“Jennifer’s Body” and the feminists who hate it

090917_Mov_BodyEX(cross-posted at Girldrive)

I went and saw Jennifer’s Body this weekend, not because I thought it was going to be a feminist masterpiece, but because writer Diablo Cody has been seeping through countless pubs and blogs in the last month, daring us to weigh in on her answer to the typical blood-n-tits horror flick. And, well, my curiosity gave into the hype. Since then, I’ve been seeing two types of pieces–those that actually review the film and those that review Diablo Cody and how feminist she is. Writers who do the latter seem to be doubly disappointed that the film didn’t remind them of Juno, or didn’t provide us with a justified, Buffy-like heroine, or didn’t subvert the genre enough, or blah blah blah. Alright. Time to put this movie–and this incredibly overexposed writer–in perspective.

In case you haven’t come across the scads of journalism on DC and JB, here’s the gist of the film, directed by “Girlfight”‘s Karen Kusama: Jennifer (Megan Fox) is a painfully, plastically hot and haughty high school cheerleader, who becomes possessed when members of a poser indie rock band sacrifice Jennifer to Satan after she pretends to be a virgin. Problem is, Jennifer’s not even a “back-door virgin,” so naturally their plan goes awry. Jennifer’s now a flesh-eating succubus, and Needy (Amanda Seyfried, who I love in “Big Love”), her moderately dorky BFF, is scared shitless. There’s a makeout sesh between the girls, a hilarious virginity-losing scene, a few good mental hospital/prison scenes, and a bunch of gory, vicious girl-demon attacks.

I didn’t fall in love with the movie, but I was entertained and certainly not offended by it. Truthfully, I’m having a hard time understanding why so many people are. I’m going to go ahead and take Diablo Cody’s subversive, feminist claims under consideration, and debunk some of the common and often lazy criticisms “Jennifer’s Body” has endured in this 3-day hailstorm:

1. The movie is a half-assed attempt to flip the script, in which a girl goes around killing men for revenge.

Many reviewers (including Stephanie Zacharek, of Salon, who I normally love) have been failing to realize that Jennifer’s not “seeking revenge” on guys–she’s fucking with the head of her easily manipulated yet enviable best friend. The first clue should have been that J’s victims aren’t rapists, sexists, or your garden variety jock assholes. In fact, the dudes she preys on seem to be pretty decent. Two of them, however, are objects of Needy’s affection, which makes them evermore irresistible to Jennifer. J is beautiful and feared but not popular–she doesn’t seem to have any friends but Needy. And Needy has a lot of qualities that Jennifer aches for. It’s a movie that’s less about revenge than the love-hate, jealousy-tinged bullshit power trips that pervade many high school girl relationships–“girl-on-girl crime,” Cody (and “Mean Girls”) has called it. It’s not the most positive endorsement of female friendship, but it isn’t a facile one, either. In fact, it sadly rings true.

2. The girl-on-girl kiss is pure boner-bait.

This has been the almost universal knee-jerk reaction to the Big Kiss, but I gotta say, it didn’t strike me as gratuitous. Besides the kiss scene being hot (it is!), it’s a believeable development. There’s often an element of sexual tension between friends, especially when they don’t seem to have much in common. The kiss sorta reminded me of a scene in My So-Called Life (a professed favorite of Cody’s–and mine) where Angela’s mom and Rayanne’s mom are meeting for the first time. Rayanne’s mom is explaining Angela and Rayanne’s friendship, which, come to think of it, is sort of an indie, more fleshed out and nuanced version of the dynamic played out in JB (supersexual but insecure party girl befriends wide-eyed, not-quite-nerd, introspective girl), although Rayanne didn’t have the Regina George thing going on. Anyway, Rayanne’s mom says something like, “You remember when there was that one person in high school that you couldn’t get enough of? Like, they had perfect hair or perfect breasts, or they were just so funny. It was like everyone was in black-and-white and they were in color. It’s like being in love, only you’re not allowed to have sex.”

Now, 15 years later, “Jennifer’s Body” takes that a step further, by having its characters briefly acknowledge and act on this sexual energy. It’s a connection that plays out in other scenes, too, like when Needy is losing her virginity to her cute and harmless boyfriend. She goes through the motions, yet somehow feels and is terrorized by Jennifer ripping an unsuspecting guy limb from limb a few miles away. Jennifer is Needy’s sexual subconscious clawing to get out. The two seem cosmically connected, bound by their aforementioned “grass is always greener” jealousy, and that most certainly warrants a kiss. Moving on…

3. Megan Fox is a bad actress.

That may very well be the case, but we wouldn’t know it from this movie. Jennifer is meant to be a shell, a cartoon, a cold non-character–a part Megan Fox plays par excellence. Whether it was a bad decision to name the movie after Jennifer is another story, which leads me to #4…

