The late ‘90s and early 2000s is often considered one of girl power’s most defining eras in mass media. Many of the most cherished Disney shows of the era, such as Lizzie McGuire and That’s So Raven, had relatable female protagonists that viewers both wanted to emulate and befriend. Charlie’s Angels (1999) got a killer reboot with Destiny’s Child providing the lead single “Independent Women” off the soundtrack. It’s no surprise that The Craft (1996), explored the girl power theme, utilizing witchcraft — a belief system largely associated with women — as its vehicle to provide its four outcast main characters with the power that had been denied to them.
The Craft opens with teen witches Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and Rochelle (Rachel True) performing a ritual to invoke the deity they serve named Manon. When Sarah (Robin Tunney) meets the trio on her first day at her new high school, Bonnie is convinced Sarah is the fourth, the final member necessary to balance their coven. Nancy isn’t as sure, reluctant to give Sarah a chance, until she learns of Sarah’s infatuation with Chris (Skeet Ulrich), one of the most popular boys at their high school. She and Chris had dated in the past, but he broke up with her and spread rumors that ruined her reputation. She decides to warn Sarah about him and allow her to hang out with the coven. The girls head out for coffee and end up talking on their way to a local metaphysical shop. They notice the scars on Sarah’s wrists and she reveals her recent suicide attempt as the reason her family moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Nancy, Bonnie and Rochelle are outcasts at school. Much of Bonnie’s body is covered in burn scars, and although she’s tried various treatments, she sees little success. Even in warm weather, she covers herself in baggy clothes and long sleeves to cover the scars that embarrassed her. Rochelle faces racist bullying from her white gym classmates who constantly mock and belittle her blackness, even calling her racial slurs. Nancy’s home life is less than ideal, living in a trailer with her mother and step-father, who abuses her mother and sexually harasses her. These girls feel helpless, dealing with situations that seem to be out of their control. It’s only natural for them to turn to a belief system that’s been largely associated with women and puts agency in their hands.
Sarah doesn’t take witchcraft as seriously as the rest of the coven at first. In Sarah’s first trip with the coven to a local metaphysical shop, the owner informs Sarah that she’s a natural witch. Her power amplifies the coven’s invocations of Manon. The rituals work, the girls find themselves in unimaginable positions of power, as the things they asked of Manon have come true. Sarah, who had previously gone on a date with Chris and experienced the same outcome as Nancy, casts a love spell to get back at him. She also admits she still cares for him, which she acknowledges as ridiculous, but hey, she’s a teenage girl with a crush. Bonnie asks Manon for inner and outer beauty, hoping he’ll take her scars. Rochelle wants to remain confident in herself and also for her bullies to leave her alone. Finally, Nancy asks Manon to give some of his strength to her. The girls finally seem to have the control over their lives that they’ve always wanted.
Teenage girls are often harassed and undermined, particularly if they’re “weird” or different. They’re often virtually defenseless against this, their feelings brushed off and ignored by peers and adults. When an opportunity to fight back against this system that keeps them down finally appears, the coven understandably jumps on it. Manon’s abilities become accessible and effective, deepening the girls’ devotion to witchcraft. A new, experimental form of therapy that Bonnie had been trying to get rid of her scars has fantastic results, with the scars peeling away, revealing fresh skin underneath. Rochelle’s tormentor Laura begins losing her hair, a point of pride for her. Chris becomes infatuated with Sarah, apologizing for his behavior and following her around school, much to the coven’s amusement. Finally, Nancy’s power comes into full view when her step-father starts a fight with her mother, and she yells for him to stop. He does, clutching his chest as he experiences a heart attack and dies. Nancy and her mother soon find out that he had a large life insurance policy through his job that went to them.
The rituals come to a peak when Nancy desires more control over her life, convincing the coven to participate in invoking the spirit, or asking Manon for more agency than he gave her in the initial ritual. The invocation of the spirit is a success, and Nancy now has the ability to manipulate objects, enter dreams and affect people’s actions.
While the original trio are portrayed as power-hungry, Sarah is shown as the most realistic after thinking their spells have gone too far. This perspective is understandable, especially when the love spell she cast over Chris becomes perverted. His initial interest in her was purely sexual, something that comes to terrifying fruition when Chris attempts to rape Sarah when they are on a date. During most recent viewing of The Craft, I was under the impression that the viewer is supposed to see Sarah as the one to blame for her situation rather than the fact that Chris was good at manipulating Sarah and those around him prior to the love spell being cast on him.
Power is addictive, that much is true, but The Craft portrays Nancy, Bonnie and Rochelle as being as bad as, even worse than, the people who had hurt them for so long. These characters are finally able to change their circumstances, do something about all of the awful things that have been done to them, of course they’re going to go a bit over the edge. And why not? That’s what everyone else in their lives with power over them did. That’s the only use of power that they know. They feel as though it’s what everyone else deserves for how horribly they treated them, that they’ll never understand the hurt until they feel it too.
This is especially seen in one of Nancy’s more unhinged moments in the third act, when she uses a glamour spell to make herself look like Sarah to trick Chris at a house party. Nancy, hurting still, demands an apology from Chris for how he treated her and other girls. When all Chris can offer her is “I’m sorry,” she laughs before lashing out at his double standard saying, “You treat women like whores when you’re the whore!” Her rage sends him flying out the window and crashing onto the driveway below.
On the other hand, Bonnie and Rochelle seem much less vindictive than Nancy, yet are portrayed as being “just as bad” as her. Bonnie becomes more confident in herself after her scars are gone, wearing more revealing clothing and flirting with guys. Rochelle begins exceeding in her gym class as she’s no longer being harassed, but Laura’s hair continues falling out, leaving her with patches of dry hair and dead skin on her head. I find it odd that Rochelle, and by extension the viewer, are supposed to feel bad for Laura’s condition when not once in the movie does Laura apologize to Rochelle, besides awkwardly greeting her at the house party.
The Craft is one of my favorite movies, it captures the sisterhood “weird” girls have. How powerful it feels to finally have a space of your own, where you can be yourself. God knows how many times my friends and I would make secret clubs and codes that no one could access except for us. These schoolyard covens are sometimes girls’ first experiences of autonomy. But the more I think about the third act of The Craft, the more disappointed I am that the movie went in the “girls get power and go crazy with it!” direction.
The Craft had the opportunity to show a diverse group of teenage girls, a historically oppressed demographic, taking power into their own hands to change their situations and truly thrive and form a strong sisterhood. Watching The Craft with a knowledge of how institutionalized oppression persists and how people who try to dismantle these institutions are often demonized, I guess I can’t be surprised that the men who wrote and directed this movie made the choices they did. Using Sarah as the “reasonable” one does a disservice to her character. She’s seen how awful the other coven members’ lives have been and has experienced immense struggles of her own. Rather than have the girls turn on each other, The Craft’s impact on girl power could have been so much stronger if the coven had overcome their issues and used their powers to help other girls in similar situations to them.
While The Craft is definitely a product of the girl power era of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, its demonization of girls utilizing supernatural abilities ultimately does a disservice. Instead of taking a more impactful and revolutionary route, The Craft fell into the same tropes that show girls as too unstable and irresponsible for any kind of agency over their situation unless they use that power to help perpetuate the status quo.