“Do You Have to Undermine Everything I Do?”: The Important Legacy of Jennifer’s Body (2009)

Jennifer’s Body is about exactly that: Jennifer’s body and the brutal way it gets treated. It’s horrific that this brutality made its way into the film’s reception, one which simply proved the film’s commentary on exploitation and extreme objectification. In what may go down as the worst marketing decision in Hollywood, someone decided that the only way to sell Jennifer’s Body was to literally sell Jennifer’s body, or to assure male audiences that Megan Fox would be sexy in the film. The fact that those sexy scenes end in dismemberment and a broader criticism on the exploitation of women seemed to escape the marketing team. Karyn Kusama’s film is only now being widely celebrated, as it was initially branded in a wholly inappropriate way. Male audiences went into theaters with a specific set of expectations. They wanted to see a traditional horror film, the kind where a beautiful woman gets violently attacked and sexualized. What they weren’t expecting was Jennifer’s Body, a film which routinely criticizes this very expectation and gaze. The film bombed at the box office and was rebuked by many male reviewers for being confusing, which makes sense, because the film wasn’t for them.

I am tired of listening to boys tell me what Jennifer’s Body is about, and whether they liked it or not. When I was researching this post, I came across a few reviews like this one: “A pathetically worthless horror piece from nearly top to bottom that fails in virtually every genre and subgenre it wanders into” (Erik Childress Rotten Tomatoes), as though the film is some petulant child who doesn’t understand proper horror. Also, this one: “Megan Fox’s body is just fine; it is the Diablo Cody script that is the villain” (Jackie K. Cooper Rotten Tomatoes). These both came out in 2009, the same time as the film, and they give you a good sense of how much the film was hated by male critics. Not universally, but by a large and vocal group. These comments are incredibly sexist and difficult to read, especially as they dismiss everything the film is interested in, and in doing so, dismiss the very relevant issues it discusses. It’s not just that these critics disliked the movie or didn’t get it. It goes beyond that. The tone used in these reviews implies that they disagree with the issues raised by the film, and dislike those very issues being addressed. Similar things have happened with films like Birds of Prey (2020) and Promising Young Woman (2020), where certain male reviewers have rebuked the film, and then gone on to dismiss their premise simply because it is not male-centric or doesn’t follow traditional male-gaze. Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey was even criticized for the very things that the later James Gunn Suicide Squad (2021) was celebrated for. It is one thing to dislike a movie, another to destroy it simply because it is inconvenient or created by and for women. I mention this before my own critical analysis because I think its crucial to remember that this happened, as it adds an additional layer to the film’s criticism. What was contained in the film spilled out and inadvertently became a reflection of the film. I am not sure these reviewers realized they were doing the exact thing the film critiques, probably not, but this persistent anger towards the film makes it even more relevant.

“Hell is a Teenage Girl.”

Jennifer and Needy are best friends in high school but are quite different. Jennifer is a cheerleader, and Needy is the typical girl next door, even her name is Needy. Although they begin in these very stereotypical positions, the plot goes on to complicate the associations we have with these roles. The characters are haunted by these labels and the assumptions people have about them. It is the reason Jennifer is murdered. In most horror films, the cheerleader is sexually promiscuous and the first person to die. Jennifer gets targeted because of this body-centric perspective, as although her attackers think that she is a virgin, they still base her value on her body.

Even before Jennifer is killed, the film has begun to complicate our perception of Jennifer and Needy. There is a strange tension between the two, and Jennifer is rather possessive of Needy. The two are clearly in love with one another, although neither expresses this outright in the film.

There are plenty of moments where either Jennifer and Needy try to confess their feelings, but it seems like the horror genre and narrative won’t let them. The film filter’s its gay characters just as so many other traditional horror films do. But it also complicates that tradition of queer coding by constantly referring to Jennifer and Needy’s romantic ties. So, it essentially uses queer coding to critique queer coding. Rather than talking about love, the characters talk about violence, and so the film collapses sex onto murder with everyone except Needy and Jennifer, making their relationship stand apart.

“And now, I’m eating your boyfriend. See? At least I’m consistent.”

