An Interview with Léa Le Cudennec, or “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”
Léa Le Cudennec is completing her second year of M.A. in Film Studies at Concordia University. Her research interests are sexuality and gender studies. Previously, she completed an M.A. in Political Science in France where she found a deep interest for cultural studies and film. We met Léa in a conference room on the studious 6th floor of Concordia University’s Faubourg Building to talk about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and its socio-political impact.
Offscreen: Sabrina, a remake of the 90s TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, recently premiered on Netflix. As I am sure you know, it is produced by the team behind Riverdale, a drama series based on the Archie comics. Have you watched Riverdale? Were you excited to find out Netflix was producing Sabrina on their own as opposed to a co-producing it, like Riverdale?
Léa: I have been watching Riverdale from the beginning and I watch an episode a week. I didn’t actually know Riverdale was a co-production, but I was excited for Netflix producing Sabrina as the streaming platform releases all episodes at once, which is great. Sabrina was definitely a show I was planning on binge-watching. Also, it has a huge budget so you know what you’re going to get. It’s going to be popular content and I was all there for that.
Offscreen: What are your thoughts about the Netflix model of consumption for this series? Do you think Sabrina works best when binge-watched? Did you watch the entire series in one go?
Léa: It was released for Halloween, so obviously it was the best thing to release it in its entirety. Because it was very seasonal in that way and everyone was excited to have that brand new show for Halloween. I personally watched it in a few days. A few episodes at a time, like two or three per night.
Offscreen: Which is pretty reasonable.
Léa: Well… [laughter]
Offscreen: Sabrina is a comic book adaptation. Have you read the original comics? What are your thoughts on the adaptation?
Léa: I haven’t read the comics at all. I hadn’t read the Riverdale comic books either. What I was more interested in is that I used to watch the 90s version of Sabrina and I guess I saw it more of a remake of that show – even though I knew it wasn’t – rather than an adaptation of the comics. I was excited because I had good memories of the original show so I was happy to get a newer version now.
Offscreen: What are your thoughts on the remake? How do you think the target market differs this time around?
Léa: I actually read that a few fans of the original were disappointed when they watched the new version because it was so different from the 90s version. I was really excited to be honest. I didn’t want a new version or an adaptation, I wanted a full remake. I wanted something new, that was still playing on the key elements of the original show. I’m just slightly sad that Salem, the cat, doesn’t talk this time around. [laughter]
Offscreen: How do you feel about the aesthetics of the new version and why remake it now?
Léa: I was definitely excited about the aesthetics of the new show. I think it was necessary and I don’t think it would have done so well had it been the same thing. The original version had a studio sitcom feel. I don’t think making those kinds of TV-shows is really the trend right now.
Why now? Well, there’s definitely a trend to revive 90s shows right now and Sabrina stayed faithful to the comics’ 80s vibe. That’s really popular right now with shows such as Stranger Things. And that’s how Netflix works, they look around, find out what people are into and exploit it until it has run dry. Netflix also gets the attention of young adults. This may be where the horror twist comes from, a decision to embrace that darker tone.
Offscreen: Tell us more about the horror twist. How do you feel about the dark horror aesthetics of the remake? Do you enjoy campy horror?
Léa: I definitely loved the horror aspects of the remake. It was released on Halloween after all; I wanted to get a little scared, but not too scared. I mean, it’s a show about witches! Again, I didn’t just want a remake of the 90s show and another teenage drama. I wanted something more, something more complex and new, and I think they achieved that. It worked for me. But, you know, I don’t need much. [laughter]
Offscreen: In this series Sabrina has to decide between the worlds of the witches under Satan’s commands and the world of her friends, the mortals. What do you think the choices made by Sabrina tell us about her character and what she stands for?
Léa: Yeah well in the second episode, she is meant to complete her dark baptism, where she, spoiler alert, decides not to go through with it because she wants the best of both worlds. She becomes the perfect heroine, right? Because she has everything set up to be special. She is also very rebellious in every aspect of her life; she goes against her principal and faces the bullies that bother her friend.
Offscreen: That leads nicely into our next question. Would you argue that Sabrina is a feminist character? Is she a role model for teenage feminism?
Léa: It’s actually a pretty tricky question and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. She is a feminist character, as in she is forcefully presented as such. I was chatting with a friend a few days ago who didn’t watch the series beyond the first episode, because while they were very excited about the show, they couldn’t stand her. They thought every time Sabrina talked, she sounded like she was reciting something from a book. It’s not even realistic anymore. To me, it was a little bit annoying. And not because I’m against feminist characters but because it felt forced. It made me a little bit uneasy. It felt like commodified feminism, which the show, alongside the retro aesthetic and the remake of an old favourite, was trying to sell.
