June 17, 2023.
This review contains spoilers. There is also discussion of sexual abuse, physical abuse, child abuse, transphobia, lesbophobia, misandry, misogyny, and addiction.
At the beginning of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, viewers are introduced to "Susie", who is actually a closeted trans boy not freely able to explore his identity. He is played by Lachlan Watson, a trans non-binary actor. Despite the fact that Theo uses she/her pronouns at the beginning of the show, I will be referring to him by his chosen, post-transition pronouns consistently throughout this review.
The series itself is a weird mix of juvenile and violent (I'm still not sure what its target audience is), but many young folks will likely relate to depictions of dysphoria, same-gender attraction, and masculinity in an AFAB kid. That being said, hate crimes and sexual harassment are immediately tied to Theo's character arc, and he has to go through some pretty awful stuff before being afforded a cute romance and less violent scenes.
Theo in episode 1.
The writers waste no time establishing "Susie" as the punching bag of aggressive cis guys. In the very first episode, Sabrina finds him crying alone in the locker room after being hit in the face and sexually assaulted.
The jocks who exist solely to torment Theo.
In season 2 he's sexually harassed while trying to use the boy's changing room, by the same jocks established as antagonists in episode 1. They stare directly at him, deadname him, and say they're "waiting for the show to start" before encouraging him to undress entirely. Later, they fill his locker with menstrual pads and tampons. He's also repeatedly called a "dyke", hence the warning of lesbophobia.
Theo coming out to his friends.
He comes out to other main characters after a basketball game, during which he beats cis guys with the help of Sabrina, the central character with magical powers. She uses spells to make him shoot the ball perfectly and easily dodge other players, when he was previously unable to play the game at all. This led to criticism from within and outside the trans community, especially from trans guys who were frustrated by the implications of a trans boy being weak and powerless unless he resorts to cheating.
Theo chose his new name after his relative, Dorothea Putnam. Dorothea, a masculine-dressing ghost, appears solely to Theo and offers endearments like "brave boy" before Theo has even taken steps to voice his gender identity. This spiritual link and storyline was pretty fascinating but, to my disappointment, the writers didn't explore the Putnam connection very deeply at all. We learn that Theo has an ancestor who dressed "like a man" and helped both witches and mortals escape persecution, but that's about it.
Part of the reason I was so interested in Dorothea Putnam was because the Digital Transgender Archive has photographs of a real-life Dorothy Putnam "crossdressing" in masculine attire. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina overall weaves real-life history with fictional timelines, but it's not clear whether Theo's ancestor is inspired by Dorothy Putnam and/or Ann Putnam, an accuser in the Salem Witch Trials.
Jesse Putnam, possessed by a demon.
The only other GNC character in the show is Theo's uncle, Jesse Putnam. He gets possessed by a demon which refers to him a "sodomite" and an "abomination", citing these qualities as the reason Jesse is the ideal host. Theo's father, brother to Jesse, mentions that Jesse wore their mother's dresses when he was young, leading to physical abuse when he was caught doing so by his father. This behaviour and his attraction to men are referred to as "proclivities". Given the fact that Jesse spends his episodes foaming at the mouth, snarling curses, and then being tortured in the afterlife, this isn't exactly top-tier representation.
"I'm not an abomination, Sabrina, and I won't be one."
As a result of being psychologically tormented by a possessed Jesse, Theo struggles with his gender identity and becomes ashamed, forcing himself to wear dresses.
Theo meeting Ruth.
The only other character to recognise Theo's gender before he comes out is Ruth Walker, a blind woman with psychic powers. She calls him a "handsome fellow" and refers to him with he/him/his pronouns. I liked the implication that Theo's male gender has always been innate, and that characters with special abilities could sense that part of him.
Theo telling his dad the truth.
