The Horrors of Adolescent Female Bodies & Bonding in Jennifer’s Body (2009)

At first glance, the 2009 horror film Jennifer’s Body doesn’t fully display the feminist credentials that would be expected from a film of its pedigree.  After the critical and commercial success of Juno, Academy Award Winner for Best Screenplay, it may have been a surprising career move for in-demand screenwriter Diablo Cody to follow up her modest independent debut with a 20th Century Fox-distributed horror film starring famed sex symbol and Michael Bay muse Megan Fox.  Karyn Kusama could also have been accused of slumming it as the film’s director, given the prestige of her own debut film Girlfight, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner.  As collaborators on the picture, however, Cody and Kusama were able to covertly deliver a subversive feminist horror film in Jennifer’s Body, despite the oversight of the male-dominated business of major studio filmmaking that backed the project.  Jennifer’s Body has the look and feel of countless other slickly-produced major studio horrors from the mid to late 2000s.  Its mixed reviews and underwhelming box office returns posit it as a misfire for 20th Century Fox, one with no more vital feminist or cultural subtext than any other 2009 horror mediocrities, like Saw VI or the Friday the 13th remake.  Jennifer’s Body’s expensive production values, studio-driven marketing, and employment of Megan Fox in its titular role distract from the feminist subtext of the story it tells, but it’s still a work driven by two behind-the-camera female artists who are directly exploring subjects specific to the modern female experience.  Specifically, Jennifer’s Body utilizes the destructive power of pubescent female bodies and the intensity of adolescent female friendships as direct sources for its horror, something that may not be immediately apparent on the surface.

One of the ways Jennifer’s Body subverts audience expectations of a major studio horror film starring the often-objectified Megan Fox is by incorporating the actor’s objectification into its text.  As suggested in the title, the film is specifically about her body, not her soul or unique personality, which was pointed out by A.O. Scott in his review for the New York Times.  This focus on Megan Fox’s physique was attractive to 20th Century Fox’s marketing machine, who completely misunderstood the intention of Cody and Kusama’s work.  Shockingly, the studio suggested that Fox promote Jennifer’s Body by participating in online chat rooms through popular pornographic websites to appeal directly to the men who might be pruriently compelled to see her onscree.  The idea was shot down before it was ever suggested to Fox in sincerity, but it does exemplify the types of marketing schemes she was asked to participate in after becoming an object of desire in Michael Bay’s Transformers series.  Jennifer’s Body does not ignore the celebrity baggage that comes with casting Fox in its titular role, but rather incorporates it into its basic composition.  In the film, a bumbling nerd played by Amanda Seyfried ogles Jennifer’s body just as much as the heterosexual teen boys in their high school class, even though she is Jennifer’s best friend and not just a casual admirer.  The friendship between the two central characters, Jennifer (Fox) and the playfully-named “Needy” (Seyfried), is depicted to be just as horrifyingly intense as the film’s explicit acts of supernatural violence, but there is also clearly a sexual attraction component built into their dynamic.  Jennifer is universally desired by her peers the way Fox was presented as an object of desire in the real-world media at large (including among this film’s own marketing team) and that intense allure instigates most of the film’s horrific dangers.

