Polished preliminary notes for an essay on “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and American intellectualism

You claim, “Okay, I am out of ideology!” at a conference, post-ideological era, then you go to the toilet, produce shit, you are, up to your shitter—how do you put it?—in ideology, no?

—Žižek

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Graphic novelist and screenwriter Nell Scovell’s series Sabrina, the Teenage Witch—not to be confused with its predecessors, the Archie Comics series and 1996 ABC TV movie of the same name, or with its own animated spin-off, Sabrina: the Animated Series—aired on two American television networks, ABC and the now-defunct WB television network, for seven seasons. It premiered on ABC on 25 September 1996 and ran there until 5 May 2000, when Sabrina’s migration from high school to college coincided with Sabrina’s migration from ABC to the WB, where it ran from 22 September 2000 until 24 April 2003. Sabrina’s cancellation by ABC in 2000 was anticipated due to hackneyed plotlines and falling ratings, but the WB’s decision to revive it was not; and the revival, though beneficial for the low-rated WB, was not entirely successful. Recycled plotlines continued to proliferate—“I see a pattern, and it’s not a new one,” carped one reviewer—and as the show aged, so did its stalwarts, middle and high-school girls, who were gradually absorbed by the grittier E.R., the sexier Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the more mature Felicity. Prior to the network move, Sabrina had headlined ABC’s Friday-night powerhouse comedy programming block, “TGIF” (which took its name from the acronym for “Thank God It’s Friday”), which kept ABC’s Friday primetime ratings robust for most of the 1990s. But Sabrina’s final shot at sweeps—when network advertising rates are set, and thus when networks roll out the programming they predict will attract the most viewers —in May 2003, was ranked a “less than bewitching No. 146” among all network shows.

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cast, c. ’96-’00

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This is Sabrina’s boilerplate premise:

Sabrina Spellman, a perfectly normal 16-year-old, is informed by her aunts, Hilda and Zelda, that she (and they, and her whole family on her father’s side) are witches. She lives with them in Massachusetts while preparing to receive her witch’s license. Along the way, she gets into many scrapes while figuring out how certain spells work.

So Sabrina’s aims as a teenage witch are to learn how to be both a successful teenager and a successful witch; Sabrina’s goals are the same as those of most teenagers, at least in the abstract: to succeed. Common Sense Media, a parent-friendly family-focused organization that reviews and rates media with an eye toward mature content in an attempt to guide concerned parents, reinforces this notion and goes a step further, locating Sabrina in the roles of sexually maturing teen and teen-delinquent:

Parents need to know that this series presents witchcraft and wizardry as an everyday part of life. Also, Sabrina’s behavior is sometimes sneaky when she tries to do things without others knowing about them. The problems Sabrina faces are rather innocent in nature, but as she gets older they become more mature, even though they’re still highly sanitized. Adolescent kissing is present but not prevalent.

But the series eviscerates whatever “maturity” Sabrina may exhibit, curtailing her freedoms in the very process of ostensibly expanding them. Sabrina does have magical powers—presumably that’s why she’s on TV; Sabrina, the Teenage Girl isn’t a strikingly concept idea for a sitcom—but in many ways she is powerless in comparison with the mortals who surround her. The program’s treatment of sex, as a subject central to teenage life but not seriously treatable on family primetime TV, serves as a good metaphorical frame for understanding Sabrina’s peculiar powerlessness. As she matures, she is increasingly bound by the juvenile constraints of her original 16-year-old character, increasing the extent to which she presents herself as increasingly “sanitized” in the sense meaning free of sexual content, free of anything dirty, which is how Common Sense Media uses the word. Yet Sabrina must find herself becoming less mature, for although her capacity for dealing with adult subject matter should theoretically increase with age, it does not, or at least not on screen: her innocence persists. She continues to present herself, even as a college student, as a sanitary teenage female of the ‘90s: she may be game for some light smooching out on the couch, but there’ll be hell to pay if your hands wander too far south.

