With Jennifer’s Body having a cultural resurgence Eoin O’Gaora revisits the much derided cult-hit
When Jennifer’s Body released in theatres in 2009, it was pretty much universally considered mediocre at best: Critics gave it on average a five on a ten-point scale, and audiences, usually more forgiving than the critics, generally only gave it a C- when polled. Nobody was expecting it to reappear over ten years later, revisited by critics who called it “exactly the delightfully campy feminist black comedy I thought it would be” where it had once been described as “a sloppy episode of Buffy the Vampire.” To me, the film is much more the former than the latter.
The film’s original marketing goes some way to explaining why the film flopped. The original trailer ogles Megan Fox’s body, full of long takes that focus on her bare waist and exposed chest. Watching the trailer, you could be excused for not knowing Jennifer is supposed to be a monster. The trailer is entirely a product of the male gaze, catering to a male audience who want a chance to stare at Megan Fox for an hour and three-quarters. This was no accident, and the film’s writer Diablo Cody has described in interviews since, how studio executives insisted on marketing the film “to boys who like Megan Fox” rather than her intended female audience.
Since then, however, the film has gradually overcome these early marketing mistakes and found a cult following with its intended (predominantly female) audience. These fans see in Megan Fox’s Jennifer not a monstrous woman to be reviled or afraid of, but a symbol of female resistance to unwanted male attention. When the band Low Shoulder try and sacrifice Jennifer to Satan as they mistakenly believe she is a virgin, it is Jennifer’s sexual agency, the fact that she has made a choice to have sex, that prevents her from dying; the opposite of what usually happens in body horror cinema. The men might get their wish of fame and fortune, but they also create their reckoning in Jennifer. Jennifer becomes a succubus after their attempted sacrifice, and she uses this power not at random, but to mete out justice on male characters. She meets the male gaze with violence. Colin, one of her early victims, has a fixation with Jennifer that is entirely physical, and even when Colin is on the verge of death and about to be eaten, he is almost too fixated on Jennifer’s body to notice. The male gaze here then is changed, not dangerous to Jennifer, but dangerous to the gazing men, as all the men who ogle at her are eventually devoured.
The practical aspects of Jennifer’s Body are all middle of the road: The cinematography won’t blow your mind, but it’s clear and comprehensible enough to tell the story. The soundtrack was hardly memorable at the time, but now features a myriad of pop-punk classics. The acting is good, but nobody (possibly with the exception of Megan Fox and Adam Brody) gives a particularly memorable performance. The renewed popularity of Jennifer’s Body then can only be explained by the themes of the film resonating with its intended audience. Maybe in the wake of the MeToo movement, the film’s themes of female empowerment, and especially female characters striking back against male character’s unwanted advances, become especially relevant. Jennifer’s Body then is in the same vein as something like Teeth, a film released a year earlier which contains many of the same themes, of a young woman meeting unwanted attention with violence. Jennifer’s Body simply steps it up a notch: where Teeth’s main character responds to male aggression with violence, Jennifer preempts it, as she seduces and devours man after man. Jennifer’s transformation from the object of the male gaze to a horrifying, knife-toothed monster is important also. Seemingly, it is the common trope of the monstrous female body as something revolting and to be feared. In horror cinema, the monstrous female is a repeated trope in which a woman’s body and normal bodily functions become twisted into a horrifying image for the purposes of the story. Think of Carrie, when the onset of her period sets Carrie White on the path to being a mass murderer who punishes innocent and guilty alike. Think of Aliens, where the only ‘mother’ we see in any great detail is the Alien Queen, the normal act of reproduction made into a horrific affair. Jennifer’s Body is a modern updating of this horror film formula, Jennifer’s sexual energies portrayed as desirable, as her sexual confidence attracts man after man to her. Jennifer’s agency is what sets her apart from previous horror heroines like Carrie White. Where Carrie is a natural disaster, Jennifer is in control of her own desires, seducing and murdering the men she chooses to, biting back against the male gaze that devalues her to the position of an object.
Jennifer’s Body deserves its recent popularity with critics and fans. A decade ahead of its time, the film reinvented tropes of the horror genre in a self-aware way, transforming Megan Fox from the tired trope of the monstrous female to a sexually liberated agent of female revenge, a monster you can actually cheer for, not just sympathise with.