Transgender Representation in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
How The Show Gets Representation Right and Where It Falls Short
Warning: this article contains spoilers for Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
When I first heard there would be non-binary transgender representation in Netflix’s Sabrina series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAoS) I was genuinely excited. After the cancellation of Sense8 and the community division caused by the queer baiting in Voltron: Legendary Defender, it was time for Netflix to make some progressive strides in its programming. Then I heard CAoS was being written by the men who brought us the queer baiting disaster Riverdale. My expectations dropped significantly, but like the thirteen witches, were raised again by the news that the non-binary character would be played by a non-binary actor. Perhaps there was hope.
And there was. Lachlan Watson’s work on CAoS is really strong. They are a skilled actor and bring both nuance and insight into Susie Putnam’s journey. I am stoked to have a NB actor playing a NB role in a visible and positive way. Susie has supportive friends, connections to a queer family history, and faces realistic struggles. In several ways CAoS does it right, in large part thanks to Watson’s input into Susie’s character and development. Yet, as with most media written about transgender characters by cisgender writers, the show takes some glaring missteps along the way.
Here is a breakdown of what’s positive and what could be improved in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Spoilers abound.
1. Susie’s Journey
The best part of Susie’s story is the slow development of their identity. It is slow, self reflective, and comes in bits and pieces. This is thanks to Lachlan Watson’s influence. In an article by Teen Vouge Watson explains how Susie’s character was originally supposed to come out as a trans man within the first few episodes. Although telling the story that way would have given trans men much-needed representation in entertainment media, it would, also, have reinforced the standard narrative of a sudden emergence of transgender identity. Trans lives are rarely so tidy to define. Though every transgender person’s story is unique there is a period of finding the words you need to describe your journey and the voice to share it. As Watson put it:
[I]n bringing me on board and having me talk about my own identity, I think it may have swayed the writers just a little bit to maybe hold off on labeling or defining [Susie] just yet.
That level of nuance makes Susie’s journey one of the strongest portrayals in episodic television.
2. “Uncle” Jesse
The narrative moments I found most disappointing were in the treatment of Susie’s “Uncle” Jesse. The writers make it clear in dialogue that Jesse is gender non-conforming at the least and, most likely, a trans woman who was bullied into never embracing who she is. It’s revealed by Mr. Putnam that his “brother” would put on their mother’s dresses and everyone would laugh, up until their father found out and beat it out of Jesse. This is an all too common experience for trans feminine people. While young trans masculine people experience erasure with the explanation of “it’s just a tomboy phase,” trans feminine people are “corrected” by others, and that correction is closely tied to the violent enforcement of toxic masculinity.
I believe the showrunners may have been pointing out how the process of self-actualisation plays out differently for different people; however, the revelation goes by too quickly and is not given time to be internalised by the audience. Where they succeed in this moment was having Susie point out that the bullying was wrong because no one can just know who someone truly is or why they do what they do. Having transphobic words or actions immediately corrected by a relatable or admirable character is how the audience learns transphobia is wrong. Susie defending Jesse is an important moment of queer solidarity. But, again, it may have gone by too fast to land properly, to appear as something other than just a reaction from Susie’s own fear.
Further, this moment of connection was undermined by the treatment of Jesse as that side plot continued. Jesse is possessed by a demon that is implied to be feeding off Jesse’s dysphoria and internalised-transphobia. Though Sabrina is able to remove the demon through a unique witch-performed exorcism, Jesse is murdered by Ms. Wardwell without Susie ever getting to know their Jesse in any way. Then the demon is shoved back in and Jesse vanishes entirely from the story.
Given the violence faced by trans women everyday, and the fact most of the transgender people murdered each year are trans women — specifically trans women of colour — the treatment Jesse experiences at the hands of the writers is pretty awful. Honestly, I feel it would have been better had Jesse’s gender not even been brought into the story.
3. Handsome Fellow
Probably the best moment in the show for transgender representation comes when Roz and Susie visit Roz’s nana. Nana says that Susie is a “handsome fellow.” Roz starts to correct her grandma but Susie stops her. Here Susie is granted agency in determining how they are perceived and referred to. Roz, for her part, does not question or undermine Susie’s wishes. Like a good ally, Roz rolls with it and leaves space for Susie to open up in their own time. The scene is well written and acted and the beats play out naturally. It is the kind of positive representation we need to see more of both on this show and in other media.
4. “Aunt” Dorthea Putnam
One of the realities that delays or stops many transgender and gender non-conforming people from embracing themselves is a lack of community. It is so important to have an elder voice to listen to you, to teach you your community history, and to support you through hardships. For Susie that voice comes from the ghost of Dorthea Putnam, who was Susie’s “aunt” and also gender non-conforming, or possibly a transgender man. I was genuinely excited for Susie to have a voice of validation and someone to offer hope for what comes after accepting who you are. That, however, is tainted by narrative suggestions that their ancestor’s ghost is really a disguised Ms. Wardwell or a sending of Ms. Wardwell. From assigning our protagonists the task of researching their family histories, Ms. Wardwell learns about Susie’s “aunt” and may be using the ghost and affirmation of Susie’s gender to manipulate Susie into furthering her agenda, which undercuts positive feelings the viewer gets from that affirmation.
It, also, raises the concern that with both Susie’s “aunt” and “uncle” being gender non-conforming the writers could put the affirming ghost against the dysphoric demon in a battle for Susie. Though that would be high drama it would also further assassinate the character of trans feminine Jesse. Still, the show has me curious and invested enough to give their plot twists a chance.
Ultimately, despite missteps with Jesse and some dangling plot threads that could go in less than positive directions, the show does right by Susie. Lachlan Watson is presenting us with a character with complexity, richness, and an independent streak that any transgender or non-conforming child can look up to.