The Craft: Junior Feminism That Casts an Empowering Spell
Once during seventh grade, three girlfriends arrived for a sleepover at my house, where the better part of the evening was spent not giving each other garish makeovers, but instead trying to convince my overprotective, God-fearing mother to let us rent a copy of The Craft. A real stickler for the 1x1 inch wisdom of parental advisories, my mother was weary of the film’s R rating – this could very well have been a story whose plot revolved around Caligula-like decadence for the pre-teen set. Gazing at the VHS cover box, her knee-jerk skepticism could be, in retrospect on my part, taken understandably: after all, four surly vixens are found glaring back, clearly not the adolescent-aged girls the film purports their characters to be, almost too goth to function. Dangerous looking lightning bolts streak the skyline around them. One character sports a nose ring, while all wear skirts short enough to warrant a one-way ticket to any Bachmann-sponsored rehabilitation center.
And yet, if my mother and other fretful parents like her had been able to look beyond the film’s rough visage, they would perhaps have seen The Craft’s strongly female-centric redeeming value, hid amid all the serpent-fetishizing and Hot Topic chic get-ups. Here was a film, released in 1996 (the same year our president was getting serviced by someone other than the Secret Service) that offered its teenage girl demographic a more worthwhile tale about feminine strength than many of that generation’s dime-a-dozen competitors. Sure, The Craft spins a fantastical, darkly-rooted yarn about a high school witches coven that uses its considerable supernatural strength to inflict harm upon classmates and threatening strangers, but it also provides us with deeper fare that speaks to a litany of concerns plaguing the everyday existence of teen girls all over the world. Without ever appearing preachy or heavy-handed, various plot points contained within The Craft speak frankly to budding feminism-minded subjects like domestic abuse, attempted rape, girl-on-girl word crime, clique cruelty, racism, suicidal fixations, body image insecurity, and the ruined reputations of perceived sluts. It was the perfect transitional piece for girls of a certain age group, and nurtured an interest in Wicca and magic(k) that began several years earlier with Hocus Pocus.
At the center of this bubbling cinematic caldron are the four witches themselves. Witness the film’s plucky heroine Sarah Bailey reel with anger as she learns her popular crush has betrayed her, lying about having slept with her, rendering her one of many. (Is it any coincidence that Skeet Ulrich’s character in this is named Chris Hooker?) Neve Campbell’s Bonnie is a soft-spoken, heavily scarred introvert who embraces selfish conceit after achieving outer beauty with magic. One of the lone black students at a lilly white Catholic school, Rochelle, is athletic and striking but still susceptible racist taunting from a biting blonde beauty named Laura Lizzie. And Fairuza Bulk’s Nancy – ringleader of the coven and arguably one of the cinema’s truly great movie villainesses – schemes to rid herself of impoverished surroundings and a turbulent home life involving a menacing, abusive stepfather. It’s Nancy’s insatiable lust for power that eventually leads to the coven’s climatic downfall, but cultural factors that have long wreaked suffering upon empowered females (be they real witches or imagined) could just have easily gotten the burning done.
While real-world issues abound, the film also manages to pay substantial homage to the interlocking connection between ostracized women and magical powers. Is a high school setting – particularly the conservative Catholic prep school where the film is set – really that far removed from a Puritanical witch trial, hellbent on miscarrying justice? Right from the get go, we watch the “bitches of Eastwick” suffer as social outcasts; pariahs created by an underlying human notion which assigns hatred to what it fails to understand; that which it fears. Digging deeper still, the words “sacred feminine” never actually appear in the script, but The Craft is ripe with the sort of twisted modernity that conjures up archaic ideas about female power as an inherent threat. Is it any wonder that Sarah spends the bulk of the film terrified of snakes, worms, and other decidedly phallic creepy crawlies? How about Nancy, who, while displaying sociopathic tendencies from almost the instant her character slithers onscreen, doesn’t totally lose it until she invokes the spirit of Manon (whom Sarah later refers to as “He,” despite the deity’s supposedly sexless omniscience). I love the scene that finds Nancy walking on water, the collected calm of Manon’s essence coursing through her: after a lifetime of gendered belittlement, it must have been a tremendous pleasure to experience masculinized Christ-like qualities.
Fittingly, Nancy uses her powers to punish the men who have wronged her: namely her stepfather, upon whom she visits a fatal heart attack, and the aforementioned Chris Hooker, who dies a calamitous death plummeting from a second story window as Nancy screams “the only way you know how to treat women is to treat them like whores. But you’re the whore!” at him. Yet, unconventional though it may be, The Craft wouldn’t be a teen-targeted movie without some kind of ultimate morality lesson: Bonnie and Rochelle’s self-serving spells come back to haunt them, and the tragic downfall of Nancy’s quest for control leaves her hollowed out and ravaged; an empty soul squealing about being able to fly as she lays strapped to a flat, lifeless mental hospital bed. Perhaps the real underlying message here is that success can be achieved and an unfortunate set of life circumstances overcome not through vengeful tactics, but rather by embracing the ancient core tenants of sisterhood. With their powers combined, the witches are able to improve life for themselves by calling upon the same natural forces that have ennobled practitioners of the sacred feminine for centuries. Sarah’s mother was a natural witch, just like her, and though she died bearing her only child, the gifts bestowed from mother to daughter are what ultimately help Sarah to defeat her enemies and embrace a more self-assured way of life. Nancy, conversely, is destroyed not by the antagonistic men who make up her misery, but instead by her acceptance of becoming like them by using magic to harm.
She may have had severe misgivings; she may even have regretted allowing us to watch the film and thus become enamored with witchcraft, but I’m grateful that my mother finally gave in. The Craft is not without its campy or crude moments, in some ways, but it also provides a valuable insight into female suffering and the ability to overcome it. And when you’re 12 and woefully unsure of how the world will receive you, finding the magic within is likely to prove a powerful discovery, unless you take it to a place as dark as the world around you can be.
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