- YEAR: 1996
- DIRECTOR: Andrew Fleming
- KEY ACTORS: Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Robin Tunney, Rachel True
- CERTIFICATE: 15
- IMDB SCORE: 6.4
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 55%
SEX SCORE: 2.5/5
✔️ Of course, this passes the Bechdel Test!
✔️ And as much as I was scared of it as a teenager, this really is rewatchable.
❌ But I don’t want to fuck the cast. In many ways, I wanted to be the cast, but I didn’t want to fuck them.
❓ Did it inspire fantasies? I think I will give it a half a mark as there is so much that I wanted, but I didn’t want it for sexual reasons. Well, not directly anyway!
❌ And it isn’t sex positive. Sex is a source of trauma and conflict for all of the girls, and I don’t get the impression that any of them have had a positive sexual experience.
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £6.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[CW: suicide, sexual assault, racism, bullying]
I was a fraction too young for the full impact of The Craft. I was 11 in 1996 when it came out and had been completely traumatised by watching The Witches a few years earlier so I was definitely not ready for the extraordinary power of this movie. But my ongoing fear of witches (that genuinely wouldn’t be solved for years) meant that I didn’t watch The Craft until I was well into my twenties. And I’m actually a bit sad about that because there’s a lot about this movie that I could have done with as a teenage girl. It may have a ‘reputation as the kind of film best kept to slumber parties between wine-drunk girlfriends, not serious study’ but it is definitely more important than that!
Because The Craft tells the story of outsiders who find their power.
Sarah (Tunney) moves to LA as her parents think she needs a new start after she tries to kill herself. She quickly becomes friends with a group of girls who are uncharitably described as ‘The Bitches of Eastwick’ – Nancy (Balk) who is angry and defensive, Bonnie (Campbell) whose body is covered with scars, and Rochelle (True) who seems to be the only POC in the school and is, of course, bullied for it. Sarah quickly becomes their fourth, the final person needed to complete their coven, as she is a natural witch with more power than any of the others. Together, they cast spells and become closer and take revenge on the people who have slighted them – boys who have rejected them, girls who have bullied them, family members who have abused them, anyone who has crossed them. But this power cannot be controlled and soon the body count starts to climb. To become even stronger, Nancy takes on the power of Manon and lets the darkness overcome her. She turns against Sarah, bullying and tormenting her with Bonnie and Rochelle’s help. Sarah also takes on the power of Manon to fight back, choosing the light rather than the dark, and she eventually defeats Nancy, who ends up admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
And The Craft is so important and did speak to a generation of teenagers because it is a movie that celebrates outsiders, particularly teenage girls who felt excluded. Lisa Lagace in Marie Claire described it as a movie ‘for the rest of us. The others. The outsiders…The Craft celebrated the unconventional girl.’ And not many movies were doing that in the 1990s. Heroines in movies were that stereotypical popular girl, beautiful, fashionable, slim, and outsiders needed to be improved – think of Cher in Clueless giving Tai a makeover – but there are many, many more people who aren’t in the popular cliques and needed to see themselves on screen. Interestingly, Roger Ebert described the Craft girls as looking like ‘normal, popular teenagers,’ but I think he’s mistaking common with popular. There may be more of us, but we didn’t feel included.
Instead, we found our place with the witches of The Craft. They were ‘the embodiment of Third Wave feminism, launched by a girl power punk subculture,’ creating their own world rather than trying to fit in to the old one, and that is what we needed to see! They found being different ‘more empowering than being popular’ and it was a breath of fresh air for those of us who were working so hard to fit in.
And damn, these girls are powerful! It’s pretty intoxicating and, for the first half of the film at least, they look like they’re having a lot of fun. I played the ‘light as a feather, stiff as a board’ game at sleepovers when I was at school (unsuccessfully, obviously) and I remember yearning for their ability to change what couldn’t be changed; to have that kind of power.
Because that is what witches are – they are power for the powerless. Anne Cohen for Refinery 29 believes that this is why The Craft is timeless – women are always ‘wishing for a magical solution to very real, scary problems.’ Women, cis or trans, and non-binary or trans AFAB people are all powerless against the Patriarchy and powerless to change all of the pressures that are keeping us down. Magic offers an easy way out; a supernatural solution to this unfair imbalance of power. More than that, The Craft showed us how we could be even more powerful together. And, of course, people this powerful who wield it against the social norms are always going to be terrifying to the Patriarchy, which is why they have become such a powerful feminist symbol!
