Like many people who grew up in the 90s, I loved The Craft. While it didn’t send me into goth mode, it did inspire some less-than-rousing rounds of “light as a feather, stiff as a board” at sleepovers and wanting to be a special snowflake “natural witch.” (I was in junior high. Go away.)
I re-watched it about 6 years ago, and then re-watched it in the spirit of Halloween last week. While I’d say the first half of the movie “holds up” as a campy, fun movie about female friendship, the second half, which was scary to me as a teen, falls short of what I wish the movie could have been.
In The Craft, Sarah, the new girl at a Catholic school in LA, falls in with three unpopular girls rumored to be witches. Together, they learn “the craft” for fun and to improve their lives–until, of course, everything goes wrong. (Moderate spoilers.)
On my most recent viewing, I had to watch the first half (up to right before the “invoking the spirit” scene) and then the second half the next night. I really liked watching the girls learn magic and try to deal with their personal issues–Bonnie grapples with self-esteem issues due to disfigurement and medical problems; Rochelle is a Black girl in an all-white school and has racist bullies; Nancy is poor and has an abusive family life; and Sarah has a history of depression.
The first half of the movie is a lot of fun–invocations, dress-code violations, ambient queerness, and the only thing I didn’t really get was why Sarah decided that her “I drink of my sisters” spell should be on sleezeball Chris. Dull! Sarah, you can do better; that guy is not even interesting.
Once they do the Invocation of the Spirit and Nancy is power-tripping, the film becomes uncomfortable. Part of this is due to the trope of “crazy bitch,” an ableist trope that cuts down women who desire power and
…helps perpetuate mental illness stereotypes. It has many sister tropes infesting horror too. Like the Hysterical Woman, where female characters are depicted as overly emotional and irrational, The Madwoman in the Attic, a trope where a character with mental illness is locked away, isolated from society, and the Nervous Housewife, where men doubt women’s paranormal experiences and patronize them. Jen Doll at The Atlantic Wire gives us “10 tropes about women that women should stop laughing about,” including “the crazy.” As Doll astutely observes, calling someone “crazy” is a way to put people (often women) down and for the accuser to feel better about themselves, all while being insulting to those who who struggle with mental illness. (Megan Kearns, “Horror Week 2012: That ‘Crazy Bitch’: Women and Mental Illness Tropes in Horror,”Bitch Flicks)
(See also this article from Bitch Media.)
The Craft passes the Bechdel test, yes, but it features only one woman of color, and the second half suffers from bad writing. For a female-led (not female written/directed) movie, it replicates a lot of “punishment tropes” for young-women characters: vanity is punished; wanting power and a comfortable life are punished by “madness”; wanting romance or love is punished by sexual assault; and the girl who has sex is the unstable, “low class” one from a broken home.
Ideally, the film would have featured the girls’ learning from their mistakes and using their powers to stick it to the patriarchal systems of beauty standards, racism, classism, and rape culture. I can’t say it doesn’t have feminist and queer elements, but the execution could have been so much more.
I bind you, Hollywood, from doing harm; harm against women and harm in sexist tropes–
Content warning: sexual assault (two); ableism; slut-shaming (by characters); dudebros; (poor treatment of) mental illness; blood; mentions of suicide; needles; medical trauma; stabbing; so many goddamn snakes and bugs. Rated R.