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Was Jennifer’s Body A Feminist Slasher Movie?

If there was one horror movie that was the centre of much focus and discussion this autumn, it was probably Paranormal Activity. If there was another one, it was Jennifer’s Body. Written by the Oscar-nominated writer of Juno and starring ‘it’ girl of the moment Megan Fox, the movie sparked a whole host of interesting debates from its initial conception through to its underwhelming box office debut. The centre concept was an intriguing gender reversal on the traditional slasher movie dynamic: a college girl randomly murders promiscuous boys. That, and the fact that she is a demon. So, is the movie a feminist slasher flick, and does that go someway towards explaining its somewhat poor box office figures?

jennifersbody

Do you want to see more of Jennifer's Body?

It is obviously a feminist riff on the old slasher routine. But that isn’t anything particularly novel in this day and age. Ellen Ripley is rightly honoured as the most dynamic female horror protagonist, particularly taking into account her assertiveness in the sequels (she was much more terrified in the original Alien). She was even a subversion of the standard virginal survivor schtick – infamous deleted scenes reveal that she was a mother and also having an affair with her commanding officer. If one accepts the principle that most horror films adhere to some sort of puritanical biblical ethical code, that itself is a fairly large subversion.

One film does not a trend produce, though. There have been other examples. Depending on whether the viewer treats the titular character or her classmates as the monster, Carrie may turn the genre on its head in a similar manner to Megan Fox’s recent effort – assuming you accept that the lead actress is the bad guy. You could argue it’s just a slight skewed example of the traditional horror dynamic, with the monster (in this case, the mob) preying on a innocent little girl. Even then, Carrie herself possesses demonic powers (psychokenesis), making it at the very least a fascinating slant. The fact that it takes place in the troubled social environment of a high school heading towards prom, it’s hard not to believe that this particular film was not weighing heavily on writer Diablo Cody’s mind as she wrote the screenplay. She even acknowledged the influence herself:

Definitely CARRIE, a little [George A.] Romero…and I love Sam Raimi, though I would say this movie is more of a slow burn than the kind of kinetic Raimi style. Really, all kinds of vintage horror movies; we definitely wanted to have that warmth, not that anti-septic, computerized look that movies have now.

There are tonnes of other exceptions to the assumption that horror movies feature masculine monsters (and really – isn’t the butcher knife really just a big sign which screams “Phallus!”) preying on powerless virginal women. The Scream trilogy is arguably another exception, as its lead character only takes matters in hand after losing her virginity.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some… interesting bits of commentary to be hidden inside Jennifer’s Body. Diablo Cody herself points out that eating disorders form the backbone of the movie:

The movie also references eating disorders. Jennifer’s eating habits revolve around a binge-purge cycle… She actually throws up before she eats. She’s possessed. She vomits disgusting black bile on her victims before she eats them. But in one of my favorite scenes, she’s binge-eating out of her refrigerator. I thought to myself, ‘Man, if we aren’t getting it across…’ I was happy about that.

I’m not sure that dealing (rather crudely, one must concede) with bulimia is enough to place a horror movie solidly within the pantheon of ‘solid gold feminism’. You might make the case that critical consensus has been based on hokier concepts – for example, this year’s earlier indie gem Teeth using a girl growing teeth in her vagina as an exploration of sexual attitudes. The difference is that the movie wore its heart pretty much on its sleeve that it was an exploration of sexual identity and the dangers (or at least societal perception of the dangers) of sex, whereas I don’t think anybody queuing up to see Jennifer’s Body was looking for an insight into teenage eating disorders.

From the start – with its casting of sex symbol Megan Fox through to it’s provocative trailers (ampign up the lesbian factor and playing “I Know What Boys Like” somewhat teasingly) – the movie made it fairly obvious that it was appealing to men.Unlike all the aforementioned examples, the movie sold itself on its sexuality and sexuality of its lead. Here’s Megan on a desk in a short skirt. Here’s Megan licking her lips. Can you imagine if Alien had a similar ad campaign?

You might make the case that it’s very difficult to sell a film without reference to its lead. I’d disagree – look at Teeth or the Alien franchise for examples from this article – but, even supposing that I accepted that assertion, why is it so ridiculously borderline pornographic? The iconic poster for Carrie was the title character covered in red liquid (from a menstral-blood related practical joke) – an image with obvious sexual subtext, but which didn’t  resort to objectifying its lead. If you can’t sell the movie starring Megan Fox without turning her into a fetish object, then maybe you should look for an actress other than Megan Fox.

