Cannibalism as female empowerment: JENNIFER’S BODY (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

Jennifer’s Body is classified as a comedy, even though it’s rated R for sexuality, bloody violence, language and drug use. Well, all those things can be funny. Even cannibalism is sometimes the butt of jokes (well, quite often), and a lot of people get eaten in this movie.

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The story does not start with Jennifer (Megan Fox) but with her nerdy bestie Needy (Amanda Seyfried), “short” for Anita, although no one calls her that. Needy is revealed to be an ultra-violent resident of an asylum.

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The rest is flashback. Jennifer is the popular girl, the sexy girl, the one no one can believe is friends with the boring Needy, but she is bored in their little town of – wait for it – Devil’s Kettle. Jennifer wants to get off with the big city band in town, Low Shoulder. At their gig, Needy hears them arguing about whether Jennifer is a virgin, and leaps to her friends defence

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Jennifer later tells her that’s not even close to the truth.

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Now, when men are looking for virgins, there are only two possible explanations, depending on whether they are of a metaphysical bent, and these guys are very bent. So telling them Jennifer fits their shopping list turns out to be a very bad idea. Jen gets in the band’s truck as the venue burns down. Needy is distraught.

But she meant well. And later that night, here’s Jen, looking quite sanguine, in both sense of the word.

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Jennifer has been a virgin sacrifice to a demonic force, which promised greatness to the band. However, not being a virgin (even backdoor) means that the sacrifice, instead of killing her, left her possessed by the demon, a succubus.

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Yeah, OK, but the audience needs a good reason for a woman to start eating her dates (even if, after 100+ blogs, you and I could think of a dozen good ones). So she is possessed, and eating people. When she’s hungry, she’s weak and unhealthy, but when she’s fed (and cleaned up) she’s the life, or undeath, of the party.

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This is a really good film, with all the ingredients of greatness: the cast are excellent, the director, Karyn Kusama, is in her element (she made Destroyer with Nicole Kidman recently) and it was written by Diablo Cody, fresh from the triumph of Juno, for which she won an Oscar for best original screenplay. But the film bombed at the box-office, the accepted wisdom in those days being that successful films were made exclusively for 14-year-old (white) boys. This one wasn’t, it was about strong and often violent women, and has been gathering a cult following in the decade since its release.

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There have been many horror movies about women, often (e.g. Carrie or Teeth) involving revenge for something done to them. This fits with the cultural expectation that men will be the aggressors and the monsters, and from this fetid swamp arose the slasher movies, including most cannibal films. Jennifer herself has been sexualised by most of the men and boys who appears in the plot. She is kidnapped and murdered by the band, despite begging for mercy.

But Jennifer is not seeking revenge on the band – that will (but not until the credits) be Needy’s job.

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Jennifer is a monster for all the males who have objectified her.

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The film plays with the assumptions about male power and appetite. The boys Jennifer eats are gentle and considerate, not violent or aggressive – the huge line-backer she tears apart after her return is seen first crying for his friend, who died in the fire.

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Everyone assumes, of course, that his killer is male.

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But the body when found is being eaten by a gentle fawn.

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Despite widespread cultural beliefs, female monsters are not rarities.  Earliest mythology tells of the Medusa, the sight of whom “made the spectator stiff with terror” (much to Freud’s amusement) and even earlier, there are claims that Lilith, Adam’s ex before he met up with Eve, was, or became, a succubus. Jennifer is an ideal example of what film scholar Barbara Creed calls “The Monstrous-Feminine”, a concept of monstrosity that depicts not a female version of male monsters, but a cultural force defined by male fears about the feminine. These fears include being castrated (Freud’s favourite explanation), as well as confronting “the monstrous womb” – a terrifying image of a “black hole which threatens to reabsorb what it once birthed” (Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, p. 27). As the writer, Diablo Cody, says, it is an unashamedly feminist horror movie.

Jennifer’s Body was before it’s time. In an article explaining the woeful critical reaction to the film, Vice summed up:

‘Jennifer’s Body’ Would Kill if It Came Out Today

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One thought on “Cannibalism as female empowerment: JENNIFER’S BODY (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

  1. Pingback: “FLESH EATING MOTHERS” (James Aviles Martin, 1989) – The Cannibal Guy

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