“Jennifer’s Body”: Full-Fledged Feminism or Simply Infuriating?

When Jennifer’s Body came out in 2009, I thought it was the coolest movie I had seen since Mean Girls. The film followed Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) and Needy Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried), two BFFs as they navigated boys and high school. If that wasn’t stressful enough, Jennifer gets sacrificed to a satanic cult and becomes a boy-eating demon. To quote from the film, hell is a teenage girl. Or rather, is the teenage girl just a victim of the hellish patriarchy?

When the film came out, I was a freshman in high school, trying to figure out my body image, boys, insecurities, cliques – and my place in the world. I wanted to be effortlessly cool like the mature, beautiful, bitchy girls I saw in the teen movies that I was just barely old enough to watch. I wanted to be Regina George. I wanted to be Jennifer Check (maybe without the cannibalism, though). Of course, these characters were played by gorgeous adult women, so even as a teenager, I never compared.

Nine years later, after college and two years of graduate film school, I now recognized the unhealthy expectations from this teen movie that were so tantalizing to me when I was an impressionable youth. In retrospect, it seemed so sexist. But something was telling me that there was more to Jennifer’s Body than that. After all, it was written and directed by women and about a female friendship. How could I so harshly condemn a female-centric film?

So I decided to rewatch the teen horror flick. I still had lingering thoughts that this film was the most sexist movie of all time, but I also felt that Jennifer Check was the horror feminist I needed all my life.

Sure, the audience gets a ton of questionable shots of Megan Fox and her body – almost as if the two were two separate characters. From décolletage to midriff, close-ups are bountiful in the film. At first, I was annoyed by these shots. But then I realized they weren’t there for the male audience; in fact, these shots were placed to ironically call out similar shots in major horror Hollywood blockbusters. Megan Fox’s body was being used to reappropriate how women’s bodies are typically used in horror flicks. It wasn’t exploitative, it was badass.

Karyn Kusama directed Jennifer’s Body and Diablo Cody wrote the screenplay. Both are self-proclaimed feminist women, giving the horror flick more female edge than most others in the genre. This edge consisted of complex female characters that are more than just their bodies – something uncommon in a genre that too often simplifies female characters into shallow, sexy roles.

It’s hard to be a female horror fan – characters of my own gender are treated so poorly in films of the genre. Jennifer Check is a feminist horror heroine. She wasn’t the final girl that was abused throughout the horror flick. She wasn’t the sexpot that was brutally murdered because she wasn’t a virgin. Jennifer slashed through all of these common horror stereotypes for female characters. Both the monster and the victim, Jennifer Check was unabashedly powerful, scary, and sexy.

Yet, I was still unsure about the feminist elements in the film. Had I just been missing them the entire time? So, I decided to do what any dedicated film fan does: research.

And of course, the results were mixed. Upon initial release of the film, some hated the overt sexiness Megan Fox brought to the film. How could the girl from Transformers portray a feminist icon? Perhaps, Fox grew tired of the reliance of her body in her past work with, so she utilized Kusama’s film as a way to subvert the reliance of the male gaze in mainstream cinema. She uses both her and Jennifer’s body to counteract the stigma from Transformers.

But many scholars, especially in more recent years, have noticed the feminist power of the film. A Refinery 29 contributor described Jennifer Check as a “Feminist Revenge Hero Who Came Too Early.” Countless blogs written by feminist scholars and students rave about the gender-flipping in the film. Perhaps the critics who found the film so misogynistic were missing the feminist subtext. In fact, a blogger named Darren actually looked at the critics that wrote about the film. According to Rotten Tomatoes, only 39% of male critics liked the film while 54% of women liked it. Perhaps that the male critics might have been missing the feminist edge of the female-written, directed, and acted film.

Then I found the key to it all. In a 2016 interview with the New York Times, Karyn Kusama detailed how the male marketing department handled the promotion of her horror flick:

The marketing department wanted Megan [Fox] to do live chats with amateur porn sites, and I was like, ‘I’m begging you not to go to her with this idea, she will become so dispirited.’ It was fascinating to have the writer be female, the director be female, the stars be female, and my head executive be female, and then we get to the top of the mountain, all those [male] marketing people. It was crushing.

For example, these promotional posters highlight Fox’s body and no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to find the feminist subtext in these images. In fact, these images don’t even really tell us anything about the plot. Where is Needy? Is Jennifer a vampire? The posters completely erase the female friendship that is at the core of the film.

Images via IMDB.com

In my youth, I only saw Jennifer’s Body as a sexy horror movie that I had to sneak out to watch so my parents didn’t get mad. In my feminist, academic bubble, I only saw the misogynistic marketing of the film. What I had been missing the entire time was Kusama and Cody’s take on issues like body image, the patriarchy, and stereotypes. It was a take that was too feminist for its time – one that had to be wrapped up in the misogynistic marketing that it was in fact mocking.

Tara Zdancewicz is a recent graduate of Boston University’s Film and Television MFA Program. The only thing she loves more than film is her dog, Wes – and yes, he is named after Wes Anderson.
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