That said, I do think having feminist characters is important. Historically, teenage movies are not known for their feminist message. The make-over scenes and the chasing the boy for example show that there is often no feminist message. So maybe for the younger generations, those who are the target audience for Sabrina, you need to hammer those messages, which can be good.
There are a lot of “strong” female characters in the show. It’s not just Sabrina saying those obnoxious feminist catch phrases every 10 minutes. I can appreciate the effort Netflix has made, but I’m keeping my distance because I’m still wondering why they have done it this way. Is it really because they wanted to do feminist show? Why are they trying so hard? I don’t know if there’s really an answer to these questions.
Offscreen: The notion of commodified feminism is an interesting one. You are suggesting Netflix is picking up on debates around the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and they are regurgitating them back to people. Do you think this new version of Sabrina would have worked without the element of commodified feminism?
Léa: It’s hard to say because I do think the basic narrative of Sabrina already has a lot of those feminist elements. Remaking it without acknowledging and pushing for these feminist ideas would have missed the mark. I would have been upset about it, because Me Too and Times Up have had an impact on media production. But honestly I am still not sure how I feel about it. While I appreciate the effort, I am still unsure why and how they’re using it and benefiting from it. But, it’s better than a show that would send the wrong message by reinforcing old stereotypes.
Offscreen: In addition to teenage feminism, Sabrina introduces a variety of LGBTQA+ characters. How do you feel about the representation of LGBTQA+ characters in the show?
Léa: This might be a redeeming factor of Sabrina as opposed to what we discussed on commodified feminism. I am really happy with everything that they did in regards to sexuality on the show. Not having big outing scenes is great and they also don’t play it like everything is fine either, because one of the characters who is trans gets bullied. They do acknowledge the struggle of queer teenagers and I really appreciated that.
Also, the fact that they cast a non-binary actor to play the role of Sabrina’s trans friend is very important because we all know that trans representation in the media is scarce and generally pretty horrible. I was extremely happy because it is just not that common. I think that it shows progress from shows like Riverdale that use their gay characters as the token, cliché gay man, which is how queer people are often represented on television. It was definitely refreshing to see progress in terms of queer representation in Sabrina.
Offscreen: Do you think this will open doors for queer representation in teenage TV shows?
Léa: Hopefully. Sabrina is not a show centred on queer people, so hopefully, it will serve as an example. I haven’t seen a lot about it in the media, which is nice because Netflix didn’t make it part of their marketing like they did with the commodified feminism, which is nice. I am not sure if it’s going to change the face of teenage shows drastically because I think there is a lot of really bad representation out there and it’s going to take awhile to understand that’s not how it should be done. So yes, hopefully, it will open doors.
Offscreen: After watching the first season, what trajectory do you think the show will take in future seasons?
Léa: I’m really excited that she’s going to spend more time at the witch school. I think that’s great and I think it’s the natural trajectory for her mission to take down the devil from the inside, right? But I’m hoping that she loses the ‘Miss Perfect’ label. I hope to see more of Sabrina’s dark side. So far, she’s been resting on pretty shallow traits and there’s not much to her character. I would like to see more tension and complexity after she joins the dark side.
Offscreen: On a scale of one to ten, how excited are you about the Sabrina Christmas special?
Léa: Oh, 10! I’m super excited! [laughter] You know, I don’t need much. I watch a lot of television and I think I can manage to be critical of a show and acknowledge that it’s not perfect and still have a good time watching it. It is very much a guilty pleasure because I am spending three days straight watching Sabrina and not watching a classic film on a cinephile’s must-watch list.
That said, everything on TV has academic potential, especially when talking about Netflix. You know that thousands of people are watching a show that has ties with what is happening in this industry at the moment. Obviously, it’s fascinating from an academic point of view to consume their content. But I’m not going to lie and say I’m watching the show because I might write a paper on it. And I think if I did write a paper on it – and I might – would I really need to watch the whole season? I’m not even sure. [laughter] I’m not kidding myself.
We ended the interview on a bright note, sharing our guilty pleasures and Netflix’s academic potentials. We wish to thank Léa for her time and candor in discussing Netflix’s distribution, mode of consumption, the exploitation of feminism, and the refreshing representation of queer characters. We also urge readers to make time and treat themselves to The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or another binge-worthy TV show that suits their needs. Happy viewing, from devoted academics.