Sabrina is sexually sanitized, to be sure, but her sexual sanitization, which renders her theoretically inoperable in sexual situations, is less important in itself (all teen television is “sanitized” to some extent, no?) than as a beacon and model for understanding a more general form of sanitization that afflicts Sabrina’s world: a sort of blanket sterility. To be sanitized is to be stripped of dirt and lust, to be made clean but also barren, infertile, impotent: to be rendered no longer virile or viral, no longer activated or active. To be sanitized in this sense is to be made helpless. Sabrina the character is never made literally barren, nor does the show’s socially necessitated prudishness ever make Sabrina literally helpless in the way we think of helplessness, as a sort of physical or mental or fearful incapacitation. But grasping this second, broader sense of sanitization—and the way in which it hides within or beneath our understanding of the first—is an important foundation for grasping the unstable subject-position Sabrina occupies. She can manipulate space, matter, and time with the point of a finger, but such great power comes for Sabrina, as for her fellow supernatural being Peter Parker of Spiderman, with great responsibility.

This cliché is not trivial. It is a serious moral injunction directed at the show’s target viewers, developing young women, and it is expected to be taken seriously: possessing power requires one to act responsibly in exercising it. Sabrina must take it seriously to function in her world, and we must take it seriously as a condition of her world if we wish to enter into it attentively. We must take that injunction seriously because instilling it in viewers is the primary purpose of the program—to school adolescent and teen girls in the ways of the genteel white adult western capitalist world, and in the difficulty and necessity of accepting “responsibility” when one’s actions place one in opposition to the binds and demands of that world. Sabrina is designed to be didactic and to indoctrinate as well as to entertain. Common Sense Media’s Melissa Camacho expounds this didactic quality (and didactically):

At one time or another, most of us have secretly wished that we had magical powers that could help us out in tough situations. SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH reminds us that while magic can be helpful, life is about being mature enough to face the consequences of our actions, not waving a wand or reciting a spell […]. Over the years Sabrina not only learns how to perform spells, but also discovers that magic doesn’t offer a “quick fix” for the problems she faces in daily life […]. Sabrina’s attempts to use magic to help resolve her troubles […] usually land her in out-of-this-world situations that have rather negative consequences […]. In the show’s final season […] she continues to secretly use magic to muddle through the adult world […]. Sabrina must contend with being an adult witch and apply the lessons she learned to make the right decisions on her own.

Sabrina may have magical powers—and part of her goal as a teenage witch, we’re incessantly reminded, is to develop those powers—but within this didactic frame, the very act of using those powers implies an admission of one’s lack of facility in dealing with everyday life and lack of fortitude against temptation. Sabrina thus finds herself in a damning double bind. She is expected to master magic, but discouraged and even at times enjoined from using it in any substantive way. Magic thus becomes a form of control, a way of keeping Sabrina perpetually suspended between her commitment to learning magic and her commitment to minimize her use of it.

Sabrina’s dual injunctions to, first, constantly assimilate new supernatural knowledge, and, second, contain that knowledge within herself, operate together to induce paralysis while maintaining the illusion of motion or choice. This fits precisely what Slavoj Žižek calls the “most elementary definition of ideology,” “the well-known phrase from Marx’s Capital: ‘They do not know it, but they are doing it.” Sabrina, in my view, does not “know” that her most elemental “choice” is in fact a measure preventing genuine choice. True, Sabrina can choose whether or not to use magic in a given situation, but the weight of that choice and its consequences, regardless of what she chooses, occupies her to the extent that it becomes central to her experience–to the extent that the engrossing experience of the choice becomes the interpretive dominant relative to which all else is read. Sabrina is constantly confronted with this choice, for everyday actions done by conventional mortal means could undoubtedly be done faster and more thoroughly with magic. It is this choice between practicing/utilizing her magic and ignoring/concealing her magic that becomes the ordering factor of Sabrina’s world, becomes what Žižek calls “the fundamental level of ideology”—not “an illusion masking the real state of things,” but “an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself.” In other words, it is not that Sabrina’s perception of her choice is an illusion, but rather that choice is itself an enrapturing fantasy space in which one can remain indefinitely suspended. “Illusion” is from a discourse that has no place here, for to judge something an illusion presumes contemplation of the thing prior to that judgment, as judgment always requires reflection to be called “judgement” in the first place and not, say, “impulse,” and as reflection is impossible in a state of indefinite suspension like the one in which Sabrina finds herself.

