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“Jennifer’s Body” and the feminists who hate it

September 21st, 2009 · 8 Comments

090917_Mov_BodyEX(cross-posted at Feministe)

I went and saw Jennifer’s Body this weekend, not because I thought it was going to be a feminist masterpiece, but because writer Diablo Cody had been seeping through countless pubs and blogs in the last month, daring us to weigh in on her answer to the typical blood-n-tits horror flick. And, well, my curiosity gave into the hype. Since then, I’ve been seeing two types of pieces–those that actually review the film and those that review Diablo Cody and how feminist she is. Writers who do the latter seem to be doubly disappointed that the film didn’t remind them of Juno, or didn’t provide us with a justified, Buffy-like heroine, or didn’t subvert the genre enough, or blah blah blah. Alright. Time to put this movie–and this incredibly overexposed writer–in perspective.

In case you haven’t come across the scads of journalism on DC and JB, here’s the gist of the film, directed by “Girlfight”‘s Karen Kusama: Jennifer (Megan Fox) is a painfully, plastically hot and haughty high school cheerleader, who becomes possessed when members of a poser indie rock band sacrifice Jennifer to Satan after she pretends to be a virgin. Problem is, Jennifer’s not even a “back-door virgin,” so naturally their plan goes awry. Jennifer’s now a flesh-eating succubus, and Needy (Amanda Seyfried, who I love in “Big Love”), her moderately dorky BFF, is scared shitless. There’s a makeout sesh between the girls, a hilarious virginity-losing scene, a few good mental hospital/prison scenes, and a bunch of gory, vicious girl-demon attacks.

I didn’t fall in love with the movie, but I was entertained and certainly not offended by it. Truthfully, I’m having a hard time understanding why so many people were. I’m gonna go ahead and take Diablo Cody’s subversive, feminist claims under consideration, and debunk some of the common and often lazy criticisms “Jennifer’s Body” has endured in this 3-day hailstorm:

1. The movie is a half-assed attempt to flip the script, in which a girl goes around killing men for revenge.

Many reviewers (including Stephanie Zacharek, of Salon, who I normally love) have been failing to realize that Jennifer’s not “seeking revenge” on guys–she’s fucking with the head of her easily manipulated yet enviable best friend. The first clue should have been that J’s victims aren’t rapists, sexists, or your garden variety jock assholes. In fact, the dudes she preys on seem to be pretty decent. Two of them, however, are objects of Needy’s affection, which makes them evermore irresistible to Jennifer. J is beautiful and feared but not popular–she doesn’t seem to have any friends but Needy. And Needy has a lot of qualities that Jennifer aches for. It’s a movie that’s less about revenge than the love-hate, jealousy-tinged bullshit power trips that pervade many high school girl relationships–”girl-on-girl crime,” Cody (and “Mean Girls”) has called it. It’s not the most positive endorsement of female friendship, but it isn’t a facile one, either. In fact, it sadly rings true.

2. The girl-on-girl kiss is pure boner-bait.

This has been the almost universal knee-jerk reaction to the Big Kiss, but I gotta say, it didn’t strike me as gratuitous. Besides the kiss scene being hot (it is!), it’s a believeable development. There’s often an element of sexual tension between friends, especially when they don’t seem to have much in common. The kiss sorta reminded me of a scene in My So-Called Life (a professed favorite of Cody’s–and mine) where Angela’s mom and Rayanne’s mom are meeting for the first time. Rayanne’s mom is explaining Angela and Rayanne’s friendship, which now, come to think of it, is sort of an indie, more fleshed out and nuanced version of the dynamic played out in JB (supersexual but insecure party girl befriends wide-eyed, not-quite-nerd, introspective girl), although Rayanne didn’t have the Regina George thing going on. Anyway, Rayanne’s mother says something like, “You remember when there was that one person in high school that you couldn’t get enough of? Like, they had perfect hair or perfect breasts, or they were just so funny? It was like everyone was in black-and-white and they were in color. It’s like being in love, only you’re not allowed to have sex.”

Now, 15 years later, “Jennifer’s Body” takes that a step further, by having its characters briefly acknowledge and act on this sexual energy. It’s a connection that plays out in other scenes, too, like when Needy loses her virginity to her cute and harmless boyfriend. She goes through the motions, yet somehow feels and is terrorized by Jennifer ripping an unsuspecting guy limb from limb a few miles away. Jennifer is Needy’s sexual subconscious clawing to get out. The two seem cosmically connected, bound by their aforementioned “grass is always greener” jealousy, and that most certainly warrants a kiss. Moving on…

3. Megan Fox is a bad actress.

That may very well be the case, but we wouldn’t know it from this movie. Jennifer is meant to be a shell, a cartoon, a cold non-character–a part Megan Fox plays par excellence. Whether it was a bad decision to name the movie after Jennifer is another story, which leads me to #4…

