When The Craft premiered in theatres 25 years ago this month, it was something of an anomaly. Wedged between the 80s teen movie boom presided over by producer-director John Hughes and the genre’s turn-of-the-millennium revival, The Craft was one of only a scant few teen-centric films released during the mid-1990s. Debuting in May 1996, it preceded Scream and the late 90s teen horror revival by half a year. A story of four teenage witches exploring their powers, The Craft differed from its predecessors (The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink) and its successors (She’s All That, Ten Things I Hate About You) by focusing not on budding adolescent romance, but on volatile, complex female friendships. It likewise differed from the spate of post-Scream slashers because of its emphasis on the supernatural and its almost exclusive interest in the experiences of women.

When the film was initially conceived by producer Douglas Wick and screenwriter Peter Filardi, it was imagined as a story of “female empowerment”. As Wick explains in a 2016 interview, “I was very aware that [witchcraft is an] age-old metaphor for talking about female empowerment, and the sort of mysteries of women and their connection to nature in terms of reproductivity.” Indeed, for many young women, The Craft felt like a deeply empowering, intensely meaningful film. Although its initial box office performance was rather underwhelming, The Craft thrived in the VHS rental market, becoming a slumber-party staple that inspired innumerable teen girls to invest in colourful scented candles and learn to call the quarters. At the same time, The Craft has, like many iconic films, been subject to both popular and critical reappraisal in the two-and-half decades since its release. While many viewers continue to find the film empowering, others have criticised its treatment of sexual violence, racism and class differences. Retrospective reviews and opinion pieces published in the years following The Craft’s initial release have raised legitimate concerns about the film’s politics: Does the script blame Sarah (Robin Tunney) for her assault by the love-sick Chris (Skeet Ulrich)? Why does the film’s only Black witch (Rachel True’s Rochelle) receive so little backstory in comparison to her white peers? Why must white, middle-class, conventionally beautiful Sarah be revealed as the film’s only “natural witch”, while the other three girls are deemed unworthy and stripped of their powers?

Like so many important and meaningful films, The Craft is also a messy film. Perhaps this is because it explores a messy subject: adolescent girlhood. Teenage friendships, especially those forged between girls, are notoriously intense, all-consuming and life-altering. At the same time, such friendships are fragile, assailed by a range of disruptive forces, both internal and external. Critics regularly arraign The Craft for portraying once-loving bonds between women dissolving into cruelty, rivalry and vicious bullying. Yet, anyone who has ever been a teenage girl will recall the volatility of those friendships, their capacity to transform sisterly love into red-hot hatred in an instant. The Craft is also a messy film because it was the product of a messy time. The plot point in which Sarah is almost raped by her high-school crush Chris after casting a love spell on him is unsettling, appearing to cast her assault as punishment for the irresponsible use of magic. Although certainly not an excuse, the film’s punitive attitude towards sexuality is very much reflective of the era in which it was produced. The 1990s witnessed an unprecedented upsurge in abstinence-only sex education, with 23% of high school sex ed teachers endorsing abstinence as the only means to prevent pregnancy and STIs by 1999. This is compared to only 2% in 1988. Similarly, The Craft was released only five years after lawyer Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, claiming that she had been sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Over the course of the hearings, which were televised, Hill was subjected to humiliating, demeaning questions and comments about her sexuality. She was roundly mocked and abused in the media, framed as promiscuous, vindictive and opportunistic. The Craft reflects many of these regressive attitudes towards female sexuality, but at the same time, it exposes and condemns the sexual double-standard that sees sexually active women labelled “whores”, while their male peers are celebrated for their prowess. The dialogue is overtly critical of the manner in which working-class Nancy (Fairuza Balk) is taunted, termed a “slut” and “diseased”, for sleeping around, while her one-time partner Chris is praised for his machismo. Likewise, just as The Craft has been denounced for relegating Black witch Rochelle to a supporting role, it has at the same time been lauded by writers like Ashlee Blackwell for highlighting how racism, bullying and the ubiquity of Eurocentric beauty standards can damage women of colour. 

