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Jennifer's Body: The real meaning of a 'sexy teen flick'
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(Credit: Alamy)
When it was released in 2009, the film Jennifer's Body was dismissed by critics as a 'lurid adolescent distraction'. Yet, argues Lisa Wehrstedt, that was missing the point.
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In 2009, I was just entering my teenage years. If I had seen Jennifer's Body then, when it first came out, it probably wouldn't have taken another 10 years to realise I was bisexual. But it wasn't just me who missed out on this film, the story of a cheerleader who is turned into a monster in a failed satanic ritual.

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At first glance, it might appear to be the perfect Halloween flick for an 18-year-old guy, especially since that man-eating demon is played by Megan Fox (alongside Amanda Seyfried, who played Jennifer's best friend Needy). Yet the film only grossed $31.6 million worldwide on a $16 million budget, and it was mauled by critics around the globe. It arguably garnered a more negative reception than another cheesy romp might have, because people were expecting more from its writer, Diablo Cody, and director Karyn Kusama, best known for acclaimed indie movies Juno and Girlfight, respectively.

Over the last few years, though, Jennifer's Body has been rediscovered as a lost feminist classic, an emblem of the #MeToo movement. Critics are now discussing how it failed its intended audience by allowing what was an inherently female story to be marketed as a sexy flick for teenage boys. Yet despite that reappraisal, the film's audience is still largely confined to its loyal cult following. In BBC Culture's 2019 film poll on the best films directed by women, Jennifer's Body didn't receive a single mention among the more than 300 critics surveyed. And while each Halloween, articles and video essays bring more and more people to rediscover the film, they can often overlook its more nuanced message.

Except for a few outliers, the critics' opinion on the film when it first hit cinemas was fairly unanimous: slating what they viewed as unrealistic dialogue or claiming Fox's role was either over- or under-sexualised. The film garnered a 44% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and an even less forgiving 34% from audiences.

When it was released in 2009, Jennifer's Body was dismissed by many critics as a 'teen flick' (Credit: Alamy)

When it was released in 2009, Jennifer's Body was dismissed by many critics as a 'teen flick' (Credit: Alamy)

Jennifer's Body was labelled a "spectacular disaster, the kind of thing a cat might bury in a litter box and still keep building the covering [over] because the stench can't be smothered", and a "lurid adolescent distraction". One reviewer claimed that "Jennifer's Body is not funny, nor is it sexy (the girls keep their clothes on), nor is it scary (it's all just special effects)." Even Roger Ebert, who ultimately gave the movie three out of four stars, saying that "as a movie about a flesh-eating cheerleader, it's better than it has to be", opened his review calling Jennifer's Body "a Twilight for boys".

In the post #MeToo era, the focus on Fox's nudity (or lack of it) is disquieting. As Constance Grady pointed out in a 2018 Vox essay, "in 2009 it was reasonable for swathes of critics on Rotten Tomatoes to assume that the default lens for a teen horror flick was a straight male one". And if a film didn't appeal to that audience, it was judged as having failed.

Yet Jennifer's Body also managed to be controversial amongst women for the same reason: while Fox's character wasn't designed to be ogled at, she was seen as too manufactured for liberated feminists. "Its calculated eroticism is enough to make you long for the tyranny of the male gaze," wrote Stephanie Zacharek in Salon.

Some critics praised the film for its complex portrayal of female friendship (Credit: Alamy)

Some critics praised the film for its complex portrayal of female friendship (Credit: Alamy)

Only Time Magazine's Mary F Pols seemed to have found a more subtle approach in the film, writing that "[Its] depiction of the ways in which women like Needy are willing to compromise themselves to indulge an ultimately less secure friend is spot-on."

It seems nobody could make up their mind: Was Fox too sexy or not sexy enough? Was Jennifer's Body a failed B-horror chick flick or an exploration of the complexity and toxicity of female friendship? And why did so many critics think that a movie written and directed by women was trying to appeal to horny teenage boys?

Sell-out?

When Jennifer's Body came out, there was a clear-cut narrative ready-made for it: according to some, Cody was using Fox's sex-bot image to sell her script for a trashy horror in an attempt to recreate the success of Juno. Yet a boy-eating demon cheerleader isn't exactly a classic teen fantasy. The skewed image critics seemed to have about the film can be traced back to its marketing campaign, which focused on Fox's image as a sex bomb – cultivated since her mainstream debut in the first Transformers movie in 2007. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine soon after the release of Jennifer's Body, Fox said: "I am on display for men to pay to look at me."

We can't market this movie to boys and have them go to the theater expecting one thing and then seeing Megan Fox not really take off her clothes but rip a guy's intestines out and eat them – Karyn Kusama

The poster and trailer for Jennifer's Body emphasised Fox's sex appeal, and the studio even planned a promotional stunt involving an amateur porn site – an idea that Kusama and Cody rejected. In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Cody recalled how when asking the studio's marketing team about one ad, "the response said, 'Jennifer sexy, she steal your boyfriend.' As if a caveman had written it. So that's what we were dealing with."

Kusama explained to Buzzfeed: "I kept sort of reminding everybody, ‘Guys, we can't market this movie to boys,'" she said, "and then have them go to the theater expecting one thing and then seeing Megan Fox not really take off her clothes but rip a guy's intestines out and eat them… It's almost like they had a marketing plan in place before seeing the movie and then just stuck with that."

