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Susan Orlean

Girl Power

I grew up in the sixties and seventies, under the spell of the old television show "Bewitched." I saw every episode, and I loved them all. But lately I have been watching the television show "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," and I have come to regret that I was fifteen in the "Bewitched" years rather than now. Samantha Stephens, the witch on "Bewitched," was a high-strung, self-doubting, cringing pre-feminist, who tidied her house and suppressed her magical powers and her intellect to mollify her wanky husband, Darrin. Sabrina, on the other hand, is a modern girl. She is independent, spunky, friendly with boys but not obsequious toward them, moderately athletic, unabashedly sentimental, and assertive in the way that only girls who have grown up taking feminism for granted are able to be. "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" is shown Fridays at nine o'clock on ABC, and this year the network also broadcasts a rerun on Fridays at eight. The nine-o'clock "Sabrina" is watched by more young women, teens, and little kids than any other television program in that time slot, and both the eight-o'clock and the nine-o'clock episodes rank in the top-ten shows among all kids. For many millions of people, the embodiment of modern girlhood is Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

Girls these days do seem different, in a Sabrina-like way-they're much cooler now than they were when I was growing up. They definitely look cooler. Recently, I went to Los Angeles to visit Melissa Joan Hart, the actress who plays Sabrina, and between appointments I wandered around major teen-girl loci, like the Beverly Center and the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square. Stores like Rampage and Wet Seal and Miller's Outpost are where Sabrina-style females shop. They buy Groove Girl and Greed Girl and Venus Girl Trap tube tops. They wear T-shirts that say "i go from zero to bitch in 2.5 seconds" and "men have feelings too, but who really cares?" They wear elevator-soled sneakers and brick-high rubber thongs and carry white vinyl scratch-and-sniff backpacks that say "goddess" across the front. They wear synthetics. They wear skateboard pants and surfboard shorts and snowboard turtlenecks, sometimes as fashion and sometimes because they actually skateboard, surf, and snowboard. They are more proudly tomboyish than girls were when I was fifteen, and at the same time they're more willing to be frilly and babyish than we were. They wear super-feminine nylon-net camisoles with photo-transfer images of a Fra Angelico Madonna, or Meow-brand cotton undershirts, decorated with tiny pictures of kittens, paired with huge, manly cargo pants. They buy a lot of music; in fact, last year, for the first time in history, girls bought more music than boys did. They watch a lot of TV that features tough but cute girls- a lot of hours of "Clarissa Explains It All" and "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."

Many grownups assume that Sabrina is related to, and possibly even the child of, Samantha, of "Bewitched." Actually, the two are totally not related. Sabrina was originally an Archie Comics character who hung out with Jughead and Veronica and Archie; Samantha was just... whatever. On "Bewitched," Samantha did have a daughter, but her name was Tabitha, not Sabrina, and she was not teen-aged-she was just a toddler. The Tabitha character did eventually have her own show, in which she appeared as a grownup witch, but that was a million years ago, in the seventies, and after just one season the Tabitha show magically disappeared.

Another big thing: Samantha Stephens activated her magic by doing a nose-wiggle; Sabrina does her magic by pointing her index finger. There is no way they could be related, once you consider that. Still, last season one "Sabrina" writer proposed an episode about Sabrina's having a cold, the writer having apparently forgotten that it would have been funny only for a witch who did magic with her nose. As if.

Melissa Joan Hart is twenty-two years old and grew up in Sayville, Long Island. At the age of four, after seeing an episode of "Romper Room," Melissa told her mother that she wanted to be on television. The Harts were not a show-business family. Melissa's father, William, is a lobster wholesaler. Her mother, Paula, is now an executive producer of "Sabrina," but her television experience began with Melissa's. After Melissa was chosen to appear on "Romper Room," Paula looked into local auditions. At Melissa's first audition, she won the supporting role in a commercial for a bathtub toy called Splashy. Over the next decade, she appeared in ads for Connecticut Natural Gas and Rice Krispies, among others, and in plays in New York.