I want to focus on two scenes from the film, those which I think do an excellent job of involving and critiquing the horror genre and its long tradition of female exploitation. First, the scene where Jennifer is murdered, second, when she attacks Needy and Chip. Both scenes are layered, as things don’t specifically happen or get addressed, but are still very present. Each scene examines what it means to be an exploited body and why horror cinema perpetuates a real-world issue. Jennifer might be a demon, but what happens to her, and her emotional state, are extremely human and cannot be distanced enough using the horror genre. I would argue the reason the film is so unpopular with male critics is because it never tries to remove itself from our reality and world. It might exaggerate these characteristics, and add demons, but it also draws our attention to these issues. The way Jennifer is treated by male characters exists in our world too, everything from the labeling, slut shaming, and violence.

“We Come Here Today to Sacrifice the Body Of Jennifer.”

When Jennifer and Needy attend an indie-rock concert, Needy tells the band that Jennifer is a virgin. She assumes this will make the band leave Jennifer alone, but it makes them more interested in her. Shortly after, a massive fire erupts, killing multiple concert goers and causing a stampede. In all the chaos, a frightened Jennifer accepts a ride home with the band, leaving Needy at the venue. We only find out later what happens to Jennifer, as it’s revealed that Jennifer was horrifically butchered by the band to win points with Satan. The band is so unpopular that they decided to sacrifice a virgin to give their shitty indie band some mainstream success. Not that any reason would justify murder, but in a tradition of people being sacrificed for immortality and such, Jennifer being murdered so a boy band gets a record deal is pathetic. What makes the scene especially horrific is that they treat Jennifer with the same level of pettiness as their request. They mock her, but not in a way where they actually pay attention to her. Much like the title of the film, they are only interested in her body, not who she is or why. Even their ritual reflects this, as the lead singer says, “We come here today to sacrifice the body of Jennifer”. Not Jennifer, just her body.

The murder itself is a quintessential demonstration of unthinking objectification and exploitation. The band uses her body because it is there and because they think she is a virgin. Jennifer becomes a demon because she is not a virgin, which might seem like some cosmic slut shaming, but something else is happening here. The film argues that sex and murder are the same, as both symbolize a toxic power struggle. This reading suggests that Jennifer’s virginity doesn’t necessarily relate to her sexual activity. Loosing your virginity could just refer to a loss of innocence, which Jennifer has already undergone. She has been objectified long before the band arrived. She is aware of the way society treats her body, and the assumptions it makes about her. Because the film compares sex with violence, it implies that losing your virginity is a more complicated form of violation, like the male gaze which Jennifer constantly deals with. Even the film’s reception involves this complicated view. One of the ongoing comments on YouTube videos about the film are from people who think it’s funny that the band believes that Jennifer is a virgin. Yes, again, this is horrifically sexist, but it also suggests that Jennifer has had to deal with this assumption even before the events of the film. The kind of people who just assume you are sexually available because you look a certain way. Needy even addresses this at the very beginning of the film, as people are always surprised that she and Jennifer are friends because Jennifer is so beautiful. This is another assumption about Jennifer based only on her body, which Jennifer eventually uses to her advantage as a demon. It doesn’t matter if Jennifer is sexually active or not in this definition, because people have already made certain assumptions about her.

“You’re killing people?”
“No. I’m killing boys.”

Much like the reviewers of the film, the band is constantly comparing Jennifer to male-centric things. Halfway through their ritual, the leader singer leans down and ungags Jennifer to ask her name. He doesn’t care who Jennifer is, he just needs a name for the body they are about to sacrifice. He even goes as far as to ask, “What was your name again, Tiffany?”. The name Tiffany feels extremely girly, like Tiffany jewels. The fact that he is making this comparison tells you what he thinks about women like Jennifer. They are like jewelry to him, pieces to show off your wealth or to exchange for wealth. Right after this, as Jennifer is begging for her life, the lead singer crouches beside her, and for a moment, you think he might try to comfort her or maybe insult her. He doesn’t do either, he just notes “Do you know how hard it is to make it as an indie band these days?”. He is saying, you are going to be in a lot of pain, but hey, I’ve been in worse pain than you because I am a sad white boy with a guitar. This completely dismisses Jennifer and mansplains her pain, which coincidentally, also happened in the film’s reception. Many of the reviews I encountered spent most of their time explaining what horror is to the film’s female horror director. That is almost as ridiculous as the band’s explanation to Jennifer.

