Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Hell is a teenage girl": the feminist psychodrama of Diablo Cody's Jennifer's Body

"Herr God, Herr Lucifer

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air."

The ending of Sylvia Plath's poem "Lady Lazarus" serves as good a gloss on Diablo Cody's Jennifer's Body as any. Critics have understandably had problems with the film's murky metaphysics, its uneven tone, and the occasional clumsiness of Karen Kusama's direction. As Rotten Tomatoes puts it: "Jennifer's Body features occasionally clever dialogue but the horror/comic premise fails to be funny or scary enough to satisfy." When watching the film, I noted many of the same elements, but I had also read Jill Soloway's interview with Cody in the Aug/Sept issue of Bust magazine, and that primed me to be more aware of the ways the film overturns the usual Sorority Row horror cliches. As with her previous film, Juno, Cody lends a radical feminist slant to her screenwriting, so I've been trying to view the film through that lens. How much does the negative critical reception of the film reflect a masculine bias? Some notes:

1) Diablo Cody has said multiple times that the inspiration for the film grew out of her teenage fantasies of breaking into an alpha female's house and attacking her because she (the alpha female) had stolen a man from her. Thus, much of the dramatic tension in the film comes from the sometimes jealous rivalry between head cheerleader teen queen Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) and the comparatively dorky Needy Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried wearing glasses). Their friendship goes way back to their early childhood, with the more needy Needy devoted to her more popular friend. Early in the movie, they head out to a redneck bar to see an indie band named Low Shoulder, but once the band starts to play, a fire erupts behind them and eventually engulfs the building in a scene reminiscent of the fiery climax of Carrie (1976). As plot devices go, the fire does not serve much purpose except to liven things up and create an excuse for Jennifer to go join the band in their van much as Needy tries to talk her out of it.

2) After that mysterious trip in the van, Jennifer transmutes into a bizarre grinning demonic creature with a tendency to vomit black gunk before she eats guys. At one point, Needy asks, "You're killing people?", and Jennifer responds "No, I'm killing boys." When Jennifer has to go for very long without man-blood, she visibly wilts, her hair looking less perfect, but after a good meal on a guy's innards, she cheers up immensely, and she feels like a God who needs human sacrificial victims (somewhat like a succubus). As she says to one victim, "I need you hopeless."

3) All of this man-eating serves as proper payback for the innumerable young women slashed in horror films going back to Psycho, but I was still bothered by the general wimpiness of all the men in the movie. In her Bust interview, Cody admits that she deliberately did not include any father figures in the film. As she says, "These girls are raised without positive male role models, and they're lost." All we get instead is the inevitable J. K. Simmons playing a science teacher with a curly hair-piece and a missing hand (Hasn't he shown up in every other movie recently? Aside from playing the dad in Juno, he's in Post Grad, Extract, Burn After Reading, etc.). Regardless, teenage guys put up precious little fight as, one by one, they each succumb to Megan Fox's charms. As agents of their own fate, men scarcely exist in this movie, but that may be Cody's point.

4) As in Juno, characters in Jennifer's Body's trade ironic hipster quips even in the midst of dramatic (or bloody) encounters. For example, (spoiler alert) when Jennifer gets stabbed in the stomach with a pole at one point, she notes how she could use a tampon. At another point, Needy speculates that the prom dance will supply Jennifer with an "all-you-can-eat buffet" of boys. At times, one feels like taking notes on all of this dialogue that sometimes sounds like some secret code. When Needy shows off her black-vomit-tinged fingernails to her friend, Jennifer replies: "You need a mani bad. You should find a Chinese chick to buff your situation."

5) By the by, how is Megan Fox's acting? There's a certain irony in watching her conquer all of the men in the film just as she continues to claim an inordinate amount of media attention otherwise (it's not unusual nowadays to find articles just about the media's reception of her, what Gawker calls "journalismism"). Fox does fine when she's playing the domineering demonic seductress, but she clearly has a difficult time looking vulnerable in any way. When she's trapped in a van alone with a bunch of male Satanic band members, a tear drips from her eye when she feels threatened, but obviously the Transformer series has ill-prepared her for looking weak.