But it’s not that simple. I wrote in my Practical Magic review that witches are the ‘ultimate feminist hero’ and, in a way, I was right. ‘“Witch” has historically been used as a catch-all term to refer to any woman flouting social norms or male authority’ and they do represent something that the Patriarchy fears – someone who is able to act on their own desires and cannot be limited or controlled – but, sadly, I’ve come to realise that there is still a misogynistic trap within the witch story.
The division between good and bad witches is too often represented by well how they fit oppressive beauty standards – compare the feisty, green and hideous Wicked Witch of the West with her beautiful, serene and good counterpart in the Wizard of Oz. And while the ‘evil’ witch’s rejection of traditional beauty is another way to reject the Patriarchy, it bothers me that the ‘good’ witches need to comply with these standards to be seen as good. As Teen Vogue put it, ‘goodness is seen as some sort of reward, and not without its own rules. In Hollywood today, that means that only beautiful, young white women get to be good witches, while everyone else is relegated eternally to the role of being othered.’ And, of course, too many of these good witches are white, cis and beautiful, and simply represent another social norm. Which feels less like Patriarchy smashing and more like compliance with misogynistic wants: ‘Fall outside the criteria of young, sexually available, and white and you risk being cast as a very wicked witch indeed.’
And these divisions are played out in The Craft, which dims its power as a feminist movie for me. Nancy ends the movie restrained and sedated in a psychiatric hospital as she ranted and raved about her lost power. She tried to overthrow the world (and the Patriarchy) and she was punished for her failure. As she got stronger and more powerful, she also deviated further from those traditional ideas of beauty. Her hair became wilder and darker, her face contorted in a bigger grimace. And, being a secret emo kid, I always coveted the black lipstick, heavy eye make-up look that Nancy makes look so good, but there is no doubt that the other girls have a more socially acceptable look. It’s another cliche but, while none of them are blonde, Sarah’s auburn hair is definitely the lightest and she’s the least evil. Cool, cool, cool…
It’s just not quite good enough. The Craft tells us that we can be powerful and we can be in control and exact revenge, but if we go too far, we will be reigned back in. As Angelica Jade Bastien wrote in her essay in Vulture looking back at the legacy of The Craft, ‘for many girls, witches are our first brush with any depiction of feminism and the price women pay in searching for control over our lives.’ Because there is a price. We are told that we can be powerful, we can have it all, but we ‘can’t gloriously fuck up the way young men do and survive unscathed. There is no female equivalent of that troublesome “boys will be boys” adage.’ Devastatingly.
It also shares cliched and annoying messages about teenage girls and female friendships – that we fight, that we’re superficial and vain, that we compete with each other; that we’re jealous. Refinery 29’s look back at The Craft in 2018 commented that it’s a ‘compelling depiction of female joy, of reveling in one’s power and one’s friends…[and] doesn’t pass judgment on why the girls are doing what they do’ but I don’t know that that’s true. Bonnie’s wish to lose her scars so she is no longer different quickly becomes narcissism, Sarah’s whimsical love spell leads to sexual assault; they are punished for wanting control. They are judged! And Nancy’s descent into darkness is sped up by her jealousy of Sarah’s natural power. Having always been the most powerful in the friendship group, she feels threatened by the new girl so takes dangerous steps to regain her power. And these are familiar tropes from teen movies, but it makes me sad to see them in one that had such a ‘fierce hold on the generation of young girls.’
Because the friendships between them could and should have been the core of the film, rather than Nancy’s madness. Friendships between teenagers, and stereotypically teenage girls, are intense, burning hot and bright, and they burn out quickly. The way their friendship develops and then becomes ‘painfully toxic’ so quickly is upsettingly familiar. But I guess I’d hoped for a return to that sisterly connection, for some hint that it might not be that bad, and that they wouldn’t just abandon Nancy to her demons. Perhaps that’s more realistic, but I’d wanted more.
Minority power is always, always a source of fear to the majority. Deviation from social norms will always create threat and turmoil. And witches are definitely symbols of this. They’re just not perfect feminist heroes, just as this isn’t a perfect feminist movie. As Roger Ebert mused, why do supernatural characters in movies keep ‘their horizons are so limited. Here are four girls who could outgross David Copperfield in Vegas, and they limit their amazing powers to getting even. The plot, in short, is beneath our interest.’
Sadly, The Craft’s feminist goals are similarly limited and I found myself yearning for what it could have been…
NEXT WEEK… Rosemary’s Baby