4. Jennifer is a shitty heroine.

If she was in fact the heroine, this would be true. Jennifer’s a living (well, at first), breathing cliche. Her only credential in terms of kick-assedness is that she kills effortlessly and is (almost) immortal. But we can all agree that she seriously lacks in the personality department. The truth is, Needy is our heroine, and she–despite her thinly constructed nerddom–is pretty fucking cool. She’s smart, ethical, and goes from Jennifer’s puppy dog to lighting a fire under her own ass in the name of human life. (SPOILER ALERT!!!) She’s the one who seeks revenge on the indie douchebags that effed up Jennifer in the first place, and she’s the one who quite literally kills the cliched, toxic, queen bitch stereotype. She’s the emblem of cool-and-smart triumphing over unchecked demons–whether motivated by “actual evil” or “high school evil.”

In sum, this movie has some refreshing, feministy elements to it…and some annoying parts, too, like the implication that Jennifer needs to literally “feed” off guys in order to stay beautiful, glowing, and healthy. But fuck if I’m going to let feminists tear Diablo Cody to shreds over something like this movie. I find this to be a particularly annoying case of unproductive feminist navelgazing. Horror films are supposed to be built on fantasy–sexual fantasy, murderous fantasy, and everything in between. They’re often silly and usually throwaway* when evaluated in the context of a serious screenwriter’s career. I have to agree with Cody when she says that “we don’t all have to be the model woman–what we need is to be more visible.” And I’m not implying that women should get off easy–just that they shouldn’t be written off after 31 years on earth and a meager two screenplays. Maybe Cody just wanted to have some campy, squeal-inducing fun. I’d argue that she succeeded, without exploiting young women or killing them off in rapid succession. Considering the sizeable chick carnage of other recent teen girl horror movies, that’s actually pretty radical.

–Nona

*You’re probably thinking “in that case, why did you spend 1000 words reviewing it?” To which I would clarify that I think it’s important to respond to some of the criticisms, without elevating the movie itself as some sort of masterpiece.

Tags: Young Women in the Media

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dan Hesketh // Sep 21, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    Excellent!

  • 2 AmberJ // Sep 22, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Thank You!

  • 3 Sheila // Sep 22, 2009 at 9:34 am

    I dunno, I see your point about the obsessive Diablo Cody-hating…but I had a hard time seeing the feminism in this movie. Mainly it just bugged me that Jennifer was such a flat character. I know you say she’s a stand-in for all bitchy high school girls, but couldn’t there be a little bit more subtlety to her character? Even Regina in Mean Girls had some weak and personal moments. Megan Fox just seemed ridiculously plastic and stiff, even for the part.

  • 4 SV // Sep 24, 2009 at 6:57 am

    She has struck again, her charm, her sense of humor, her wit, and obvious intelligence! NONA, not only do i love you- but girl, i DONT care about this movie, AT ALL- however, somehow, with your words– you really had me. Keep spreading those words girl, not everyone can pull off, funny, clear, and on point like you. SV

  • 5 Lady X // Sep 26, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    This is by far the best review/criticism of “Jennifer’s Body” I’ve found on the Internet. And being a film scholar myself, that’s saying a helluva LOT.

    Wonderful insights my dear. Keep it up.

    Oh, and to everyone else, SEE this film. It’s a lot of FUN and Megan Fox does a terrific job.

  • 6 Noelle // Sep 26, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    I definitely enjoyed this review which is much more thoughtful than most. (Of course, I think it’s thoughtful because I generally agree with it.) I think that Jennifer was borderline cliche, but her vulnerability always kept her slightly sympathetic. When talking to the band, she might have been putting on the dumb girl act, but she really did seem nervous and thrilled. Also, “the implication that Jennifer needs to literally ‘feed’ off guys in order to stay beautiful, glowing, and healthy” is another critique of women (and sometimes men) who are so insecure that that is the only way they think they can survive. They are often victims and predators.

  • 7 iva // Nov 10, 2009 at 9:46 am

    “This is by far the best review/criticism of “Jennifer’s Body” I’ve found on the Internet. And being a film scholar myself, that’s saying a helluva LOT.”

    Agreed

  • 8 bstrangely // Sep 18, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    well, since cody was promoting it as a feminist work, i think it’s only fair to take that into consideration when viewing the movie. i do think people have spent entirely too much time on it, but i think fundamentally, it’s a misanthropic work, not a feminist one. they’re not the same thing. the boys are all incredibly dumb. even sweet ol’ chip turns into a simple piece of meat when jennifer starts manipulating him.

    it would just be nice to see the movie that was being promoted, instead of the one they actually made.

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