As he prepares the stab Jennifer, the lead singer smiles and explains that “maybe we’ll write a song about you”, much like the song they perform as they murder her. The moment where the band begins singing while stabbing Jennifer, directly criticizes the tradition where romantic male poets and singers talk about women without actually talking to a woman. The kind of poet who will who spend one moment noting that she is as beautiful as the sun, and then immediately shift to her tragic and painful death, all from a man’s perspective, one who is upset because he can no longer look at her, objectify her, or love her (looking at you Wordsworth). By evoking this tradition, Jennifer’s Body suggests that this form of adoration is meaningless and contingent on some form of victimization. It also places Jennifer in a passive victim position, one which is traditionally justified in horror films because of her body and cheerleader connotations.

I also feel compelled to link this scene with the famous “Singing in the Rain” moment in Clockwork Orange (1971) where the group viciously rapes a woman while singing the title number of the 1952 film. That might be on purpose, as Jennifer’s death scene is meant to be familiar. We have already seen countless women brutally killed for no reason in most horror cinema. The fact that this scene is familiar is a purposeful tactic to remind us of that tradition.

The band frame’s Jennifer’s death using the song “867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone. Jennifer’s name is not Jenny, and no one calls her Jenny in the film. This is just another way the lead singer dismisses Jennifer, and he collapses her identity onto the girl in the song, who also gets victimized. Just from the excerpt in the film, the song is about a guy who sees a girl and begins stalking her, asking her not to change her number because he wants to incessantly call. It includes lyrics like “You don’t know me but you make me so happy” and “Jenny I’ve got your number/I need to make you mine” which is terrifying from Jenny’s perspective. Some stranger calls you and asks you not change your number so he can keep calling. Even the subject of the song doesn’t like it, as many assume that the song is about a prostitute. Guitarist Jim Keller tried to clarify this in a terrible way, noting “Jenny is a regular girl, not a hooker. Friends of mine wrote her name and number on a men’s room wall at a bar [what shitty friends]. I called her on a dare, and we dated for a while. I haven’t talked with her since the song became a hit, but I hear she thinks I’m a real jerk for writing it” (People 1982), and who can blame her?

The juxtaposition of Jennifer screaming, begging God to save her, as the band sings about a different victimized woman who doesn’t even have the same name as Jennifer, makes this the most horrifying scene in the film. There is also the moment right before, where the killer pulls out the knife and his bandmate compliments the weapon. The lead singer pauses, and we get this strange exchange: “It’s a Bowie knife” “Bowie, nice!”. He isn’t saying nice about the weapon, he is saying it about the David Bowie reference, as though they have already forgotten what the knife is for. The band is so music obsessed, specifically with male singers, that they can’t tell the difference between a Bowie knife and David Bowie, as music has such an intrinsic relationship to murder in the scene. They might as well be talking about a music capo, as the knife is just another tool to make music (killing to be successful), hence the singing while they murder her.

“It should’ve killed me, but for some reason — it didn’t.”

Enough about the band, let’s talk about Jennifer and the way the film shoots her in this scene. There are very few full body shots of Jennifer in the scene, as the camera instead focuses on her face from the shoulders up. There are a few exceptions, but we mainly get this close view on Jennifer as she is crying. This frame contrasts the way she is treated by the band, as the camera is interested in her expression and experience, not just what is happening to her body. This humanizes Jennifer, it reminds us that she is this horrific situation and that there is no escaping that. I note this because the shot isn’t exploitative. I’ve seen horror films which fixate on the moment when the knife stabs a woman’s chest, or on her body as she struggles against her attackers. Jennifer’s Body isn’t interested in that exploitative male gaze, it is more interested and sympathetic with Jennifer’s view.