The Craft is a messy, often contradictory film. It is at once progressive and regressive in its politics. Its attitude to issues of race, gender, class and sexuality are simultaneously pioneering and disconcertingly reactionary. However, The Craft is also an important film, not simply because of its influence on the scores of teen viewers who, in its wake, were inspired to explore witchcraft, but also because of how it presents adolescent girls as active, determined and even ambitious. The 1990s was dominated by a cultural narrative that framed teenage girls as victims, casualties of an increasingly sexualised, materialistic society. Popular psychology books, newspaper articles and TV movies promulgated a vision of “girls in crisis”. Alarmist headlines decried the influence of fashion magazines and music videos on young women’s self-esteem, citing an increase in eating disorders amongst the demographic. Concomitantly, news programmes and talk shows promoted the narrative that societal pressures were leading girls to drug and alcohol abuse, bodily mutilation, underage sex and a host of other troubling behaviours. Made-for-television movies with salacious titles like A Secret Between Friends: A Moment of Truth Movie (1996), No One Would Tell (1996) and Fifteen and Pregnant (1998) framed young women as troubled, self-destructive and vulnerable to a range of social ills. In 1994, two years before the release of The Craft, the teen girl as victim narrative was most fully realised in psychologist Mary Pipher’s touchstone book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Born out of Pipher’s experience as a clinician, the book is largely comprised of case studies dealing with troubled girls, and its central thesis is grounded in the claim that contemporary American culture is a “girl poisoning culture.” Although the book explores sexism and the gender-based violence often direct at young women, it also looks to pop culture to explain the dissatisfaction and unhappiness plaguing young women. Commenting on the ubiquity of heavily air-brushed fashion magazines and overtly sexual music videos, Pipher claims that “Appearance was more important in the 1990s than in the 1950s and early 1960s”. Girls, she observes, are uniquely vulnerable to this increasingly superficial culture, starving themselves to look like emaciated supermodels and wearing provocative, revealing clothing in imitation of fashionable pop stars. For Pipher, adolescent girls “possess limited ability to sort facts from feelings”, and so they are more likely to be unduly influenced by the media and popular culture. Pipher’s generation of Ophelias, named for Hamlet’s suicidal paramour, were not the insubordinate rebels of earlier decades, but rather fragile victims of the society they inhabited. As one contemporary Washington Post article observed, “Where once female adolescence was just a parent-torturing time of door slamming, emotional swings and self-conscious misery . . . it now can be dangerous, even deadly. [Pipher] points to body-mutilating diets, piercing, self-cutting, drug-taking, drinking and unprotected sex as symptoms of widespread self-destruction”.

In their study of newspaper coverage of adolescent girls during the mid-to-late 1990s, Sharon R. Mazzarella and Norma O. Pecora, document a spate of alarming headlines that proliferated in the wake of Reviving Ophelia. Such headlines warned contemporary readers, often concerned adults, about the “Perils of Puberty: Girls ‘Crash and Burn’ in Adolescence” (1994), proclaiming that “Body Size is an Obsession for Adolescents with Eating Disorders” (1997) and that teen girls are “Starving for Self Esteem” (1994). Young women in the 1990s are, they proclaim, “Suffering in Silence” (1998). These assertions of teen vulnerability were highly visible in the years following the publication of Reviving Ophelia, and while they may simply have been reacting to that book’s success, their alarmist tones served to perpetuate what Mazzarella and Pecora term a “crisis discourse”. Media representations of teen girls framed them not as complex individuals, but as “a social problem in need of a solution” (Mazzarella and Pecora). Moreover, such representations framed girls as lacking in agency, passively imbibing cultural messages about body image and sexuality without ever interrogating or challenging them. Teen girls, it was imagined, had no capacity for independent thought, resistance or self-determination. They were merely victims of an exploitative society in which they held no power. 

