I’ll never forget the night I saw Jennifer’s Body for the first time. It was September 10, 2009, a little over a week before its scheduled wide release. The film, starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried, was being screened at as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) Midnight Madness programme, which seeks to showcase the best in new genre cinema.

A group of (female) friends and I waited hours upon hours to get into the screening and (hopefully) see Fox, Seyfried and writer Diablo Cody (an idol of mine since seeing Juno at the festival two years prior). A nineteen year old with a undying love of final girls (even at their most problematic) and Hole (who inspired the film’s title), I could not have been more excited to see a horror movie about teenage girls made by women.

We all left the theatre that night feeling utterly buzzed, as though we had gotten a taste of something new, something truly exciting. What shocked me about Jennifer’s Body was not the the over-the-top gore or even the now-infamous kissing scene between Fox and Seyfried. It was that this film was, at its core, about a friendship between two girls (Fox as charming cheerleader Jennifer Check and Seyfried as her shy, but sweet BFF Anita “Needy” Lesnicki). It was a film that spoke frankly about toxic masculinity and how it can have a startling (sometimes fatal) effect on young women. It was a film that ended with Courtney Love scream-singing “Go on, take everything. Take everything. I want you to!”

 

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Knowing these things, I was shocked to see how the film was marketed in the week following our screening of the film. Posters featured an extra sultry Fox atop a desk, but neglected to feature the Seyfriend (technically the protagonist and driving force of the film from start to finish) in any way. Trailers emphasized the aforementioned kiss, the violence ..and not much else. All and all, the film was teased as a horror-loving teenage boy’s wet dream as opposed to what it actually was: an average teenage girl’s nightmarish reality.

In the years following the film’s release, more and more details have come out about the misguided marketing campaign surrounding the film, including the fact that Cody and director Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Destroyer) had to put a stop to a suggestion that Fox (sans Seyfried) promote the film on a porn site. It makes you wonder if the marketing team and/or studio execs even watched the film, or if they based all their ideas on what they wanted it to be. (You could say the same for Crimson Peak, another genuinely great film about two women at odds.)

 

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I don’t want to say that the marketing campaign is the sole reason that Jennifer’s Body, a challenging film in many ways, wasn’t an instant hit with critics and audiences. But it certainly didn’t help its case. The campaign targeted young straight men, the very group that was bound to be most uncomfortable with the film, while alienating women of all sexual orientations who could see themselves in Jennifer and/or Needy. It made a mockery of a film that, between the pop culture references, takes women’s issues seriously.

Unlike the marketing campaign, Jennifer’s Body is actually quite thoughtful, using genre tropes to communicate how intense friendships can be between women, especially in the teenage years. From the beginning of the film, Needy has a psychic connection to Jennifer, whom she has been friends with since preschool. Needy can physically sense when Jennifer is around and she can feel when she’s in pain. It makes the moment when Needy allows Jennifer to go off with a van full of questionable emo rock dudes (the members of Low Shoulder, a fake indie band led by an eyeliner-laden Adam Brody) even more gutting. Needy spends the rest of the movie trying to make up for her decision in that moment, even if it means killing her best friend.

It takes a while for us to learn what really happened to Jennifer on that fateful night, but when we do, it’s truly harrowing. The Low Shoulder guys didn’t, as you might expect, rape Jennifer after they tied her up in the woods. Instead, they sacrificed her soul to a Satan in exchange for their professional success (while singing Tommy Tutone’s one-hit wonder “867-5309/Jenny”, natch). They did it assuming that Jennifer was a virgin, a vital ingredient to the ritual’s success. But, as we learn early in the movie, Jennifer is far from sexually inexperienced (“I’m not even a backdoor virgin anymore,” she quips to Needy). She emerges from the ritual possessed and craving human flesh like never before.

 

Jennifer may become a bit of a monster as the film goes on, specifically preying on generally well-meaning men (including Needy’s boyfriend, Chip), but at the end of the day, she is still a victim. She did say yes to getting in that van with a group of adult men, but she did not consent to anything else that followed. She did not ask to be possessed by an all-consuming force that would eat away at the only relationship in her life she actually cared about.

 

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Jennifer‘s story is a truly tragic one and much more complex than the traditional villain trajectory. You are not meant to hate Jennifer, but to both cheer her on and cry for her as she struggles to maintain her humanity while battling the demon inside her against her will. One scene that has stayed with me since that night in September 2009 is when Jennifer is alone in her room, emotionally applying layer upon layer of concealer in an attempt to hide the bags under her eyes and some other blemishes. In a more literal sense, it’s a scene meant to show the effects of the possession on Jennifer physically (she loses her lustre if she doesn’t feed). On a more metaphorical level, it speaks to the struggle women have to be accepted if they look less than “beautiful”.

This moment takes on extra significance given Fox’s reputation at the time. Prior to this film, she was mainly cast as the Hot Girlfriend/Sultry Sidekick in films like Transformers (where she had her own experiences with abuses of power). With Jennifer’s Body, Fox was finally gifted a worthy role, a part that challenged expectations of her and gave her genuinely juicy material to, well, sink her teeth into. And yet, thanks to the sexist marketing campaign, this emerging talent was once again reduced to nothing more than a sex symbol. (Why couldn’t she be both?)

In that sense, Jennifer’s Body is a bit of a tragedy. It is a film that, like Fox, deserved much better than the treatment it received back in September 2009. It is a film that has found a cult audience over time, but should have and could have been appreciated by mainstream audiences on its initial release.

Cody and Kusama have gone on record saying that they didn’t make Jennifer’s Body for thirsty boys. They made it to combat the idea that horror films have to punish their protagonists for being sexually active and/or not adhering to heteronormative standards (Jennifer says she “[goes] both ways”). They made it to confront some of the less shiny aspects of female friendship, the ways in which girls and women can hurt each other as they attempt to navigate (mainly male-dominated) spaces. They made it to suggest that female characters don’t have to be either wholly good or pure evil. They made it to make to satiate girls like me, lonely souls hungry for something both familiar and groundbreaking.

 

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