Jennifer’s death isn’t sexualized, even though her sex is the reason she dies. What I mean is that the film doesn’t recreate the toxic horror convention where sexually active women get punished, and virgin women get sacrificed. What drives me crazy about the film’s reception is that it was criticized for not using this system. Viewers wanted to see Jennifer get hurt in an overtly sexual way, and when she didn’t, they got angry. She is technically killed for an overtly sexual reason, being a virgin, but the film uses that reason for its critique.

“I am Still Socially Relevant.”

Near the film’s conclusion, Jennifer and Needy face off in an abandoned and rotting indoor pool. Both girls are still in their prom dresses, although the dresses are now covered in mud from the pool and some guck from Jennifer’s latest victim. If you have ever seen Carrie, you know that horror films love prom. I think it has something to do with the pressure American culture puts onto prom as the ‘greatest night of your life’. It is also unsurprising that the film ends with a prom, as that is where all high school movies end, particularly those which feature a cheerleader and nerdy girl. However, it’s important to note that this confrontation doesn’t happen at the prom, and so it is rather isolated from prom horror conventions.

I really love the damaged prom dresses here, as prom dresses symbolize the end of high school, becoming an adult, and having a positive outlook on the future, but, as the dresses become filthier, so too does this wholesome and rather naïve attitude. We get this strange mix of high school drama and horror, perhaps more so than in a film like Carrie, which veers off to straight horror very quickly. Even as Jennifer is about to kill Needy and Chip, she and Needy are still insulting one another like schoolgirls. This seems ridiculous, especially in the moments where Jennifer becomes more demon-like. As she corners Needy and Chip, Jennifer rises above the water, and despite her incredible power, Needy tells Chip “She’s just hovering, it’s not that impressive”. Needy isn’t just dismissing Jennifer, she is dismissing Jennifer’s demon status. She doesn’t care if Jennifer is a demon, or that Jennifer could easily kill her. It is still Jennifer, and she still must account for what she has done. There is no witty banter in the finale scene of Carrie, just straightforward chaos because of high school drama. Jennifer’s Body makes it abundantly clear that even though its dealing with a demonic and all-powerful figure, that figure is still Jennifer, and her violence is still done through high school politics and insults.

What makes Jennifer such an interesting demon is that she is still herself throughout the film, just with a blood lust and invulnerability. In most possession films, the subject loses control of their body and does horrible things, but we cannot blame them because someone or something else was controlling them. That is not the case with Jennifer, as she is entirely responsible for her actions and feelings in the film. She and Needy deal with the same relationship problems throughout the film, they don’t disappear when Jennifer becomes a demon. Jennifer has the same emotional trouble, as she wants to connect with Needy but is unwilling to address why. Needy mentions this in the scene, as she is confused why Jennifer wants to kill Chip when she could easily kill anyone. Jennifer tries to seduce Chip because she is jealous of Needy’s relationship with someone other than herself. That much is clear in the focused shot of Jennifer as Needy insults and shouts at her. She asks Jennifer why, why would you do this to me and to Chip? Jennifer knows why but saying it would make it too real.

“I am a god.”

Jennifer and Needy’s relationship is starkly different than any other relationship in the film. Anytime Jennifer is with someone, she devours them, but that is not the only difference. Even the colour tones differ, as Jennifer’s seduction scenes are generally green and red, like the forest where she was murdered. With Needy, we get bright and warm tones, which suggests that the film includes two distinct types of sex. As mentioned previously, the film collapses sex and murder onto one another, and this confrontation scene is a perfect example of that. As Jennifer goes to attack Needy, Needy calls out “I thought you only murder boys?” to which Jennifer replies “I go both ways”. This is arguably the most famous line in the film, as Jennifer suggests that her murder style is bisexual. In saying this, Jennifer confirms that she is bisexual, but because she thinks of murder and sex as the same thing, she cannot separate her sexual preference with her murder preference. It also comes right as Jennifer tries to attack Needy for the first time, which implies that their relationship has shifted. Before this, Jennifer’s relationship with her victims was different than her sexual encounter with Needy. But now that Needy has insulted, confronted, and asked her to confess the way she feels, Jennifer tries to murder her in the same way she murdered past victims.

