Film The Visual

How “Jennifer’s Body” Subverts Horror Narratives and Speaks to the Power of Women

As of Sept. 14, 2019, Karyn Kusama’s cult classic Jennifer’s Body is 10 years old. The film holds a special place for many lesbian, bisexual, and queer women because it centers on the relationship between Jennifer (Megan Fox) and Needy (Amanda Seyfried), rather than a heterosexual love story. The film was a victim of poor marketing at the time, but it stands as a testament to the power of relationships between women. 

Of the 10 top grossing films released the same year as Jennifer’s Body, none featured lesbian or bisexual leading women. In fact, most of the films on the top 10 list include a heterosexual couple as the dominant relationship in the story. Outside of homophobic jokes and sexualization of lesbians for the ogling male viewer, it was rare to see two teenage girls kissing on the big screen, let alone from two big stars like Fox and Seyfried. Unlike other lesbian classics like But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Bound (1996), Jennifer’s Body is rated PG-13, not R, which increased the number of young people able to watch the movie. Getting to see the relationship between two women unfold on-screen in Jennifer’s Body was likely a first for many budding lesbian and bi women. Their kiss was certainly gazed upon by male viewers, but the film was shot by women and for women. 

Kusama has said the film was not marketed the way she wanted, which contributed to some of its negative feedback. The marketing campaign leaned heavily on porn-like imagery to draw in audiences, featuring Fox in evocative stances and a schoolgirl outfit. Fox’s character is definitely sexual, but contrary to what the hypersexual posters would lead viewers to expect, the film is not degrading or misogynist. Instead, it’s surprisingly progressive. The film flips traditional horror tropes and crafts an altogether empowering narrative. After a near-death experience, Jennifer develops invincibility and the desire to eat men, essentially becoming a succubus. Though she is one of the villains of the story, her character is still subversive. From Halloween to American Psycho, most canonical movie murderers are men, and often, their victims, or intended victims that become survivors, are women. The murder scenes tend to sexualize the women, and many depict sexual violence onscreen. This is turned on its head in Jennifer’s Body. During one of her three kills, Jennifer flirts with a football player and then leads him to the woods with her, presumably to hook up. Instead, she eats him. Jennifer holds the power in the situation because she’s the one with supernatural abilities and hidden murderous intentions. This gender-swapping of the killer-victim relationship is important because it shows that women do not inherently need to be victimized for a scene to feel horrific. Women’s supposed victimhood is a result of misogyny and an adherence to tired horror tropes, not reality.

Kusama asserts that the film was made for girls and that the focal relationship is that of Jennifer and Needy. With that in mind, Jennifer’s Body can be viewed as an exploration of female friendship that walks the line between romantic and platonic. Needy, Jennifer’s best friend, can be read as a closeted lesbian or bisexual character. Even though Needy has a boyfriend, her relationship with Jennifer goes beyond the platonic and borders on infatuation. When Needy and Jennifer go to a concert together, Needy is extremely protective of Jennifer. She tells the band members that Jennifer is a virgin and tries to keep her from drinking. This is evidence of a power imbalance between the two, with Jennifer having an upper hand because Needy is, well, needy. She tries to protect and control Jennifer more than the average friend would, hinting that Needy, whether she realizes it or not, likely cares about Jennifer as more than a friend. When Needy and her boyfriend are having sex, she is preoccupied with worrying about Jennifer. She ends up bursting into tears and picturing Jennifer instead of being present with her boyfriend, hinting that Needy has deep emotional ties to her.

Before she became a succubus, Jennifer seemed to be close with Needy, but she did not have the same starry-eyed look in her eyes that Needy had for her. After Jennifer has killed three men, she appears in Needy’s room. At first, it seems like it’ll be just like her other kills. Yet, Jennifer does not kill Needy — she kisses her. The scene is sweet and lengthy in the unrated cut of the movie, which is on most DVD versions and has been screened at anniversary showings in the US. The scene is particularly impactful because it contrasts with Jennifer’s kills, where she is detached and not interested in her victims at all. With Needy, though, Jennifer shows true affection by kissing her, then opening up to her about what she’s been going through. And, of course, it’s very telling that Jennifer doesn’t murder Needy. Jennifer really does care about her, even if it’s not quite as much or as outwardly as Needy cares about her. It’s hard to say how Jennifer views their relationship because, after all, she’s dealing with a lot, being a succubus and all. It’s unclear whether the kiss would have happened if Jennifer hadn’t become a succubus. However, she becomes more sexual after this scene, so she may be expressing desires she had before — or simply realizing them now that they have been brought to the forefront of her mind. Above all, it’s clear that Jennifer came to Needy to be with her and confide in her, not to hurt her. 

Jennifer and Needy’s kiss holds a special place in the hearts of many lesbian, bisexual, and queer women. For a lot of them, it was the first time they saw a kiss between two women on-screen. The movie holds an even deeper importance because it was written and directed by women who intentionally centered on Jennifer and Needy’s relationship. Seeing their relationship and emotional complexity on-screen is impactful, especially for younger viewers. Between the iconic kiss, representation of female friendships, and overall entertainment value, Jennifer’s Body is worth revisiting.   

Jenni Holtz is a film critic, illustrator and master's student in Media and Cinema Studies. They are a staff writer at In Their Own League and Flip Screen and have contributed to FilmEra and 14East Magazine. They are currently the staff illustrator and podcast host at 14East magazine. Their passions include transgender representation, genre cinema and cooking shows.