Spiked collars. Heavy eye makeup. Upside-down cross earrings and rosaries worn as necklaces. These are timeworn cultural symbols of rebellion and outsiderhood. The 1996 film THE CRAFT was full of these juicy plastic goodies – superficial signifiers of otherness that sang to my adolescent spirit at the time of the movie’s release (I was fourteen — be kind). THE CRAFT’s trailers and teasers promised a tasty stew of supernatural powers, badass young women, and sizzling confidence that was so enticing, a cartoon waft of smoke apparently swept me off my feet and led me down to the theaters, because I don’t remember the drive there.
I watched the movie, and generally liked it as entertainment, but something bothered me. However, this “something” never seemed to quite come up in conversation. My fellow female friends thrilled and gushed over the film, and it was easy to join in the pep party. Wasn’t this cool? Wasn’t that cool? My disquiet, my inner “yes, but–” continued to grow, unchecked and unsatisfied.
Because I had a feeling that this narrative wasn’t really painting young, powerful women in a positive light (and no, I’m not conflating “positive light” with any kind of “moral goodness” attributed to the characters here — more on that later) — in fact, I was certain that for all its spiked furbelows, THE CRAFT wasn’t even remotely feminist. Feminism — the desire for all people to be treated equally, regardless of gender — is a surprisingly loaded topic for many. In a film that promises the empowerment of female characters, you might think that feminism would be a gimme, or at least be addressed within the narrative in some manner. Instead, what you get is a weird world that internalizes its misogyny like a teenager collapsing around her own angst, mumbling its apologies as it leaves the room and nearly knocks a vase over on the way out.
THE CRAFT still evokes powerful gushes of affectionate nostalgia from adults who saw it as a teenager (like myself). I have seen it at least a dozen times or more. Many people love to quote the character Nancy’s line, “We are the weirdos, mister”, and attach a kind of ’90s outsider rebelliousness to it. Poor, normative Nancy — whose wildest dreams peter out from wanting godhood to just wanting a guy. And to be the most powerful girl in her clique. Huh.
THE CRAFT is the story of a young white girl, Sarah, coming to a new town and high school. She is a little sad because her mother died and she never got to know her. Mostly, Sarah just seems to want to fit into her new life. Sarah meets Chris, a jock who immediately starts hitting on her, as well as a group of goth lite young ladies that Chris warns Sarah to avoid. But Sarah is a “natural witch”, with the innate power to balance a pencil by its lead tip on her desk, and the gothettes turn out to be three young “Wiccans” who are looking for a fourth for their circle. It’s a union that Chris just can’t beware away. Nancy, the ringleader of the group, is poor and hungry for wealth and power. Bonnie is hung up on the burn scars that cover her back. Rochelle, the lone POC of the group, struggles with racist peers in the locker room on a daily basis. The young women start using their newfound power as a complete circle to resolve their own problems and desires, and chaos ensues.
The protagonist is the most cardboard of stock protagonists. She enters the film white, affluent, conventionally attractive, and with “natural talent” — she is a witch able to cast some spells even without the back-up battery of the circle. Her desire to fit in quickly morphs into “wanting to be Chris’s girlfriend”. They spend a date where Chris analyzes the size of various women’s heads while Sarah titters and drinks beer. The next day, he spreads rumors about having had sex with Sarah. Her response is to put a love spell on him, which eventually drives him to attempt to rape her.
Yes. That happens in the story. Slut shaming is followed by a literalization of “she was asking for it” in magic form. There is a lot to unpack here. The fact that she responds to his slut shaming by concocting a love spell is head-scratching enough — forcing him to be shamed publicly in some way would be an appropriate or “fair” punishment in this scenario, right? Then you realize that the narrative has already worked that out. Because Chris following Sarah around, carrying her books and sitting next to her at school, already evokes shame for him in front of his friends. So Sarah knew that it would be shameful for Chris to be nice to her in public, especially after he’d bragged about having sex with her. She is aware that being kind to women you’ve already slept with is somehow a reduction of masculinity — that women are merely one-time sex toys, and courting their favor after you’ve obtained the goal of sex means that the woman has “trapped” a male. These antique ideas are so cumbersome and awkward that you would think that someone would have left them in the attic instead of hauling the damn dusty things out, but there you go.
The “asking for it” love spell is simply unfeminist. “Asking for it” culture is derived from the heterosexual male fantasy of women desiring cavemen to hit them on the heads and cart them off and rape them. Fantasies are fantasies, and no woman actually wants anyone to force themselves upon her without her consent and input. It would be more appropriate if Chris had made the love spell, because this fantasy seems right up his alley. Sarah is horrified when Chris attempts to rape her, and luckily gets away (without using her magic — what is the point of magic that can’t thwart rapists?), and when she tells her fellow witches what happened, Nancy decides to punish Chris. By seducing him.
