Trashed upon its release before earning cult status, “JENNIFER’S BODY” is a messy but compelling portrait of two young womens’ sexuality and friendship.
Jennifer’s Body is a polarizing film. It’s both loved and hated, celebrated and reviled. Some see it as a feminist take on possession horror and aughts teen movies, while others feel that it perpetrates the same old sexist tropes it claims to subvert.
In the decade since its release, Karyn Kusama’s film has achieved cult status. It has been reclaimed from the trash heap of forgettable teen movies by women and queer horror fans, who have celebrated the film’s themes of women’s sexuality, trauma, and bisexuality.
But does the film deserve its newfound reputation as a source of empowerment?
To be fair, it never deserved its previous reputation as a piece of crap barely worthy of the $5 bin at WalMart.
Jennifer’s Body has gotten a bad rap, thanks in no small part to terrible marketing at the time of its release. The film was marketed toward men and young boys as a shallow horror-comedy with ample opportunities to ogle Megan Fox, the “it girl” of the late 2000s, who took the role of Jennifer as a deliberate satire on her own sex symbol image.
The main selling point was a heated kiss between Fox and her co-star Amanda Seyfried, using the scene as titillation for a straight male audience. But the scene itself, in the context of the narrative that frames it, is not a scene for the male gaze. It feels more intimate than any scenes either of the women share with the men in the film, and it adds depth to the subtext that leads up to the moment.
A quick plot rundown, though I’m sure most of us are familiar with the story by now: best friends Jennifer (Fox) and Needy (Seyfried) go to a concert at a local bar, where Jennifer hopes to catch the eye of the band’s singer (Ready or Not’s Adrian Brody as a Brandon Flowers wannabe). Struggling to get their big break, the band decides to make a deal with the devil to achieve fame and fortune, and they use Jennifer as a virgin sacrifice. The ritual backfires because Jennifer isn’t a virgin, and she is rejuvenated as a demon who feeds on the flesh of male classmates to sustain her life force.
The relationship between Jennifer and Needy is at the heart of the narrative.
Now in high school, they have been best friends since childhood, though Needy is a self-proclaimed “dork,” while Jennifer is a “babe,” a cheerleader, and one of the most popular girls in school.
Our introduction to Jennifer and Needy’s relationship comes in the form of Needy gazing adoringly at Jennifer during a pep rally cheer routine, a staple of many teen movies typically reserved for straight romances where an unpopular boy desires a girl who’s way out of his league. As Needy and Jennifer lock eyes and wave at each other, a classmate accuses Needy of being “totally lesbi-gay,” a claim that Needy brushes off.
Writer Diablo Cody’s script is full of these kind of joking references to queerness. While it’s easy to dismiss these as queer-baiting, in the context of the film’s rural setting, they can be taken as something more.
Jennifer and Needy live in a small, seemingly conservative town in middle America, the kind of place where everybody knows everybody and standing out isn’t always a good thing.
Take, for example, one of the film’s few characters of color: an exchange student whom students and teachers repeatedly refer to as “Ahemet from India,” highlighting his otherness. The trait that makes you stand out will define you — and no one wants to be the token queer, so a common defense mechanism is to turn it into a joke. Speaking from my own high school experience, it’s easier to make fun of the idea of another girl having a crush on you than it is to admit that you actually have a crush on her.
Another common deflection tactic is to give perceived queerness a heterosexual structure, such as Jennifer’s reference to “play(ing) boyfriend/girlfriend” with Needy when they were younger. It’s not uncommon for young girls to kiss each other as “practice” for kissing boys or play house where one girl is the husband to the other’s wife.
These behaviors aren’t necessarily indicators of queerness, but there’s certainly something to be said for the way this allows young girls to safely and subtly — perhaps unconsciously — explore their identity.
The “boyfriend/girlfriend” line comes with a reference to Jennifer and Needy sharing a bed at sleepovers, further suggesting a level of intimacy to their relationship that existed long before the events of the film. This all happens during the infamous makeout scene, where Jennifer attempts to distract Needy from her suspicions that Jennifer is behind the recent grizzly deaths of their classmates.
Jennifer’s motives may be dubious, but the intimacy between her and Needy in this scene feels far more genuine than their encounters with boys.
True, most of Jennifer’s encounters involve her luring boys — jock Dirk, Good Charlotte reject Colin, poor “Ahmet from India,” and ultimately Needy’s boyfriend Chip — to secluded places to devour them, and she wields sexuality as a weapon against them, tailoring her seduction depending on the victim. She pretends to be devastated by the death of a mutual friend to break down Dirk’s defenses, while she tells Chip that Needy cheated on him to turn him against her.
With Needy — at least at first — it feels like Jennifer is actually being herself. She even tells Needy about the band’s attempt to sacrifice her and her new supernatural abilities. Of the night of the sacrifice she says, “somehow I found my way back to you,” referring to her appearance in Needy’s home that night.
Even though Jennifer was starving, she “couldn’t bring (herself) to hurt” Needy, which is telling considering the remorseless way she devours her victims.
Even before becoming a demon, Jennifer treats boys (and men) as disposable, objects of pleasure to be used and discarded as the mood strikes her.
Basically, she treats them the way most guys treat women. The only meaningful relationship she has is with Needy, even though their friendship is somewhat codependent, even at the beginning of the film.
Needy’s narration tells us that “sandbox love never dies,” but it feels as if she and Jennifer are trying to sustain their childhood friendship even as they’ve clearly grown into very different people. When her boyfriend Chip asks why she’s friends with Jennifer, Needy responds, “we have things in common,” to which Chip counters that they actually have nothing in common.
The narrative also fosters a sense of competition between the two girls — a very tired trope in teen films.
But even then, things are not as simple as they seem.
When Colin asks Jennifer out on a date, she initially rejects him but changes her mind after Needy expresses interest in him. Jennifer is deliberately trying to make Needy jealous, the same way she did by dragging her to the concert to watch Jennifer flirt with the band’s singer. She’s performing heterosexuality to get a response from Needy, and it works every time.
That isn’t to say Jennifer’s attraction to men isn’t genuine.
Though Megan Fox described Jennifer as “a man-eating, cannibalistic lesbian cheerleader,” we don’t actually know how she or Needy identify themselves. Jennifer clearly enjoys sex with men, and Needy’s feelings for Chip appear sincere. Still, the connection between the two girls goes deeper. They share an almost psychic bond, to the point where Needy has a vision of Jennifer while having sex with Chip.
In the end, queerness in Jennifer’s Body is complicated.
The relationship between Jennifer and Needy is not exactly healthy, and Needy must ultimately destroy her former best friend.
There’s a lot to be said about Jennifer’s journey as a victim of assault, who is literally demonized for her sexuality but uses her newfound power to seek revenge for her trauma. But that’s a whole separate article.
The feminist merits of Jennifer’s Body will likely continue to be debated for another decade. But it’s totally fine if you just want to enjoy the movie for its campy goodness, brilliant satire, and sad story of sandbox love.