Feminism and The Craft
I went again to the New Parkway Theater in Oakland for Beschdel test night because this month they were showing The Craft. It was weird.
Full disclosure: I was a big fan of The Craft as a kid, mostly because I had a gigantic raging crush on Neve Campbell. I used to video tape and collect every Party of 5 episode in a secret cabinet in my parents basement and I would always go to the internet after each episode to read the recaps. I was a huge dork, whatever, this probably is no secret anymore. #sadporn. Luckily, the evidence was all ruined in Hurricane Sandy.
Anyway, I taped The Craft off of Pay Per View and basically wore the video tape out. The Craft soundtrack was one of the first CDs I bought in my burgeoning collection of 90's teen movie soundtracks; I would frequently listen to it on repeat. Who doesn’t love a good Smiths cover, y’know? I never quite got the satisfaction I wanted out of the movie as a kid, though. Watching it again as an adult that has finally been spoiled by real stories about real women for real women, I can see why.
Today and especially as a kid, I am always looking for safe space where I can feel free to be myself and feel supported. I assumed this movie was that because it is about 4 women in a witch coven. But honestly, it isn’t. And really what dawned on me is that this movie was written and directed by men. It was not made with me in mind, it does not understand me.
Let me try to explain what I mean.
The movie starts out with 3 high school girls looking to initiate a new witch into their coven so they have enough people to conduct real spells. Cool, right? Women that are friends and doing activities together! Except all of their intentions are essentially capitalist or power mongering, traditionally more “male” traits, and certainly not pagan or feminist. Bonnie wants to be beautiful so she can attract men (this is the only thing we see her do with her healthy body once her scars are healed); Rochelle wants revenge (which is satisfying for a bit until the other shoe drops and it makes us feel really bad for the “poor white girl”); Sarah wants a wide receiver boyfriend (a guy who humiliated her in front of the whole school and tried to intimidate her into having sex with him); and Nancy wants power and money (because she’s white trash). These are all things that benefit women in a capitalist, patriarchal society. If these girls had a real pagan or feminist agenda, they could be doing MUCH more awesome things with their magic. It just seems like a huge missed opportunity to create a cool movie about a group of girlfriends that do scary crazy shit, and it ultimately takes their true power away by working towards gaming the capitalist/patriarchal system in their favor. I know that in 1994 revolutionizing feminism wasn’t really a thing that was on the table for a cheesy teen movie. It’s exciting to see a ton of progress, but what I can’t shake is that this is a cult classic movie that has sort of stood the test of time because people love it.
As the movie plods on it essentially evolves into a metaphor about how power corrupts, like basically any fantasy movie. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, fucking The Wizard of Oz for christ sakes. Except the main difference here is that no one is noble; there’s no Frodo or Luke. They’re all women that compromise their beliefs for power or to stay safe. Sarah, arguably the protagonist, lies about witnessing a murder and ultimately has to invoke the power of Mano to become strong enough to defeat Nancy.
Let’s talk about Mano for a second.
Mano is a made up male deity described by Nancy as this: “if God and the devil were playing football, Mano would be the field they played on”. He is everything, essentially. HOW HARD WOULD IT HAVE BEEN TO FUCKING MAKE THE DIETY A WOMAN, GUYS. I mean come ON. It’s called “Mother” Earth for fucks sake.
The way they talk about invoking the spirit is “taking Mano inside of you”, essentially getting fucked by an all powerful man will give you untold powers. In a straight leaning patriarchal society, the only way a woman is able to gain true power is through her male partner. This is why women are attracted to powerful men; it’s because they want power themselves and don’t know how to cultivate their own because it’s never been modeled for them. Mano is essentially a metaphor for that. This isn’t really a lesson I needed to learn at 12.
The only real matriarch of the story is the woo woo shop keeper, who talks about balance and that being power hungry is a dangerous thing. She’s basically the only smart one in the entire film and she has like 4 minutes of screen time and is essentially written off as a weirdo. I mean I know I thought that when I was 12. But watching it now, I realize she’s the raddest one in the film, she would be hanging out with the other old broads in the green place saving humanity while the rest of us idiots were burning it down nahhhahhmaaayn?
More about the plot:
Nancy gets power hungry and Sarah tries to be the voice of reason and is excommunicated from the group. Yes, the sweet little cheerleader type girl with a big fancy house is the nice one, and the poor chick is the crazy money hungry slut/bitch. Of course, more images of women pitted against each other and surprise!, they both have a romantic interest in the same man. But for me where it gets really interesting is the date rape scene. Sarah puts her love interest Chris under a love spell and he gets so crazy about her that he starts stalking her and ultimately drives her out into the LA hills and tries to rape her. Victim blaming, y’all. She DID THIS TO HIM by putting a spell on him! And, AND! She still is into him and cries to her Dad about it after he tries to brutally rape her! Anyway, she gets away by kneeing him in the balls and running to Rochelle’s house.