Holy. What. The. Hell. Punishing a would-be rapist by seducing him? Ah, but Nancy is going to seduce him by magically pretending to be Sarah, and then whip off the disguise at one point! So she’ll really…weird him out? Confuse him slightly? Offer him the two-for-one special?
As if ashamed of itself for indulging in this weirdly porno plot point, the movie has Nancy yell at Chris after she’s revealed herself. She accuses him of treating “women like whores” (is it O.K. in this world to slut shame and rape prostitutes? Yikes!), and delivers her speech in rather impassioned tones. Chris apologizes, and Nancy responds by throwing him out the window.
You might think that tossing a slut-shaming jerk out a window could be interpreted as feminist, but here it actually undermines feminism. Chris apologizes — with an apology that doesn’t throw his victims under the bus, or excuse himself in any way — and Nancy responds to his apology by killing him. That’s not feminism, that’s the fantasy misogynists have about feminists. “I shouldn’t apologize because they wouldn’t appreciate it, anyway” — that nonsense was just actualized by nutty Nancy.
Everybody loves a good villain. A well-written villain can create a compelling argument for a perspective that would not generally be considered because of a villain’s amoral actions. “Sympathy for the devil” is a cliché that exists because of narratives that have showed us the devil’s perspective. Nancy, THE CRAFT’s primary villain, is at times a compelling one — but largely because of Fairuza Balk’s passionate performance, and not how she is written. Nancy’s inability to control her lust for power, a typically strong villainous desire, is compounded and undermined by her jealousy, the stereotypically “female” attribute. Her inherent feminity prevents her from being successful. If she could work together with the coven, and keep Sarah as a strong ally, she could potentially have incredible powers. Instead, jealousy of Sarah leaves her profoundly unempowered — at the end of the film she is in an insane asylum, tied up and drugged. Her desire for freedoms and powers beyond what she “should” have leaves her powerless and confined.
Bonnie and Rochelle are equally problematic. Bonnie is obsessed with her appearance, and views ugliness as a form of punishment that she hopes magic will cure. Similarly, Rochelle uses ugliness (a balding spell) as a punishment to inflict upon one of the racists that persecutes her. Both of them are concerned primarily with the power of appearances, which is something of a theme in the story. Sarah uses her power to change the color of her hair one night when the circle meets, which thrills the girls.
How do these new spells, focused on physical appearance, pan out? The four witch girls strut slowly and confidently through the halls. Bonnie stops wearing sweaters in order to show off her newly-healed back and arms. Rochelle seems to possibly feel bad — at least a little — when the balding blonde racist weeps in the locker room showers. In short — nothing truly empowering occurs. Bonnie may feel a bit sassier, but that confidence slips away the moment she thinks the burns might be coming back.
In fact just about all of the magic backfires for the young women, with perhaps the “monarch-butterflies-appearing” spell being the exception. That would make this story appear to be a cautionary tale about the supernatural; however, even that fails to be true. At the end of the film, only Sarah gets to keep her powers — all the other girls lose them. So magic isn’t something to avoid, it’s something to be kept in the hands of the white, affluent, semi-empowered, conventionally attractive milquetoast who wants to fit in and/or fall for a really hot guy (who would probably help her out with keeping those wild powers under control, naturally).
This “gatekeeper” ending is about as welcome as a fart at a perfumier’s convention. Poor girls, “ugly” girls, and black harassed girls severely mismanage their magical powers, but luckily, the white rich girl who had some power already is there to set things right. This selectivity isn’t feminist, it’s insulting.
THE CRAFT offered new avatars to the collective human imagination — cool, goth-esque teenaged girls with extraordinary powers. There is power in opening up our narratives to include more people, and this power can be conflated with empowerment. When we see a powerful female character, there is a rush, a surge of recognition in the female audience member; if SHE can be powerful, surely I can. However, just because a new avatar arises, doesn’t mean that society will rise up to change and make room for people who adopt the avatar’s persona (or some aspect of it) for themselves.
We can dress up our narratives in costumes of empowerment, but THE CRAFT is less about empowerment then it is about reinforcing old, tired fears about giving power to groups that traditionally don’t have a lot of power to begin with. These outdated modes of thinking prohibit the scope and span of the collective imagination, giving us boring old stereotypes that we’ve long grown out of.
The one thing THE CRAFT got right was the film’s opening line: “Ours is the power.” That’s right. It’s ours.
That’s feminism, folks!