A look back at 2009’s Jennifer’s Body shows us there was always more than meets the eye.
2009 was a hell of a year for horror movies. Graphic body horror like The Collector, the infamous Human Centipede, cult classic Zombieland, and the slasher remake My Bloody Valentine 3D were all released that year. One of the most original films to come out of that year, though, was shoved under the radar as a critical flop and only last year began to pick up steam again and start to be recognized for what it really was, and what it had always been to those who paid enough attention to see it.
Jennifer’s Body isn’t what you think it is. It isn’t what you were probably told it is. Or maybe it is that, a bit, but it is so much more.
On the surface—and, as far as marketing is concerned, surface was all that mattered—Jennifer’s Body is a horror-comedy about a hot, man-eating cheerleader. Maybe you know a little about how she got that way, maybe you don’t. The posters won’t tell you, and reviews around the time were hazy on detail. All you see is Megan Fox in a cheerleading outfit, and all you know is that she eats boys. Given this, you could not be faulted for thinking the target audience was heterosexual teenage boys. But that’s the thing: it isn’t.
Never before have I discovered a film so grievously wronged as Jennifer’s Body, and no group of creators so ignored and reviled as Karyn Kusama, Diablo Cody, and Megan Fox. Kusama and Cody spoke in interviews last year about how they set out to make a movie for young girls, tried to have it marketed as such, and were repeatedly ignored in favor of marketing it toward teenage boys. It had Megan Fox in it, after all.
And lo, just as happens in any number of film plots, ignoring women came with a catastrophic cost. The movie barely managed to gross its budget and left a bitter taste in the mouths of the creators who, at its outset, were so excited to be able to make it.
So, what’s happening in Jennifer’s Body that nobody wanted to see ten years ago, but has brought it to cult-classic status now? A few things, I think. First and foremost, this is a woman-centered horror film made by women for women. The focus throughout stays on the relationship between Jennifer and her best friend Needy; the men are virtually irrelevant. That’s rare today, perhaps rarer back then. Equally as important, though, is its status as a revenge film. It is revenge horror of a different strain, not a rape revenge story, but a double dose of revenge, on both Jennifer and on the men who turn Jennifer into the creature she becomes.
Through the Trees
Jennifer Check (Fox) is the resident Hot High School Cheerleader and best friend to our protagonist, nerdy Anita “Needy” Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried). They’ve been best friends since early childhood, and they’re so close that Needy seems to have an extrasensory ability to know when Jennifer is around, and to have a vague sense of what she’s doing when she’s away. This is evidenced within the first few minutes of the film, when Jennifer comes to pick Needy up for a concert and Needy tells her boyfriend Jennifer has arrived before she ever rings the doorbell. In the middle of the concert, the venue—the town’s only bar—catches fire. Needy escapes with Jennifer, who has been under the spell of the band’s lead singer and apparently catatonic since the music started. The band (a group of Satan-worshipping indie boys seeking a virgin to sacrifice so they can become famous) find the two and invite them to their van, having decided that Jennifer is the virgin they need.
Jennifer, still basically unresponsive, mumbles about wanting to go along and gets dragged off, is subject to a ritual murder, and comes back as the man-eater who drives the action for the rest of the film. Needy, meanwhile, is trying to figure out what happened to her friend, why she’s behaving so strangely, and what can be done to stop her.
A lot of the articles I came across while preparing this piece credited the resurgence of the film to the #MeToo era, and to Jennifer taking revenge for what might have happened to her when she got on the tour bus with the band. But to read the film this way is to miss an important point: Jennifer’s sexuality is no secret. She is not ashamed of her sexual activity, and we are never meant to shame her. Ultimately it becomes a part of what makes her so powerful, after all. But the band is so convinced that she is coquettish—a tease of a woman who never actually put out for anyone before—and need her to be a virgin.
Here, the horror of the film really begins.
Two of the most haunting scenes of the whole thing center around the lead singer’s belief that Jennifer is a virgin. The first comes when Needy overhears the band talking about her friend, deciding whether or not she’s really a virgin. Needy, believing they want to use Jennifer for sex and that asserting her virginity will dissuade them, defiantly states that yes, Jennifer is a virgin and, no, she would never sleep with a creep like the singer (aptly named Nikolai Wolf).
