How ‘Jennifer’s Body’ Disrupts The Way We Usually See Female Characters

How 'Jennifer's Body' Disrupts The Way We Usually See Female Characters

Horror and women have a somewhat complicated history. On the one hand, final girl’s are a staple of the genre and films using horror as a means to explore womanhood have been around as far back as Carrie. But while women are often central to these films there are consistent issues with their characterization, treatment, and framing. It’s very easy to cross the line between horrifying and tantalizing when you’re not critically thinking. And that’s why the female gaze has been such a prominent source of discussion in film for the past few decades.

The female gaze seeks to, as the name suggests, show us the world through a literal female gaze. This means an emphasis is placed not on just what we see but what we and the characters feel. It’s an empathetic device that seeks to humanize whoever is in frame, and we see this gaze enacted twofold through both what the camera shows us and what the character is doing. The female gaze seeks to cast women not as objects of desire but fully realized characters with desires themselves. The female gaze, as opposed to the male gaze, is not an objectifying force but a humanizing one.

Horror as a genre seems to have a harder time deviating from the female gaze, likely because so much of the suspense is built on deliberately objectifying subjects. We are often meant to delight in the violence as much as we fear it and this causes us to distance ourselves from the subject in the frame and associate more with the monster devouring. But as time has gone on more and more filmmakers have been able to create horror that utilizes the female gaze to great effect. One of the most notable yet oft unremarked upon pieces of feminist horror is the 2009 film Jennifer’s Body directed by Karen Kusama.

What Is Jennifers Body About?
Jennifer’s Body is the story of best friends Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) and Needy Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) coming head to head after a demonic possession. At the start of the film, Jennifer is kidnapped by a band that attempts to use her as a human sacrifice to secure the popularity of their music. Things don’t go as planned however and rather than dying, Jennifer comes back wrong. She arrives back in town covered in blood and with a hunger for the flesh of men. As Needy tries to figure out what’s happened to her, she realizes she might be the only one who can stop Jennifer’s rampage. From here it’s pretty clear to extrapolate how the film’s themes tie into womanhood. Jennifer is always cast to play the perfect girl, finally falling apart and snapping back in the face of male violence, and Needy longing for her friend and empathizing with her even to her detriment but doing what she believes needs to be done. This story lends itself particularly to the female gaze because the struggle and horror of this film is intrinsically tied to womanhood from a female perspective. We are ominously watching ourselves become the monster, become consumed.

Its Marketing Suggested This Movie Catered to the Male Gaze
From the initial marketing, one would believe that this film catered to the male gaze. Shots of Megan Fox looking beautiful and severe were the main form of advertising the film got but in truth these moments even within the context of the film do not aim to objectify. There are times at which the camera will linger on Megan Fox, where it makes a spectacle of her but even here we can see traces of the female gaze. She is not framed in tantalizing closeups but rather often in wide shots in which she dominates the frame, instead of ogling her we instead gaze in some sort of awe or horror. A scene of her swimming in a lake is not shot in soft closeups and sexy angles, instead it’s painted in muted colors and keeps Jennifer herself as a dominating force in frame. Instead of encouraging us to leer we look on with some trepidation, watching her move around like something unnatural. Or similarly, the iconic shot of her walking down the hallway in her pink sweatshirt instead of making her an object of desire paints her with an air of intimidation. She’s a bright and dominating force in the frame, almost too perfect, and that’s exactly what the film desires her to be. This is the image Jennifer knowingly constructs. We see the toll of this performance in the scene where she smears makeup over her face while crying, a moment that pulls back the mask and humanizes her even when she’s been made into something seemingly untouchable. Even as she becomes this monster there’s something intrinsically girlish in her, and she uses that assumed vulnerability to her advantage.

Through Needy We Find Empathy for Jennifer
Needy is our vessel for the female gaze. We see the story through her eyes and with her narration. A lesser film might have used this to juxtapose the “good” girl Needy with the “bad” girl Jennifer, but the cinematic language of the film never does so. We see Jennifer as Needy does and this gives us not only immediate empathy toward Jennifer but affection towards her. Having Needy as our point of view character does the crucial work of setting us in line to gaze with her rather than at her. We sympathize with her most as the main character and thus when she extends that sympathy and worry to Jennifer, we do as well. She is not just a monster, and we see this in her affection for Needy and an underlying sharpness that shows her anger fir what happened to her is not forgotten. We see her as human and inhuman in turn when Needy does. We desire for Jennifer whatever Needy desires from her. Thus even with the kissing scene between Needy and Jennifer we don’t feel the same leering sense as we do under the male gaze, we are sympathetically experiencing Needy’s own desires and seeing them play out as such. The female gaze is not a desexualized angle but rather one that engages with reciprocal desire instead of pure voyeurism. The scene is tantalizing only because it is tantalizing to the characters.

Jennifer’s Body is a film that would not work as well as it does without the female gaze. The film’s messaging is so entrenched in womanhood and feminism that to not shoot with an eye toward agency and empathy would completely foil the film’s messaging. This film went underappreciated for so long and it’s attention to the female gaze and general feminist messaging absolutely has something to do with it. The film unsettles the way we are used to engaging with female characters or indeed were familiar with viewing Megan Fox. The female gaze seeks to provoke empathy for its subject. With it in effect we see female characters not just as objects of desire but agents of their own will navigating within the story. Jennifer’s Body wants us to know that our monster was human-made and is in many ways still human herself. By creating the film in this light we’re able to see ourselves as both Jennifer and Needy, monster and victim, constrained and freed by the eyes upon us in equal turn. Though the film is called Jennifer’s Body the body is hardly the important part, but rather how we engage with it. Do we choose to see Jennifer (as so many do) for her body alone or do we look with a more discerning female gaze?