(It’s not) Jennifer’s Body

Today I watched Jennifer’s Body, the popular rendering of a kind of succubus myth that also serves as the star vehicle for the teen-something generation’s Angelina Jolie-like superstar with a hot, kick-ass body, Megan Fox.

(I’ve heard that because she’s slightly tattooed and got an independent streak, of sorts, even without the accompanying vial of a lover’s blood on her person, that she merits Jolie-like comparisons. Whatever…)

As a horror, teen/chick flick with male revenge fantasy components—hot urban alternative band visits hickish town hoping to supposedly make it with wide-eyed innocent rural, small-town girls, but is really there to find and sacrifice a virgin using an internet researched satanic ritual in order to cast a success spell on their band, but the spell backfires in the end for them (more on this later, maybe) and in the meantime on the community of Jennifer (the one of “body”) and the narrator and movie’s protagonist, Needy (really, not kidding!)—it probably succeeds for many a younger, mainstream film-goer.

It has the predictable motif of darkness and mystery, the typical moments of suspense disrupted by predictably unpredictable fright, plenty of blood and gore, some transgressive youth and same-sex sexuality, and the feel-good closure of getting even with the perpetrators of violence against women and generalized immorality toward the less powerful.

I’d much prefer to see a Chris Carter (creator of The X-Files) succubus, but I’m less interested in the man-eating by woman theme—let’s see, there’s Hall and Oates “Man-Eater” to think about here as well, I suppose, hmm…or maybe we should contemplate emasculation [castration anxiety] more generally; Freud, et al.?—and more interested in what is so vital about Jennifer’s “body.”

I mean, I heard Fox was hot so when this middle-age soltero, Chicano intellectual, cultural critic of all things cultural including all things metaphorical and material to do with the body, heard about this hot new young phenom in the lead movie role with body in the title, I just had to see it.  But it took me having nothing else better to do to watch it—finally—today.  (Almost a year after it premiered. Yes, I forced myself.  Yes, she’s hot. Give me a break…)

What I saw was pretty typical plot construction of a mainstream film with protagonist (“Needy,” played by Amanda Seyfried of HBO’s Big Love and the popular hit Mamma Mia is the blond, geeky, eye-glassed [what a cliché], disembodied, passive narrator), antagonist (“Jennifer,” played by Megan Fox of Transformers fame, is the heat/sex-seeking, dark-haired, bare-midriffed/embodied-knowing, active/order-giving socialite controller of any space she inhabits), and enough predictable dramatic tension to move the plot to an eventual resolution.

But what I learned from watching the movie is that the title deceives the viewer on at least two fronts, maybe three: 1) the emplotment centers not around Jennifer’s seeming self-control and embodiedness, but around the narrator’s (Needy) transformation from “needy” weakness, vulnerability, and general disembodiedness—she’s always in her head, worried, angst-ridden, despite her, I would suggest, potential hotness—into embodiedness as the “kicker” as she is known in the psychiatric hospital after killing the demonically transformed Jennifer.

(After the ritual killing by the alt band which didn’t take because Jennifer lied to them about being a virgin, since she wasn’t a virgin, she didn’t die, but returned as demonically possessed with a voracious need to eat males in order to survive.)

And 2) Jennifer’s body is really never her own, either, despite her seeming capacity for using her body as a tool and method for mastering other girls (her loyal subordinate companion, “Needy,” who serves as an intimate–lesbianish experimental partner–and social reinforcement and foil–plain and pathetic–for her sensual, corporal beauty) and boys.  This is pathetically displayed when she drags Needy to a bar under the pretense they are going to a more sophisticated night spot to listen to a popular alternative band perform.  Jennifer becomes nothing but body beholden to the male lead singer/guitarist when she enters a trance-like, hypnotic state while watching him perform.

3) Maybe, finally, “Jennifer’s body” is ironically intended in the title of the movie because I think the movie really is figuratively a matricide. It’s about the disembodied, fearful, isolated geeky girl—read: too much in her head all the time–the gradual development of her as narrator, Needy, into a less needy, more independent, self-determining, active, effectively embodied character.

Needy is in “need” of a body because hers is flawed and pathetic. She can’t figure out how to use it—indeed, the one time she tries to have sex with her boyfriend she freaks because she hallucinates seeing her now evil best friend’s apparition in the room with her—because it’s too much of an intellectual and psychological exercise. She can never just let her body function instinctively, so to speak. She is self-alienated, tragically experiencing a mind-body split.