Being widely sexually desired is only the start of the terror lurking in Jennifer’s body.  Like with many coming of age horror films set in teenage environments, the film relies heavily on the real-world body horrors associated with puberty and the developing body.  Unlike the film Ginger Snaps, which uses the traditionally masculine metaphor of werewolf transformations to represent its own female puberty body horror crisis, Jennifer’s Body notably adopts the myth of the succubus, which is historically coded as feminine.  Both films apply the tropes of curse and possession not only to the horrors of werewolves and succubi, but to the specifically female condition and the burgeoning sexuality of their protagonists. Ginger’s monstrous form just happens to be a werewolf, which less specifically coded to be female than the succubus.  In most folklore, the succubus is a female demon that drives men insane and into poor health through coerced and repetitive sexual intercourse, essentially functioning as a deadly seductress.  Jennifer’s transformation into a succubus is presented in Jennifer’s Body as involuntary, much like the body horror ritual of puberty. After pursuing a traveling rock band as a hopeful groupie, Jennifer is forced into the role of a live sacrifice for the band’s Satanic ritual, which is botched when they discover she is not a virgin.  A lesser film might have focused more heavily on the grotesqueness of the band’s attitudes towards female sexuality in this moment and spent much more time gleefully depicting their comeuppance, but Jennifer’s Body is mainly concerned with the fallout of Jennifer’s subsequent monster transformation than any kind of traditional revenge narrative.  Becoming a succubus is a side effect of the band’s failed ritual and the symptoms of this transformation show largely in the ways puberty normally manifests in teenage, cisgender female bodies.  The typically ebullient Jennifer is drained of energy, thin-haired, oily-skinned, and just generally not her meticulously perfect Megan Fox self after her transformation into a succubus.  As a metaphor for pubescent transformation, her newfound life as a succubus has robbed her of the power she once enjoyed as the most attractive girl in her high school class.  She does find new, dangerous power in the demonic sexual energy the transformation affords her, however.  Picking on the “nice guy” social outcasts who treat her like an unobtainable sex symbol from afar, Jennifer discovers that she can regain her power and her gorgeous looks by seducing and literally feeding off male victims, which magically restores her vitality and sex appeal. Jennifer may have “preyed” on men prior to her transformation, but her curse creates an extreme situation where her behavior is more horrific and she becomes even more physically attractive (both to the audience and to her subsequent victims).  As with many horror films, Jennifer’s Body leans heavily on the transgression of teenage sexuality as an instigator and justification for its onscreen violence.  The film subverts this trope significantly by having this newfound, dangerous sexuality tragically forced upon its titular killer by the men around her as opposed to something she chose for fun or to satisfy curiosity.  Her newfound sexual potency is no more of a choice or a boon than the horrors of puberty and the male gaze, whether it makes her more powerful or not.

Since pubescent body horror is often explored through monster movie metaphors in high school-set horror films, Jennifer’s Body is much more unique as a feminist horror work in the way it explores the terrifying intensity of adolescent female friendships.  As the protagonist, Needy describes her relationship with Jennifer as long-term “sand box love,” meaning they have been best friends since they were young enough to play in sand boxes together.  The introduction of pubescent hormones and sexual relationships with boys drives the usual wedges between them you’d expect from a coming of age teen girl narrative, but Cody and Kusama focus more on the intensity of Needy and Jennifer’s relationship itself than what would typically be explored in a male artist’s version of the same narrative.  Jennifer and Needy are overly sensitive to each other’s actions and opinions.  Skepticism and disgust over each other’s chosen sexual partners drives most of their verbal conflicts, but mainly because they are unhealthily possessive of each other’s bodies.  They emotionally bully and abuse each other in subtle, long-term ways that feel more appropriate of a decades-old bad marriage than a friendship between teenagers.  This only gets worse once Jennifer’s murderous impulses as a succubus seem to specifically target male partners Needy has expressed romantic interest in, either verbally or through body language.  This tendency is more than just a petty tactic to display the dominance Jennifer’s traditional beauty affords her over Needy; it’s also designed to provoke a detectable reaction out of her, the way an emotional abuser looks for satisfaction in visible proof that they hold power over their victim.  In turn, Needy attempts to claim power over Jennifer’s body by offering to “cure” her of the succubus “curse,” at least in the original screenplay.  In a deleted scene, Needy appeals to Jennifer’s sense of morality by pointing out that her newfound powers come with an unfair cost: a sizable body count.  Jennifer retorts that she’s not killing people, just boys, whom she does not value as anything but playthings and sources of power.  Although casual sex is substituted with murder in this scenario, the exchange is clearly coded as Needy trying to exert control over Jennifer’s choices in how she relates to sexual partners and uses her own body, which is essentially none of Needy’s business. Jennifer and Needy are unhealthily obsessed with one another, which is an aspect of adolescent female friendships that isn’t often explored in any mass media, much less major studio horror films.

