Jennifer’s Body opened in theaters on September 18th, 2009, to a cacophony of misogynist notices: Reviews from critics who were wrankled by the movie’s lack of objectification. Without anyone realizing it, the film invited dudes to tell on themselves. Ten years later, these unwitting confessions remain damning. Rather than treat its star, Megan Fox, as a piece of meat, director Karyn Kusama and screenwriter Diablo Cody redefined her as empowered, charming and monstrous all at the same time. There’s good reason that this decade-old box office underperformer has today earned the honorific of “cult classic.”
This is a picture perhaps ahead of its time, at least in the sense that Cody wrote it, Kusama directed it and 20th Century Fox released it at a moment when critics didn’t know what exactly to do with it or how to engage with it. Demonic possession films and high school teen comedies are, and were in 2009, a dime a dozen; Jennifer’s Body wasn’t “new” when released for commercial consumption that year. It’s sly though, more so than we initially gave it credit for, and its slyness is exemplified best by Fox’s casting as Jennifer on the basis of her body and her inborn but previously unseen charisma. Culture had written her off as a plaything suited for the pages of men’s magazines, as red-hot eye candy to be consumed by Michael Bay’s lens in the Transformers movies. Kusama hadn’t.
Jennifer is in many ways a prototypical Fox character: She’s gorgeous, sexual and sexualized, a young woman whose passing activates hormones and saliva glands in boys caught in her proximity. Denying her physical allure is a fool’s gesture, but where so many of her roles paint her as vapid, Jennifer’s Body lets her have heart. In most teen fare, Jennifer would spend the whole film bullying Needy (Amanda Seyfried), the mousy, unpopular girl with glasses and frizzy hair. Here, she’s Needy’s bestie. They’re so tight that Jennifer spares Needy a wave and a beaming, goofy grin during cheer rehearsal. (If their fictionalized hometown of Devil’s Kettle, Minnesota ever suffered a city-wide power outage, Public Works could restore electricity using Jennifer’s high-wattage smile alone.)
It’s a bit of sweetness that works counter to audience expectations of Fox based on the persona left her by the industry in which she works. “I do live in a glass box,” she opined to Lynn Hirschberg two months after Jennifer’s Body’s release. “And I am on display for men to pay to look at me. And that bothers me. I don’t want to live that character.” The film appears at a glance to fail her wishes, except that none of Cody’s and Kusama’s male characters have substance save for Johnny Simmons’ Chip, Needy’s boyfriend and an all-around sweet guy. More importantly, any man who paid the price of admission just to add more Fox material to their spank bank likely walked out, disappointed at best and deeply unsettled at worst. Jennifer is a literal man-eater. It’s hard to turn that into a stereotypical pornographic male sex fantasy.
It’s considerably easier to turn that into an empowerment fantasy, or, streamlined, a straightforward power fantasy. Jennifer’s Body weaponizes Fox’s sexuality after her character is victimized by sexual predation. A band of men—literally a fictional indie rock outfit called Low Shoulder, fronted by Adam Brody—leads Jennifer into foreboding woods after a freak fire accident (which isn’t accidental at all) and sacrifices her to Satan in exchange for celebrity and success beyond the members’ wildest dreams. Grant that as they’re playing dive bars, their wildest dreams needn’t be so wild. They just need to score gigs more substantial than a dive bar! This doesn’t stop them from murdering Jennifer on the assumption of her virginity.
The sacrifice goes haywire because she is not, in point of obvious fact, a virgin, and so she becomes the vessel of a demonic entity that requires she routinely devour men for sustenance. It’s a gory feeding cycle, but each feeding means renewed strength, vigor, beauty and superpowers, rendering her basically immune to harm, self-healing any injury with a quickness that’d make Wolverine jealous. Her maleficent reincarnation, so to speak, is a satisfyingly macabre fancy: Coming home to Needy after her ordeal, Jennifer stands in the kitchen soaked in her own blood, conjuring images of real-life abuse and assault. The sacrifice itself competes that image, Low Shoulder standing around Jennifer and laughing at her panic of what’s to come.
It’s true that post-possession, Jennifer sups on a trio of teenage boys (Goth kid Colin, foreign exchange student Ahmet, heartbroken football captain Jonas) and that these boys are innocent of her need for retribution, but Fox plays Jennifer alternatingly as coy, seductive, cool and self-assured—to the outsider she hardly reads as the survivor of a brutal sexual assault. Jennifer’s persona throughout the film filters through Fox’s own. In September ’09, no other actress had as much sexualized baggage as Fox. She appears, for example, in the first two Transformers movies (released in 2007 and 2009, respectively, and the latter months before Jennifer’s Body’ s premiere) primarily for her ass, captured via medium shot more than once and given almost as thorough an arc as her character, Mikaela Barns, the subject of geek hero Sam Witwicky’s (Shia LeBeouf) lust, disguised as earnest nice guy affection.
A year later, Fox went on to play Lilah in Jonah Hex, once more the sexpot, but with an embarrassingly overt, uncomplicated, dude-friendly version of Jennifer’s Body’s female empowerment angle. She’s hot, just don’t mess with her. She doesn’t take shit from guys. It’s a reactive characteristic, designed to put male audiences at ease and keep them in their comfort zone, where Jennifer’s Body wields Fox’s bombshell looks to bait in those same guys and make them increasingly uncomfortable. She was the exact right actress to accomplish Cody’s and Kusama’s overriding goal for the film: To take unsuspecting, presumptive, piggish men by surprise, flipping the film’s marketing, heavily hinged on Fox’s sex appeal (a’la the poster, on its head.
Together, they succeed. Fox does the best work of her career here; it’s as if hiring a woman to direct her facilitated her performance because a woman wouldn’t fixate on Fox’s body the way a man would, and nor would a woman write her character the way a man would. (“Wouldn’t” and “would” are generous. For better accuracy, go with “didn’t” and “did.”) Together, Cody’s writing, Kusama’s direction and, yes, Fox’s body are an absolute unit, cleverly nudging men into showing their true colors well before anybody started saying “me too” or “time’s up.”
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.