Written by Anna Dolliver
The Halloween witching season has come but not gone because apparently it is here to stay. According to this Ploughshares article: “The era of vampires and werewolves and brooding male anti-heroes on the screen and on the page seemed to be over, with female-centric stories of witchcraft emerging as a powerful symbol of the reclamation of power.” Over the past few years, witches have been claiming more space in social conversations and creative productions. From covens meeting to hex political figures to influencers promoting occult books and tarot decks, witchcraft and those who practice it have featured more prominently in popular culture as women respond to suppression. At times when the female voice and body are threatened, stories about witchcraft abound, and women (unlike men who denounce witches in their versions of the witch’s tale) identify with the witch. To identify with the monstrous is a source of strength. In the literary and cinematic spheres, witches are either sparking new stories, embodying good or evil, or both at once (the best kind), and demanding fresh takes on old tales. The reboot of Charmed came out this month, and Mary Poppins Returns will reach theaters in December among many others. The ones I am most interested are two: the reimaginings of Circe in Circe by Madeline Miller, and Sabrina Spellman in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix.
Aside from an admirable taste in animal companions (Sabrina lives with her goblin-turned cat familiar, Salem, while Circe summons her own familiar in the form of a lioness), the two women share aspirations in their new interpretations. At this time when witchcraft has become a portrayal of female power and agency, Circe and Sabrina strive to embody feminist ideals while retaining aspects of their original conceptions. Both characters conjure a conversation with their old personas—Madeline Miller gives Circe’s Odysseus the amount of screentime that Circe received in the Odyssey, and the Chilling Adventures Sabrina challenges the origins and restrictions of her power where Teenage Witch Sabrina accepted the regulation without protest.
While Chilling Adventures of Sabrina attempts to label itself as feminist and revolutionary, its attempt at empowering women falls to words alone.
The original, ‘90s Sabrina the Teenage Witch followed a girl as she learned how to regulate her powers; she succeeds when she shows restraint in her use of magic. In her Vox article, Constance Grady describes the ‘90s Sabrina story as one “of learning how to wield her power while continuing to follow the rules, of learning to be a teen witch and a squeaky-clean and positive role model.” The Sabrina of 2018 challenges the male source of power, who changes from the ‘90s character Manton to Satan in the new series. In her attempts to subvert his control and use her power without a man’s regulation, Sabrina responds to the character of the ‘90s and adapts to the political climate of the present. However, even as the show presents current conversations in its explicit dialogue, the new Sabrina perpetuates underlying systems of power in its actions.
While Chilling Adventures of Sabrina attempts to label itself as feminist and revolutionary, its attempt at empowering women falls to words alone. Hilda and Zelda, Sabrina’s aunts, both criticize and murder each other regularly and feature in each other’s worst nightmares. Though Sabrina encourages her two friends at the human high school, the women she meets at the Academy of Unseen Arts subject her to “harrowing” (the magical version of hazing). Sabrina nearly kills them in an act of revenge—urged by her aunt. At high school, Sabrina and her friends protest banning books and start a club as a support group for their female classmates. Though Sabrina defends her agency against the Dark Lord and fights to retain her relationships in both worlds, using familiar phrases that clue the reader into metaphors about the bodily autonomy of women and male power structures, the show’s progressive messages often emerge in the dialogue alone. Whether to cater to a sensationalist audience or to find simple sources of conflict, the show often pits women against each other until faced with life-or-death circumstances.
Rather than fitting subtext-laden lines into the mouths of her characters, Miller frames Circe as a feminist witch rebirth through the novel’s narrative style and her main character’s actions. When Circe first emerged as a character in Homer’s Odyssey, her character served to amplify Odysseus’s wit and masculinity. Like many women of the story, Circe was less of a character than a plot device, a woman with just enough depth to intrigue readers so Odysseus’s honorable escapades will impress them, yet limited enough so (most) readers will not feel too distraught when Odysseus leaves her island for his next adventure.
Miller structures her novel not as a retelling of the Odyssey from Circe’s perspective but as her own odyssey of her life, tracing her experiences back through the myths of Scylla, Daedalus, Medea, and countless others. Rather than grounding Circe’s story in Odysseus, Miller creates her own interwoven mythos, allowing Circe’s experience to drive her story and reshape even the Odyssey-derived encounters. As she comes to terms with her magic, Circe hurts others and attempts revenge, transforming Scylla into a beast when her beloved snubs her and mutating men into swine after a crew of sailors rapes her. But as Circe comes to terms with her power, she learns when to leverage it and when to collaborate with others, and she often works to help the people she encounters. From giving advice to Medea to sharing stories and wisdom with Penelope, Circe builds women up rather than tearing them down. Even after she exacts revenge, Circe attempts to make amends; she tries to change Scylla back into a nymph, and she helps her cruel sister Pasiphaë deliver the Minotaur with the use of her magic. Circe takes the feminist witch archetype and expands it with her roles as a guardian, a warrior, a nurturer, a mother. And even when she exhibits her power, it is an act of female strength, anger, passion—what woman will not cheer for the terror in men’s eyes when they come up against Circe? All in all, her actions and observations are reminiscent of the #MeToo era, her personality is of a complex character whose strength cannot be encompassed in words (classically, a feminine association as a tool for confrontation, for instance) but has surpassed into action (classically, masculine).
Rather than grounding Circe’s story in Odysseus, Miller creates her own interwoven mythos, allowing Circe’s experience to drive her story and reshape even the Odyssey-derived encounters.
Though both Circe and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina reimagine old witches in the context of the modern, feminist themes of magical women, Circe’s new self is more poignant than this second Sabrina. While Sabrina and her peers read lines that empower women—in theory—their actions present a more toxic, competitive, revenge-driven culture when women with powers meet. Though Circe’s words fit the mythological tone of her story, her actions align closer to the ideals that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina strives toward. By using her magic and working with other women in addition to pursuing her autonomy, Circe upholds the concepts that modern women and witches praise.
Perhaps the literary tradition crafts Circe as the more palpable, poignant character. Readers who are familiar with Greek mythology see Circe shift from villain to heroine (notwithstanding that the two may be equivalent and that many women might crave that kind of new story). Her interactions with members of other myths demand greater attention toward her captivating character. Sabrina, while sidestepping the choices of her ‘90s self, remains a similar character with the same amount of screentime as her first rendition received. Perhaps the scope of Circe’s story arc allows her to manifest as a stronger character; since readers see her experience a broader range of events over a longer time frame, they have the opportunity to see her engage in different identities—the sister-witch, the warrior-witch, the mother-witch—and work through the implications of each one. Sabrina’s story occurs over a matter of months, and though her character faces new challenges, she has little opportunity to change until the final episode.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina cannot rewrite its ‘90s source to create a greater distance between the two, and a narrative over a greater time span would change the premise of the show. However, the new Sabrina can adopt a few ideas from Circe. Circe succeeds in its adaptation of witch archetypes and complexity in character interactions. Perhaps Sabrina could introduce a broader range of interpersonal encounters, asking which actions may develop the characters rather than jumping to the most dramatic path. Investing more effort into the characters themselves can increase the impact of the tension created by plot. As Sabrina enters season two, it can look to Circe for wisdom about creating a witch protagonist who resonates beyond her words, who swells beyond her feminine shell to occupy male territory of unchecked power, who swells into a hero of a classical villain, the woman many modern women long to be: a formidable witch.