The promotional campaign for Jennifer's Body focused on Fox's sex appeal, obscuring the intentions of the filmmakers (Credit: Alamy)

The promotional campaign for Jennifer's Body focused on Fox's sex appeal, obscuring the intentions of the filmmakers (Credit: Alamy)

When it came to reviews, critics were often assessing the film that the trailers were selling, and not the film they'd actually seen. "A cheap, trashy, exploitative vehicle for the hot girl from Transformers. That's how people insisted on seeing the film," said Cody in the same interview, "even though I think when you watch it, it's pretty obvious that there's something else going on… I wrote it for girls."

One of the most misunderstood and misused scenes of the film involved Jennifer and Needy sharing a kiss. In a film written by a woman, directed by a woman and starring two women, Cody felt that she could include this scene without it being seen as exploitative. But that was unfortunately exactly how critics – men and women alike – read it.

While The Salon review called it a "gratuitous lesbo makeout session", Cody explained that she included the kiss in the script to make it clear to the audience that Needy was, on some level, in love with Jennifer. "At the time I just thought, 'I want people to really understand how badly Needy wants Jennifer,'" Cody said to BuzzFeed. "There is sexual tension between them. It's not just a friendship." According to Cody, one reason why the film is being rediscovered now is that audiences today are able to pick up on the queer subtext "without me dropping an anvil on them".

A new lens

Putting that botched marketing campaign to one side, it's clear what Cody and Kusama were aiming to do with Jennifer's Body. The film makes observations about the toxicity of female friendship from an informed point of view, something they felt they could do because they were a female creative team.

Jennifer's Body isn't in fact about a demonic cheerleader or about Fox stripping – it is about the relationship between Jennifer and Needy. "Sandbox love never dies," says Needy early on in the film. Kusama told Buzzfeed that she wanted people to "confront the beauty and the ugliness of girls at this age". According to Anne Cohen of Refinery 29, "dig through the goop of blood and gore, and what you ultimately end up with is the story of a relationship so closely entwined that it becomes self-destructive." As Needy sheds the relationship to come into herself by the end of the movie, it "feels like justice for every girl who's ever felt like she'd never emerge from under her best friend's shadow," says Cohen.

Commentators have argued that, by subverting the horror genre, Jennifer's Body shows a teenage cheerleader as a fearless woman (Credit: Alamy)

Commentators have argued that, by subverting the horror genre, Jennifer's Body shows a teenage cheerleader as a fearless woman (Credit: Alamy)

And here lies the flaw of the marketing: when you try to turn this deeply female story into a ogle-fest for men, it doesn't work. The men in this film are either unthreatening or pathetic – or both. No-one gets to tame the monster; no-one gets to be with Jennifer. None of the male characters are as important as Jennifer and Needy, both to themselves, each other and us as audiences. Even as they turn more and more against each other to the point of wanting to inflict as much pain as possible on each other, it remains clear that it's still the most important relationship in each of these two women's lives. When you remove the assumptions about the film, the much-hyped kissing scene between the two protagonists becomes, for Needy, an awkward moment of emotional exploration and, for Jennifer, an exhibition of power and manipulation.

The failed marketing didn't just exclude the teenage girls that the movie was talking to, but queer teens altogether. That kiss can be seen as both a moment of commentary on the toxic co-dependence of the two girls and as a confirmation of their sexual orientation. Genuine tenderness and affection coexist with exploitation and power play in the complex psyche of these teenage women.

The LGBTQ+ writer Sara Fonseca recalls watching the scene and "feeling the blood drain from my face during my first viewing". And she is only one of many lesbian and bisexual women and queer people in general who saw their teen-self and their own confused feelings towards their friends represented on screen for maybe the first time ever – or certainly by such big names as Fox and Seyfried.

The film has seen a resurgence in recent years, but it's the popularity it garnered inside the LGBTQ+ community that propelled its cult status. People who have found this film more than 10 years after its release have discovered a new story in it, freed from the rhetoric of its marketing campaign and the reading that critics gave it. A whole new generation of queer women can now see themselves in the characters of Needy and Jennifer in a way that few other films allowed in 2009 – or still allow even today.

In Jennifer and Needy's world, girls aren't sex objects anymore, but fearless women who can help each other find their power. For this new audience, the kiss the two share isn't pandering to the male gaze or needless eroticism, but rather a moment they themselves know far too well. For many, this was intentional. As Lena Wilson told Fonseca, "anybody who thinks Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama didn't know exactly what they were doing when they made Jennifer's Body might want to reconsider their cultural blind spots".

The film is filled with instances that tell us there is more than friendship between Jennifer and Needy. From one of the first scenes of the movie, when the two girls are called "totally lesbigay", to Jennifer's iconic line in a climactic scene, "I go both ways", to memories of the two playing "boyfriend and girlfriend" as children, Jennifer's Body establishes itself as a bisexual piece of cinema.

If critics in 2009 had seen a horror film in which a boy is holding a girl's hand at a concert looking at her longingly only moments before she gets turned into a demon and he has to save her, they would have pointed out the romantic tone of the scene. But with two girls, they become mere friends and yet their intimacy is also considered sexual, pandering to a male audience.

Fox herself worried that the film's subtler message might be obscured by misperceptions. As she told The New York Times Magazine, "The movie is about a man-eating, cannibalistic lesbian cheerleader, and that pretty much eliminates middle America. It's obviously a girl-power movie, but it's also about how scary girls are… If I was to have a message, it would be to be a different kind of role model to girls. With Jennifer's Body, I want to say, It's OK to be different from how you're supposed to be. I worry that's totally lost."

Unfortunately, what the film was doing is still unusual in today's cinema landscape. As Grady said in Vox: "Jennifer's Body is good now. More precisely, Jennifer's Body was always good, and everyone is just now starting to get on its level."

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