As a film centred around a group of misfit girls, The Craft could have easily fallen into this trap, framing its protagonists as victims of Pipher’s “girl poisoning culture”. When new girl Sarah first arrives at St Benedict’s Academy, she is drawn to the strange trio of Nancy, Rochelle and Bonnie (Neve Campbell) precisely because they are, like her, deeply troubled. Sarah moves to Los Angeles with her family following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, and her deep-seated trauma finds a parallel in the equally profound suffering of her new friends: “white trash” Nancy lives in a decrepit trailer where she is subjected to sexual abuse by her drunken stepfather; Rochelle, the only Black student in their exclusive private school, experiences horrendous racist bully; Bonnie is disfigured by extensive bodily scarring. Yet, rather than presenting the girls as victims of these circumstances, The Craft imagines a scenario in which young women might bond over their pain and turn it into something more powerful. When Nancy first notices the scars on Sarah’s wrists, evidence of her failed suicide attempt, she immediately identifies the new girl as an ally. Bonnie examines Sarah’s scars and observes, “You even did it the right way”, suggesting that she too has experienced suicidal ideation. The girls bond over their suffering, but rather than allowing it to define or destroy them, they use it as an impetus to transform their lives. Once they discover that the four of them together can create a magic circle and work increasingly potent magic, they use that power for their own benefit, their own pleasure. Rochelle exacts revenge on racist bully Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), while Bonnie heals her body of its scars. Sarah places a love spell on Chris, and Nancy not only kills her stepfather but ensures that she and her mother inherit a fortune through his life insurance policy. The four witches, at least initially, take extreme pleasure in the results of their magic. Sarah relishes Chris’s attention, as he follows her around like a lapdog and carries her books. Bonnie, free of her disfiguring scars, switches out her baggy sweaters and oversized coats for revealing blouses and short skirts, soaking up the catcalls of lustful passers-by. Rochelle finds sadistic joy in watching Laura’s hair fall out, and Nancy embraces the materialism of her new affluent lifestyle, moving into a penthouse apartment and wearing designer clothes. In this way, the four witches use magic to resist victimhood, taking control of their lives and enjoying their agency. 

Their newfound confidence is signalled visually through the ubiquitous teen-movie trope of the makeover. As the girls grow in power, they swap baggy clothes for figure-hugging, goth-inflected fashions: tight tops, short skirts, ironically-styled rosery beads. In what is perhaps the film’s most iconic scene, Sarah, Rochelle, Bonnie and Nancy stride through their school campus, moving sinuously in slow motion, revelling in their sexuality. Yet, while a scene like this might ordinarily be aligned with the lustful gaze of an implicitly male observer, The Craft’s slow-motion sequence is noteworthy due to the absence of any male onlookers. As the academic Emily Chandler notes, it is significant that “no one in the scene itself is looking at the coven”. As Chandler goes on to explain, 

“The convention in teen film of this period is that when a change has occurred which confers power on girl characters, there will be reaction shots from other students to impress on the audience that the girls now hold sway in the school. […] By comparison, in The Craft, the coven’s increased self-confidence and unity goes unnoticed and unremarked upon by the other students.”

The implication here seems to be that while other teen movies position such transformations within the context of the wider high school hierarchy, The Craft is uninterested in how others respond to its protagonists’ transformation. Their newly discovered confidence, sophistication and sexuality is for their benefit alone. The pleasure of transformation is bound up with the pleasure of self-determination. Rather than capitulating to the kind of societal pressures that Mary Pipher and other mid-1990s commentators viewed as so detrimental to adolescent girls, the four witches at the heart of The Craft engage in a pleasurable self-transformation that symbolises their growing power, self-assurance and agency. It is significant, then, that film opens with three of the witches chanting the words, “Now is the time. This is the hour. Ours is the magic. Ours is the power. Now is the time. This is the hour. Ours is the magic. Ours is the power”. Their repeated use of the pronoun “ours” again signals the importance of agency and self-determination. They seek, above all else, magic and power for themselves. As teen girls, marginalised not only by their youth and gender, but by a host of other factors such as race, class and appearance, they embrace witchcraft as a means of seizing power that would ordinarily be denied to them. They are not victims of a poisonous society, but rather young women who use their occult abilities to fight back and regain control over their lives.

