<p>content warning: sexism, graphic violence and gore. Spoilers for Jennifer’s Body. Horror has always been a tool to explore girlhood and female virtue. But what Jennifer’s Body (2009) does differently—and so well—is show a teenage girl in her ultimate form: brutal, cringey, flawed, and most importantly, still a child. The script narrates the story of […]</p>
content warning: sexism, graphic violence and gore. Spoilers for Jennifer’s Body.
Horror has always been a tool to explore girlhood and female virtue. But what Jennifer’s Body (2009) does differently—and so well—is show a teenage girl in her ultimate form: brutal, cringey, flawed, and most importantly, still a child. The script narrates the story of toxic childhood best friends Jennifer, the typical hot mean girl (played by Megan Fox) and Anita/‘Needy’, the friend who sort of got left behind (portrayed by Amanda Seyfried), with the added spice of demonic possession.
The film opens with Needy in prison, monologuing her journey there record scratch, you’re probably wondering how I got here style. The film is excellent at toying with viewers this way. The first fifteen minutes play out like a cheesy teen flick; the two argue, there’s a monologue about how to dress the right kind of slutty and then a bar burns down. The music stops and we watch in horror as whole figures are engulfed in flames as Jennifer is led into a van. In that way women know all too well, Needy fears that Jennifer won’t come back—and that if she does, she won’t be the same.
Needy returns home alone to a knock on her door. Floorboards creak, and Jennifer appears in front of Needy, ridiculously cute white outfit sopping wet with blood. Jennifer lets out a demonic scream and vomits a torrent of black, spiky tar and slams Needy against the wall. She inches towards her neck, threateningly, dark red liquid dripping from her mouth. “Are you scared?” A final push to the floor leaves Needy absolutely wrecked, then a pop-punk song plays as the film transitions to a high-school science class where Jennifer appears looking incredible, smiling, joking. Needy asks if she’s alright and Jennifer flips it, “you always overreact.” Needy shows Jennifer her tar-stained nails. “You need a mani so bad.” This is Jennifer’s Body.
Jennifer is a girl at the precipice of girlhood. It’s scary, but what’s scarier is its reception. Jennifer knows her sexuality is a weapon but can’t tell whether the dagger is pointed at her victims or herself. That’s the horror of this film: this unknown thing taking over Jennifer’s mind and body mirrors her self-perception as she transitions into adolescence. She’s been conditioned to believe that her only value lies in her sexuality. Her demonic possession signifies how she’s merely a vessel of societal expectations. The title of the film rings true as Jennifer becomes less than human; a girl turned into a body.
We find out what really happened to Jennifer. The band from the burned-down bar kidnapped her as a sacrifice assuming she was a virgin. (“Do you know how hard it is to make it as an indie band these days? Satan is our only hope.”) They bring her into the woods where they joke and sing while brutally murdering her. But the sacrifice goes wrong—they summon a succubus and the Jennifer we know is gone.
She learns from her abusers, seeing men as objects for her consumption–not people. She manipulates, seduces, murders, and then literally devours them. She becomes everything she’s feared to become as a teenage girl: indulgent in her sexuality. “I am a God,” she says, after brutally discombobulating a high schooler. Needy echoes a similar statement at the end of the film when she labels herself “loose around the edges” after experiencing the horror of awakening to her own desires. She’s the “loose woman”: feared, shunned, shamed. Men are victim to her but are also ready to throw her under the bus because of her irresistibility. This contrasts with the ideal “pure woman” who is held to an ever-unattainable standard of innocence. It’s a trap. Literal hell is where there’s no right answer and everything’s always wrong. Young women are delusional, obsessed with hormones and sex, while old women are not to be taken seriously because they’re manipulative witches. This message is driven home when Jennifer reveals she was never a virgin—that never mattered. It was when she was abused that her succubus transformation occurred.
Needy hates Jennifer but also understands what Jennifer has become in a way that only their shared girlhood allows. The lines of their friendship blur; Jennifer’s powers grow stronger and they share a kiss. It’s intimate in a way that makes the viewer feel like they’re encroaching—deeply intense and sensual but also terrifying. They abandon performance and let their desires overcome them. For Jennifer, it’s the moment where she’s most herself, outside her possession and societal expectations. Jennifer plays with her hair and everything Needy has built up crumbles. “I’m a really good friend,” Jennifer says, but Needy no longer believes it. Needy loves her, enough to see her as the scared girl she is instead of a monster. But this is a horror film and Jennifer is a Literal Demon. Needy can only save her by killing her. This culminates in the final scene of any high-school flick; the dance (with a Panic! At the Disco soundtrack, of course).
To spite Needy, Jennifer seduces Needy’s boyfriend Chip and leads him to an abandoned pool house. Needy dives into the water to save Chip (therefore choosing him) and Jennifer goes berserk. There’s a brilliance to their final fight in both the physical and emotional action. They know each other’s weaknesses and insecurities so well and weaponise them in the way girls do best. Teenage girls truly are hell.
“She can fly?”
“She’s just hovering, it’s not that impressive.”
“God, do you have to undermine everything I do?”
Needy chases Jennifer down and deals the final blow, a box cutter to Jennifer’s heart. She looks right into Needy’s eyes as she dies and something breaks. Jennifer’s BFF necklace snaps off as she falls to the ground. “My tit…” Jennifer gasps. “No, your heart.” To the end, Jennifer’s self-perception remains warped.
Jennifer’s mum finds Needy atop Jennifer, blade in her heart, and Needy is arrested for murder. We pan to the present; Needy breaks out of prison and, consumed by rage, hunts down the remaining band members, murdering them as brutally as they did Jennifer. She brings down hell on Jennifer’s abusers. And though we saw Jennifer literally murder, destroy and tear apart people and families, there’s poetic justice in their deaths.
I recall feeling absolutely devastated by the film’s ending. There was something so tragic about how they fell victim to the whims of those around them—more horrific than the overt gore. Jennifer was always drowning in sexual imagery but the film never criminalized her for it. Rather, it focused on the violent use of that sexuality as a weapon against others, and eventually, herself. The film so excellently illustrates the duality of girlhood: both victim and monster, Jennifer is manipulative but also manipulated.
Throughout her life, Jennifer, though seemingly having “had it all”, was used—from her status to her body. That, in less eloquence, was palpable to me as a child and remains pivotal in fine-tuning my understanding of desire and sexuality today. Girlhood is brutal and teenagers are hell, but more horrifying than them is the society that savagely plucks the humanity out of girls and then persecutes them for it.