Now ladies, if your friend came to your door crying, covered in dirt and scrapes and told you she was just sexually assaulted, what would your first course of action be? Make sure she is ok? Calm her down, talk to her and tell her she is safe, maybe take her to the hospital if she needs medical attention and talk to her about going to the police. Does any of this happen in the movie? No. What would a typical man do if they heard a woman they loved was hurt? Seek revenge. This is essentially what Nancy does by abandoning Sarah in her hour of need and following Chris to a party and trying to basically rape him. She gets on top of him and he refuses her twice before she magically changes identities and confuses the shit out of his drunk ass and starts having sexy times with him under false pretenses; a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This is what date rapists do. They pretend to be something they’re not to get you to trust them, and then BAM. In fact, Chris did the same thing to Sarah in the movie. Nancy essentially becomes Chris. The writers just made the head of their all-female witch coven a date rapist. Then she goes nuts and pushes him out of a window. CHICKS BE CRAY, AMIRITE? This could have been such a powerful plot point that brings women together and makes their sense of community stronger than abuse, but instead we have this crazy shit.
Now, this movie was created for young teens. What sort of message do you think this is sending young girls? Sexual domination is the only form of power, and unless you have fucking magic powers you’ll never have it. Hot, guys. really.
Watching this scene as a woman did not make me feel powerful. It does not make me feel like I’ve vicariously dominated the male antagonist, like Luke killing his evil father in Star Wars. What it does is makes me confused, angry and sad. Because if this movie was actually written for me, with me in mind, to make me feel strong and capable and powerful, it would talk a lot more about the community of women and the strength it gives us, not the typical “male” view of strength which is dominance at all costs. I don’t want to dominate men. That’s not the point of feminism. I want to work with them to create safe communities where intellect, health, boundaries and self-care are celebrated. I want to create a community where someone like Chris wouldn’t have any friends in the first place because his version of strength and power is not valued in our community.
The fact that this is the emotional arc of the story is so disappointing. From then on out I couldn’t help but see Nancy as a puppet for male rage, created by men. She’s materialistic, possessive of her friends and tries to murder Sarah and pretends to murder her entire family only to claim, literally “I was only joking!” to try to get Sarah to trust her again. Classic dominator/manipulator behavior.
It just clicked with me that: WOAAAH literally everything I ever watched as a child was written by a man who is very likely unable to empathize with my struggles as a woman. He may try, he may have noble intentions, but ultimately without him seeking out exposure to strong women in his life or content generated by women, he really doesn’t have a chance. And that’s why ultimately this movie feels borderline exploitative for me.
Maybe in the last few years I’ve been spoiled by content that is created with women in mind, to empower them and speak directly to them. Mad Max, Ghostbusters, etc, these are movies where you wait for the other shoe to drop; for Charlize Theron to take her shirt off, or some man to come in and help Melissa McCarthy get her shit together, but that never happens in this new brand of feminist movie. It happened time and time again in the Craft. Sure, there are moments of female uprising satisfaction like seeing Nancy’s step dad drop dead of a heart attack allowing her and her mom can collect his pension (though that’s honestly kinda fucked up and pits the sexes against each other, but boy is it satisfying to watch), watching Sarah use her sexual prowess to control a boy (which again is also kinda fucked up but satisfying), or kneeing him in the balls and watching him fall down a hill. These are rare moments in film where a woman is in control of herself and the people around her, though they are doing it essentially out of defense so it’s not actually all that powerful. It’s exciting to see because it’s so rare, but they’re dominating other people, not showing true and actual strength. I mean the movie literally ends in a cat fight. Sure it’s an awesome cat fight o end all cat fights, but… no. Shoes were dropping all over the fuckin’ place. As always in the end, the women all look crazy for trying to fit into a patriarchal, hierarchal idea of power. And maybe that’s good that there’s been some progress, but it’s certainly forced me to realize that many of the stories, movies and media I was obsessed with as a child was damaging to my sense of self worth, my understanding of relationship dynamics and has made me skeptical about trusting both men and women. Basically, these stories help to isolate.
Ultimately, movies like this are SUPPOSED to be escapism that leave the viewer feeling good. This is how fantasy films work for most men. But this exercise made me realize that most films just serve as a reminder for women of how weak they are supposed to be.