortal background often finds her at odds with or specifically pontificating the tragic state of her mixed background to the biracial Black characters existing in white dominant spaces. She is often heard pitifully bemoaning how they could never understand what it is like to be half-and-half, even accusing one, ironically enough, of “racism”.
Where there are attempts at social commentary in the show, in classic white feminist fashion, white cis het Sabrina is made the well-meaning, but self-appointed, self-centered, catastrophic, and impetuous face of it. She picks fights for her genderqueer friend, despite the friend’s reluctance to make herself more of a target in ways Sabrina would never understand. She rallies her friends to help her start an “intersectional women for women” group at the school, but does not account for her inability to support Roz’s previous endeavor to start “Daughters of the Black Panther Party”.
I am sure the writers meant to be clever with it, but the show ultimately ends up falling flat or being insulting to outright bigoted at times. Black characters are forced to watch a white woman haphazardly embody a metaphor for their lived experiences and struggle in the most grating, selfish, and self-aggrandizing way.
Briana L. Ureña-Ravelo. Writer. Community organizer. Errant punk. Ne’er do well. Afro-Dominicana. High Hex Femme.