Jennifer isn’t successful, as Needy distracts her long enough for Chip to impale her. It is hard to say if Jennifer was trying to kill Needy, as she lets Needy stab her shortly after, and isn’t trying to hide. Needy later murders Jennifer in her bed, making their fight even more sexualized. Jennifer also treats it with a sexual tone, licking her lips after she bites Needy and taunting her repeatedly. And then Needy rips off Jennifer’s silver best friend necklace, and a shocked Jennifer floats down to the bed where Needy stabs her. Tearing off the necklace symbolizes the end of their toxic relationship, as we see the chain fall, a shot of the two girls as children, and then the chain swirling around the heart, imprisoning it before it falls to the ground. These shots tell us why Jennifer gives up so easily after Needy rips off her necklace. It, and the person it symbolized, was the one human thing Jennifer was clinging to. If you look closely in Jennifer’s sacrifice scene, she is still wearing the necklace, she wears it throughout the film. It’s presence in that horrible moment implies that Jennifer is thinking about Needy as she dies, or that Needy is by her heart in that moment, just as this necklace is on top of her chest. Having it there reminded Jennifer of Needy, even if their relationship became increasingly toxic.

“I’m kinda the shit”.

However, even in death, Needy and Jennifer are connected, as it’s revealed that Needy now has some of Jennifer’s demon powers because she was bitten. This possession model feels like a sexually transmitted disease, like vampirism, but it also says something about their relationships. Needy carries a piece of Jennifer with her and is a different person because of that. Needy has changed by the end of the film, unlike Jennifer, who remains essentially the same throughout the film. She attacks prison guards and has adjusted to life in prison. Needy gets to grow as a person because of her experience with Jennifer. Her demon powers are a lot like Jennifer’s heart necklace, always with her, but Needy has also moved beyond Jennifer to become her own person.

“PMS isn’t real, Needy. It was invented by the boy-run media to make us seem like we’re crazy.”

It is hard not to compare the backlash against Jennifer’s Body with the sexist and horrible backlash Megan Fox faced in her career. One frequent interpretation of the film is that it is a metaphor for the entertainment industry, and the way women are reduced, objectified, and exploited for men to succeed. Fox has been quite vocal about the way Hollywood has treated her as a sex symbol, and the frequent abuse with which she has dealt. She summarized some of these experiences in an interview with ET Online in 2019, noting:

“I was sort of in front of the Me-Too movement before the Me-Too movement happened. I was speaking out and saying ‘Hey, these things are happening to me and they are not OK’, and everyone was like ‘Fuck you, we don’t care, you deserve it”

The reason I mention this background is because the film faced a similar issue. People don’t want to talk about violence against women, or the way our culture perpetuates an inherently violent and sexual gaze on women. Jennifer’s Body wants to talk about these issues and is critical of them while still utilizing the very language through which these sexist traditions are often found. Fox’s quote above could easily be said of the film, as critics didn’t notice or care enough to examine what was happening in the film or why it was such an important piece of criticism. Dismissing it as a confusing and unsexy dismisses the film’s ongoing discussion about abuse.

I find myself returning to a line from the pool confrontation scene. As Jennifer floats above Needy, she calls out “Do you have to undermine everything that I do?”, and I think that is exactly what the film is asking. Every issue it raises about sex, abuse, exploitation, love, and obsession comes from a female-centric place, a perspective which has been traditionally undermined by contemporary media. When I say female centric, I mean that it criticizes straight male gaze.

These struggles manifest even before Jennifer is transformed into a demon, as Needy mentions that Jennifer is no longer “socially relevant” and that she must take laxatives to stay skinny. Jennifer has already put herself in uncomfortable situations and done things to herself so she can maintain this cheerleader persona, and what little power it grants her in a society where self-worth and beauty are the same thing.

Jennifer’s Body is a feminist film, but not because Jennifer attacks men to get power. It is feminist because it is willing to talk about dark things which women face from a sympathetic place and is willing to talk about lesbians without constantly sexualizing them in an exploitative fashion. The film is about Jennifer’s body, but more specifically, about the politics and struggles which Jennifer is forced to contend with because of that body, something which the film itself became a reflection of.

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