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How Jennifer’s Body went from a flop in 2009 to a feminist cult classic today

The critical reevaluation of Jennifer’s Body, explained.

Fox Atomic

Nearly 10 years after the feminist horror comedy Jennifer’s Body premiered, flopped, and was declared dead on arrival, it’s beginning to live again. It may have gotten a 44 percent on Rotten Tomatoes when it came out — and, even worse, a 34 percent audience rating — but the narrative is shifting: The internet is suddenly full of critics reclaiming the movie and naming it a forgotten feminist classic. Jennifer’s Body is good now.

More precisely, Jennifer’s Body was always good, and everyone is just now starting to get on its level.

Jennifer’s Body had the misfortune to premiere in 2009, right at the height of simultaneous cultural backlash to Diablo Cody, who wrote the smart, sad, hyperstylized screenplay, and Megan Fox, who stars as the titular Jennifer and her body in what should have been a career-making turn. In 2009, fresh off her Oscar win for Juno’s screenplay, Cody was considered a gimmicky one-hit wonder who was way too precious with her made-up slang, and Fox was considered a vapid Maxim cover girl best qualified to wash a car in a bikini in the Transformers movies.

So when Jennifer’s Body came out, there was a ready-made narrative waiting for it: The script was trying too hard; it was too sexualized, or maybe not sexy enough; it was a trashy, empty B-movie with delusions of grandeur.

The Chicago Tribune called the whole thing a “gruesome paint-by-bloody-numbers succubus story.”

The A.V. Club described it as “clever for its own sake, a showy piece of writing that doesn’t have that all-important ballast of sincerity.”

Cody’s dialogue, said the LA Times, was “self-conscious splatter over a sorely lackluster scare flick,” and while director Karyn Kusama was able to generate “an old-fashioned same-sexploitative zing,” unfortunately, “she can’t muster up a modicum of suspense elsewhere.”

Roger Ebert’s three-star review was one of the kinder ones: While he didn’t think it was an interesting or important movie, “as a movie about a flesh-eating cheerleader,” he allowed, “it’s better than it has to be.”

There were more positive reviews out there — MTV called it “brilliant” — but they were in the minority. The consensus opinion on Jennifer’s Body is that it was only trying to be fun trash, and that it didn’t even clear that low bar.

Nine years later, the tables have turned. Now, Jennifer’s Body shows up on New York Times lists of great horror movies directed by women. The Telegraph thinks it’s Cody’s “oddest and most intriguing work.” Syfy Wire has declared it “still socially relevant.”

Slowly but surely, a new consensus has started to emerge on Jennifer’s Body: 2009 just wasn’t ready for this movie.

“I’m sure that if the film opened today, it would be a sleeper hit,” said Horror Geek Life in February. “As it is, one day they’ll be teaching it at the intersections of cinema studies, film theory, and women’s studies.”

“Viewing the film nearly a decade after its release feels like experiencing the beginning of something that hadn’t quite taken form yet,” said Refinery29 in August. “Thematically, it hits on so many of the issues women in Hollywood are talking about in the aftermath of #MeToo and Times Up that I find it hard to believe it would have been as critically panned today.”

And earlier this month, Vice published a long reevaluation of the movie by Frederick Blichert under the headline “Jennifer’s Body would kill if it came out today.” Jennifer’s Body, Blichert argued, was a rape revenge fantasy in disguise, a scathingly sharp, smart look at “abuse, empowerment, and accountability” that anticipated the #MeToo era, and one that was torpedoed in 2009 by knee-jerk misogyny toward Cody and Fox.

It’s become a case study in what we value in movies and what we dismiss, and how those values can shift over the course of a decade. Here’s what made Jennifer’s Body an easy-to-hate flop in 2009, and what makes it a beloved cult classic in the making in 2018.

When Jennifer’s Body premiered, it was viewed as a sex romp for straight teen boys, and as such, it was a failure

The clearest expression of the 2009 critical consensus on Jennifer’s Body came from Ebert, who described it asTwilight for boys” — in other words, a silly adolescent sex fantasy designed explicitly for straight guys, with Megan Fox taking Robert Pattinson’s place as the designated crush object.

