According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's new series, our female movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
“Hell is a teenage girl,” Anita "Needy" Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) says early on in Jennifer’s Body. It’s a play on Jean Paul Sartre’s famous quip from the 1944 existentialist play “No Exit” (“Hell is other people.”), but it also serves as a warning of what’s to come: a hybrid horror and teen angst film that tracks the ups and downs of a female friendship. Because if being a teenage girl is hell, being friends with one is possibly even worse.
Helmed by director Karyn Kusama and written by Diablo Cody, fresh off an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Juno, Jennifer’s Body had all the makings of a provocative feminist tale. But when Jennifer’s Body hit theaters in 2009, it floundered critically, scraping by with a 44% Rotten Tomatoes rating. James Berardinelli at Reel Views called it a “spectacular disaster,” and “the kind of thing a cat might bury in a litter box and still keep building the covering because the stench can't be smothered.” Claudia Puig at USA Today compared the film to its opening scene, which shows Jennifer (Megan Fox) picking at a healing scab: “While intending to reveal something creepy and hidden from view, it lacks a sense of suspense and real twisted-ness. It wears its goriness like an affectation, so one is never truly invested in the tale.”
Most reviews feature some sort of comparison to Cody’s out-of-nowhere 2007 success, Juno. As the much-hyped follow up, that’s not entirely surprising. What’s disquieting is the tone with which the observations are made — as if by this one critical failure, Cody had signed her own Hollywood death warrant. At A.V. Club, Scott Tobias, who gave the film a D+ rating, wrote: "When you win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, as Diablo Cody did with her debut script for Juno in 2007, you have reason to feel confident in your talent. For Cody, this turns out to be a dangerous prospect."
Are filmmakers banned after one flop? Someone should tell Woody Allen — oh, wait. He’s a man. Tobias wasn’t entirely off the mark. Women don’t often get second chances in Hollywood. It’s worth noting that Kusama largely shifted to directing television after this film. Her next feature project, Destroyer, starring Sebastian Stan, Tatiana Maslany, and Nicole Kidman, will premiere in December 2018. Cody went on to write another controversial film, Young Adult, and took a TV pause herself (writing for The United States of Tara and One Mississippi) before returning to the big screen earlier this year with Tully, starring Charlize Theron.
Perhaps because of the way the film’s marketing highlighted star Megan Fox’s bombshell status, and a highly publicized girl-on-girl kiss scene, others seemed disappointed that the film was less bawdy than they’d anticipated. Ted Boynton at Pajiba lamented that “real life Seyfried is a luscious bit of blonde honeycomb, but in the world of Jennifer's Body she magically turns into a geek with the simple application of the sexy librarian costume from the prop department.” Roger Ebert, who ultimately gave the film a three-star rating, nonetheless called it "Twilight for boys, with Megan Fox in the Robert Pattinson role, except that I recall Pattinson was shirtless.”
Ironically, Jennifer’s Body was also controversial among women, who had the opposite reaction to the perceived oversexualization of its characters. “Its calculated eroticism is enough to make you long for the tyranny of the male gaze,” Stephanie Zacharek wrote for Salon. Meanwhile, feminist website Jezebel championed the movie, and published a list of six reasons to love it in response to the backlash.
It seemed nobody could make up their mind: Was Jennifer’s Body a failed B-horror film relying on not-so-sexy sex and wannabe Juno-esque dialogue to make things click? Or was it a deep dive into the convoluted, complex, and sometimes toxic nature of teen female friendships wrapped in the trappings of grindhouse horror?
My question is: Why does one have to cancel out the other?
If one only takes the story at face value, the idea of one’s best friend turning into a terrorizing flesh-eating succubus that targets high school boys feels fairly unrelatable. In the real world, there are other ways to retain a glass skin glow than feasting on football jocks. If pure horror is what you’re looking for, Jennifer’s Body ,s bound to be a disappointment. It’s no Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which also used demonic activity as a foil for teenage problems while still providing some truly terrifying moments (The Gentlemen!). In hindsight, Jennifer’s Body feels more like a precursor to Riverdale, a show that has managed to effectively merge the campier elements of of horror with teen high school drama to great success. But 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. And that’s where Jennifer’s Body hits its stride.
Needy and Jennifer have been friends since childhood. “Sandbox love never dies,” the former says early on. That may be true on some level, but people evolve. And in this case, Jennifer has grown into the local high school hottie, all crop hoodies and Juicy Tube lip gloss (gotta love 2009), while Needy is the one most likely to help you finish your math homework on time. Still, “Vagisil” and “Monistat,” as their nicknames for each other go, are as close as ever.
One night, Jennifer drags Needy to the town’s seedy bar to see an “extra salty” indie band play, an outing that ends in tragedy. A mysterious fire burns down the bar, resulting in massive casualties, while a fateful encounter with the Satanist lead singer (played with devilish mirth by Adam Brody in black eyeliner) turns Jennifer into a dangerous creature straight from hell.
