Culture Trips

Jennifer’s Body: The real meaning of a ‘sexy teen flick’

And here lies the flaw of the marketing: when you try to turn this deeply female story into a ogle-fest for men, it doesn’t work. The men in this film are either unthreatening or pathetic – or both. No-one gets to tame the monster; no-one gets to be with Jennifer. None of the male characters are as important as Jennifer and Needy, both to themselves, each other and us as audiences. Even as they turn more and more against each other to the point of wanting to inflict as much pain as possible on each other, it remains clear that it’s still the most important relationship in each of these two women’s lives. When you remove the assumptions about the film, the much-hyped kissing scene between the two protagonists becomes, for Needy, an awkward moment of emotional exploration and, for Jennifer, an exhibition of power and manipulation.

The failed marketing didn’t just exclude the teenage girls that the movie was talking to, but queer teens altogether. That kiss can be seen as both a moment of commentary on the toxic co-dependence of the two girls and as a confirmation of their sexual orientation. Genuine tenderness and affection coexist with exploitation and power play in the complex psyche of these teenage women.

The LGBTQ+ writer Sara Fonseca recalls watching the scene and “feeling the blood drain from my face during my first viewing”. And she is only one of many lesbian and bisexual women and queer people in general who saw their teen-self and their own confused feelings towards their friends represented on screen for maybe the first time ever – or certainly by such big names as Fox and Seyfried.

The film has seen a resurgence in recent years, but it’s the popularity it garnered inside the LGBTQ+ community that propelled its cult status. People who have found this film more than 10 years after its release have discovered a new story in it, freed from the rhetoric of its marketing campaign and the reading that critics gave it. A whole new generation of queer women can now see themselves in the characters of Needy and Jennifer in a way that few other films allowed in 2009 – or still allow even today.

In Jennifer and Needy’s world, girls aren’t sex objects anymore, but fearless women who can help each other find their power. For this new audience, the kiss the two share isn’t pandering to the male gaze or needless eroticism, but rather a moment they themselves know far too well. For many, this was intentional. As Lena Wilson told Fonseca, “anybody who thinks Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama didn’t know exactly what they were doing when they made Jennifer’s Body might want to reconsider their cultural blind spots”.

The film is filled with instances that tell us there is more than friendship between Jennifer and Needy. From one of the first scenes of the movie, when the two girls are called “totally lesbigay”, to Jennifer’s iconic line in a climactic scene, “I go both ways”, to memories of the two playing “boyfriend and girlfriend” as children, Jennifer’s Body establishes itself as a bisexual piece of cinema.

If critics in 2009 had seen a horror film in which a boy is holding a girl’s hand at a concert looking at her longingly only moments before she gets turned into a demon and he has to save her, they would have pointed out the romantic tone of the scene. But with two girls, they become mere friends and yet their intimacy is also considered sexual, pandering to a male audience.

Fox herself worried that the film’s subtler message might be obscured by misperceptions. As she told The New York Times Magazine, “The movie is about a man-eating, cannibalistic lesbian cheerleader, and that pretty much eliminates middle America. It’s obviously a girl-power movie, but it’s also about how scary girls are… If I was to have a message, it would be to be a different kind of role model to girls. With Jennifer’s Body, I want to say, It’s OK to be different from how you’re supposed to be. I worry that’s totally lost.”

Unfortunately, what the film was doing is still unusual in today’s cinema landscape. As Grady said in Vox: “Jennifer’s Body is good now. More precisely, Jennifer’s Body was always good, and everyone is just now starting to get on its level.”

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