One freshman biology lab, I was grouped with an OK guy and the only out girl in my grade. We were supposed to be dissecting worms.
On that particular day, the guy was playing against type.
“I bet you want to see ‘Jennifer’s Body,’” he said to the girl suggestively. We had all seen the ads for the movie, which featured a scantily clad Megan Fox.
By 2009, Megan Fox was not just a sex symbol, she was the sex symbol — a universal barometer of hotness. And she had recently come out as bisexual in Esquire.
At that point in my life, I was coping with my own closeted lesbianism by pretending homosexuality did not exist. I wasn’t seeking out teen horror led by Sapphic sexpots. I looked down at my worm and prepared to slice it down the middle.
It turns out the best time to get into horror movies is after you yourself have been bisected like a lab worm.
When I was 16, I spent most of summer 2011 on the couch, recovering from spinal fusion surgery. One day, I happened upon a cable TV showing of “Jennifer’s Body” halfway through, at the film’s girl-on-girl make-out scene. I was intrigued and effectively alone while my mother worked from her bedroom. I caught the whole movie later that day.
“Jennifer’s Body” was Diablo Cody’s next screenplay after she won the Oscar for “Juno” in 2008. The film, directed by Karyn Kusama, follows the best friends Jennifer (Fox) and Needy (Amanda Seyfried) through the severing of their toxic bond. Jennifer is a demon who has to eat boys to remain beautiful. Needy would prefer she not do that. Bloodshed ensues.
Until “Jennifer’s Body,” I had approached horror movies with cautious interest at best. But this film was different. With its references to emo music and late-aughts pop culture, it seemed like a comedic time capsule of my own life, so its protagonists, though Hollywood beautiful, felt real to me. “Jennifer’s Body” put horror’s great assets — social transgression, complex female characters and bloodthirsty vengeance — in the hands of two contemporary teenage girls. I have been obsessed with monstrous women like Jennifer ever since.
By the film’s end, Needy and Jennifer are shells of their yearbook-picture-perfect selves. But their path to oblivion is oddly liberating, as both girls forgo stereotypical feminine docility to don the roles of hero (Needy) and villain (Jennifer). After an indie band murders Jennifer in an erroneous virgin sacrifice, she is reborn as a monster with a taste for male blood. Mild-mannered Needy must save her helpless boyfriend from Jennifer — and by the end Needy hunts down and kills the band that started it all. Such subversive female derangement is mostly possible in horror films, where bullied, bloody girls burn down their schools and passive mothers sacrifice their children. That is why it is my favorite genre, and one I return to over and over and over again for novel representations of women.
“Jennifer’s Body” satirizes gendered tropes. It is one of the few horror movies where a teenage girl’s promiscuity actually saves her from her untimely end — if Jennifer really had been a virgin, there would be no movie. The film also plays the “wanton” Jennifer and “virginal” Needy against each other to farcical extremes. Jennifer and Needy are both sexually active throughout the film, despite Needy’s mousy affect.
Though it was written with a female audience in mind, sexist expectations marginalized the movie. After I saw “Jennifer’s Body” at 16, I searched for it on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, expecting to see my jubilance reflected back at me. The film was certified rotten.
In 2009, Kusama and Fox were wounded by critical acrimony and a sexist marketing campaign pegged to horny male viewers. (That is why I had not seen the film in theaters — I did not think it was “for” me.) Their detractors, many of whom were men, seemed to have expected an objectifying chiller. Instead, they saw an intentionally subversive, campy film and called it a failure. The experience spurred Kusama to leave the studio system altogether. Fox, already controversial for her outspoken criticism of Michael Bay, who had directed her in the “Transformers” movies, was written off as a star.
In the last few years, female fans have reclaimed “Jennifer’s Body” and consider it a pre-#MeToo classic. For my 21st birthday at Smith College, my friends and I commandeered a classroom and projected the movie. The virgin-sacrifice scene, which had barely registered to my teenage brain, now stole all the air from the room. It was 2015, and it seemed the whole country was waking up to college rape culture. I had helped carry a mattress across campus in solidarity with Emma Sulkowicz the year before.
When rocker boys sacrifice Jennifer to Satan, the scene is absurd and chock-full of Cody’s signature quips, but it is also oppressively dark. The band’s frontman, Nikolai (Adam Brody), stabs Jennifer repeatedly while merrily singing. Jennifer is betrayed by the very artist she worships. And he victimizes her specifically because she is female.
The violence is heavily sexualized — Jennifer worries aloud in the band’s van that the members might be rapists, and there’s a longstanding symbolic relationship between stabbing and sexual penetration. Jennifer’s is a pain many women understand. It is especially jarring to learn that the musician (or comedian, chef or actor) you once admired could see you as little more than a means to an end.
While Jennifer is sacrificed because of, well, her body, society scorns Needy — the only character who knows the truth about Jennifer — because of her mind. She first appears in a psychiatric hospital, where she kicks a doctor and spits in her face. As a teenager, before I was wheeled into surgery, I had a panic attack so strong I was dosed with what felt like enough Ativan to fell a hippopotamus. Watching “Jennifer’s Body” with a foot-long incision healing on my back, I was as drawn to Needy’s wretched, anti-medical mania as I was to Jennifer’s emo-worship.
As the violence escalates, sweet Needy drops her first F-bomb — and finally consummates her “totally lesbi-gay” friendship with Jennifer in that make-out scene, which has inspired lesbians and bisexual women to likewise reclaim the film.
This, I learned at 16, is where the true beauty of the horror genre lies. In horror, girls and women do not have to be pretty, polite, chaste or even heterosexual — in fact, these characters are so terrifying because they willfully eschew gendered assumptions. Teenage girls — their emotions too often dismissed as hormonal hysteria — can finally lose their cool. Jennifer and Needy have joined the likes of Regan MacNeil (“The Exorcist”), Carrie White (“Carrie”) and Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald (“Ginger Snaps”), and live on in more recent unhinged young women like Dani Ardor (“Midsommar”) and Justine (“Raw”).
The summer of my surgery, I was incorrigibly sad and in too much agony to eat, sleep or shower independently, much less dress up, wear makeup or smile. Now, as an adult, I still do not wear feminine clothes or makeup. I have realized that this is simply how I feel most comfortable as a woman and an out lesbian.
A lot of things got me here, but “Jennifer’s Body” first showed me the messy, risky rapture that could await me if I learned to be female on my own terms.