Monday, October 25, 2021

Nerds Gets Spooky: Rediscovering ‘Jennifer’s Body’

Welcome to today’s installment of Nerds Gets Spooky, our series where we discuss our favorite Halloween viewing recommendations and more! Today’s article focuses on the modern classic Jennifer’s Body, which has gained more appreciation in the last few years after being relegated to “cult classic” status after its release in 2009. It’s found a new audience as critics reexamined their initial response to the film after the Me Too movement prompted a reckoning within Hollywood. A whole new generation has discovered Jennifer’s Body, with teen queen Olivia Rodrigo filling her “Good 4 U” music video with visual references to the film. A campy, darkly funny movie that fits right in with Heathers or Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body is an underappreciated feminist gem featuring a career-best performance from Megan Fox.

Note: Some spoilers for Jennifer’s Body ahead.

Jennifer Check (Fox) and Needy Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried) are an unlikely pair of best friends. While Jennifer is one of the most popular girls in school, Needy is quiet and largely a social outsider without Jennifer. When Needy accompanies Jennifer to a concert for her favorite band, Low Shoulder, and a fire breaks out at the venue, the two are separated as Jennifer accepts a ride home with the band.

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But the band has nefarious intentions, and before long, Jennifer shows up at Needy’s door vomiting blood. Jennifer is changed, possessed by a demon. As she begins her reign of terror, killing boys for fuel, using her looks and reputation to lure them in, it’s up to Needy to stop her former best friend.

The premise of Jennifer’s Body sounds like fairly standard horror fare at first: a girl goes into the woods when she shouldn’t, she is possessed by something evil, she must be stopped. Add in a leading lady whose main claim to fame at the time was being a paparazzi magnet, plus some woefully misleading marketing, and you have a trashy horror film that both critics and audiences delighted in tearing down. Roger Ebert famously called Jennifer’s BodyTwilight for boys” in one of the most off-the-mark readings of the film. Direct Karyn Kusama later said in an interview that she and writer Diablo Cody were horrified at the way the studio marketed the film and how many critics framed the story.

“I was like, Oh, OK, we are seeing either we made a movie that they see completely differently, or what’s in front of them is something they don’t want to see.”

The film was marketed to boys even as Cody and Kusama created it for a female audience. But Jennifer’s Body is not a sexy slasher film for teenage boys to sneak into and brag about seeing later. It is a feminist revenge fantasy that takes an uncomfortable look at how society views women and how trauma affects a person.

Fox Atomic
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It’s hard to watch the scene in which the band members carry out their attack on Jennifer, which is designed to give them fame and fortune by literally sacrificing her to Satan. This girl’s life is sacrificed for their potential, which reads very differently post-Me Too than it did in 2009. The band is played by heartthrobs of the time, including Adam Brody of The O.C. Much like the recent film Promising Young Woman (also featuring Brody, who seems to be every director’s go-to good guy), this casting is an intentional way of disarming the audience.

Their cruel behavior towards Jennifer is a damning indictment of what “nice guys” are capable of. Jennifer’s attack is meant to be a metaphor for sexual assault, something most critics outright ignored at the time, and Fox’s performance is heartbreaking. Most who saw trailers for the film likely assumed the title was a reference to Megan Fox’s “sexy” persona and perhaps a tease of what to expect from her performance, despite the fact that there is no nudity in the finished film. Jennifer’s Body really refers to how Jennifer loses control of herself after the attack, becoming a vessel for rage. Her body is the only thing any of her victims care about, the source of her popularity while also dooming her to be shamed by men and women alike. It’s a concept that is scarier than anything the demon inside Jennifer inflicts on her victims.

Fox Atomic

But one of the film’s biggest assets is how funny it can be despite the dark subject matter. Cody had just won an Oscar for Juno when she began production on Jennifer’s Body, and the wit that was a hallmark of that film is still on full display here. Much of the humor comes from the banter between Jennifer and Needy, both before and after Jennifer starts eating hearts all over town. The script is sly, full of pop culture references, and perfectly depicting the way teenage girls talk to each other. Again, it’s easy to see how a target audience expecting a straightforward sex-filled gorefest could have been disappointed.

Needy: You’re killing people?

Jennifer: No. I’m killing boys.

The crux of the film is Jennifer and Needy’s relationship, which is codependent and, in many ways, toxic. They subtly tear each other down, using sexist language to hit each other where it hurts. Cody and Kusama understand the intricacies in female friendship and how women are pitted against each other. As Jennifer targets Needy’s crushes, it’s clear that Jennifer wants Needy all to herself while Needy is finally ready to make her own life away from her friend. They’re not fighting over a boy, at least not in the way we expect to see women in a film fighting over a boy. Despite the fact that Jennifer’s newfound preoccupation with eating boys is the main plot of the film, Jennifer’s Body passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.

Fox Atomic

However, Cody also intended to add another layer to their friendship that was deliberately misunderstood at the time it premiered. While Jennifer and Needy were meant to show how women can uphold the patriarchy and be each other’s worst enemy, Cody also wanted to explore how Needy’s love for Jennifer went beyond friendship. One of the most hyped scenes in the trailer for the movie was a moment between Needy and Jennifer where Jennifer seduces her friend, and they kiss, making out on Needy’s bed. It’s the payoff of intentional subtext throughout the film that is obvious if watched from a queer perspective. But when viewed through the lens of appealing to young men mostly there to see Megan Fox, it reads as an excuse to have two attractive women kiss for the gratification of a male audience.

Cody intended for the audience to see how Needy was in love with Jennifer and figuring out what that meant for her sexuality at such a vulnerable age. As she told Buzzfeed years later, “At the time, I just thought, ‘I want people to really understand how badly Needy wants Jennifer.’ There is sexual tension between them. It’s not just a friendship.” She also added that she thought her dream audience of sophisticated women and teenage girls would understand the subtext “without me dropping an anvil on them.”

But as we’ve seen, that audience didn’t find the film when it was released. The kiss was panned as trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator by both general audiences and feminist critics. But the scene doesn’t read as sexy, or even like it’s trying to be. It feels wrong because you can see the longing on Needy’s face and how she is being manipulated. It’s a fantastic scene with great performances by Seyfried and Fox, and it adds an explicitly queer layer to a feminist film.

Overall, Jennifer’s Body is perfect for anyone who wants a horror film that is wildly entertaining while also making them think. The fact that it was written, directed, and acted by women makes a difference, flipping the script on the standard horror movie format and creating a rare horror film with a female gaze. As more and more works of fiction that were once dismissed are being reexamined by modern audiences, Jennifer’s Body deserves to be celebrated for being so ahead of its time.

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Jules
I am a nurse and dedicated nerd from Boston, MA. When I'm not at work, I'm rewatching old favorites like Supernatural or discovering my new obsessions (too many to count!). When not fangirling, I can be found reading, writing, or listening to a true crime podcast. You can find me on Twitter @juleswritesblog for more nerdy nonsense.

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