'Jennifer’s Body' and the Art of Stolen Grief
A once-maligned film became a cult classic for its feminist undertones, but its real brilliance lies in its portrait of those who exploit tragedy.
It’s the one-month anniversary of a fire at a dive bar called Melody Lane that killed eight students in the town of Devil’s Kettle, MN. One of the inferno’s survivors, Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) sits in class—a teen movie prom queen contender whose glasses and frumpy style badly obscure her allure. A hook-armed Vietnam vet homeroom teacher, Mr. Wroblewski (J. K. Simmons), passionately reveals to his students that a mediocre indie band called Low Shoulder, who were playing the bar when the fire broke out, has decided to donate 3 percent of the sales for its tribute single to the town’s grieving families.
At this point in Jennifer’s Body, Needy doesn’t know that the Satan-worshiping members of Low Shoulder actually caused the fire as a distraction to sacrifice her best friend, Jennifer Check (Megan Fox), so they could attain national prestige and notoriety of the Pitchfork kind. Nor does she know that the ritual went haywire, leaving a succubus to possess Jennifer and make her crave the flesh of nubile teenage boys, all because the band erroneously assumed she was a virgin. But one thing she does know is that this whole publicity stunt is bullshit.
“Crass. It means scummy. Greedy,” Needy implores as her classmates–many decked out in Low Shoulder merch–look on with contempt.
“Low Shoulder are American heroes,” her superfan classmate, Chastity (Valerie Trian) proclaims, reinforcing her fervor with the fact that their heroism is “on the Wikipedia.”
Reminding everyone she was there, Needy works herself up into a monologue: “They’ve milked our pain--our loss--to get a stupid record deal! No one would even know who they were if they hadn’t been playing here that night. They used us!”
Her classmates scowl at her in silence.
An irate Chastity simply declares, “We need them now more than ever!”
When Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body debuted in theaters during the fall of 2009, critics declared it dead on arrival. The summer before, Megan Fox primed herself for backlash after her second turn in a Transformers movie had feminists crowing about the male gaze. The critical knives remained out for the film’s screenwriter, Diablo Cody, as well after her twee script for the pregnancy comedy Juno won an Oscar two years prior thanks to her trademark pop-culture-riddled dialogue. Earning less than $17 million during its theatrical run, Jennifer’s Body left screens within two weeks, taking Fox’s status as the heir-apparent to Angelina Jolie with it.
Yet, a funny thing happened to a movie with a 42% rotten rating in the wake of #MeToo: the critical establishment that had judged Fox as a vapid and talentless trailer trash Barbie began to see Jennifer’s Body as a feminist banger. Vox’s Constance Grady revisited the sacrifice scene with fresh eyes, highlighting its, “unavoidable echoes of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged assault on her when she was a teenager.” Though a bit more measured, Vice writer Frederick Blichert pronounced that “themes of abuse, empowerment, and accountability would likely be a winning formula with horror movie critics in the #MeToo era,” skirting that the film hadn’t changed in a decade and those same critics didn’t do their job right the first time around.
Jennifer’s Body was never ahead of its time. It was always just saying things that no one wanted to talk about. This is why it remains not just one of the best horror movies of the past twenty-five years, but a film in the same hallowed company as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Silence of the Lambs, transcending genre bias and equipped to go toe-to-toe with the best of the American cinema.
However, the movie does not deserve such lofty status merely because of its meditations on feminism and American teenage girlhood. Any college freshman can point out those threads with the most cursory reading of the film—one of the reasons I’ve been teaching the movie in intro courses since its home-video release. The power of Jennifer’s Body lies in its evisceration of America’s amateur trauma fetishists who exploit local tragedies to raise their social capital.
As disgusting as such spectacle remains (and Nashville has seen its fair share in the wake of the Covenant massacre), those hoping to call attention to such shameless self-promotion face the same problem as Needy. Such toxic opportunists may not be hollow American heroes like Low Shoulder, but they are often tangentially touched by violence. And like the rural town officials sending missives that they had increased security at city hall the day after 9/11, they wanted everyone to manifest their personal connection to the unspeakable tragedy so they could ease their anxiety and feel a part of something. Recognition of such people’s suffering is a powerful salve—even the most low-hanging chance at local and national notoriety a just reward for laying one’s soul bare. Such is as understandable as it is unforgivable.
Contrary to the folks at Vox and Vice, the critical salvaging that Jennifer’s Body received nearly fifteen years ago was not the result of misogynist male critics pushing back against authentic portrayals of womanhood; it was that the film is the rare piece of art that can grapple with multiple facets of its characters and themes while making its audience question their own follies and self-perceptions, an uncomfortable experience for members of an infallible culture class.
The version of Jennifer’s Body Blichert contends could be a blockbuster today would more likely end up a vessel for empty feminist platitudes like the third iteration of Black Christmas from 2019, a PG-13 girl power screed no one wanted to see that calls out murdering date rapist frat boys who annihilate any studious female daring to question why so many white men are on their comparative lit syllabus. The Hollywood of today would not dare make a film like Jennifer’s Body that offers keen insights into the mind of a teenage girl and dares question the media entities that profit so mightily from tragedy.
Those critics who did choose to look beyond the film’s feminist cred remained too insulated to understand its gutting social commentary. For The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “The film satirizes the bubble-like sanctimoniousness of small-town life with a subplot in which the band capitalizes on the tragic fire by writing a song about it, which becomes a sort of national dirge,” a choice that, in his opinion, makes its #MeToo prophecies all the more potent (if not for its problematic depictions of minority characters, of course). From his own bubble in the New York media elite, Brody seems incapable of acknowledging that the sanctimony the film lays bare is the one in which he’s implicated.
The predatory behavior of Low Shoulder’s ritual sacrifice is less about misogyny than the culture class’s exploitation of Flyover Country and its resentment over needing rural dollars to sustain itself. As Low Shoulder’s lead singer, Nikolai Wolf (Adam Brody) so eloquently puts it, “We think it's important to connect with our fans in the shitty areas too.” Low Shoulder may have pioneered David Hogg’s soyboy aesthetic, but the band’s Gen Z progeny would never be so naked about their own pathos-ridden grasps at career mobility built off the backs and blood of smalltown deplorables.
As as a native of the Midwest, Cody is a writer nuanced enough not to let her own people off the hook amid her acidic indictment of what Needy calls the national media’s “tragedy boner.” Before its demise, Melody Lane’s signature drink was “the 9/11Tribute Shooter,” a rocket-pop-resembling exercise in empty patriotism that the unsuspecting Jennifer uses to lubricate Low Shoulder into letting her become its groupie. Jennifer’s status as victim of the patriarchy is blatant enough to border on self satire. But, Cody and Kusama make clear she’s also complicit in our culture's careless exercises of the tragic. That the succubus inside her maximizes her personality rather than alters it belies the film’s revised critical reputation as mere feminist fable.
A movie that so deftly chronicles America’s obsession with tragedy has to end with a pyrrhic victory. Needy defeats Jennifer and liberates herself from her BFF’s lifelong toxicity, but still feels bound to avenge her. Committed to an insane asylum and left to grieve over her sincerely doofy boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) after she failed to save him from becoming Jennifer’s final victim, Needy knows she did the right thing even as she accepts her status as scapegoat for the violence that plagued Devil’s Kettle. She’s willingly embraced her lot. And when she escapes to rip Low Shoulder limb from limb thanks to an accidental infusion of demon blood, she’ll intentionally evade the spotlight that caused this whole thing in the first place. If only Nashville’s and the nation’s real crisis actors would take note. We need them now less than ever.
Jennifer’s Body is streaming on HBO Max.