4. Jennifer is a shitty heroine.

If she was in fact the heroine, this would be true. Jennifer’s a living (well, at first), breathing cliche. Her only credential in terms of kick-assedness is that she kills effortlessly and is (almost) immortal. But we can all agree that she seriously lacks in the personality department. The truth is, Needy is our heroine, and she–despite her thinly constructed nerddom–is actually pretty fucking cool. She’s smart, ethical, and goes from Jennifer’s puppy dog to lighting a fire under her own ass in the name of human life. (SPOILER ALERT!!!) She’s the one who seeks revenge on the indie douchebags that effed up Jennifer in the first place, and she’s the one who quite literally kills the cliched, toxic, queen bitch stereotype. She’s the emblem of cool-and-smart triumphing over unchecked demons–whether the demons are motivated by “actual evil” or “high school evil.”

In sum, this movie has some refreshing, feministy elements to it…and some annoying parts, too, like the implication that Jennifer needs to literally “feed” off guys in order to stay beautiful, glowing, and healthy. But fuck if I’m going to let feminists tear Diablo Cody to shreds over something like this movie. I find this to be a particularly irritating case of unproductive feminist navelgazing. Horror films are supposed to be built on fantasy–sexual fantasy, murderous fantasy, and everything in between. They’re often silly and usually throwaway* when evaluated in the context of a serious screenwriter’s career. I have to agree with Cody when she says that “we don’t all have to be the model woman–what we need is to be more visible.” And I’m not implying that women should get off easy–just that they shouldn’t be written off after 31 years on earth and a meager two screenplays. Maybe Cody just wanted to have some campy, squeal-inducing fun. I’d argue that she succeeded, without exploiting young women or killing them off in rapid succession. Considering the sizeable chick carnage of other recent teen girl horror movies, that’s actually pretty radical.

*You’re probably thinking “in that case, why did you spend 1000 words reviewing it?” To which I would clarify that I think it’s important to respond to some of the criticisms, without elevating the movie itself as some sort of masterpiece.


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32 Responses to “Jennifer’s Body” and the feminists who hate it

  1. Lauren says:

    Since I’m increasingly wooed by popcorn entertainment, I know I’m going to watch it. Thanks for the level review.

  2. Karen says:

    Nice reference to My So-Called Life! I enjoyed Jennifer’s Body.

  3. Mark says:

    I think you misunderstand why Cody and this film have become a target. In many ways DC has directly chosen to wear a bizarro mantle of under-intellectualized hipster faux-feminism that manages to simultaneously annoy 3rd wavers who don’t want to think they are just po-mo women who turn to burlesque for male attention and dominance feminists who think 3rd wavers refuse to take texts seriously and understand the history and struggles of feminism. This movie seems to fit the anger thrown at her, whether we like it or not. If Kanye West flirted with the rhetoric of civil rights, one might think that serious anti-racists would look at his output the way feminists are critical of DC and with good reason.

  4. FINALLY! I thought I was the only person who liked it. I dug it a lot, in fact. I went into the movie with all the negative ends of the feminist blogosphere running through my head and didn’t see validation for a healthy chunk of the criticisms.

  5. Eghead says:

    I hate it for lots of reasons, but only one of them is worth expending energy on at 1 AM: If you’re going to use the title of one of the best– and fiercest– feminist rock songs ever, your movie must be at least as good. Anything else is just bringing down the Hole song, and that’s not okay with me. Seriously– “Jennifer’s Body” is a brutal song about violence against women, and now it’s going to be associated with this drivel. As if Hole’s legacy hasn’t been compromised enough…

  6. Mish's biggest fan says:

    I call BULLSHIT on this false dichotomy between ‘model women/heroines’ and ‘more visibility’.

    I acknowledge that it’s a film set in high school and lots of relationships between women aren’t great during that time. I also don’t want women to be seen as good little angels in films, but it would be good for even ‘high school bitches’ to be fleshed out characters.

    Women are highly visible in films – most as empty, 2d characters. And to ride on cliches like Cody does in this film – ‘girl on girl crime’ – and then to get irritated when feminist blogs chew her out is hypocritical.

  7. Nona says:

    To be clear, Mish’s, Diablo Cody was referring to visible women screenwriters/directors/etc., not to visible female characters in movies. She was defending herself, not the character of Jennifer.

    Also, lots of horror films use characters as allegories, lots of them have “character types,” and plenty have 2d male and female characters. In this case, DC manages to make a film in which the heroine (Needy) turns awesome, and women are primary, not secondary. They’re not girlfriends or vicitims–they propel the action. As I said, it’s not a piece of feminist genius, but I hardly think it warrants outrage, either, especially given the nature of the genre.

