Saturday, January 9, 2010

No, I'm Killing Boys (Jennifer's Body)


Last night, I watched the movie Jennifer’s Body, one of the rare teen films to feature a succubus as the primary antagonist. While most of the movie is far too sexual for my tastes, functioning as softcore pornography for the straight male teen audience, I found it an interesting subversion of established gender roles in the horror genre. The protagonist is a young woman (“Needy”) who becomes involved in the struggle for survival against a wicked opponent without falling into the trope of the final girl, whose boyfriend (Chip) ends up in the traditionally female woman-in-refrigerator role, as the female antagonist (the parasite possessing Jennifer’s body, hereafter referred to as Jennifer) takes the traditionally male role of sexual predator.

 
Needy: “You’re killing people!”
Jennifer: (“duh”) “No, I’m killing boys!”
–Film trailer (I’m not sure it’s in the released movie)
As a cannibalistic succubus, Jennifer terrorizes the small-town community of Devil’s Kettle, specifically the town’s boys. Much like the traditional depiction of vampires, Jennifer’s bloodlust is directly linked to her sexual lust. While Jennifer has a lesbian attraction to Needy, she initially restricts her killing to the male population, and then only targets Needy in self-defense. Jennifer is a misandrist, a hater of men. She devalues the personhood of her male victims, treating them as sexual objects to be played with while killing them brutally. This echoes the popular horror film convention of depicting misogynistic men targeting female victims, who are treated as sexual objects as they are often killed brutally.
Faced with a misandristic psychopath running rampant, the males of the town are thus placed at what is traditionally a female level. Chip has pepper spray thrust at him by his mother, insisting he take it when he goes to prom. I was reminded of the movie version of Twilight, in which Bella’s father insists she keep pepper spray with her. We as an audience are used to the idea that female persons have to keep on guard out of fear of hostile male threats who would target them out of sexuality, and it is fairly unnerving to see the same scenario presented with the genders reversed.
Jennifer intercepts Chip en route to the dance, convinces him that Needy’s been cheating on him, and proceeds to seduce him. During this scene, it is clear to the audience that Jennifer is a powerful threat, and that Chip’s giving in to her charm will probably get him killed. While this is the point where the average viewer is probably yelling at the screen “No, you idiot!” it is worth noting that most boys aren’t used to considering themselves potential victims. The usual way of things is that women are potential victims, while men are potential threats. Chip built his character on the predominant societal concept of what it means to be a good person within the masculine role, and is altogether unprepared for the introduction of the concept that a boy could be vulnerable to a literally predatory young woman. His giving in to her sexual charm is framed as accepting an enthusiastic proposal, in the classic manner of a boy considered to be always looking for sex, rather than going along with an equal interest, as might be the case were it the traditional female victim with male predator. It is far more acceptable for a male to feel at ease with a sexually assertive female because in most cases the male person would never be in danger.
Through his inability to consider his own vulnerability, Chip winds up in mortal peril, assuming a damsel-in-distress role for Needy to save. The pepper spray comes into play, Chip tossing it to Needy to use on Jennifer. Though the spray seems to have more effect on her than on James in Twilight, Chip ultimately meets his end at Jennifer’s teeth. Motivated by her boyfriend’s death, Needy gains the resolve to hunt down and kill Jennifer, giving Chip the kind of death usually reserved for female characters. Comparison can be made to Dr. Horrible, where Penny’s death gives Dr. Horrible the loss of innocence and resolve needed to become the supervillain he’s always dreamed of being. Similar to Penny, Chip’s storyline is subordinate, and his death becomes a plot device to cause the central protagonist to have the emotional development to drive their character forward.
Needy is less like the traditional female protagonist in the horror genre, and more like a male protagonist. This is primarily setup in the way that Jennifer takes the place of a male antagonist, thus removing the traditional restrictions in place. As Jennifer only targets boys, Needy is free to act on more equal ground for a while. Most of the movie she spends trying to figure out what’s going on, and when she learns what is going on she tries to protect the endangered boys, ready to attack her best friend. When Chip is killed, Needy loses her innocence and launches a full assault on Jennifer, letting out all her rage. After defeating her, Needy becomes a tough antisocial rebel who breaks out of a mental institution with demonic powers inherited from Jennifer’s bite, and seeks vengeance on the indie band responsible for attacking Jennifer (the real girl) and performing the Satanic ritual that inadvertently led to her demonic possession. While not quite Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Needy subverts the usual female tropes and assumes a stronger character usually reserved for males.
Another aspect of the movie I find notable is the lesbian relationship between Jennifer and Needy. Needy certainly adores Jennifer at the start of the film, and another girl derisively calls Needy “lesbigay” (I love Diablo-Cody-isms) for it. Whether there is any sexual attraction prior to the demonic possession is unclear, but Jennifer as a succubus does come onto Needy, kisses her, and later claims bisexuality as a justification for attacking Needy. Both Jennifer and Needy date boys, Jennifer dating (and eating) a lot of them while Needy keeps a long-term relationship with Chip. In Alfred Kinsey’s scale of sexual orientation, ranging from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual), Jennifer and Needy would probably rank as 1 or 2 (predominantly heterosexual). Though their lesbian relationship enhances the bond between them and gives motive for Jennifer to target boys Needy likes, I think it is mostly a bad portrayal. Because Needy is unassertive in the sexual relation, it is left unclear if she feels sexual attraction back at Jennifer, leaving Jennifer with the negative stereotypes of evil lesbian and sexually promiscuous bisexual. If Needy can be considered bisexual, it would be a relatively decent portrayal. However, the extreme close-ups of their kiss make their intimacy into porn for the benefit of the straight male audience, which is clearly not good for a reasonable depiction of LGBT people.
In conclusion, despite being primarily a load of sexualized imagery, Jennifer’s Body does some interesting things with gender roles. After watching the movie and writing 90% of this article, I read (in this article) that Diablo Cody is a feminist who wanted the movie to subvert the traditional horror movie stereotype of screaming female victims that act as accessories to men. Well, I’d say she succeeded. I don’t think the movie’s all that good given that at least three quarters of it contain sexualization of the female form intended to appeal to the male audience even as Jennifer acts as a misandrist figure of evil, but it does have some interesting concepts thrown in. I must now end by giving tribute to the best line of the film: “It’s not a rumor! It’s on the Wikipedia!”

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