I’m posting my experiences at Baltimore Comic-Con tomorrow on the Fantastic Fangirls blog. For those of you who may not know, that’s where I (and three other women) blog about comics and culture.
While in Baltimore, though, I did manage to catch a showing of the movie Jennifer’s Body. I’ll get my opinion of this movie out of the way — I loved it. It’s an amazing feminist horror film. It’s the best horror film I’ve seen since Ginger Snaps. It’s absolutely a five-star film.
I’ve seen all of director Karyn Kusama’s work. I’ve seen Diablo Cody’s film Juno. The body of work these two women have completed so far is solidly feminist. Their movies focus on self-ownership, on autonomy, on taking possession of one’s own body against enormous pressure to be merely a vehicle for someone else’s life. In Juno, Juno is, of course, pregnant. Her body is claimed by her pregnancy, by her extremely sweet and well-intentioned boyfriend, by the adoptive parents she’s found. Yet Juno manages to retain her sense of self. In Kusama’s Girlfight Diana takes up boxing as a means of controlling herself and her world. She forcibly takes ownership of her body in order to master her temper and develop a sense of self-worth. This ownership extends to her exerting control over what she wants from her sexuality. It also gives her autonomy in her relationship with her father. In Aeon Flux, another Kusama film, Aeon’s body is her rebellion. She is a spy and assassin whose physicality is the means by which she attempts to overthrow the government.
Let me be clear: when these two women name a film “Jennifer’s Body,” they are making a point about something.
Spoilers for the movie follow.
The film tells the story of Needy (well-played by Amanda Seyfried) and her relationship with Jennifer. (Jennifer is, of course, played by Megan Fox.) Needy and Jennifer have been friends forever. As the film progresses it’s clear that both of them have gotten good things from this relationship. Both of them value it and thrive on it. At the current point it time, though, it seems that Jennifer is The Pretty, Popular One and Needy is The Nerdy, Wallflower One. (This is completely wrong, as it turns out.) Jennifer and Needy attend a concert by a hip band from The City (the movie is set in either Minnesota or Wisconsin, I’m not sure which.) The band, Low Shoulder, somehow start a fire in the bar and hypnotize Jennifer into leaving with them. They need a virgin for something. Jennifer, we know, is absolutely not a virgin. We next see Jennifer assaulting Needy in Needy’s home — Jennifer looks dead and evil. She nearly kills Needy but chooses not to.
Events proceed apace, with Jennifer killing and eating young men and Needy realizing something has gone terribly wrong. Needy determines that Jennifer has been possessed by a demon as a result of mis-cast ritual magic. She confronts Jennifer with this information and Jennifer admits to all of it. Needy doesn’t know quite what to do about this until Jennifer kills Needy’s boyfriend Chip. Needy confronts and kills Jennifer and is subsequently imprisoned for it. In the final scenes, Needy — having gained some of Jennifer’s demonic power via a bite wound — escapes. She tracks down and kills Low Shoulder.
This synopsis in no way describes what the movie is actually about.
From the opening narration, as Needy moves through her day in prison, the movie is about internal strength of will. The movie is about the relationship between two very different girls and the strength they derive from each other. The movie is about insecurity manifesting as false power, and meekness disguising determination.
Jennifer has all the obvious markers of power in the film. She’s gorgeous, she’s social, she appears to control her sexuality. But she is weakened in ways no-one notices by the fact that she judges herself according to standards set by others. Jennifer rigidly controls her body to meet goals other people have told her are important — she controls her sexuality the same way. In contrast, Needy doesn’t compete in those social games. Not because she couldn’t do well, or even win; but because Needy has somehow managed to figure out that the standards of physical attractiveness set by the world are a game she can only eventually lose. Everyone gets older, everyone gets fatter, everyone gets wrinklier and all tits sag. Needy has opted to eschew the panting desires of all men, everywhere, in favor of rewarding the man who likes her as she is. Chip.
Chip and Needy’s relationship is sweet, respectful, and realistic. They don’t fawn on each other, they love each other. This is clearly shown in the enthusiasm they have for their sex life — which is neither virginal or jaded, the two most common representations of teen sexuality one sees in films. This love and respect is also shown in the autonomy they accord each other. They don’t spend every minute together, they support each other’s lives. Their relationship is based on the people they are, not the bodies they see in front of them.
Jennifer understands that this relationship — the one between Chip and Needy — is somehow a threat to her. Which is fascinating in its implications — Jennifer understands that she does not hold the power in her relationship with Needy. Not consciously, I’m sure. But she understands, somehow, that Needy could leave her.
We’re not accustomed to movies in which the quiet, intellectual girl is happy with who she is, enjoys her sex life, has goals for the future, and protects the feelings of her wilder, more provocative best friend. But that’s what this is. Needy has been protecting Jennifer from Jennifer’s own insecurity in exchange for some of the wild times and excitement of Jennifer’s life. But Needy doesn’t need those things — she has herself and her life. Jennifer needs the excitement, the continual approval of new people to fawn on her and love her and want her, because she doesn’t have a central self to rely on.
What Jennifer has is her body, and it’s the only tool she knows how to use.
Jennifer is casually cruel with words throughout the film. The funny thing is, she’s not very good at it. All her insults sound like she’s auditioning to be an extra in Heathers. She’s trying way too hard to be the bitchy ice queen. She’s also rotten at saying nice things to people. She’s not articulate. Her choice of medium for showing all her feelings, all her decisions, is her body. When she’s insecure, she wants guys to want her body. When she’s feeling powerful, she wants everyone to want her. When she’s feeling nervous, she wants Needy to touch her. When she’s happy, she holds Needy’s hand. When she’s trying to explain the whole demonic possession thing, she starts out by necking with Needy. When Needy strips away the BFF necklace, Jennifer’s whole body falls, losing power in response to the emotional pain of that moment.
When Low Shoulder take Jennifer, they only want her for an attribute of her body. When that attribute is missing, the demon takes her body. Her body drives her hunger. Her body manifests they demon’s power levels, up and down. Her body is the lure and the trap. Jennifer’s body is the only skill she knew how to use, and it cost her her life.
This movie does not advocate empowerment-via-sex. Neither does it advocate abstinence and ignoring of female physicality. What the movie advocates is knowing one’s whole self — heart and mind and body — as Needy does. It advocates being comfortable enough with who you are to accept your bitchy friend in all her insecurity without getting sucked into pointless girl-against-girl competition. The movie advocates a complex understanding of female relationships that includes exchanges of physical and emotional power, that includes growing up and changing together, that includes sexual attraction as one facet of love.
Kusama, Cody, Fox, and Seyfried have put on the screen a movie about a kind of relationship between two women that I have rarely seen in film. That kind of relationship is called “complex”. So many times women’s relationships in film are two-dimensional, caricature, or merely serve as a prop in a movie about men. Not so here. The friendship between Jennifer and Needy is not perfect — they are occasionally thoughtless towards each other, or hurtful, and there’s a wealth of unseen history in the way Jennifer taunts Needy with their past sexual explorations together. But it is friendship.
It’s friendship that spares Needy’s life when Jennifer is turned. It’s friendship that prevents Needy from doing anything about Jennifer until Chip is killed. It’s friendship that gives Jennifer the confidence to hit on Low Shoulder. It’s friendship that weakens Jennifer enough for Needy to kill her. It’s friendship that causes Needy to commit multiple homicide, ending up with body count equal to Jennifer’s.
This is a great movie about women and friendship and the complexities thereof. It is also a great movie about how dangerous it is to build your self-hood on nothing but your body. I highly recommend seeing Jennifer’s Body.