Think about it. Have you thought about it? A woman is trying to protect her best friend from a creep in a bar who has been predatorially watching her, deciding what to do with her that night, and how to lure her out with him. Not the most foreign of concepts to women in the real world.
The second most troubling instance of Jennifer’s entire situation comes later in the film when we find out from Jennifer herself what happened after she got on the bus. The men are, once again, trying to decide if she really is for sure a virgin and Jennifer, reading the situation as any kidnapped girl realizing she’s surrounded by men she can’t get away from who are actively discussing her body might, assesses the situation and tearfully stumbles through an explanation in an effort to save herself: “I’ve never even… done… sex. I—I don’t know how.”
If that isn’t enough to break your heart just yet, the scene of the sacrifice ought to do it. They never have any interest in having sex with her, but they are deeply invested in doing terrible things to her body for their own personal gain. Maybe the worst thing about it all, though, is not just the abuse of tying her up and torturing her (maybe, probably) to death, but the enjoyment they get from the experience. Upon being told her name is Jennifer, the singer and his cronies bust out into a murderous rendition of “Jenny (867-5309)”, alternating between singing into the blade and punctuating the lyrics with stabs. She is being both tortured and mocked all at once, and the boys in the band could not possibly be happier.
Cross Out Jennifer
While this does explain one level of the revenge plot, it comes so late in the movie that it’s clear even the why and how of Jennifer’s condition are second-chair to her and Needy’s relationship. The first place Jennifer goes after her traumatic experience is Needy’s house. Without thinking, without planning, simply drawn there, pulled by her connection to this girl. When she chooses her victims, she chooses people who are progressively closer to Needy. From the exchange student Needy notices at the bar before the show (Jennifer’s first official victim) to Needy’s own boyfriend (Jennifer’s last victim), we watch Jennifer choose based almost exclusively on Needy’s interest and personal ties to these other people.
I like to read this point as Jennifer needing to choose these people because she has always drawn most of her strength from Needy, but it could be read any number of ways. For me, Jennifer and Needy’s connection is the most poisonous and most important one either of them has. Jennifer can only be as strong and beautiful as she gets to be when she’s “full” if she chooses people on Needy’s radar. Needy, meanwhile, eventually reaches a similar conclusion: Jennifer is picking people close to her, so the way to save the ones she loves the most (i.e. her innocent cinnamon roll of a boyfriend, Chip Dove), is to sever her connection with them. It doesn’t work, and his death is the catalyst for the face-off the film has been leading up to between the two girls. But this isn’t any ordinary monster-human showdown. This is a confrontation of demons of an entirely other sort.
Needy finally releases all her angst and anger at Jennifer’s having been a shitty, exploitative friend all along and accuses her of being insecure and socially irrelevant. Simultaneously very high-school and very stinging insults for someone who literally and figuratively has thrived on her popularity and allure. When attacked with a box-cutter, Jennifer hurls out that Needy is “so butch”. This isn’t the first time Needy is labeled as queer and, in truth, her character is given a queer subtext all along. The kissing scene so heavily featured in trailers to draw in teenage boys is actually a fairly awkward and complex moment of Needy fighting with herself about what she wants.
Needy finds her freedom at the end of this fight, having bested Jennifer first by tearing away her BFF necklace (the visual connection between the two of them each makes a point to display, and incredibly common symbol of teenage girl friendship), then by stabbing her in the heart. The crux of the fight is not in the heart stabbing, though. It’s in the moment when Jennifer’s necklace is ripped away and her powers appear to begin to leave her. The relationship Jennifer has fed on the most is over for her, and she can never be as powerful as before. Needy has avenged both her boyfriend’s death and every wrong done her at Jennifer’s hands. Yet still, the connection isn’t over.
In the closing moments of the film we find Needy and Jennifer will always be a little connected. Jennifer, in the course of the fight, bit Needy on the shoulder and thus transferred some of her demonic qualities. Needy uses these (and, in true Final Girl fashion, the very weapon used to torture her friend) to seek revenge on the band who found their fame but ruined her life and the life of the most important person to her.
So, sure, this is a man-eating cheerleader movie. But it’s also an unapologetically female-centric examination of the dangers of being a woman, the toxicity of codependence, and what it means to love and break free of someone who’s bad for you.