But while Twilight taps into a fantasy for straight girls that is repeated and codified so often that it’s become its own storytelling trope (the sexy vampire who overwhelmingly wants to bite you but won’t because he respects you), Jennifer’s Body wasn’t working with quite such a recognizable fantasy.

The movie focuses on two best friends: desperate, nerdy Anita, or “Needy” (Amanda Seyfried), and popular cheerleader Jennifer (Fox). Despite their different social statuses, the two are inseparable — until they go to an indie rock concert at a bar, the bar catches fire, and in the ensuing chaos, the two are torn apart. Needy goes home alone, while a disoriented Jennifer, in shock, gets into a van with the band and drives off with them.

When Jennifer comes back from her encounter with the band, she’s changed. Now she’s possessed by a demon, and she craves human flesh. She begins to hunt boys, luring them to secluded locations with the promise of sex and then ripping them limb from limb. And it’s up to Needy to stop her.

The whole thing is not necessarily unsexy, per se — it’s Megan Fox, after all — but “demonic cheerleader kills and eats boys” is absolutely not a classic sex fantasy trope for straight boys the way “sexy vampire” is for straight girls. So why did so many critics seem to think that this movie written and directed by women was trying to be a trashy-fun soft porn flick for guys?

In part, we can blame the marketing, which leaned heavily on the idea that Megan Fox was hot. The movie’s poster featured Fox in a miniskirt and tank top doing a leg-emphasizing pose on a chair with “HELL YES” scrawled on the blackboard behind her. The trailer is mostly composed of shots of Jennifer strutting around her school hallway; in trailers and interviews, the publicity team hyped up the idea that Fox and Seyfried were going to kiss. If you knew anything about Jennifer’s Body when it came out in 2009, it was probably that it was going to give you the chance to see Megan Fox being sexy.

And that marketing campaign emerged from two years of relentless media coverage of Megan Fox, sex symbol. Since her appearance in the first Transformers movie in 2007, Fox had been posited as the heir apparent to Angelina Jolie: a provocative wild child whose mere presence in a movie could be used to signify sex, and specifically sex that appealed to straight men. (“I am on display for men to pay to look at me,” said Fox in an interview shortly after Jennifer’s Body came out.) In that context, if Fox was going to star in a movie, it only stood to reason that the movie would be a male sex fantasy.

But when you try to view Jennifer’s Body as a spooky sex romp for men, it disappoints. None of the men in this movie have enough of a presence for audience members to project themselves onto, the way audiences could with Kristen Stewart’s Bella in Twilight.

The men here — including a post-The OC Adam Brody and a pre-Parks and Recreation Chris Pratt — are mostly just bodies to be disposed of and are either entirely unthreatening or simultaneously threatening and pathetic. Jennifer’s seductions/murders are too campy to read as really sexy, and the much-hyped kiss between Jennifer and Needy is less steamy girl-on-girl action served to the male gaze on a platter than it is an awkward, confused act of manipulation between two girls bound together equally by affection and ego-driven codependence.

The honest truth is Jennifer’s Body is not really a sexy movie in the way that it was advertised. It’s much weirder and much more unsettling than that.

As the movie came out, Cody and Kusama both spoke in interviews to the tension between the idea of the movie as a campy horror sex romp and its reality as a much weirder film — and Kusama, especially, didn’t seem thrilled with the way the studio’s marketing campaign was going.

“This movie is a commentary on girl-on-girl hatred, sexuality, the death of innocence, and also politics in the way the town responds to the tragedies [of the bloody deaths of several young men]. Any person who dares to respond in an unconventional way is branded a traitor,” said Cody. “It’s also just about fun — I wanted to write a really entertaining popcorn movie.”

“I hope between some of their materials [the studio’s] and some of the materials that we generated a little bit more, the audience out there can see that it’s a little bit more complicated than a straight comedy, a straight horror film, a straight high school movie, and see it for what it is which is a fresh take on all of those things,” said Kusama. “It’s hard.”

But the framing Kusama and Cody tried to offer the movie — as something that sought to be fun but was also harder and more complex than that — was by and large pushed aside. Many critics watched Jennifer’s Body explicitly as a horror sex romp for straight men, and they found themselves profoundly confused.