It is in this way that Sabrina is shot through with ideology. Sabrina does have choice, but which choices she is allowed to make, and what her options are, have already been determined. Sabrina’s choice of whether or not to use magic might even be seen as an analogue to the Cold War intellectual’s choice between capitalism and communism. These two choices (magic or no magic, capitalism or communism) are parallel instruments of ideology—a notion that I will flesh out elsewhere, drawing on Walter Benn Michaels and Žižek, among others—and will soon serve as analogues to one another in an extended argumentative analogy comparing the world of Sabrina with the culture of young American intellectuals.

Here, though, I’ll look at Sabrina’s world in terms of the magic/no-magic dichotomy I spoke of above: in terms of who knows she is a witch and who does not, in terms of around whom she may or may not use her magic. Sabrina, as a half-witch, half-human girl who tries to live as both witch and girl, is a focal point for and embodiment of the tension that divides the show’s characters into witches and mortals. But, much as the conventional sense of “sanitized” carries with it a more sinister subterranean connotation of powerlessness for subjects and an injunction to avoid magic, this witch/mortal opposition finds a corollary in the boundary between the “mortal realm” (where we humans naturally are; where some witches, like Sabrina, live) and the “other realm” as a psychological and social concept. This “boundary” is material in a sense—Sabrina’s linen closet serves as a sort of vestibule or airlock which, once sealed, zaps one from realm to realm with a burst of lightning—but it is chiefly conceptual, in that our way of thinking about what divides the realms is tweaked or transformed each time the boundary is challenged.

The boundary, or rather our understanding of such a boundary—its general properties, its prominence, its porousness—is refired and reforged each time a witch uses magic in the presence of mortals, and this is even more the case when a mortal visits the other realm—which, because Sabrina’s room is across the hall from the linen closet, is a fairly frequent occurrence. Conflicts and contradictions concerning the boundary, often in the form of blatant continuity errors that make no apologies for themselves, and for which no explanations are offered, are also quite frequent. In short, the boundary between the “mortal” and the “other” is continuously redrawn. Challenges to the boundary come in three rough, overlapping types: mortals encountering magic in the mortal realm, mortals visiting the other realm, and simple production contradictions. In subsequent work, I will examine more challenges of the first type and a number of crossing-over incidents and production contradictions; here, though, we will look only at two challenges of the first type. The changing opening sequence and the astounding rate of turnover for Sabrina’s supporting characters also interests me—in itself, but also and especially with respect to the ceaseless redrawing of the boundary between the realms. Subsequent work will therefore also examine the perpetual reconceptualization of the sitcom itself, monitoring it as its opening sequence goes through two drastic transformations and as Sabrina’s supposed close friends come and go, disappearing without explanation, as if by magic.

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cast, c. ’00-’03

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Sabrina is structured around the question of when and whether it is permissible to use magical powers to get oneself out of a situation that a mortal would just have to grin and bear. Witches can use their magic in the other realm, and in the mortal realm when by oneself or surrounded by non-mortals (Sabrina uses it to zap herself from one planet to another, to force a band of pirates from her house, to turn her cousin into a potted plant), but use of magic in the mortal realm (specifically, for Sabrina, in Westbridge, and later Boston, Massachusetts) can get dicey. Banishing pillagers is a good reason to use magic, sure, but what about a fear of public speaking, or poor time-management skills, or a lack of kung-fu skill, all of which Sabrina attempts to use magic to fix?

