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'Sabrina ...' The Teenage Prime-Time Feminist?

By Susanne Rockwell on November 10, 1999 in

Can television's "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" make it as a feminist role model for teenaged girls ask two women's studies scholars.

Well, yes, and no, say Sarah Projansky, a UC Davis professor, and Leah R. Vande Berg, a California State University, Sacramento, professor, who presented a paper on "Sabrina" last week at the National Communications Association meeting.

On the plus side, "Sabrina" follows a trend of 1980s and 1990s programs that portray the ideals of equality, inclusion and free choice, Projansky and Vande Berg say. The show criticizes gender and other discrimination, emphasizes acceptance and equality on the basis of both gender and sexuality, and portrays Sabrina's aunts as self-confident, independent and talented, and Sabrina as following their model.

On the minus side, the show routinely reinforces culturally defined standards of ideal female beauty, and undermines Sabrina's "girl power" by emphasizing male attraction as the primary reason to strive for beauty, the researchers say. In the prologue to each episode, Sabrina tries (zaps) different outfits while in front of a mirror. "On occasion, she even directly addresses the audience with comments that acknowledge that she knows others are watching her look at herself," they say.

Further, "many of Sabrina's routes of escape depend on the co-optation of cultural difference, the celebration of consumer capitalism, and the sense of entitlement based on the identity provided to her by her magic as a 'special' teen," they say -- compromising the series' feminism.

Their conclusion? "We would like to hope that Sabrina, like, for example, Nancy Drew before her, will inspire young women to chose futures ... as anything they want to be. But we fear this may not be the case, especially for viewers who are not white and middle-class" as the series links Sabrina's freedom to class and race privilege. The show maintains, rather than undermines, gender, race and class hierarchies, the authors conclude.

Media contact(s)

Susanne Rockwell, Web and new media editor, (530) 752-2542, sgrockwell@ucdavis.edu

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