6) I was specifically reminded of Twilight twice in the film. First, Needy goes off to research paranormal activity at the occult section of the school library (just as Bella uses the internet to decipher that Edward is a vampire).
Secondly, Jennifer leads a football player in the woods near the high school in a manner reminiscent of Bella confronting Edward in the forest. In Twilight, director Catherine Hardwicke used the occasion to show off a bunch of flamboyant camera moves as if to prepare the viewer for Edward's grand "I'm a vampire" confession, but in the Jennifer's Body scene, an impromptu menagerie of animals including a fox, a deer, a beaver, and some ravens show up just when Jennifer's about to seduce him. The football player finds this Disney-like display quite distracting, and I did too. Was Cody referencing something out of Snow White or Cinderella?

7) Two more concerns that Cody included in the film: eating disorders (hence the black vomit), and one female character who has pleasurable sex and lives (a no-no in most horror movies).

8) So do Cody's feminist inclusions make up for Jennifer's Body's flaws? No, but they do complicate one's reactions. Even the title Jennifer's Body hints at the extreme mind/body split that many teenage girls suffer from, not to mention how women are often associated with their bodies as men are with their spirits (to paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir). As Bust magazine points out, Cody sneaks "in women's issues and thoughts into the mainstream, via movies, like a Trojan horse" with riot grrl urgency.


Hokahey said...

I really enjoyed your comments here. I saw it Friday night. Halfway through, I regretted going, though I stayed because I knew I'd have something to write about. Then, I kind of enjoyed parts of the second half. You can check out my post if you wish.

You refer to the "occasional clumsiness of Karen Kusama's direction" but that's being very lenient. Most of the film is clumsily directed.

"As in Juno, characters in Jennifer's Body's trade ironic hipster quips even in the midst of dramatic (or bloody) encounters." Yes, I definitely noticed this - and I thought it was strained and didn't work. Cody's cutesy quips just don't work here.

"The football player finds this Disney-like display quite distracting, and I did too. Was Cody referencing something out of Snow White or Cinderella?" You're referring to the friendly forest friends scene - and I agree, I was very distracted. Good call - was Cody referencing Snow White? Who knows. Of course, it would have been more appropriate if we had seen animals running away from Jennifer - the ghoul.

As for the feminist undertones - the part I actually I enjoyed the most was what happens to the punk rock band members as depicted in the closing credits after Needy becomes EMPOWERED - but the closing credits is way too late of a point to save the film.

Cody might be a one-trick wonder. We shall see.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Hokahey. I still wonder if I fully get the various subtexts of this film. Yes, it is exploitative, opportunistic, and crass. Does Cody have something against indie rock bands? Did she watch Twilight and then immediately sit down and write this film? She mentions the influence of The Lost Boys on this film. How? I wonder if the psychological messiness of Jennifer's Body is in part its point.

MovieMan0283 said...

I haven't seen Jennifer's Body and don't plan to. Maybe it's good, maybe it's bad. But Cody's ideological ambitions sound, frankly, boring and weak - recycled tropes from other works which are supposed to gain currency because women wrote the screenplay and directed. At any rate, don't let political guilt-tripping blackmail you; if the movie stinks, it stinks no matter how much "riot grrrl" urgency Cody "sneaks" in (apparently not very subtly).

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Moviemann. I'm not trying to be politically correct, just more aware of nuances that a guy can easily miss. There's also the fact that Cody was trying to playfully evoke a 1980s brand of horror movie, so it is hard to distinguish deliberate camp from incompetence.

zuzu43 said...

I think the Sylvia Plath lines are really insightful in setting up some of the inherent anger, as well as the hubris of a character who can "eat men like air."

FilmDr said...

Thanks, zuzu43. I noticed that Lorrie Moore brought up Sylvia Plath several times in her new novel A Gate at the Stairs. As she writes, "I prefer the mentally ill witch Sylvia Plath, whose words sought no enlightenment, no solace, whose words sought nothing but the carving of a cry. An artful one from the pitch black."

Karen said...

Interesting commentary! I saw the movie and enjoyed it. The scene in the woods reminded me of Twilight too. Paramore should have popped out and started singing "Decode"

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Karen. I wonder if Cody read the Twilight novel before writing the script. I've seen other reviews refer to Jennifer's Body as the anti-Twilight. I didn't get the impression that the animals were too thrilled to be herded together like that in the woods.

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