I also enjoyed the scene where Theo comes out to his father. It's the right balance of positive and realistic, with Theo remaining determined and calm despite his father's initial unwillingness to listen. Joe, Theo's dad, supports him despite feeling confused, and takes him to get a new haircut. That's the end of the story, when it comes to Theo's family journey. We don't see much of Joe beyond that point, which I enjoy. Theo is allowed to be himself, and there's no extra violence or family conflict which is piled onto him... which is fortunate, considering how much shit Theo faces, courtesy of his classmates.
I don't personally think the transphobia directed at Theo is cheap or needless, especially since Theo is afforded an actual personality later on, including hobbies (drumming, singing, performing) and sexual desire (towards other boys). He becomes less of a token character as the show progresses, gaining strength and physically standing up for his friends. The violence directed at him might upset some viewers but, if you want to see a trans boy triumph over transphobic people, this show will provide that.
Speaking of Theo's bullies, it's important to discuss one bully in particular; a young man named Billy, who physically abuses and sexually harasses Theo. The show fails to treat the sexual abuse of cis boys/men seriously, and this is especially apparent in Billy's character arc, despite him being framed as the aggressor in most scenes. Before I delve deeply into the issue, I highly recommend the 1in6 Survivor Stories page, to get a better and more realistic understanding of how abuse actually affects boys and men.
Hilda Spellman talking about Billy's childhood experiences.
To defend Theo, Hilda Spellman outs Billy as a survivor of CA (child abuse), in order to humiliate and humble him. It's heavily implied that he, specifically, was the victim of CSA (child sexual abuse). The abuse occurred at the hands of other boys, and was extreme enough that it provoked violent denial from his family, to the point that his mother washed his mouth out with detergent until he stopped trying to seek help. This awful, confronting revelation is glossed over. At most, viewers are encouraged to laugh at Billy's vulnerability and deep emotional scars, rather than considering the sickening hypocrisy of outing a CA survivor in the name of supporting another young person.
Worst of all, Sabrina uses magic to force Billy to kiss and grope his male friend. She takes a photograph of this occurring and uses it as blackmail to stop him bullying others. He, and his jock friends, are all placed in this non-consensual situation by Sabrina, and this is supposedly a... funny... scene. Even when viewers find out about Billy's history of being abused by his peers, no thought is given to how he must have consequently felt when Sabrina forced him into a situation where he was being kissed and touched without his consent, by his peer.
So, to recap... Billy is a survivor of CA, and likely CSA. Either way, he was certainly abused by males at just eleven years of age. The writers (through Hilda's dialogue) assert that, because he was abused, he became an abuser. The answer to this, apparently, is to make a teenage Billy the target of further non-consensual intimacy with a male, and blackmail him over such touching.
Pretty fucking horrible, right?
Beyond the apathy shown towards Billy's trauma, his arc echoes an old, harmful myth that boys/men who survive CSA automatically become abusive themselves. This is just one example of how Chilling Adventures of Sabrina fails viewers who have themselves survived CSA, specifically men and boys.
Nicholas in Chapter Twenty-One: The Hellbound Heart.
The misrepresentations of male trauma don't end with Billy. The show also features a cis male character named Nicholas, who is abandoned to suffer alone after being tortured, leading to a horribly-handled allegory for male rape.
The parallel to being sexually assaulted isn't subtle, with Nicholas describing how he took his abuser inside him, was stripped naked, was "tortured on the inside" and "humiliated and debased on the outside". He abuses alcohol, drugs, and unsafe sex in the wake of his experiences, viewing his own body as "dirty" and "polluted".
He is sexually harassed by women who mock his trauma and suggest that he wanted to be abused, claiming that he had "the hots" for the man who abused him, saying he was made into his abuser's "bitch" and that he enjoyed the abuse. He experiences flashbacks, extreme distress, nightmares, anger, shame, and understandable grief. Unfortunately, an immature Sabrina is solely responsible for fixing him and, shocker, that doesn't end well.
Nicholas miraculously gets over being abused, all on his own. The writers don't even bother to show him being supported by an authority figure or therapist/healer of some kind, because God forbid the trauma of a cis guy is taken seriously. Sabrina is established as a poor, downtrodden girlfriend, with Nicholas the selfish antagonist who dared to have a breakdown after being abused. He grovels until she deigns to date him again, and ultimately kills himself to be with her in the afterlife, which really cemented the show's descent into irresponsible and crap storytelling.
