It’s no accident that every feature film about girls’ aggression has been a comedy. To make a real drama about the heartbreak of female intimacy is too dangerous for a culture that trains girls to see relationships with boys as their most important rite of passage.
Which is why Jennifer’s Body is so refreshing. Because it’s not trying to be a comedy, it actually takes female friendship more seriously than any film has in a long time. “Hell,” our narrator tells us in the film’s very first line, “is a teenage girl.”
Jennifer is the dominant one in the relationship, and “Needy” (short for “Anita” and, hello, long on the heavy-handed) is the classic Good Girl friend. She’s quietly compliant and plays by the rules, letting Jennifer have the spotlight. Diablo Cody (Juno writer and general object of teen girl worship) and director Karyn Kusama use mossy flashbacks to let us know the girls’ dynamic was forged in the sandbox.
Jennifer’s Body is clearly inspired by the classic Heathers, but this film is much gutsier. Both are films about girls’ aggression, but Heathers keeps the pathological romance between Veronica and JD front and center, and it’s the guy who is the architect of the destruction. Jennifer’s Body makes no such effort. Needy’s boyfriend, the sweet, painfully vanilla Chip, couldn’t be more one-dimensional. In fact, at the moment we see them having sex, Needy is being “visited” by an apparition of Jennifer, who, blocks away, is feasting away on another one of her boy victims. We are meant to see that the primary relationship in this film is the one between these two girls.
Jennifer’s “visit” feels a lot like possession, and it’s a metaphor for the dynamic of her friendship with Needy. The possession is both intimate and aggressive. Jennifer’s compulsion to insert herself into Needy’s line of sight is a way to control her. When Needy tries to tell Jennifer what she’s seeing, Jennifer denies it.
The attempt of one girl to control another girls’ version of events – to say, It’s not the way you think it happened, it’s the way I see things — is one of the subtle, painful aspects of girl bullying. Needy feels crazy, just as so many girls do when they have their most powerful feelings denied by the friends they trust.
“Jennifer is evil,” Needy tells her boyfriend helplessly, trying to explain what’s happening. “I know,” he replies calmly, obviously referring to her more earthly cruelties. Meanwhile, Jennifer keeps messing with Needy’s head — “I couldn’t bring myself to hurt you,” she coos. “I’m a really good friend” — and puts the moves on Chip. “Say I’m better than Needy,” Jennifer demands. These girls are together even when they’re not.
Despite Jennifer’s all-you-can-eat boy buffet, the person she’s really consuming is Needy. All of this sets Jennifer and Needy up for an epic battle of Good Girl vs. Mean Girl. Although one reviewer portrayed it as a “catfight over a boy,” I think it’s much deeper than that.
“You’re not that impressive,” Needy tells Jennifer. “You were never a good friend!”
“And now I’m eating your boyfriend,” Jennifer snarls. “At least I’m consistent.”
“Best friends forever, huh?” Jennifer shouts.
These exchanges are the real battle of this film, and the triumph being sought is not good over evil, it’s the struggle of Needy to find her voice and break free of Jennifer’s possession. It’s no coincidence that the film goes dark just as Courtney Love screams, “You should learn how to say no!”
It wasn’t necessary to sexualize Jennifer and Needy’s relationship in order to communicate its intensity. You have to wonder if that was pushed by the Powers that Be who might not have grasped the powerful connection already evident to any female viewer. I also wonder if sexualizing female intimacy was intentional, suggesting to the audience that this kind of closeness can only be, in Cody’s words, “lesbigay.”
Jennifer’s Body is a message to girls suffering under the weight of a cruel friend. But why do we need to cover films with blood or laughs in order to talk about the intensity of female friendship? I appreciate Jennifer’s Body, but as I watched girls gather outside the theater, looking for adults to buy their R-rated tickets, it occurred to me how many of them will miss out on this unexpectedly poignant film about best friendship.