  8. Ellie says:

    Hey thanks for the review, you’ve made me actualy want to see the film, out of interest if nothing more.

    I’m finding it hard to understand all the harsh criticism. Just because the writer is female and has identified as a feminist that doesn’t mean she has to be the most right-on rad fem imaginable in her fiction work. She’s just a person.

  9. Sarah J says:

    Thanks for giving this movie an honest viewing and critique. I still probably won’t see it, but I do hate the knee-jerk obsessive complaining about Diablo Cody the same way I hate knee-jerk obsessive complaining about Stephenie Meyer and Twilight. There are a hundred shitty books and movies out there by men for every shitty book or movie by a woman, and yet which ones do a lot of us obsess over?

  10. EKSwitaj says:

    There seem to be a few good points in this review (I can’ t say for certain as I haven’t seen the movie), but I’m really tired of seeing the “knee-jerk” label applied to critiques with which people disagree. It’s an outstanding rhetorical strategy, as it positions your opponents as being irrational, but it doesn’t carry a lot of content as an argument.

  11. Nona says:

    EKSwitaj, I guess what I meant by “knee-jerk” is that lots of writers seem to be saying, “That kiss was gratuitous. Next!” or, in the case of some bloggers, commenting on the kiss as glorifying bisexuality or trying to lure teenage boys, without even seeing the movie. But I do agree that it can be a weak argument to insert when it benefits you.

  12. P.T. Smith says:

    Thanks for this thought out review response. I still doubt I’ll see this in theaters, but you’ve raise my interest in it more than Ive had before. At first I was a little interested, then after reviews I stopped caring mostly entirely, now I’m looking forward to seeing it on DVD someday.

  13. greg says:

    yeah, this just doesn’t look like that good of a movie. i think i’ll stay at home and pop in 3 women, a much better and creepier film with good acting. hopefully fox will choose a role that isn’t a cliche, but i seriously doubt that

  14. me and not you says:

    “in the case of some bloggers, commenting on the kiss as glorifying bisexuality or trying to lure teenage boys, without even seeing the movie.”

    “The kiss”, in the previews, is doing just that. Because we all know that it happens, even if we haven’t seen the movie. Even if I didn’t have a horrible aversion to gore, I seriously doubt I would go see the movie in large part because of the way it was marketed. Too much “o! sexy sexy! female sex, female violence!” and to me (a non-horror lover, granted) seems to be the same pull as something like “sorority row” or whatever it’s called.

  15. Nona says:

    Good point, but that’s the marketing people’s decision, not the director’s or screenwriter’s. It’s bullshit, but it happens often when big studios try to market a feminist-tinged movie to the mainstream (just look at the previews for Inglourious Basterds, wherein hero Shosanna is conspicuously absent).

  16. Dion says:

    I think Diablo should have just foregone this film option, shelved it. This is a step down from Juno. A pity really. It doesn’t matter how attractive or photogenic actresses are, this film is just a mash of every other b-grade horror flick of the last two decades. Hardly original.
    To me, it’s not the kiss or the feminist issue…even though girls kissing girls is soooooooooo Ally McBeal and, frankly, a bit stale. I don’t get why feminists really concern themselves with pop-cult b grade horror films. They’re just films. It’s fiction. It’s just a writer having a stab (pardon the pun) at a genre. If feminists are having issues, then maybe they need to focus on other issues. This film is forgettable.

  17. Natalie says:

    Wait… the dorky heroine is *named* Needy? That’s so…. Dickensian.

  18. cacophonies says:

    @Sarah J:

    There are a hundred shitty books and movies out there by men for every shitty book or movie by a woman, and yet which ones do a lot of us obsess over?

    Really excellent point.

  19. preying mantis says:

    “Wait… the dorky heroine is *named* Needy? That’s so…. Dickensian.”

    Presumably she’s only nicknamed Needy.

  20. La BellaDonna says:

    Greg … “hopefully fox will choose a role that isn’t a cliche, but i seriously doubt that”

    Greg, a LOT of it has to do with what ROLES Fox is offered. There just aren’t that many roles for women in the movies. There just aren’t. Most of Hollywood’s “A” list movies have a bunch of different roles – those are played by guys. And then there’s The Girlfriend (who doesn’t understand the hero). That’s played (usually) by a woman. There are some “A-” movies, in which there is The Mom (who doesn’t understand the hero) or The Wife (who doesn’t understand the hero). I can pretty much promise you that you will never see a year in which Hollywood’s “A” list movies have 50% of the parts, including the leads, played by women.

    From the review, it sounds as if TWO women got to play actual LEAD CHARACTERS, which makes them luckier than most Hollywood actresses.