In 1988, a writer and producer named Mitchell Kriegman was dreaming up a show that he called "Clarissa Explains It All," which had at its center a modern preteen girl. Casting Clarissa was not easy. Kriegman wanted an actress who wasn't a goody-goody, but wasn't a sex vixen, either; he also envisioned Clarissa as a girl that boys could relate to. "I wanted her to be a girl who was really original and unique but also popular," Kriegman says. "She'd be the cool girl for nice girls, not the kid with the nose ring. I wanted to show that a nice girl could be smart and different, as opposed to being a typical fast, popular girl. I pictured her as what my wife might have been like at Clarissa's age." The TV girl character of that moment-this was 1990-was brassy and combative, a sort of mini-Joan Rivers girl, along the lines of "Blossom" star Mayim Bialik. By contrast, Melissa Joan Hart was shy and soft-spoken. At thirteen, she still looked about twelve-blond and bright-eyed, with big teeth and a little mouth and peachy cheeks. She projected rationalism and self-reliance, plus she was cute; Kriegman was sure he'd found Clarissa, and in February, 1990, Melissa got the role.

There was never any chance that Clarissa might have been a Clarence. "I'd always get asked why a forty-two-year-old man was writing a girl character," Kriegman says. "I think fourteen-year-old girls are great. They exist in a very particular pocket of the universe, and they are especially adept at organizing the world. It's just a lot cooler to show an assertive girl than to show a sensitive boy. Though the conventional television wisdom is that girls will watch boy characters but boys won't watch girl characters, my feeling was that a kid was a kid. We dealt with kid issues, not girl issues. Our audience turned out to be evenly divided between boys and girls."

"Clarissa Explains It All" originally ran on Nickelodeon from 1991 to 1994 and continues in reruns now. Besides its natural preteen girl audience, it is popular with unlikely people-all those boys, for one thing, and a lot of adults. Clarissa exists outside the show, too: there is a universe of Clarissa/Melissa Joan Hart books and board games, a superhero comic on the Web called "Go! Go! Superstar Clarissa," and a constellation of home pages. One site advises readers where they can find archived still shots from Melissa's earliest commercials. Another one answers almost Talmudically specific questions about Melissa, such as "What's the deal with her teeth?"

Melissa fans have always thought she was missing only one tooth-the one just to the right of her two front teeth-for the first three seasons of "CEIA." But Tom Huston said on 9 Feb., 1996, that she was born without her two top laterals.... The images I did fromthe"Nick News" story contain the best shots of her teeth yet. When you watch, it's very obvious that she was indeed missing the tooth to either side of her two front teeth. By the way, you can also check out some images from her 1986 TV movie, "Christmas Snow," for shots of her teeth at age nine or ten.

After sixty-five episodes of "Clarissa," Melissa and her mother wanted to find a new role for her. A producer suggested the Archie Comics character Sabrina. Sabrina is a half-mortal, half-magical high-school student whose parents are always off somewhere like Peru or Mars or the late fourteenth century, so Sabrina spends her teen-age years living with her witch aunts, Hilda and Zelda. Before Sabrina moved in with them, the aunts enjoyed leisurely, sybaritic suburban lives; for instance, they had really good-looking male household employees who would serve them dinner bare-chested. As soon as the aunts are asked to care for young Sabrina, they fire the bare-chested employees and resolve to straighten up and fly right for their niece's sake. The aunts solve the parents problem: they are adult, but not strict or punitive, and Sabrina doesn't have all those messy psychosexual conflicts with them that she might have with parents. As the show's creator, Nell Scovell, likes to say, the typical TV mother is usually either dead or sensible, and both sorts would have got in the way of Sabrina's personal growth.

When the series begins, Sabrina has just turned sixteen, which, according to Sabrina mythology, is the typical age of witch-power onset. On the morning of her birthday, she involuntarily levitates-the first clue that her life is about to change. From that moment on, Sabrina struggles to learn how to use her magic and at the same time to cope with normal teen-age misery, such as being sort of unpopular but smart, having occasional feelings of boredom, being tormented by the busty, snobby social queen of her school, and not getting along very well with the school's vice-principal. The goal was to portray a typical teen-age girl who happens to be a witch, rather than a witch of a certain age. "Every teen-age girl feels like a freak," Scovell said recently. "Sabrina is a normal teen-age girl who really is a freak." For instance, because she is the new kid at school, Sabrina is snubbed by the popular girl, Libby; because she is a witch, she turns Libby into a pineapple.

