Nirvana. Clueless. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. There are a lot of things to love about the 90s- in particular, its affection for all things odd and all people weird. As for cinema, the 90s spawned a love of cult movies and flannel. The 90s also brought us The Craft, a revolutionary work of female empowerment, homosocial relationships, and legitimate teenage angst. I’ve always loved The Craft and it was on TBS all the time in the 2000s, but it wasn’t until a recent viewing that I realized just how ahead of its time the movie really is. While performing only so-so in theaters, it has spawned a huge cult following.
If you are unfamiliar, The Craft is about a high school student who moves across the country and transfers to a school where she befriends three other girls. They each have their own personal problems (abusive home, racial prejudice, etc) and decide to take matter into their own hands using witchcraft.
That is a very watered-down, condensed synopsis- underneath its black eyeliner and gothic style, The Craft is an extremely well-written, fleshed out, and dark movie. I call it ahead of its time because there was a lot I didn’t get as a kid- I just saw it as a movie. Generally speaking, The Craft is a very good movie- great characters, excellent pacing, well-written dialogue, good tension, and all of that.
Watching The Craft through a set of (somewhat) mature, feminist lens gives me a whooooole new appreciation. Now as an adult, I get the checkboxes that The Craft has under its belt: all female ensemble cast, racial and sexual undertones, self-empowerment, character development had by all, barely any love interests, barely any male characters, interesting female adversaries, etc. Let’s get into it!
For starters, all the lead characters are female and one predominantly featured is a woman of color. Let’s take a close-up look at the infamous promo poster:
This is a really strong (re: badass) visual of four individuals with an incredible amount of agency and confidence. They are characters who are ready to take matters into their own hands and are meant to be taken seriously. In the movie, they are each well-written with distinguishing features of their lives. The quartet isn’t just made up of outcasts because they are told they are weird- they’re each given individual circumstances and the viewer understands how they feel. There are several scenes that display how each character feels they have been unfairly treated or misunderstood. Rochelle is a black student experiencing racism at a predominantly white school. Bonnie is rumored to have burn scars all over her body and is self-conscious. Nancy lives in poverty with an abusive stepfather. Sarah is suicidal, has hallucinations, and has yet to come to terms with her mother’s death; additionally, there are rumors that she has slept with one of the football players. Each individual’s story gives an unusual depth and validation, rare for a 90s ensemble cast. It makes the characters tangible and accessible.
The time taken to build each character strengthens the film’s core- the relationship between the four girls. The entire first hour of the movie is about the girls rallying together and the legitimate power that can exist between noncompetitive, supportive homosocial relationships between females. In fact, the only male who shows up is a singular character who is sexually aggressive towards Sarah and spreads rumors when she turns him down.
Chris is used in a very different manner than typically seen of a movie aimed at teenagers. He does serve as a love interest, but only for Sarah- even though she starts the movie as attracted to him, it soon turns to disgust. Her decision to use magic to make him fall in love with her is used as a revenge tactic against the rumors he spread, not because she is still interested in returning his affection. Sarah’s decision to go on a date with him after the spell is cast reflects her loneliness and need of validation that she isn’t an outcast. Additionally, the typical love triangle between Nancy, Sarah, and Chris actually doesn’t really include Chris. It’s a power struggle between the two witches. Nancy’s jealousy of Sarah is not geared at Chris, but rather at Sarah’s natural magical abilities- namely, the spell Sarah was able to cast over him.
It’s only when Nancy (who represents fire) grows power hungry that the four corners give way to chaos. What gives her an exceptional character arc is her decline in the second half of the movie- Nancy’s eventual defeat isn’t just good defeating evil, but a sad and humbling downward spiral. For this, I refuse to call her a villain. She doesn’t want power for power’s sake, but to take control of her unfortunate circumstances. As the character with the most to gain, Nancy is a volatile adversary but one with really strong motive and purpose. The rivalry between Sarah and Nancy is palpable on screen and feels natural, slowly building over the course of the film. It’s established immediately and plainly in the residences of each character’s house (Sarah’s mansion vs. Nancy’s mobile home) and through good acting and excellent editing during dialogue, we see exactly where the two begin to split- Sarah has everything Nancy has ever wished for in terms of money, father-figure, and magical ability. When Sarah mentions she contemplated suicide, Nancy flashes an expression of disgust- it’s a split second, but perfectly well done to show the distance between the two characters.
Rochelle is another well-written character who shows a different side of being bullied, in a very realistic and heartbreaking manner. While Sarah and Nancy can chalk up their status to being “weird” or feeling left out and Bonnie is overly self-conscious of her appearance (as many high school students are), Rochelle experiences outwards aggression from other students due to her ethnicity. Without using over-the-top, exploitative language, The Craft shows versions of microaggressions, enough to understand Rochelle’s frustration and desire to be accepted. Further than that, the fallout of her spell casting against her enemies shows her questioning her power and what she is using it for, instead of reveling in other’s misery. It’s a strong arc that of a wronged character who questions her own morals and actions. Her scenes, more than anyone else’s, are the most timeless and relevant today. Rachel True’s casting process itself was extremely progressive- the writer and director admit they had not thought of the character as black or as a person of color but loved True and chose to incorporate her ethnicity into the character.
While we are on the subject of it- the male writers and director did their damn homework while championing women, using several Wiccan consultants and asking the actresses for insight to their characters while improving and building their ideas. It really shows they are taking their work and subject matter seriously. This could have easily been Clueless with Witches- instead, we get a really incredible movie that never has a moment of “Nah, there are just too many girls in this scene.” Females are held with such respect in this movie as both actresses and characters. The message of women thriving with each other’s support is clear. Outside of Chris, there’s little sexualization of the four girls. Outside of Bonnie, the other three witches are confident in their appearances and all the girls are self-assured in their actions. There are several scenes of the four not only practicing their amateur powers but also growing stronger together- without the presence of a teacher telling them what to do or a male character getting in the way. It’s empowering- nay, fucking glorious to watch.
If I ever had to point to a movie that celebrated women, I would point at The Craft. If I ever had to choose a movie that celebrated sisterhood, it would be The Craft. If someone asked me fo a great movie with an ensemble cast, interesting characters with good development, and a dark tone, I would absolutely recommend The Craft. 20 years later, and it’s still THAT good.