Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Jennifer's Body

I’ll be the first to admit it. I’m a sucker for cheesy horror movies. I mean really terrible, poorly written, highly un-feminist movies that I know I shouldn’t like but do anyway, thus fueling the fire of my feminist guilt. For this simple reason [as well as the killer soundtrack boasting some of my (way un-cool) favorite bands], however, I was intrigued when I began reading early reviews of Diablo Cody’s newest flick, Jennifer’s Body. Cody promised to bring together two of my greatest passions – guts&gore and feminism – but as soon as the first trailers were released, feminist bloggers were already up in arms over the potential problems to be expected. Feministing questioned if Jennifer's Body could "cross the finish line in covert feminist style [or] ... resemble all the other horror flicks despite feminist intentions" while Bitch posted an online poll asking readers whether or not its "feminist" points ("grrrltastic songs in the trailer") outweighed its non-feminist ones ("makes light of bi-sexuality"). This is actually another entirely issue entirely, but I will address that later.

Needless to say, I was curious - and sold. As I sat with my little sister in the theatre on opening weekend, I was fully prepared to mentally take notes about the objectification of women/the reclamation of grrrl power/the struggle against patriarchy-influenced men/etc ... but I was not prepared for what was in store. I could write a thesis on how profoundly - and surprisingly - introspective the two main female characters' relationship was, but Feministing has already provided an excellent review. Besides, what really grabbed my attention was the positive portrayal of masculinity within the movie, and the lack of attention afforded to this in both popular and alternative reviews.

Often compared to the movie Teeth, in which a teenage girl uses her vagina dentata in order to exact revenge on the men who sexually abuse her, Jennifer's Body varies drastically from this comparison. The first main act of violence Jennifer commits is against a fellow classmate. As their high school is shown in mourning the following day, one of the most poignant moments of the film occurs when the deceased student's best friend - and male head of the football team - is shown crying. Although several audience members did chuckle, the scene is not played for laughs, and is followed by a tryst between Jennifer and him on the football field. As Jennifer approaches him, he is not afraid to open up to her emotionally and confide in her all of the grief he is feeling. Subverting the typical masculine "jock" stereotype, he is also very hesitant when Jennifer begins seducing him and continually asks for her consensus before engaging in any sexual activity with her. His willingness to discuss his feelings and his respect for Jennifer is extremely male-positive and a breath of fresh air for Hollywood, especially within the horror genre.

In much the same vein, Jennifer's victimization of Colin, an underground "punk" boi and classmate, debunks stereotypes that men are sex-crazed and will do anything to sleep with a beautiful woman. After arriving for a movie date at Jennifer's house, Colin is wary when Jennifer immediately begins removing her clothing. As she begins to seduce him, Colin stops Jennifer and asks "if she even knows his last name." This type of behavior, typically relegated to females in movies, is important in challenging the socially-constructed ideas of how men/women are "supposed" to act in sexual situations. Rather than showing the man as wanting nothing more than a one-night stand, Colin is shown as having actual feelings for Jennifer and wanting to be more than a random hook-up. He has self-worth and respect for himself, as well as for her, and this should be praised. This scene is not about judging people for their sexual choices to have sex or not to, but rather about acting based on how he feels as a person rather than a pre-determined prototype of what he "should" want as a male.

Continuing this theme, the character of Chip, the protagonist Needy's partner, deserves the title of "feminist-boyfriend-of-the-year." Not only does he actively talk about -and approach! - the topic of safe sex with his girlfriend, but when losing their virginity to each other continually asks if she is ok and makes sure that he isn't hurting her. After a rough patch in their relationship, he denies the come-ons of another girl because he still has feelings for Needy and respects her as a person.

There is much to be said about Jennifer's treatment of the male characters in the movie, but it is important in dissecting masculinity not to view them through their relation to her but rather based on their own merit and varying forms of masculinity. Yes, there are males in this movie who are evil (quite literally). They are violent, perpetuate the virgin/whore dichotomy in their treatment of Jennifer, and commit a heinous act of violence. It is difficult to watch their actions, but it is also relieving to see men - a football player, a punk, a sweet "boy next door" - portrayed as dimensional characters with emotions, sexual - and consensual - desires, and varying personalities. It is also important to note that Jennifer's Body does not use men as forces for destructing the girls' best-friendship, a tactic that is often employed in movies to explain why girls' friendships are often broken up.

