After a botched satanic ritual, Megan Fox transforms into a succubus who thrives on the blood of teenage boys. Amanda Seyfried plays her best friend – or, depending on your reading, her frustrated bisexual lover. With its snappy dialogue and sharp feminist message, Celina C Wise questions, why isn’t Karyn Kusama’s ‘Jennifer’s Body’ more well-loved?
CN: Mention of sexual assault
When Jennifer’s Body was released in mid-2009, Barack Obama had just been inaugurated, short shorts with tights seemed like a good idea and Miley Cyrus’s pole dance at the Teen Choice Awards struck many as completely out of character. Marketed as a straightforward sexy horror flick, Jennifer’s Body received a lukewarm box office reception. Critics who expected tits and screams were severely disappointed. Michael Sragow of the Baltimore Sun described the title as the only ‘perfect aspect’ of Jennifer’s Body: ‘No one is going to like this movie for its brain.’ Proving that women can be misogynists too, Claudia Puig of USA Today wrote, ‘Jennifer’s Body is not as hot as you hope it would be’ especially when it ‘aspires to be sexy.’ Somehow the critics missed the fact that, by casting Megan Fox in the lead, director Karyn Kusama and writer Diablo Cody were toying with the concept of the male gaze – or, to put it less heteronormatively, the fetishization of female-bodied actresses, whose characters in the horror genre are often confined to a victim-vixen binary. In an interview with Film School Rejects in 2013, Cody spoke bluntly about the difference between her intended audience and the people who showed up in cinemas:
‘It’s such a terrible cliché to blame marketing, but I feel like it was marketed as this sexy commercial horror movie for guys, where Megan Fox is just eye candy – and the movie isn’t that. It’s this offbeat feminist horror comedy. I mean, who is the audience for that? Not a very big one. I don’t think it’s surprising that the movie wasn’t a blockbuster.’
I didn’t watch Jennifer’s Body until it came online, a few years after its release. I couldn’t have been more surprised – and pleased – by how much the movie differed from its trailer. Scenes which appear to be exploitative in the trailer actually undermine the male gaze. Take for instance the infamous kiss scene between Fox and Seyfried. Back in 2009, many people – including Seyfried herself – believed that the kiss was a publicity stunt. The implication was that if two female leads shared a kiss, their characters were merely performing lesbian or bi sexuality for the audience. Yet the script makes it clear that Seyfried’s character Needy has an attraction to Jennifer. That attraction may or may not be sexual, but it is certainly condemned by the film’s small town of Devil’s Kettle. In one of the opening high school scenes, Needy watches from the bleachers as Jennifer performs a cheerleading routine. Time slows and Needy explains in voiceover how nobody could understand why a ‘babe like Jennifer’ would associate with her. As a bisexual woman watching this scene, the unrequited friend-love depicted between Needy and Jennifer resonated with me (as did the visual parallels between this and the gymnasium scene depicting forbidden love in American Beauty). Of course, the spell is broken when Needy’s classmate remarks that she’s ‘totally lesby-gay’. Lesbian and bisexual jokes abound in Jennifer’s Body, but only to show how toxic a small-town environment is for teenage girls (and indeed, all teenagers) only beginning to explore their sexuality.
Perhaps what critics feared the most was not just that Fox and Seyfried’s characters could be subversive, but that there were no consequences for deviating from expected behaviour. Jennifer objectifies men as much as they objectify her. “Do you think he’s circumcised?” she asks of a minor character: “I’ve always wanted to try a sea cucumber.” Jennifer’s unapologetic vulgarity is part of her charm, but it should also be noted that (human) Jennifer is terrible at flirting: confronted with a boy she actually wants, Jennifer’s wit evaporates, leaving her with the seductive power of a mushroom. The fact that Jennifer is objectively hot but sexually powerless makes her transformation into a boy-eating succubus extremely rewarding for female viewers. Needy, too, evolves as a heroine – but I won’t spoil the ending for you.
Like any other dark comedy (Heathers in particular comes to mind) Jennifer’s Body grapples with violent issues like rape and murder alongside less urgent ones: the trials of puberty, female friendship and representation, social isolation, and even the toxicity of fame and power in the music industry. But most importantly, the movie is funny – laugh-out-loud hilarious, even. I can confidently say that this film was created not just for women but for queer, feminist women. Cody is sending a message to male viewers who approach her movie from a place of entitlement: like the boys Jennifer devours, your protests will be ignored. In the end, the Needys of the world will survive and conquer.