Only when she is bitten by her friend/nemesis, Jennifer, is she infected with “body.” She becomes “one” physically and figuratively in a psycho/sexual/physical way with Jennifer, but more importantly, she becomes “one” with her self.

(Indeed, overcoming alienation within the self is often the target of any given plot even if it takes narrative twists and turns to arrive there: resolution, integration, wholeness, redemption, closure are the popular end of most stories, it seems, sometimes for the worse.  These are all the notions people obsess about in the stories they read and listen to, the films they watch. We don’t tolerate endings without closure even if they’re bad. We haven’t evolved enough to imagine stories that end badly, without heroes, or irresolution.)

In “Jennifer’s Body,” the implied narrative focus and the object of heroic mastery is actually Needy’s; her need to kill, figuratively and literally, her metaphorical mother, Jennifer. (Needy’s biological mother was an absentee mother, working swing shifts, never at home, and seen only a couple of times in the movie.) Liberation from not only the insensitive, incestual, psychologically abusive control of the symbolic mother which reinforced her servility and feminine impotency—Jennifer, as mother wasn’t really interested in Needy’s independence; she relied on a pliant, subservient ugly duckling to support and highlight her aesthetic and social mastery—meant not only asserting embodied femininity by removing the maternal influence which was abusive emotionally, psychologically, and physically, but by using its fully vested powers (levitation and extraordinary physical and psychic strength) to exact revenge on the male abusers which had transformed a previously problematic, codependent female friendship into an abusive and destructive relationship.

Now, this is all a bit rough, but I hope some of it makes sense for you, dear reader. Most of this has been narrative focused with some symbolic, narrative critique.

As a movie goer, I enjoyed the movie for what it did. It kept my attention not only because of all gorgeous bodies and generally decent acting, but because the contrasting tropes and symbols worked to reinforce the dramatic tension and, at times, ironic play.

Nature/dark/body/primitive/sexuality (Jennifer) played off against culture/light/mind/ civilized/virtue (Needy) in ways that reminded me of Uma Thurman’s “Poison Ivy” in Batman and Robin (1997) and Michelle Pfeiffer’s “Cat Woman” in Batman Returns (1992). (Both characters are transformed female cultural passivity and subservience into animal-like natural, instinctual action by accidental encounters with nature’s magical horror and power.)

Of course, darkness and evil is usually coded negatively as “nature/natural,” instinct and irrationality, indeed as feminine and effeminate. (Even “Needy” is too effeminate in her weak pathos for the strong, self-defining and unapologetically assertive Jennifer.) That’s why, at some basic level, the natural body—the succubus—must die in favor of a less threatening, even if it is a revenge-taking, blond bomb-shell of a body. (Blonds just deserve to have more fun, anyway!)

I wouldn’t argue that this is about a feminist struggle or that it portrays an interesting way into a feminist, libratory path. Boiler plate horror for youth, what have you, the movie works at that level although most won’t see symbolic matricide.  A deeper ideological critique could be made, I think, spanning the recent genre of youth horror films including the “Twilight Saga” series where the transgressive bite, the hybrid, shape-shifting animal/human has a renewed cultural vitality. (If the characters weren’t all so damn good-looking, I might actually be interested in viewing them!)

What I often find troubling in movies like this that start with voice-over narration by the protagonist is that the voice consistently disappears once the narrative context is introduced and dramatic tension increases. Action takes over. Only at the end when there is resolution might the protagonist voice reassert control over the narrative.

I’m not sure why this happens unless it’s just sloppy editing, poorly thought emplotment (how to integrate narration throughout), laziness, or something else about film production I don’t get. (The studio heads didn’t like it, the producer had his own ideas, etc.)

Few films I have seen have done it as well as the biopic/mockumentary “To Die For” by Gus Van Sant, representing quite consistently with voice-over narration and in documentary style-interviewing family, community members and associates of the protagonist—the tragic-comic life of wannabe TV personality/news anchor Pamela Smart ( fictionalized as character Suzanne Stone Maretto in the movie and played by Nicole Kidman).

It’s a minor flaw for a mainstream movie. I really don’t expect too much from them, really.

Otherwise, it wasn’t as painful to watch as I thought it would be and I think I actually kind of get the title now.

Other interpretations, anyone?

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