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The Craft: Ours is the Power

Released in 1996, The Craft came out at a pivotal time for the representation of teenage girls in Western media. Unfortunately, it’s not the kickass feminist film our rose-coloured nostalgia says it is.

content warning: mentions of racism, domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment

Released in 1996, The Craft came out at a pivotal time for the representation of teenage girls in Western media. The 90s were littered with films about ‘popular’ girls (Clueless) and caretakers (The Babysitters Club) but The Craft was remarkable for its focus on the ‘outcast’, bringing to screen unapologetic ‘weirdos’ and ‘freaks’. More than that, they were proud of their differences. The film showed girls who found strength in not fitting in, a refreshing concept for teens everywhere drained by the non-stop pressure of performance and assimilation. This paved the way for many cult-classic feminist horror films that centred ‘odd’ protagonists, like Jawbreaker (1999), proving there was a market for unconventional female characters who could embrace the power of being different.

Unfortunately, it’s not the kickass feminist film our rose-coloured nostalgia says it is. The Craft broadcasts confusing narratives about racism, female empowerment and sexual assault that, once contextualised with its male writing room and production crew, make much more sense. Despite this, the film manages to communicate a powerful, though certainly unintentional, underlying message about the corrupting nature of male-modelled power and toxic masculinity.

The Craft follows four high school girls and their quest to obtain power using pagan witchcraft. They’re alienated by their peers; Nancy for being ‘white trash’, Rochelle for being the only Black student in their private school and Bonnie for being ‘ugly’ because of the burns and scars covering her body. To seek power in a system where they severely lack it, the girls turn to Wicca as a means of obtaining revenge on the people who have abused them. When new girl Sarah, the daughter of a witch, joins the school and completes their circle, the coven is finally given the power they need to cast its spells.

The ‘witch’ trope is one this film successfully spins on its head, both humanising and modernising the ‘crazy old hag’ stereotype. The witch throughout fantasy has always been a symbol of evil, a warning against destructive female empowerment that the rest of society can’t handle. After all, the sheer audacity of these women to live by themselves and not marry?! To want power and control over their own lives?! Drown them. Witches, traditionally typecast as power-hungry, are instead shown here as complex, beaten-down girls. Girls who, once given power they’ve never had before, do their best to erase the trauma we’ve witnessed in the first half of the film: microaggressions, taunts, social isolation and harassment. Vengeance seems to be the only option for them, and even to the audience it feels well-earned.

Each of the girls perform spells to fix their problems. Sarah wishes for jackass popular jock Chris Hooker to like her back; Bonnie wishes to live without her scars; Rochelle wishes for her racist bully to get a taste of her own medicine, and Nancy wishes for money to help her and her mother escape their abusive domestic situation. When these all work, the girls are elated and are each presented with a genuine path back into the social hierarchy they were cast out from.

Despite this, to claim that this film is about female empowerment is problematic. The girls only feel confident once their appearance is changed, or they gain money, or a racist bully is removed. Not to say these changes cannot be empowering for individuals, but narratively, there’s no internal conflict resolution—their issues still persist within themselves and the society around them. Ultimately, the source of their power is external to themselves. Furthermore, they are ruled by the deity Manon, whose whims restrict their autonomy. He decides when their power has been corrupted and when it is permissible. The male gender of this deity also seems to affirm that, even in a story about ‘female empowerment’, the only way a woman can attain power is through a man.

Instead, the film seems to communicate that power, specifically male power, corrupts. Things start to fall apart when the girls compromise their values to find their footing in the social hierarchy. They hurt people. Using their powers, they assert themselves in the way male figures always have and it has disastrous consequences.

Bonnie, having had a taste of desirability and in her desperation to become the ultimate female stereotype, catcalls and harasses any boy she takes a liking to, like she’s learned from the boys at school.

Nancy becomes so overwhelmed with greed and ambition that she performs a ritual to invoke the spirit—taking Manon ‘into herself’, becoming the man with power. She changes completely, losing her sense of compassion and becoming reckless with her own life and those of her friends. Her descent into antipathy is notably triggered when she encounters her abusers, including her stepfather and the boys at school. Nancy has suffered deeply in the film and never had the strength she’s longed for as a victim. These abusive men became Nancy’s role models, and in invoking what she has been conditioned to believe is the ultimate manifestation of power, she becomes dangerous.

When it comes to oppression and discrimination, the film seems to have conflicting views. Rochelle uses her powers to give her bully a taste of her own medicine by ruining her hair. But there is no systematic commentary here about how her teachers and classmates allow the racist to spit horrific vitriol and traumatise Rochelle in class. Instead, when ‘power corrupts’ and the white girl starts losing all her hair, Rochelle is meant to feel guilty for defending herself. Bonnie, on the other hand, wishes her scars away and embraces a newfound level of confidence in being socially attractive that slowly becomes narcissism.

On their own, neither of the things Rochelle or Bonnie do immediately implicate them, but it’s when the power trip gets to their heads and they behave differently that it becomes ‘bad’.

Finally, Sarah, who spends the majority of the film head over heels for a boy who publicly slut-shames her, is almost assaulted by him in what the film paints as a consequence of her love spell. Fuelled by rage at this, Nancy attacks and murders Chris using her powers.

“The only way you know how to treat women is by treating them like whores! Well, you’re the whore! And this is gonna stop!”

Imbued with determination to stop Nancy, Sarah invokes the spirit herself. Guided somewhat by her mother and the shopkeeper of a local witchcraft store, she succeeds and maintains herself along with the powers of Manon. The coven’s circle is shattered and the girls split ways, left only with an unsatisfying message of ‘power is bad’ or alternatively, ‘don’t try to achieve the unachievable’, xoxo.

In a patriarchal society, symbols of power are inherently male-produced and layered with toxic masculinity. It’s no wonder then that when the girls attempt to emulate power, they subconsciously mirror these role models and harm everyone around them. In fact, it’s often the older female figures in this film who provide a guiding, anchoring force against the turbulence. The Craft unintentionally shows the dichotomy between destructive masculine power and positive feminine empowerment. Unlike Nancy, Sarah is successful because she balances her powers from Manon and the stereotypical characteristics of male power: assertiveness and confidence, alongside the qualities of feminine power—compassion and moral strength—that she derives from her mother and the shopkeeper.

All this being said, The Craft to me is still a film that attempts to examine feminism but falls flat. The audience is able to watch four young women defy gender stereotypes but at its core it still feels performative. The girls are almost punished by the writers for wanting better for themselves. Both Nancy and Bonnie have it extremely bad, literally suffering at the hands of abusers through misogyny and white supremacy. Yet, the film concludes that in allowing the power of freedom to get to their heads, they are ultimately in the wrong.

The Craft leaves us with the quote “ours is the power”, which I interpret as “the power we have within is the true power.” The only ‘success’ of the film, Sarah, retains her abilities in the end, affirming that her powers are stronger and somehow purer. There’s something affirming about this unintentional positioning of intrinsic female power, exemplified throughout the film in terms of empathy, rationality and emotional strength, as stronger than and more stable than its masculine counterpart, which is flimsy, quick to flare and faster to die out. With this reading, the film becomes an unforgettable witchy classic, with characters that fought both against their societal constraints and the film’s attempts to squash their power.

 
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