The most glaring wrinkle in the subtle, nuanced ways Jennifer’s Body explores the horrific intensity of female adolescent friendships is in how the film depicts queer desire.  Needy’s awe of Jennifer is apparent as soon as the first scene of the film and she often leers at her friend’s physical beauty from the same distant admirer vantage point as the heterosexual boys in their high school class.  It’s only natural, then, that her queer romantic desire of Jennifer would be explicitly addressed onscreen at some point in the film.  It’s not at all an extraneous or tongue-in-cheek intrusion on the story.  Cody and Kusama play much of the central characters’ relationship as sincere melodrama, which Kusama describes on a recent episode of Switchblade Sisters as “the nightmare of obsessive relationships between girls [that] can make or break you,” a genuine conflict that’s meant to be taken even more seriously than the film’s often humorous demonic kills.  That’s why it’s so bizarre that the same-sex kiss shared between Needy and Jennifer feels so passionless and seeped in the male gaze.  Shot with the over-the-top production values of a music video, their single kiss as a pairing is treated as a moment worthy of pornographic leering from the audience instead of a genuine dramatic beat within the context of the story.  It’s as if the salacious businessmen of the film’s marketing team had stepped into the director’s chair for a single shot, drowning out Cody and Kusama’s voices with a heap of studio notes on how best to sell the romantic exchange as a sexual commodity.  What’s even more alarming is the way Needy and Jennifer’s kiss is immediately followed by a moment of what’s often described as “gay panic.”  It’s possible to read Needy’s freaked-out reaction to her out of nowhere sexual encounter with Jennifer as an extension of her general horror with the changes brought on by her best friend’s body (and its corresponding body count), but by recoiling in fear from the brief exchange she pushes the film into participating in a harmful homophobic trope that persists in media at large.  The real shame of that stumbling block is that the queer desire shared between Needy and Jennifer is a legitimate facet of the script that does deserve onscreen exploration.  In the film Heavenly Creatures, the two young female protagonists’ budding sexual obsession with one another, which is notably not played for titillation, is also a means of exploring class issues and socio-economic envy.  By contrast, the homoerotic scene in Jennifer’s Body is played for pure audience arousal, with none of the thematic weight it easily could have carried.  It’s embarrassingly mishandled in a way that exemplifies the studio tinkering that muddled the film’s feminist themes in a myriad of ways, from conception to post-production marketing.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Jennifer’s Body manages to subvert the expectation of major studio horror filmmaking with meaningful feminist themes.  Not only does a collaboration between Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama already suggest the likelihood of that accomplishment, but the film also telegraphs its intent by borrowing its name from a Hole song and opening with the line, “Hell is a teenage girl.”  Still, it’s a miracle that a film this heavily subjected to major studio influence could extend its feminist worldview beyond the surface level power of a female monster violently destroying the men who ogle her.  The expected tropes of coming of age body horror, punishment for transgressive sexuality, and revenge for unwanted sexual advances are all incorporated into Cody’s screenplay, but the film still carves out its own thematic space in the horror landscape by focusing on the intense female friendship between its two leads.  As many boys as Jennifer kills in her quest to restore her energy and make her hair shiny again, none are ever as significant to the dramatic plot as her relationship with Needy, a long-term obsession that extends beyond romance into an entirely different, terrifying realm.  The bond between adolescent female friends drives just as much of the tension in Jennifer’s Body as the kills and the horrors of puberty.  That dynamic is not the flashiest or most immediately apparent aspect of Jennifer’s Body; it’s often overwhelmed by the demonic kills and leering at Megan Fox’s physique that would typically be expected of most major studio horrors in the film’s position.  It’s what makes the film unique as a feminist text, however, and its positioning as the heart of the film was entirely intentional on the part of Cody and Kusama. They knew what they were doing, even if the studio behind them did not.

-CC Chapman

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4 thoughts on “The Horrors of Adolescent Female Bodies & Bonding in Jennifer’s Body (2009)

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