VILLANOVA, Pa. – Witches take up a lot of real estate in Sarah Beth Gilbert’s brain. More specifically, her research examines ideas about power, women and queer and feminist representation in science fiction and fantasy across all mediums.
“I think there is something deeply connected to the way our patriarchal world is set up and the relation between powerful women and depictions of witches … from film to literature and everything in between,” says Gilbert, who is in her second year in Villanova’s master’s program in English.
Her contributions to this growing area of scholarship has led to opportunities for Gilbert to present her work in public and contribute to upcoming publications. She has been inspired, in part, by the support of English Department Chair Heather Hicks, PhD, who studies apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature, among her many research interests.
"Meeting Dr. Hicks was like a breath of fresh air and made me realize there are people with the same interests and that this type of work is valid."
This October in Atlanta, Gilbert served on two panels and presented a paper at the first MultiverseCon, an inclusive science fiction and fantasy conference featuring writers, scholars and fans from the LGBTQ+ community and people from diverse backgrounds.
MultiverseCon emerged from dissatisfaction with the progress of inclusivity initiatives at the popular DragonCon, another sci-fi and fantasy convention held in Atlanta.
“The sci-fi and fantasy world is not only straight, white and male, yet the representation both on screen and in person at conventions has, historically, only really shown the ‘white boy geek’ stereotype,” says Gilbert. “When diversity inclusion was slow-moving at DragonCon, a bunch of the community banded together to create MultiverseCon.”
At MultiverseCon, Gilbert served on the panels, “Beyond Gender: LGBTQ+ Representations in Science Fiction” and “Female Agency in Wielding Power,” at which she presented her paper, “Institutionalized Control of Female Agency: Knowledge and Power of Witches in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Penny Dreadful.”
In her paper, Gilbert considers how society’s institutions play a role in controlling feminine power in two popular television representations of witchcraft.
“By drawing a parallel from societal institutions like language, religion and education in the show to those same institutions in our own world, I analyze how female power is regulated and what viewers can take away from these shows,” Gilbert says. “Specifically, Vanessa and Sabrina refuse to let these male-led institutions define what they can and cannot do, how they are allowed to use their powers, or their role in witch society. In learning how to hold onto their agency and freedom, the female main characters must find ways to navigate the systems around them in order to create lasting equality much the same way women today are attempting to create change from within.”
Gilbert also has a critical essay being published in December in Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Volume 2, Essays on Television Representations 2012-2019 called “‘Bloke Utopia:’ Bill Potts, Queer Identity, and Cyborg Narratives in Doctor Who.” She recently started a “bookstagram,” (@sbgbooksandscifi), which is an Instagram account focusing solely on the books and content she is reading and watching.
Gilbert, who is a graduate assistant working in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Office of External Relations and Communications, earned her bachelor’s degree in English Literature with a minor in Spanish from Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, Georgia, close to her hometown of Augusta, Georgia.
While working at a high school in New Jersey through AmeriCorps for two years, Gilbert decided that she wanted to pursue a graduate degree and chose Villanova, in part, because of its small class sizes and the connections she immediately felt with the faculty and graduate student community.
Says Gilbert, “I came to a prospective student’s day and was allowed to sit in on a class that evening. I discussed my work – at length – with Heather Hicks, who was the program director. Dr. Hicks focuses on apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature and immediately jumped into conversation with me about science fiction and fantasy in academia. Not surprisingly, a lot of faculty and people in the academy don’t think genre fiction (science fiction and fantasy included) deserves to be called literature much less studied critically. Since that is exactly what I like to do, meeting Dr. Hicks was like a breath of fresh air and made me realize there are people with the same interests and that this type of work is valid.”