how ‘the craft’ empowered a generation of teen misfits

As iconic 90s film ‘The Craft’ celebrates its 20th anniversary, we remember why it’s still a beacon of counterculture feminism.

by Marquita Harris
03 May 2016, 2:25pm

In the realm of female-driven teen movies, one trope is certain: boys will be boys. And so often, they lie at the center of every cinematic plotline. This usually means the girls who love them will fight tooth, nail, and often one another to win their love and affection — by any means necessary.

As teens and tweens watching these films, our impressionable young brains absorbed makeover montages that successfully helped wallflowers nab star quarterbacks. And we were forced to ponder crucial questions like: does my crush even know I exist? According to Hollywood, a young girl's problems are usually frivolous and typically revolve around the male gaze.

All that was momentarily quelled in 1996 with a little film called The Craft. Directed and co-written by Andrew Fleming, it embodied everything its silver screen contemporaries didn't. Its heroines — Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney), Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie Daniels (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle Gordon (Rachel True) — didn't have shiny hair or dream of making the pep squad. The words "prom date" were never mentioned. And the best part? They were WITCHES, and Nancy was their misanthropic ringleader with an "unfuckwitable" reputation. By all accounts, the girls possessed some element that made them, at least by conventional standards, unlikable.

The story begins when misfit protagonist Sarah moves from San Francisco to Los Angeles with her dad and stepmom. During her first day at St. Benedict's Academy, she casually performs a trick while sitting in the back of French class. Her classmate, Bonnie, witnesses the magic and decides that Sarah is the final recruit needed to complete her, Nancy, and Rachel's coven. Naturally, alpha witch Nancy is skeptical, though she eventually comes around. That same day, Sarah is also identified as fresh meat by the popular Chris Hooker (Skeet Ulrich). He flirts, she gives in, and a mutual crush evolves. How's that for a first day at a new school?

For the majority of the film, the girls bond. While most female-centric high school films involve a trip to the mall, the "Bitches of Eastwick" (as they're affectionately called by classmates) buy spell books, crystals, and candles from the local occult shop. They expose their vulnerabilities, perform spells together, and become stronger as a group — and their sisterhood is empowering to see.

Since she was a child, Bonnie has had scars from third-degree burns across her back, and struggled with extreme insecurity. Rochelle is the only African American girl in the school, which makes her an easy target for the racist bullying of Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), an archetype popular girl. As for Sarah, her mother died during childbirth and her guilt nearly got the best of her during an attempt to take her own life. At age 16, she's suicidal, depressed, and confused about her natural powers as a witch. Meanwhile, Nancy's problems are at home: her relationship with her mother is strained due to a hatred of her stepfather. Football star Chris is also a source of stress; they've secretly been hooking up and he's given her an STD. Not your run-of-the-mill teen movie stuff.

Admittedly, while watching the film again this week I felt some pangs of annoyance. For example, in clichéd female relationship fashion, the three girls eventually turn on Sarah, leaving her to literally fight for herself (and realize her own independent strength). Because, you know, girls just can't get along for long periods of time. And while he's not the center of the story, Chris, a guy, is used to push the narrative forward. But Fleming gives us enough good stuff to ruminate over.

For the majority of the film, what you see is a group of girls uniting in a world that would rather see them cast aside as freaks. For teen girls of a certain ilk, The Craft made a bold declaration: don't conform. In fact, stay weird. One of the film's most iconic scenes happens while the foursome exits a bus in the middle of nowhere. Before closing the doors the driver, in a very fatherly tone, says, "You girls watch out for those weirdos." To which Nancy replies, "We are the weirdos, mister." That simple phrase, coming from the film's fiery antagonist, meant something. It meant these girls were in charge and to be feared. They were aware of their power — even the non-supernatural kind.

The Craft can be heavy and overly dramatic at times (like when a committed Fairuza Balk really just goes for it in the asylum). But the issues it explores represent the breadth of problems teen girls face. Rape, racism, social hierarchies, slut-shaming, and body-shaming are all thrown in the pot. Young female characters like these, with real-life problems extending beyond the walls of high school and puberty, are rarely depicted on screen. And watching a film in which female friendship, instead of just romance, was placed front and center was a revelation. Today, as the film celebrates its 20th anniversary, it's still a revelation.

The Craft is not perfect, but it gave the girls who failed to fit in hope that they weren't alone. Years later, the film still stands out amongst the most celebrated teen classics of the time, like Clueless, Scream, and Can't Hardly Wait. Even the wardrobe — Catholic school uniforms, pink berets, polos, and deep-brown lipstick — is the stuff 90s grunge was made of. It's easy to look back on the era and see that aesthetic as a staple, but this film solidified the look, making it — and its accompanying badass attitude — iconic.

As a Black girl attending a predominantly white junior high school, it was therapeutic, too, for me to see another African American girl — who also wore chokers and had natural hair — on screen. I still remember watching The Craft on opening day, sitting in a packed theater, sharing popcorn and candy with friends. Me with my unruly hair and Anne Rice-inspired cameo necklaces; Linda, another minor, who'd somehow managed to get her tongue pierced at Claire's; CeeCee with a passion for Hot Topic (before it went mainstream). We left the theater confidently that evening. We spontaneously chanted, "Light as a feather, stiff as a board" while passing one another between classes for years to come. Compared to our cookie-cutter peers, we were the weirdos. Though, whether it was kismet or black magic that brought us together is debatable.


Text Marquita Harris
Still from The Craft

The Craft
20th anniversary