The Sabrina character first appeared in a movie-of-the-week on the cable network Showtime. NBC, ABC, and UPN then bid on a Sabrina series. ABC won, by proposing to show "Sabrina" as part of "T.G.I.F.," the network's popular Friday-night block of programming aimed at subadults. The show was scheduled for eight-thirty, not the prime nine-o'clock spot, because that had already been reserved for "Clueless"-another girl-power show, but one about a mortal teen-ager with credit cards. Shows with cute, powerful girl characters were starting to pop up all over television, among them the popular Warner Bros. series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Like "Clarissa," "Sabrina" had an audience of both boys and girls, and also a surprising number of adults. The show is now nearing the end of its second season, and has been guaranteed at least two more. It has also been a success around the world. In England, for instance, ITV replaced "Baywatch," which features vapid, full-figured actresses in swimsuits, with "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."

In March, one of the last "Sabrina" episodes was shot in the new Animal Kingdom at DisneyWorld, in Orlando. The show is usually filmed on a soundstage in Los Angeles, with artificial weather. In Orlando, it was filmed outside, in weather that was only too real: charcoal-colored clouds bunched up overhead, and every fifteen minutes or so rain came down as if it were pouring out of a pail. When I arrived at the Animal Kingdom to watch the filming, everyone and almost everything was covered with yellow Mickey Mouse ponchos because of the rain. A group of sixteen-year-old girls from Orlando who had been hired as extras to play snooty cheerleaders from Sabrina's school were huddled at Tamu Tamu Refreshments, eating wet French fries. The girls looked a little nervous about their hair.

"I'm about to totally frizz," one of them said.
"As if we weren't all going to," another one answered.
"Have you met her yet?" a girl asked. "I mean, Sabrina? I mean Melissa?"
The girls shook their heads and sat quietly for a moment. Then one said, "I hear they pay her one hundred dollars to say one line."
"Yeah, not even," the frizzy one answered. "Probably more. But she doesn't get any time in DisneyWorld to go on any rides."

Actually, during the downpour Melissa and the woman who does her hair had sneaked out to the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail. Paula Hart was canvassing the crew to see if anyone knew where she had gone. Paula has cropped cranberry-toned hair and merry eyes and a pixie face. She could pass as a teen-age witch herself and has probably been taken for Melissa's sister many times. She often says that the two of them grew up together, by which she means that they set out together as rookies in the world of television-Melissa at age four and Paula at twenty-four-and have advanced together, rather than going through the more usual stage-mother/stage-daughter relationship of pushing and pulling. In fact, Paula is the more carefree of the two, even though she is an actual adult, with six children besides Melissa. The youngest is an infant, whom she planned to name Sabrina until Melissa complained that it would be too weird. Paula named the baby Samantha instead, and says that she settled for the name of the second-best witch in the world. Several of the Hart children have appeared on "Sabrina," and Paula told me she was working on a pilot for her daughter Emily, who had been a guest star in one episode, as Sabrina's brat cousin Amanda.

Even though the Animal Kingdom hadn't officially opened, fifty thousand or so Disney employees and their families had been invited to try out the park, and as they came along many of them stopped to gape at the filming. A clump of little girls gathered near one of the cameras. Most of them were carrying Sabrina notebooks and felt-tips, and stood wordlessly with their pens outstretched until someone noticed them. Melissa was still missing, but Libby, the show's snobby social queen, was around, so one of the crew members motioned her over to sign the books. Libby is played by Jenna Leigh Green, a regal-looking young woman who had just spent some time with me discussing shoes. She cooed at the little girls and gave them autographs, and then let them take pictures of her with their throwaway paper cameras. When they were done, they inched away, peering back at her anxiously, the way you'd glance back after edging past a napping Doberman. Jenna watched them and waved. "These kids, they're so scared of me," she said. "They're always saying, 'Why do you have to be so mean to Sabrina?'Some of the little ones, I guess, just don't grasp the concept of fiction and reality."

