By Ryan Simpkins
The day had been shit. I was in bed, angry with men and anxious about something, wanting some escape from a bad mood. My best friend, Cloe, was in a similar headspace. We usually worked to shake off the shitty days by watching some primo teenaged content, like Twin-Peaks-wanna-be Riverdale or sexless romance Twilight. So we decided to bunker down, drink some wine, and watch Megan Fox be hot and eat boys.
Upon its release in 2009, Jennifer’s Body was written off as a money grabber without merit. Hollywood was not yet fatigued with Megan Fox, still shaping her into the sex appeal they wanted her to be as 14 year old boys drooling in their Transformers pajamas. Amanda Seyfried was fresh from her Mamma Mia fame, looking for an edgy role to oppose that of the “young and sweet”. The film was prime for Hot Topic promo as pop punk boy band Panic! At The Disco adorned the soundtrack, and a Fall Out Boy was poster prominently featured in the very first scene. Hollywood was tapping into emo girls’ dreams of vampire boyfriends and Paramore love songs. Critics shut Jennifer down before its release as a movie about girls made for boys who’d pay money to watch them kiss. It looked like just another teen movie. And director Karyn Kusama was keenly aware.
The film centers on closeted gal pals Needy and Jennifer (played by Seyfried and Fox). The two mimic a stereotype like that found in Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”, the short skirted cheer captain and the girl on the bleachers; the difference here being they’re best friends. The girls have a complicated relationship, balancing intense admiration with power play, one knocking the other down or picking her up depending on which ego craves when. This back and forth reaches its peak when eyeliner wearing indie band Low Shoulder comes to town. The boy band abducts slurring, drunken Jennifer and sacrifice her supposedly virgin soul to Satan in exchange for becoming “...rich and awesome, like that guy from Maroon 5.” The band is mistaken, however, as our high school queen bee isn’t even a “backdoor virgin,” and so their attempted sacrifice results in Jennifer’s return to the mortal world as a flesh eating demon. She enacts violence on vulnerable teenage boys, luring them with sex before eating them alive. Needy comes to understand Jennifer is now more than a teenage girl; she has become something of hell itself. And so Needy must work to save the innocent from her murderous girlfriend, a plight explored with the sensitivity of a teenage girl’s. The tone is angry and jealous and rash because it’s one of heartbreak as Needy and Jennifer’s relationship is strained against heteronormativity, sexual ego, and violence.
The film casts Fox perfectly as a young girl sexualized by the grown men around her: her youth and sexual energy is taken advantage of by older men with authoritative status. In Jennifer, it’s the band or the deputy sheriff. In Fox’s young career, it’s men like Michael Bay. Kusama’s casting of Fox is vengeful. Jennifer uses male attraction lure them in, to devour them, to grow stronger, while performative heterosexuality allows her to enjoy her romance with Needy privately and intimately. Jennifer takes advantage of the heteropatriarchy in place, letting it empower her while enacting a subtle but deadly queer resistance.
I do not know if Kusama is queer herself, but she sure knows how to make a movie gay as hell. Jennifer lives and breathes Camp, an aesthetic of exaggeration and difference prominent in proudly gay movies. The film fully embraces young homosexuality with iconic Diablo Cody one liners on “going both ways” (murdering boys and girls) or being “totally lesbi-gay”. The film handles queer sex in a different light than that of straight couples. A strange scene plays out where Needy has sex with her boyfriend, Chip, for the first time. This is edited alongside a scene where Jennifer lures in her latest victim, the school’s resident emo and Needy’s perhaps closer-than-friends pal Colin. Needy’s sex starts innocently enough with an awkward condom fumble and creaking mattress box springs, lights fully on. Creaking floorboards and squeaking rats surround Jennifer and Colin as she seduces him, stabs him, and eats him alive. Visions of this come to Needy mid-copulation, seeing Jennifer atop Colin, eating his throat out, her chin wet with blood. Needy screams in horror, and while Chip reacts, he doesn’t stop, an almost proud look on his face, as though PornHub taught her painful noises signified pleasure. The hetero sex scenes are awkward and violent, ending in either pain or death. The moments shared between Jennifer and Needy, however, are sensual and intimate. Lights are dimmed and the camera is close while catching skin against skin or a hand running through hair. The moment between them doesn’t happen because it’s supposed to (as a boyfriend and girlfriend will eventually have sex) or because it has to (as Jennifer’s life depends on consuming her male partners). They do it because they want to. Critics misunderstood the film by seeing it from the male perspective, expecting smut for teenage boys rather than the antithesis of that: a genuine exploration of gay girls.
While the film’s marketing may not have targeted such an audience, Kusama knows she is making a movie for women. She understands their paranoia and desire, working to represent them in a genre that usually throws them away. One liners welcome a female knowingness as Jennifer is impaled with a pole and retorts by asking for a tampon. Other moments are darker, playing on female anxieties. The image of a foggy field where a man stalks a woman is familiar. Kusama flips this, depicting an unknowing Chip alone at night with an out-of-focus Jennifer emerging behind him from the fog, her white dress billowing behind her. The camera implements a female gaze here aligned with a teenage girl, giving a certain satisfaction with the fear. A teenage girl knows never to walk alone at night. We know not to follow strange men into forests or abandoned houses or their dark vans; we know what’s on the other side. Even if pre-demon Jennifer knew this too, a famous man she admired took advantage of her intoxication and led her to what waits there. He and his band abduct her, driving her to the middle of the woods to take advantage of her virginity. The fear of sexual assault is as real to the characters in the film as it is to the women watching it, Jennifer even asking if r*pe is their intention. While the intention of the band differs, the intention of the director is to invoke this primal femme fear, all too familiar with warnings against strange men in vans. Jennifer is tied to a tree, alone with only her assaultants. The men laugh and joke as she screams for help. They even sing as they stab her to death before her body drops into a ravine. But Jennifer’s impurity saves her from death, yet another horror trope Kusama turns on its head. And so we watch as she wreaks havoc on a society of men who cornered her into the hot girl role, exploring a type of reverse rape-culture (a term coined by critic Kristy Puchko).
Jennifer has developed a bit of a cult status since its flat 2009 release. I remember rolling my eyes at it then when I was only 11, turning any curiosity around Jennifer and her body into resentment towards “airhead” hot girls. That began to shift when I got to high school, the cool queer girl I looked up to talking about the film like white boys talk Mission Impossible. I became cautiously possessed for a moment, checking stills and reading the Wikipedia plot synopsis like I did for most horror movies I was too scared to see. I proudly watched the official “New Perspective” music video where Brendon Urie walked through the halls of my very own high school, intercut with clips of Megan Fox strutting the fictional halls of her’s. I don’t know why it took me till this October to decide to watch the film itself, post my misdirected Megan Fox hatred, post my pop punk phase. Vox recently published an article on the film’s newfound cult status, claiming the people of 2009 weren’t ready for Cody and Kusama’s feminist zom-com. I disagree. I just think the hate around the film was “invented by the boy-run media to make us seem like we’re crazy” for wanting to watch a hot zombie kill dudes and kiss ladies. But maybe that’s just me.