Thus begins a killing spree that sends the aptly named town of Devil’s Kettle into a tailspin. Jennifer targets the boys of her high school, turning their lust for her perfect body to her advantage and an easy meal ticket. When she’s full, her skin is luminescent with a glow even Gwyneth Paltrow might struggle to bottle. When she’s hungry, she’s “ugly” and dull — as far as that’s possible when one looks like Fox.
Looking back, this seems like a prescient premise. The reason so many reviews note the film’s unsatisfactory sexual content is because, in marketing Jennifer’s Body to the male gaze, its creators also subverted it. Come for the scene of Jennifer and Needy making out, get hit in the face with an hour and forty-seven minutes of female storytelling. How do you like that, boys?
What’s more, in a post-MeToo context, the idea of a woman’s body being used for men’s gain (even if it’s a prize as lame as indie rock fame), and her coping with this violation by using her sexuality to entrap and feed on those who once objectified her, feels like something to be celebrated, not mocked. Had this film been made a decade later, it’s possible Fox could have been heralded as the feminist revenge hero of our time. In fact, the reason Jennifer becomes a demon in the first place, rather than just dying from the violent stab wounds inflicted on her by emo Seth Cohen and his band while sacrificing her to the devil, is because they wrongly believed her to be a virgin. In complete opposition to tired horror tropes, a woman is, in a way, saved by her sexual experience, rising anew to wreak revenge on those who’ve wronged her. What’s more, the film also showed Needy, the so-called “nice girl,” losing her virginity to her boyfriend. Shocker: Girls who wear glasses can enjoy sex, too.
Still, in this case, subverting female horror tropes comes at the cost of leaning into others. Just like Juno, everyone in this movie is overwhelmingly white. The only person of color, an Indian exchange student, dies in the first half of the film.
And it’s true, the horror scenes in question are pretty bland. Jennifer’s demon face, complete with sharp Venom-like teeth, only reveals itself when she’s about to feast on her prey, and despite the blood and that black gunk that she spews onto Needy’s floor after confronting her for the first time, it all feels rather tame. Still, the real horror of Jennifer’s Body isn’t really in Jennifer’s actions. Even in the film’s early scenes, one gets the sense that Jennifer was a demon long before she actually became one.
Hollywood loves girl-on-girl fighting. What’s interesting about Jennifer’s Body is that the tension in Needy and Jennifer’s relationship feels less like a catfight orchestrated by male executives to please a male audience, and more like a woman’s perspective on the most troubling aspect of a precious relationship. Teenage female friendships are fraught; they can be more intimate than romantic entanglements, and a source of comfort, joy, and well-being. But there’s also an aspect of rivalry, of possessivity bordering on covetousness. You both want to have your best friend to yourself, to own her, but also be better than her, and surpass her.
It’s pretty clear that Jennifer and Needy’s relationship has swung too far in the latter direction, to the point where one is hanging out with the other to fulfill a power trip, while the other is in it out of genuine loyalty, but also co-dependence. But while many critics found their relationship hard to believe, I don’t. “Sandbox love never dies,” is a fancy catchphrase to describe a true phenomenon. Friends who have been friends for a long time often remain so far longer than is logical, or even good for them. The fact that Needy comes into her own by the end of the film feels like justice for every girl who’s ever felt like she’d never emerge from under her best friend’s shadow.
In a way, Jennifer’s Body was foiled by its own demon: the specter of Juno. But the comparisons aren’t entirely unfounded. Jennifer’s Body is full of the same quippy, pop-culture-heavy, slang-laden dialogue as Juno. But those breezy one liners sound a lot clunkier coming from Fox than they did Ellen Page. (Can anyone really pull off “Move on dot org”?)
The film’s stars had a lot riding on the film. After roles in Mean Girls and Mamma Mia, this was Seyfried’s chance at an edgier image. By the end of the movie, Needy’s taking charge, a wallflower no more, and Seyfried sells it. She has an innate ability to look both childish and sweet when called for, but is an eerily credible asylum inmate. I would love to see her take on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) on Orange Is The New Black. As for Fox, the movie was a way out of the Transformers hot girl persona that has nonetheless come to define her career. And say what you will about her acting abilities, she has a magnetic quality that feels otherworldly.
Jennifer may be a mean girl possessed by a demon, and her murderous rampage sets her up as someone who needs to be stopped, but she’s also a victim. She’s a beautiful girl with low self-esteem whose been taught that her entire self-worth is wrapped up in her looks and sex appeal. Wouldn’t you want revenge for that?
And that’s the thing: Jennifer’s Body may have its technical flaws, but viewing the film nearly a decade after its release feels like experiencing the beginning of something that hadn’t quite taken form yet. Thematically, it hits on so many of the issues women in Hollywood are talking about in the aftermath of #MeToo and Times Up that I find it hard to believe it would have been as critically panned today. Hell may be a teenage girl, but some realities are in need of a scourge.
"Jennifer's Body" is available to stream on HBO Now.