A few days after the filming in Orlando, I went to Los Angeles, to visit Melissa. She was spending most of the week catching up on errands, and then was going to the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards show, where she would be presenting the award for Favorite Athlete to the skater Kristi Yamaguchi and would be honored herself, as Favorite Female Television Actress of the Year. It was a busy moment. She had just bought her first house, and was living there with her boyfriend, James, and her supposedly spayed dog, which had just magically given birth. She told me that her house was a complete mess and smelled like puppies, so we agreed to meet instead at Paula's house at midday, before the Nickelodeon show. That morning, Melissa was being photographed for a book about Sabrina's hair styles. Sabrina is famous for never wearing her hair the same way twice, and Melissa warned me that at the photo shoot she was planning to cut her long blond hair into a chin-length bob and dye it red. When I arrived at Paula's house, Paula was in her bathroom, dyeing her own hair cherry-red; the older Hart kids were watching a video; and the baby, Samantha, was toddling around the sunny living room. After a while, Melissa arrived with James. She had got her hair cut but was still a blonde. "Chickened out," she explained to Paula. "Too much change in one day." She was wearing a powder-blue blouse, banged-up jeans, and sneakers. The blouse had been a "Sabrina" costume, and the jeans were from a full-length television movie she'd been in. Melissa is small and round-shouldered, and has bright eyes with thick lashes, a tiny, ski-jump nose, and a perfect smile. She is breathless and antsy, and talks a mile a minute. Now that she's no longer a teen-ager, she uses her seventeen-year-old sister, Elizabeth, as a research subject. "I've done my teen years so many times already on TV," she said. "I know that teen-ager way of being. I see Elizabeth doing her mood swings-you know, 'I hate you,' 'I love you'-and that's the way Sabrina is, sometimes nasty and then sweet."

She needed to put on her makeup for the awards show, so we wandered through the house until she found an empty bathroom with a mirrored vanity. She sketched on some eyeliner, and then Elizabeth walked in. "Dude," she said to Melissa, "what are you wearing to the party tonight?" The end-of-the-season "Sabrina"-crew party was being held that evening, after the Nickelodeon show. The theme of the party was the seventies.

"I don't know yet," Melissa said. "Hey, you should flip your hair all up."
"Naah," Elizabeth said. "I'm going late seventies, not early. I want more of a 'Love Story' thing than a Farrah Fawcett thing."
"Ooh," Melissa said. "You go, girl."
Another sister, Emily, came into the room and stood on a bathroom scale facing Melissa. "Dude," she said to Melissa, "when I stand on here, I'm almost as tall as you are."
"Yeah," Melissa said, squinting at her. "But your boobs aren't nearly as big as mine."
Emily jumped off the scale and said, "As if I'd want them to be."

While Melissa finished her make-up, she remarked that her life had reached a funny stage. "I've been getting hell for being too old to play Sabrina," she said. "Yeah, like I'm so ancient. But I'm also getting hell for looking too young to play adults. Like, I just competed with Angelina Jolie for a role, and, I mean, she's an adult. She's a beautiful, adult, mature woman. So, naturally, because it was an adult part, it went to her, not to me. The part I really, really, really wanted was the lead in 'The Mod Squad.' I wanted that so much. Oh, well. So now I'm reading for a part in a movie called 'Girl Gives Birth to Prom Date.' It's really funny, and I like it, because it makes teen-agers look like real people." She put on one more coat of mascara. Then she changed out of her jeans and sneakers, and stepped into a curvy royal-blue dress and high heels. It was astonishing to watch a girl grow up-go through a few critical stages of life-in an instant. A few minutes later, we were out of the house and on the road, and a few minutes after that we reached the auditorium where the awards show was being held. Three thousand kids were in the seats, screaming their heads off as their favorite actors and singers and athletes came onstage. When Melissa was presented with her award for Favorite Television Actress, Paula started to cry, and said to me, "I mean, that's my little girl!"

A moment later, Madonna appeared on the stage. The show's host, Rosie O'Donnell, greeted her and then hushed the crowd. "Did you have something you wanted to say, Madonna?" she asked.

Madonna leaned toward the microphone and shouted, "I got one thing to say, Rosie. Kids rule!"

 
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