    I, too, doubt that Fox will get to play a role that isn’t a cliche, but I doubt that it will be by choice.

  21. tofubo says:

    saw it last weekend and was…disappointed, not sure why

    (was expecting vampires and got satan instead ??)

    a much better film was “let the right one in” and i hate subtitled movies

  22. Lauren says:

    here are a hundred shitty books and movies out there by men for every shitty book or movie by a woman, and yet which ones do a lot of us obsess over?

    Word to that. I’m a little tired of expecting woman-made media to be 100% feminist pure — it strikes me as just another opportunity to strike down successful working women. I don’t need my entertainment to be ideologically pure, I just want a good story, or at least an interesting story, that passes the Bechdel test. This seems to do that, while also playing with some interesting stereotypes.

    I admit to being amused at the idea of imagining what happens when your “virgin sacrifice” isn’t a virgin.

  23. Phrone says:

    I don’t really like gore, but I want to see it because it seems like the only film where women are actually central characters — not just supporting characters for a main, male protagonist.

  24. Torri says:

    the thing that turned me off the movie right away was that it was playing on the tired old trope of ‘female sexuality is bad and scary!’ with the ‘evil’ girl sleeping with and killing the poor unsuspecting high school guys and only the ‘good’ girl who doesn’t sleep around can stop her. Sure it’s nice that another girl is the one to stop her but the premise did nothing for me. That said after reading this review I might watch it if I see it on TV.
    I’d recommend ‘A Tale of two Sisters’ and ‘Shutter’ (both the original asian films not their US remakes) both are more psychological horror and have very interesting relationships between female characters and a whole lot of twists. (Though I would put a great big trigger warning on Shutter)

  25. Natalia says:

    Word to that. I’m a little tired of expecting woman-made media to be 100% feminist pure

    And I am a lot tired.

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  27. bethrjacobs says:

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&source=hp&q=yanna+brandt&btnG=Google+Search&aq=f&oq=&aqi=

    For a true feminist writer/producer who died about a year ago. Not perfect but she tried

  28. Dena says:

    I think you must be straight.

    I feel lonely, I feel marginalized, I feel masculinized when something that turns me on is decried as being done for the male gaze. Girls kissing girls will never be stale for me. It was never for scoring feminist points and it will not become an old, tired tactic.

    There’s more than the kiss in this movie for those of us girls who like girls. Especially for those of us who made out with friends who ended up presenting themselves as completely straight. For those of you who saw the movie, you might remember that Jennifer also proposed to Needy that they play boyfriend/girlfriend like they used to, implying an ongoing sexual element in their relationship. Needy seemed stripped of something in that moment, some friendly shield she’d been using to hide that she liked the sexual aspect of her relationship with Jennifer.

    Though I shed that shield long ago, it gave me a heart-twinge to watch the manipulative Jennifer use it to prod Needy and get a reaction.

    And I might have missed something, but how does everyone know that Needy was a virgin?

  29. Dena says:

    Sorry, technical glitch. I meant to put Dion’s comment in the block quote: “…even though girls kissing girls is soooooooooo Ally McBeal and, frankly, a bit stale” and have my response be non-blocked.

  30. kb says:

    Dena-you don’t find a difference between girls kissing girls for girls who like other girls vs. girls kissing girls for boys? I’m asking because what I’ve heard in gossip sessions from queer women is the opposite-that they can tell, and it’s boring when straight girls pretend. but I don’t know how general that complaint is.

  31. Dena says:

    I appreciate your question because it makes me think further and explain myself better.

    What lays behind my annoyance is this: I feel like this sexualized interaction stemmed from a sexualized relationship between the characters. I think that the actors succeeded in kissing as though it was something they fought and wanted.

    It seems like the “stale” comment came from a point of view where bisexuality or dykedom had its moment and should fade off into never-never-land with shoulder pads and other fads. Well, for some of us, we kissed girls before Ally McBeal did (I’m assuming she did, though I never watched) and we’ll continue kissing girls far into old age, please.

    I’ve seen a lot of girl-kissing that was torn up by critics because of context or characterization, but that made me squirm with happy-pants. Great acting, ladies…if you didn’t like it, that is. Girls kissing girls for a camera – they are always pretending, in that their acting. So it’s their acting ability that’s in question, not their desire.

    I have seen ridiculous, unrealistic kisses, ones that felt as though they were done for ratings or ticket sales. I have seen kisses between girls in movies so clearly marketed to boys that it’s amazing I was watching. And yeah – those are sometimes annoying. Even boring.

    I made a big leap in calling Dion straight. Maybe Dion is queer through-and-through but is tired of shallow representations of queerness. In that case, it may be a differing impression of how shallow this movie’s representation was.

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