Maybe the selling of the movie as a sleazy sex-filled lesbian demon romp with the sexiest actress on the planet was not a particularly good idea if it’s meant to be a movie about female empowerment. Even the director, Karyn Kasuma, seemed to acknowledge that:

I don’t know if selling the film as a straight horror film and selling it primarily to boys is really going to do any of us any favors, frankly.

And arguably that logic somewhat carries through, looking at the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes:

There were many more reviews by men (77) than women (26). The majority of these were culled from the Rotten Tomatoes site, and I included a few (from both sides) from reviewers I know who are not part of the R/T scoring system.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Male
    movie reviewers: 39% liked it, 61% disliked it.
  • Female
    movie reviewers: 54% liked it, 46% disliked it.
  • Okay, I’ll concede there’s a difference of 15% based across gender lines right there, but still barely over half of female critics (apparently its target demographic) though it was a good film. It’s worth considering that Rotten Tomatoes itself puts the “fresh” rating at a 60% threshold, so even just the female reviews would point to a “rotten” film.

    I don’t think that’s a massive difference given the unfortunately low sampling of women by the pole, but there are any number of explanations for the discrepency. The most obvious is that us dudes “just don’t get it”:

    And why don’t they understand the film? Because it’s one of the very few honest-to-goodness feminist films out there — and more so then being feminist, it’s one of the few films that views things from a female lens. Boys are there, and make up the majority of the victims in this body horror film, but they’re not a concern. For once we have a story with female main characters who aren’t obsessing about, fighting over, or bitching about boys every five minutes. Jennifer’s Body is about women and how they relate to each other, the horror moments are there for style and allegory, but at its heart the movie is about two girls whose own toxic friendship is eating them both alive.

    I can accept that there are some things I will just never culturally appreciate due to my circumstances, and maybe this is one of them. But I’d make the case that it’s unfair to assert that men are responsible for the film’s poor box office: for not understanding women in the first place and then for being the misdirected target of the marketting campaign. I was stunned to discover that women make up 60% of the horror audience. So women should conceivably have been a large enough audience to sustain the film.

    While I think there was an issue with marketting the film to men excluding that demographic, I don’t think the law of averages supports it. For example, Saw movies aren’t advertised explicitly to women, but they turn up. Sure, they aren’t as heavily sexualised as the trailers for Jennifer’s Body were, but I don’t think that would turn off any more female movie-goers than usual.

    I think that many female movie-goers were well aware of the film’s attempt to represent female empowerment – and they just weren’t interested:

    I don’t want to feel some phony feminist empowerment when I see a scary movie. I just want to see a scary movie.

    Scrap the message and the heavy handed moral, just give me what I came here to see! In fairness, it’s a legitimate point. If I want complex philosophical discussions on gender roles, I’d probably pay to see an oscar-winning drama. I don’t mind social commentary on the side of my horror film, maybe just not in my face.

    Rope of Silicon themselves have an interesting opinion on why women stayed away:

    Megan Fox just isn’t the male draw marketers believe her to be. Even more, I think she is one of the main reasons females would stay away from this film. There isn’t a female in my life that has ever spoken of Fox in a positive light in my presence and while watching her with Conan, my sister texted me to say, “Megan Fox is the stupidest person I have ever listened to.” It was the first time she had ever heard her speak.

    Part of me finds it hard to disagree – particularly when the summer has been filled with her bitching about the director who plucked her from obscurity to make her a starlet. We – as the people who pay to see his films – have every right to complain about Michael Bay. He gave you a career and he’s a lot more experienced than you. It’s just bad form. I can see where the article comes from – I just don’t like Megan Fox and she pretty much dominates discussion of the film.

    I think that it’s a heck of an assertion to suggest that Jennifer’s Body was a flop only along gender lines – yes, there was a split between the male and female reviewers as to who liked it least, but I don’t think it was definitive. I don’t think the movies flaws flow overtly from failing to market itself successfully. On the contrary, I believe that it marketted itself well enough that people knew what they were getting and made a conscious effort to avoid it, rather than not being informed enough to make a conscious effort to see it.

    Still, the movie scream ‘cult’ and the fact that we’re having this conversation suggests that maybe there is something of merit here.

    ________________________________________________

    This article is part of our “screen scare week”, a look at monster movie trends in the run up to Halloween. Check back every night at the witching hour (3am) for a new look at some aspect of horror movie subculture…

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