The manner in which the coven attempts to wrest control over their lives is also evident in their colonisation of space, their propensity to create communities in the liminal zones of empty city parks, desolate beaches and deep woodlands. In these otherwise abandoned spaces, Nancy, Rochelle, Bonnie and later Sarah construct safe spaces (to borrow a widely disparaged neologism) where they can share their pain, communicate authentically and laugh freely. This vision of a community carved out by teenage girls reflects one of the many ways in which real-life young women were attempting to reclaim space, autonomy and femininity in the 1990s. Although never directly referenced, the witches’ alternative ethos and frustration with the status quo echoes the anger of the Riot Grrrl movement that emerged in the Pacific Northwest in the early part of the 90s. A dynamic mixture of punk rock and feminist politics, Riot Grrrl is most often associated with bands like Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Babes in Toyland and Bratmobile. In the first Riot Grrrl manifesto, published in the Bikini Kill Zine, Kathleen Hanna wrote of her anger at society “that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.” Loud, confident and politically engaged, the Riot Grrrl movement explicitly challenged the “girls in crisis” narrative that proliferated in the media during those years. These Grrrls were not weak, nor were they victims, but they were angry at a society that repeatedly tried to victimise them. Though they may lack the explicit feminist politics of Riot Grrrl, Bonnie, Nancy, Sarah and Rochelle, adopt the movement’s ethos of community, empowerment and resistance. By using magic to resist the racism, sexual violence and bullying that define their lives, the coven become active in shaping their destinies and refusing passivity.

The Craft is, as mentioned above, a messy film. It is not a perfect work, nor is its message entirely consistent. The first part of the film functions as an undeniable celebration of young women who refuse the victim narrative of girlhood, punishing those who abuse them and revelling in their own sexuality. However, the film’s climax centres around the fragmentation of the coven and suggests that the actions of Bonnie, Rochelle and particularly Nancy have been too selfish. The original threesome has gone too far in their quest for power. Nancy ultimately emerges as the film’s villain, twisted and warped by her own greed. Where the other girls may deploy their occult abilities to engage in petty acts of revenge, to repair broken bodies or win the love of a high-school heartthrob, Nancy wants nothing more than the full power of a god. She is, of course, power-hungry from the start. When she calls the quarters with her fellow witches, the other girls implore the “guardians of the watchtowers” to “hear us.” Nancy slips up, though, and allows us to glimpse her true ambitions, chanting “hear me,” before correcting herself. It is Nancy who desires to invoke the spirit and wishes to be filled with the power of Manon, the film’s fictional deity. Although she is eventually punished for her greed and excessive ambition, ending the film in a psychiatric hospital screaming in a delusional stupor about her ability to fly, the fact that Nancy actively pursues such godlike power suggests a desire for control. Ambition is a quality rarely associated with teen girls, especially during an era when they were regularly portrayed as fragile victims, but Nancy is disturbingly ambitious. She not only seeks power, but she seeks the power of a god. She resists the kind of victim role so often attributed to working-class women and sexual assault survivors. She identifies a source of power, a path to greatness, and she takes it, regardless of the cost. 

25 years after its release, The Craft remains an influential, albeit inconsistent, film. Its initial celebration of girlhood, friendship and resistance transforms, in the movie’s climax, into a cautionary tale about the corrupting nature of power and the danger of cliques. If The Craft’s teen witches, with the exception of Sarah, are destroyed by their lust for power, at least they are enabled to wield it, even momentarily. In a culture where the primary discourses about girls centred on their fragility and vulnerability, The Craft allowed its teenage protagonists to take control of their troubled lives. They not only desire power, they actively seek it out. Nancy, Rochelle, Bonnie and Sarah are not passive victims of a toxic culture, rather they are ambitious, determined young women who try to challenge that culture and have things their way.

Bibliography

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Matthew Jacobs and Julia Brucculieri, “Relax, It’s Only Magic: An Oral History Of ‘The Craft’”, The Huffington Post, May 20, 2016, < https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-craft-oral-history>

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