Hell is a Teenage Girl in ‘Jennifer’s Body’ [Rotten Outlook]
Hell might be a teenage girl, but an evening with Jennifer's Body is heaven.
Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body rocks. If you don’t agree, you’re lime green Jell-O and you can’t even admit it to yourself. Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body was unfairly maligned at the time of release, in no small part because of the creative talent involved. Per the Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus where it sits at a paltry 45 percent, Jennifer’s Body “features occasionally clever dialogue, but its horror/comedy premise ultimately fails to be consistently funny or scary enough to satisfy.” Only, Jennifer’s Body is consistently funny, if not so much scary. Were it not for the diverse team of women creators involved, contemporaneous critics might have seen as much.
Fresh of her Oscar-winning success with Juno, Fox Atomic bought Diablo Cody’s script. Then in January 2008, Karyn Kusama was attached to direct. She was reportedly a big fan of Cody’s script, one she felt honored the old conventions of 1980s horror with a contemporary female lens; one that honored both the exploitation of antecedent horror and a more modern, feminist lens.
Core to that duality is the central friendship between Needy (Amanda Seyfried) and Jennifer (Megan Fox). Cody herself, opening the film with the line “Hell is a teenage girl,” sought to simultaneously explore both the hellish impact of a high school landscape on a girl’s self-esteem and the painful, paradoxical way young women are consigned to uphold the very same hegemonic ideals that keep them down. Needy is considerably more self-assured than Jennifer. But, their relationship is parasitic. Jennifer is under the false impression that by keeping Needy down, she can elevate her own image.
There’s a vulnerability in the performances and characterizations, with male characters barely registering on the periphery outside of victims and predators. Jennifer herself, destined to be a succubus after a demonic sacrifice gone awry, is an embodiment of puberty. It’s a rich thematic underpinning that places Jennifer’s Body squarely in league with Ginger Snaps; they are classics of distinctly feminine adolescent horror. However, everyone missed the point.
Well, not everyone. There were. and still are, fans from the film’s inception. They understood the collective vision and appropriately appreciate Jennifer’s Body for what it is. But, the film’s marketing reduced the film to “‘Jennifer sexy, she steal your boyfriend“. Stunts like having Megan Fox appear on an amateur porn site reduced Jennifer’s Body, a movie made by women, for women, as a film made for and sold to almost exclusively men.
The entire movie, from the climactic girl-on-girl make-out to Jennifer’s nude swim, was assessed without context. They were ostensibly sexy, exploitative scenes, and in a sense, they were. But they were done with Cody’s and Kusama’s touch. And they weren’t just sexy. They were scenes about the deep-seated bonds of female friendship, about reclamation and power. In other words, it was more than just sex, a label that star Megan Fox has always been unfairly constrained by (catch her in Till Death to see just how underutilized she was in her early career).
In effect, it was a movie designed with a specific audience in mind. Certainly, this doesn’t preclude anyone from disliking it, nor does it preclude those outside from appreciating it. But it’s art with such a distinct identity, a texture all its own, it yields a special significance. As a gay man closeted through the entirety of my high school career, there are moments of profound truth inexorably linked to my identity.
The way Needy cowers around Jennifer or the way Jennifer’s image is so manicured and manufactured—a shield from any preemptive, high school strike—are subtextually queer while simultaneously, outwardly feminine. The quips and the wit—the way high school jocks are torn asunder and devoured by the object of their desire—hold their own perverse pleasure. In fact, ask any queer person, and they’ll likely feel the same way. For as cool as she is, Fox’s titular Jennifer is exactly the kind of girl who would have kept someone else’s homophobia in check. Say something nasty and she’ll eat you.
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In its entirety, Jennifer’s Body isn’t perfect, and this isn’t an argument that it is. I love it, but I still have quibbles. Some of the jokes do fall flat. In conventional Cody fashion (at the time, her contemporary work absolutely soars), the highly stylized dialogue risks becoming a bit too much. Additionally, from a purely filmic standpoint, Jennifer’s Body arguably lacks a climax.
While it makes sense within the context of a committed vision, the third act fizzles when it should soar. The film builds lofty expectations and subverts them in a few less-than-exciting ways. Still, it holds a special place in my heart. Mean Girls for horror fans, it’s a defining classic, a movie with a legacy all its own. It’s unfortunate that legacy has been so thoroughly sullied by its year of release and a scuzzy marketing campaign. But in retrospect, it possesses by the sheer prescience and shrewdness of all involved.
Jennifer’s Body is a mean, lean high school classic. It’s a subversive exercise in gender and wit. It’s a movie that speaks to both the Jennifers and Needys of the world. It’s a damn shame its inceptive release was rotten. But film is an enduring form. And 13 years later, Jennifer’s Body has luckily been reappraised as a masterpiece with an affinity for the ugly, weird things in life. The internet is abounding with worthwhile explorations of its inimitable lens, and I wholeheartedly suggest seeking them out. In the meantime, I’ll be grabbing a bag of Utz, cracking open a Coke, and putting my worn-out copy of Jennifer’s Body back in the Blu-ray player. Hell might be a teenage girl, but an evening with Jennifer’s Body is heaven.