Considering how trauma often manifests in boys/men, it makes complete sense that Nicholas would become angry in the wake of being abused. The way his anger is handled sends a very alienating message to male viewers who have suffered abuse; if you express how you're feeling and show your anger, you will be left on your own. You will be the bad guy. It's your fault. Handle your trauma alone and get over it, or suffer in a way that is palatable to your partner, AKA the only person who will help you.
Nicholas' abuse of alcohol and drugs is terribly handled with a magical, super fast detoxification ritual.
If you have experienced victim-blaming or been distressed by the erasure/mockery of male survivors, Nicholas and Billy's storylines may distress you. If you have battled addiction, you may experience similar distress. Proceed with caution. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a somewhat fun show, but it's not without plentiful flaws. It touches up against serious subjects and doesn't always handle them well. The writers were too busy loading Sabrina's dialogue with ham-fisted feminist power words to realise that abused cis men don't just magically heal on their own, and shame/humiliation/abandonment isn't the best way to help a survivor of any gender. All Sabrina and her aunt do is ensure a cycle of violence by humiliating and shaming Billy.
I know that some people, reading my review, will roll their eyes and say, "it's just a dumb show, don't take it so seriously". My answer to that would be, if the show wasn't going to take the abuse of boys/men seriously, such themes shouldn't have been depicted at all. A series having juvenile and supernatural themes doesn't mean it's harmless, and the abuse of cis boys/men is so rarely handled well in film and television, as explored in Part 1 and Part 2 of Sexual Assault of Men Played for Laughs. Modern media needs to do better than dismissing or laughing at male trauma. Cis boys and men need to know that they're supported, and that their trauma matters.
Anyway, back to Theo...
Theo excitedly seeking romantic advice from a friend.
After coming out and triumphing over the people who abused/harassed him, Theo is afforded a romance that, while cheesy, is a breath of fresh air for those of us who never got to have such experiences in our youth. Theo's eventual boyfriend, Robin, is a humanoid Hobgoblin with supernatural abilities. He was initially tasked with sacrificing Theo to a Pagan God, but falls in love with him instead.
Theo and Robin.
Their scenes are a checklist of stereotypical teenage tropes, including cute dates and Theo choosing to lose his virginity with Robin. They're an adorable pair, as long as you're fond of cliché-heavy writing... but that caveat applies to the entire show.
Provided you're comfortable with the fact that trans maleness is treated completely differently to cis maleness, with cis guys not attaining justice after being sexually and physically abused (unlike Theo), Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a relatively fun watch. Just don't expect too much. If there hadn't been a trans boy among the central characters, I probably wouldn't have continued watching it. The last season is particularly shit, and the final episodes ruined my favourite relationship in the show (a wonderful bisexual/lesbian pair).
In terms of general warnings, prepare for the following:
Gore, blood, and human dissections.
Murder, including graphic deaths, the killing of an infant boy by his own mother, and the serial killing of pre-pubescent children.
Torture of adults, teenagers, and children.
Cannibalism, ranging from the cooking/consumption of humans to the eating of a newly-killed, fresh human body.
Violence against people of colour, including a heavily criticised lynching scene.
Incestuous themes, specifically the planned marriage of a father and daughter, and the planned marriage of a brother and sister with a view to produce heirs.
Sexualisation of underage characters, including a fifteen year-old child (Sabrina at the start of the show).
Underage drinking and drug use.
A male/female relationship which closely resembles an abusive marriage.
There are also Satanic themes, which doesn't bother me in the slightest, except for the fact that the show isn't at all sure how it's defining Satanism, Christianity, the occult, or Paganism. From the perspective of an atheist, it's lazy writing. From the perspective of some worshippers, it's offensive. I can't personally speak to that but, if you are spiritual or religious, consider yourself warned.