If anyone could find any critiques of Jennifer's Body that center around masculinity, I would love to read them, because so far not one of my searches resulted in any luck. I feel that this is something that needs to be addressed, especially within the feminist movement, because if we leave men out of this discussion, there will never be an incentive for them to get involved. In feminist circles we often discuss the media's effect on women, but I believe it's time we begin to include men in these analyses as well. Not only that, but it's time for us, as consumers of mass media, to call attention to the portrayal of masculinity within popular culture. Men, too, are affected by the patriarchal systems of power which reinforce strict gender roles, and it's high time we begin to include them, as well as people of all gender-identities, within our discussions.

This is where I have to critique Bitch magazine for their pre-determined bias of the movie. By claiming Jennifer's Body looks feminist because "the main cheerleader appears to be using her powers to seek revenge against jerk-y guys," and because it's "directed and written by women," Bitch is, first of all, promoting violence against men as the answer to their behavior, and, secondly, assuming that women's work = feminist and men's does not.

It is with this in mind that I want to ask YOUR opinion on the movie if you've seen it, or what you felt about it based on the trailers, as well as your thoughts on the exclusion of discussion of masculinity from a feminist perspective on this film or any others. I look forward to hearing your thoughts :)

1 comment:

Sara N said...

*****CAUTION: CONTAINS SPOLIERS!!!!!!!*********

This movie had been brought up in 3 of my 5 classes so, of course I had to see what my peers were talking about, though I was so offended by this movie I felt like it was an assault on my person. In a concerted effort to compartmentalize (and remain objectively focused on representations of masculinities) I did appreciate the appearance of diverse portrayals of masculinities in this film. Admittedly, it was nice for a change to see a jock portrayed as having human emotions for mourning his dead best friend, a boy interested in getting to know the person rather than the vagina, and a loving boyfriend who was not only interested in his pleasure but that of his girlfriends comfort and pleasure as well. At first this was not surprising considering the two main players in the creation of this movie are women.

However, all of these transgressions were drowned out by the overarching theme of vaginal /menstrual references, and heteronormativity parading as gender subversion. The seeming gender subversion at work here only served to reaffirm misogyny and traditional gender roles and to perpetuate a heteronormative position. For example, although Needy’s boyfriend (for the record, I would have liked to know why she was given such a horrid nickname) bought a certain kind of condoms because “they’re supposed to feel good for the girl, too,” he also said that the shirt she picked out was inappropriate because “I can see your womb.” Though, to his credit his jealousy on numerous occasions was not controlling or violent. Additionally, perhaps if the script had included the part of the succubus myth where men cannot resist the demonic incarnation than Chips character would have remained somewhat transgressive despite the fact that he fooled around with Jennifer shortly after Needy broke up with him. But, to the middle school girls sitting next to my friends (don’t even ask :) I highly doubt they caught this point.* Had they mentioned this I think my position would be more inclined to dismiss the constant and obnoxious vaginal references (“What’s up Vagisil” to name but one) in favor of its transgressive potential. As this was not the case, I feel that these transgressions were merely recuperated into its heteronormative structure.

For instance, Colin the queer emo kid had the most transgressive potential. The only counter argument to his transgressions could point to the fact that immediately after he asks Jennifer if she “knows [his] last name” he does not resist her overt sexual advances. So what are we to make of this slippage? If Colin really cannot control himself why does he even ask if she knows his last name, and if he can help himself why doesn’t he get the fuck out of there?

Jonas the jock (I believe his name was) was shown crying over his best friend. The next scene Jennifer consoles seduces and subsequently eats him. Ok, he cannot help but to be attracted to her but he is still, in my opinion, the stereotypical “dumb jock” compared to Colin, the enlightened writer.
Of course, this critique of transgressive gender representations can also be extended to the female players, but that is another blog :). Overall, I suggest that this movie had potential to represent diverse masculinities but failed to do so.

*This is particularly concerning because the Hollywood rule is to make the characters a few years older than your target audience. As the characters were in highschool, I venture to say that the target demographic was the junior high school girls I mention. Their reactions alone were intellectually interesting and worrisome. It further made me question the “feminist” objective in the execution of this film (after Jennifer is impaled and bleeding out of her stomach only to ask Needy if she “has a tampon. You look like you’re plugged up” up to and including Jennifer bragging that she “isn’t even a back-door virgin anymore.” ) Really?? What are we trying to teach our youth, gender notwithstanding?