“If you’re in search for a way to ogle Megan Fox’s body, there are a lot better ways to do it than subjecting yourself to this,” said ReelViews.

Jennifer’s Body is not funny, nor is it sexy (the girls keep their clothes on), nor is it scary (it’s all just special effects),” said Combustible Celluloid.

This was supposed to be a movie for men. So where were the men? Where was the sexy posing? Where was the smut and the fun?

The reclamation of Jennifer’s Body that we’re witnessing now begins by tossing out any attempts to read the movie as a fantasy for men. Instead, Jennifer’s Body apologists read it as a fantasy for women — and when you look at the movie that way, everything starts to change.

Jennifer’s Body reads very differently post-#MeToo

The central mystery of Jennifer’s Body is the question of what happened to Jennifer in the van with the band. While we don’t find out the answer until close to the end of the movie, it’s framed from the beginning as a potential sexual assault: Needy describes the band’s van as “one of those white molester vans with no windows,” and the first time we see Jennifer after she returns, she’s covered in blood and bruises and has a dazed, vacant expression on her face, as though she’s just experienced something horrifically traumatic.

And eventually, Jennifer tells us what really happened to her: The band drove her into the woods, tied her up, and sacrificed her to Satan in a bid for fame and fortune. But because Jennifer wasn’t a virgin, the sacrifice went wrong, and it ended with her becoming possessed by a demon and craving human flesh.

In a post-#MeToo world, the implications of this storyline look uncomfortably familiar. It’s the story of a group of powerful men sacrificing a girl’s body on the altar of their own professional advancement — and it’s also the story of them using her torment as a bonding activity.

One of the movie’s most disturbing moments comes when the band has Jennifer tied up and begging for mercy. They start to laugh. They launch into a group chorus of “867-5309/Jenny,” with the lead singer singing into his sacrificial knife like it’s a microphone. Then they start stabbing her to death.

Watching that moment in 2018 brings up unavoidable echoes of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged assault on her when she was a teenager, of the phrase “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.” Jennifer’s pain is funny to these men. For them, it’s a lark. But for her, it’s a moment of trauma that is going to change her forever.

What Jennifer’s Body offers up in response to the trauma and tragedy of what happened to Jennifer in the van is the cathartic fantasy of what happens next, of Jennifer turning her trauma against her attackers, of her using her victimized, violated body to wreak bloody vengeance on the patriarchy.

And lo, suddenly Jennifer’s Body is not a sex fantasy — it’s a revenge fantasy.

And that revenge fantasy is grounded in the emotional truth of the toxic, codependent, profoundly meaningful friendship between Needy and Jennifer. “Sandbox love never dies,” says Needy at the beginning of the movie. And throughout the rest of the film, even as Needy and Jennifer turn ever more firmly against each other, even as they work to hurt each other as badly as they can, it’s always clear that theirs is the most important relationship in each woman’s life.

The men in this movie are really beside the point. Some of them are victims and some of them are antagonists, but none of them are as important as Jennifer and Needy — either to each other or to the audience.

The fate of Jennifer’s Body speaks to the question of who gets to set the conversation on what movies

So what causes this shift? How does Jennifer’s Body go from a failed sex romp to an ahead-of-its-time feminist cult classic in less than 10 years?

Part of the critical reevaluation can be traced back to the past year of conversation around #MeToo, which throws the movie’s themes into especially harsh relief. But it also speaks to a larger shift in what the default gaze of the film critic is supposed to be.

In 2009, it was reasonable for swaths of critics on Rotten Tomatoes to assume that the default lens for a teen horror flick was a straight male one; that movies like Jennifer’s Body were made primarily for a straight male audience, and that if they failed to appeal to that audience, then they failed as movies.

In 2018, other critical voices have gotten louder and more prominent. The straight male gaze is no longer the default gaze for aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes; other voices are in a position to set the conversation. And that means stories that are designed first and foremost for women, that strive to create a female gaze, aren’t assumed to be failures as a default. These movies can be taken on their own terms.

So nine years after she arrived and was rejected, Jennifer is back. She lives again.