Sabrina the Teenage Witch doesn't seem revolutionary. On the surface, it's just a cute family comedy starring a teen girl with magical powers and a talking cat. The most rebellious thing Sabrina ever did on the show was ask for a belly-button piercing. But the show itself was a constant rebellion. With its almost all-female cast, a majority female writers' room, and a woman (literally) running the show, it was nowhere near as conventional as people might have thought it was.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch was a show about strong and capable women. Nell Scovell, creator and executive producer of Sabrina, told me that from the beginning of the show's creation she had to fight back against sexist double standards in Hollywood.
The plot of the show hangs on the fact that 16-year-old Sabrina lives with her two aunts and realizes that she is a witch and so are they. For this to work, Sabrina's parents need to be out of the picture. The ABC executives had no problem understanding that her father might be off working, but they couldn't get behind her mother doing the same.
"'[Working?] as what?' they asked. 'What would keep her away?'" Scovell recalled. When she suggested that maybe Sabrina's mother was an archeologist, they still couldn't imagine a world where a mother would leave her child for work. Ultimately, Scovell won the fight. "They couldn’t think of a good enough reason to off the mom if I could promise to keep her out of the picture," she told me. "So I bucked the Disney matricide tradition."
Subtly and deftly, when Sabrina the Teenage Witch premiered 20 years ago today, it was bucking all kinds of traditions.
There's nothing scary about Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It premiered (and remained for its first four seasons) as part of ABC's very popular TGIF lineup. Branded as "Thank Goodness It's Friday," the network encouraged young viewers to tune in not for one show, but to sit down and absorb every show in the lineup, much like what ABC is doing right now with its "TGIT" lineup on Thursdays. But instead of Scandal and Grey's Anatomy, TGIF in the early '90s was television for teens. They were all comedies, all family-friendly, and all 100% wholesome.
In the 1996-1997 season, Sabrina the Teenage Witch aired twice during TGIF: once after Family Matters and before Boy Meets World, and then again right before Clueless. But by the fall of 1996, TGIF was already near the end of its golden years. Sabrina was a show that had just as much heart as the rest of the lineup, but a little bit more edge.
"I wanted to create a show that I would have liked to watch as a teenage girl," Scovell told me on the phone last week. "A show where a girl has power and is learning to control it. I wanted to be true to that experience in a way that not all shows had been."
At least in the early years—the show left ABC for The WB, and Scovell left the show, after four seasons—Sabrina is always a teen girl first and a witch second. She worries about whether her friends have a crush on her, about whether she's athletic enough. She feels pressure to be good in school, but not too good in school. Ultimately, Sabrina's show is about learning to be a young woman.
"[Sabrina] wanted to be a good person," Scovell said. "She cared about having friends. She cared about being a good student. She didn’t care about being popular."
But inside this family-friendly comedy that was sweet, good-natured, and caring, was a show that wanted to break down barriers—to instill some of the progressive ideals members of Hollywood are fighting for today. Take, for example, its cast of characters. Sabrina, a young female protagonist, lives with her two supportive and eccentric aunts, and they are all witches. She has a best friend and a love interest, but the plot completely revolves around three women, something that would be progressive even today. In 2015, 79% of television shows featured casts with more male than female characters, and female characters only comprised 39% of speaking roles.
"I do think it was about women supporting other women," Scovell said. "We really wanted to take women seriously, even on a show that was funny."
Sabrina the Teenage Witch was hardly the first show to center on a teen witch. It's an obvious spiritual successor to Bewitched, which aired on ABC from 1964 to 1972. But unlike Bewitched, where most of the tension centered around the main character being persuaded to suppress her powers, Sabrina embraced being a witch. There wasn't anything negative about her witchery. In fact, in the realm of teen magic shows, Sabrina was a world apart. It was more positive than Bewitched, way less scary than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it was younger in tone and subject matter than Charmed.
The closest and most modern comparison to Sabrina is probably the much later Disney Channel show Wizards of Waverly Place (2007-2012), starring Selena Gomez. But where Sabrina had progressed, Waverly Place fell back. Waverly Place stars a teen witch named Alex, but also focuses on her teen brothers and their father. The show often lapses into familiar teen TV show (and particularly teen girl) clichés. In the very first episode, "Crazy 10-Minute Sale," Alex uses a duplicate spell to create a body double of herself so that she can go with her friend to the mall.
The progressivism of Sabrina the Teenage Witch really shines in contrast. Early in season one, Sabrina too uses a duplicate spell to create a second version of herself. But unlike Alex, she doesn't use it to shop. She sends her duplicate to her crush's party (where she actually wants to be) and attends a family obligation with her aunts as her real self.
"I love coming up with these kind of feminist solutions that you could do through magic," Scovell said. When Sabrina couldn’t get a date for the prom, they made her one," she said, referring to an episode where Sabrina's aunts literally roll out "man-dough" and simply wait for it to rise to become a date.
It's a simple twist on an age-old plot line, and one that many of Sabrina's fellow TGIF shows had taken a crack at already. Boy Meets World had a prom date problem episode. So did Clueless. So had almost every teen show since this beginning of time. What made Sabrina the Teenage Witch special was that its protagonist had more sheer power than any other teen girl.
"In later years they got more into magic," Scovell told me. "But for me it was like, 'I have a test tomorrow and I’m witch.' Not 'I’m a witch and I have this problem.'"
There's a reason that Sabrina was so good at making the problems of young girls seem real. The top three names on the call sheet were women. The top five names on production side were all female, including two female EPs, a female co-EP, and two female supervising producers.
Scovell did not provide total numbers for how many women were employed on the Sabrina set, but those numbers alone would make Sabrina a standout for gender equality even in 2016. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film's 2015-2016 "Boxed In" report,"60% of programs employed four or fewer women in the behind-the scenes roles considered." Sabrina had five women on the production staff alone.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch wasn't just doing a good job of representation, though. It was also a funny and well-liked television show. Taking women seriously and giving them real problems—the kind they might actually have!—instead of phony dramatic ones made Sabrina the Teenage Witch a ratings hit. "Having already kicked the ratings ass of CBS' critically acclaimed Everybody Loves Raymond and Fox's heavily hyped Millennium, Sabrina makes it clear that America prefers a little adorable witchcraft to very funny Italians and grim psycho killers," David Wild wrote for Rolling Stone in 1997.
But since 1997, there have certainly been more shows about funny Italians and grim psycho killers than shows about young girls trying to figure out who they are. Unlike its fellow TGIF show Boy Meets World, there hasn't been a Sabrina reboot.
"There’s a lot of talk about it. I feel like almost every day, somebody’s calling me about it. Would we do it? Should we do it? How do we do it?" Melissa Joan Hart told The Huffington Post. "I think sometimes it’s better to just leave it in the past unless you do it really, really great."
What Sabrina did really, really great was put women front and center both on the screen and behind it. And 20 years later, that's still a pretty magical achievement.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.