In Jennifer’s Body, stuck-up high school hottie Jennifer (Megan Fox) is brutalized and wreaks hideous vengeance on men in general and the perpetrators in particular. This is a familiar arc, used in such rape-revenge films as Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981). Action, reaction, gallons of blood. It’s not clever, but it has a crude inevitability.
Writer Diablo Cody (Juno) and director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) aren’t satisfied with the formula. They want something a little smarter, a little more hip. The dialogue sparkles—in what’s sure to become a classic line, Jennifer is described as “actually evil, not high school evil.” And they add a series of narrative and thematic devices taken more or less randomly from other horror/exploitation classics. Like John Carpenter’s Christine (1983), their movie is about a high school student growing up to become a monster. Like Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), it has a heavy dose of prom-night carnage. Like any number of slasher movies, it uses shaky point-of-view shots to suggest the monster stalking and killing its prey. It even takes a bizarre, unjustified detour into women-in-prison films.
But Cody and Kusama also tinker with the rape-revenge narrative in ways that distance, complicate, and ultimately squander the visceral rush. The rape is not quite a rape but a virgin sacrifice gone horribly awry. (Adam Brody is gleefully oleaginous as an indie rocker who explains how tough it is for bands these days and then butchers Jennifer as an offering to Satan.) Jennifer is not just a wronged woman killing for retribution, she’s a demon killing for food. And they push the revenge all the way back to the credits, where it’s presented in a series of still frames.
Cody’s most ambitious change, however, is to introduce female relationships into the equation. The original rape-revenge films drew their energy, in large part, from the castrating power of second-wave feminism. Women, these movies averred, had been wronged, and those women were going to rise up and cut your dick off (literally, in the case of I Spit on Your Grave). Ms. 45 even made a sustained critique of patriarchy, linking workplace harassment, rape, and the marginalization of women into a single crime—punishable by death. But while these films made much of feminism, they didn’t make much of sisterhood. The women in them are notably isolated: they tell nobody about their suffering or their plans for revenge because they have no one to tell. The films turn on the spectacle of a lone individual turning the tables on the patriarchy. For all their femininist gestures, the movies are about how women interact with men, not with other women.
Jennifer’s Body is different. The film centers not on Jennifer and her male oppressors/victims but on Jennifer and her BFF, Anita, or “Needy.” Jennifer and Needy have remained friends since nursery school, even though Jennifer has blossomed into Fox, one of the sexiest women in the world, and Needy is played by the merely gorgeous Amanda Seyfried—a geek by Hollywood standards. Jennifer is shallow, dominant, and demanding; she drags Needy away from her boyfriend and out to bars, verbally shoots down guys, and runs around after indie rockers best left alone. Needy is sensitive, smart, and cautious, always careful not to upstage her friend, and . . . well, you know the drill. Over the course of the movie, Needy realizes that she and Jennifer have grown apart, and that the friend she once loved is now a jealous bitch, not to mention a demon from the pits of hell who wants to eat Chip (Johnny Simmons), Needy’s sweet, long-suffering boyfriend.
The combination of rape revenge and emotionally fraught female friendship isn’t a bad idea in itself. Quentin Tarantino managed to combine the two in Death Proof, in which women bond over their gleeful embrace of patriarchal violence. Jennifer grabs the phallus too—”My dick is bigger than his” she says of one soon-to-be victim. But that victim is chosen because Needy likes him; Jennifer’s power separates her from her friend and her own femininity. Tarantino celebrates women beating the crap out of men; Cody’s women, on the other hand, become powerful only when they cease to be women.
For this to work, Cody and Kusama would have to sympathize with Jennifer at some point. We’d have to understand why Needy loved her in the first place; we’d have to see the two of them interacting in a way that made sense of their friendship. When the two protagonists have their showdown at the end, Needy tells Jennifer that she was never a good friend, and that seems apt. Jennifer is a bitch before she’s violated and a bitch after she’s violated, and her transformation into a succubus is a fulfillment of her character, not a negation of it. You could even argue that the movie suggests she deserves her fate. You might be tempted to blame this perception on Fox’s limitations as an actor, but there’s never a moment in the script when Jennifer does anything for Needy or even displays any straightforward affection for her.
The movie does suggest one reason for their relationship that’s not so . . . straightforward. When Jennifer and Needy first appear on-screen, they’re sharing a meaningful glance and a flirtatious wave that prompts a student sitting nearby to suggest aloud that they’re gay. After Jennifer is demonified, the temperature only rises between them. There are several suggestive scenes and one smoking-hot encounter on Needy’s bed, with tongue and all. When Needy pulls away in disgust, Jennifer slyly mentions that the two used to “play boyfriend-girlfriend” at slumber parties.
That scene has been much publicized, but for all the brouhaha, the filmmakers never consider Jennifer and Needy as an actual couple. The girl-on-girl action is played for laughs and titillation. Needy’s love for Jennifer is portrayed as a dangerous fascination that must be discarded; she belongs with Chip, the sympathetic boyfriend, and Jennifer is evil partly because she makes that impossible. At the end of the film, when Jennifer does possess Needy in a way, it’s more debasement than empowerment.
In the earlier rape-revenge movies, patriarchy was an evil to be overcome. In Jennifer’s Body, on the other hand, an opening voice-over tells us that “hell is a teenaged girl”—or more precisely, the friendships between teenage girls. Cody claims that’s feminist, but I must confess, I don’t see it.