Sabrina frequently elects to use her magic to solve problems of this sort—quotidian mortal problems—and so is nearly always hiding something she’s just done or conjured from some mortal she’s bumping into. The fact that she is a witch is known only to her aunts, sisters Hilda and Zelda Spellman (Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick, respectively)—with whom she lives out her teenage years because of an absent father and a mortal mother who will turn into a ball of wax if she gazes upon her daughter before Sabrina receives her all-important witch’s license—and a small group of others. These others include Hilda and Zelda’s cat, Salem Saberhagen (voiced by Nick Bakay), a former witch whose punishment for attempted world domination in the vein of Austin Powers’s Dr. Evil is an extended stay with the Spellmans as a superstition-charged black cat, a punishment imposed by the Witches Council, which rules the other realm and witches living in the mortal realm in all matters, adjudicating everything from domestic squabbles to world-domination attempts like Salem’s. Sabrina’s high-school boyfriend Harvey Kinkle (Nate Richert) learns of her powers at the end of the fourth season and breaks up with her—not because she’s a witch, but because she didn’t trust him enough to tell him that she’s a witch—the producers’ way of getting rid of Harvey on the eve of Sabrina’s college matriculation and network move. (Although he soon returned as a recurring character, and eventually reconnected with Sabrina, in the final episode of the series.) Other than these characters, no one from the mortal realm knows that Sabrina is a witch. Some mortals, including Harvey, learn of her powers for various short periods of time, and some even visit the other realm, but their memories are always somehow wiped and they snap back to reality, Sabrina waiting to clear up any lingering questions with a cockamamie explanation.

That magic is often used around mortals doesn’t mean that injunctions against using magic around mortals aren’t frequently imposed; they are, and at least during the first season, mortals are officially prohibited from entering the other realm. But with an inexperienced witch like Sabrina wielding the finger, some mortals are inevitably drawn into the supernatural. The episode “Terrible Things” (1.4) is representative of how Sabrina melds magic and mortals:

Sabrina makes three wishes come true for her unsuspecting friends: Jenny gets elected student president, Harvey becomes a football star, and Mr. Pool becomes rich (by discovering how to change lead into gold). But she soon learns the truth of her aunts’ warnings that one shouldn’t meddle with the fate of others: Jenny is crushed when she learns the student president is merely a rubber stamp assistant to the principal, and resigns in favor of Libby, Harvey really can’t play football and is injured on the field, and Mr. Pool’s success at alchemy turns him into an obnoxious blowhard. Sabrina is faced with the ominous task of explaining her error to the Witches’ [sic] Council. (“Sabrina, the Teenage Witch Episode Guide.”)

This episode will be a nexus of analysis for me later. For now, though, I want to highlight the sweeping nature of Sabrina’s use of magic—she changes the lives of Jenny, Harvey, and Mr. Pool, and to a lesser degree those of everyone in her high school, yet all is tidied up at the end of the 22-minute episode, and no mortal is the wiser. The point here is not so much that witches use magic around mortals despite the witches’ wish to be inconspicuous, but witches use magic around mortals with such incredible blatancy, zealously unstitching and reweaving the fabric of the mortal realm. These changes would be all but impossible to miss or forget, and would likely carry stiff consequences for the witches, if they’re caught.

Take, too, the episode “What Price Harvey” (3.13), in which Sabrina, somewhat condescendingly dissatisfied with Harvey’s career plans (he wants to be a mechanic), gets her hands on some other-realm motivational cologne, “Ambition,” and douses him with it. Sabrina hopes the cologne will spur Harvey to change his mind about college—a personal, local, containable, reasonable result for a spell. But instead of restricting its results to Harvey’s college plans, or at least Sabrina’s parochial little suburban world, the cologne’s spell turns Harvey into a greedy corporate mogul who buys up a good chunk of the world and the entirety of their small town of Westbridge and, in a fit of capitalist lust, nearly demolishes Westbridge High School. Think of the sheer sweep of this imposition of magic on the mortal realm, a sweep similar to that of “Terrible Things.” It is a sweep of redevelopment: an entire town is bought up and sold off; demolition and contracting crews hired are and fired; zoning permits are granted and denied; architects and engineers and designers from all over the world are put to work; local and national news crews flock to Westbridge. Whether for or against the Harvey Kinkle corporate empire, everyone seems generally up in arms. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sabrina’s spraying Harvey with Ambition generated a global event, one that could be missed only by those in seclusion, one that would be almost impossible for Sabrina and her aunts to cover up. Yet somehow they do—mortals end the episode with no memory of the week’s events.

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How much time we must have lost to the machinations and mishaps of witches!

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Sabrina hides in the bathroom after cloyingly turning herself into a boy

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