A Critique of Lisa Wehrstedt’s Review of “Jennifer’s Body”

Original article: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20210406-jennifers-body-the-real-meaning-of-a-sexy-teen-flick

It is not at all surprising to see the bourgeois feminists attempt to revitalize Jennifer’s Body in this political climate. I’ve seen the film several times since it was released in the autumn of 2009, and while I’m still not convinced that it’s a good film, I’ve long suspected that it was only a matter of time before the ideologues and dilletantes discovered it and weaponized it to further their cursory agendas. For the past six years, the BBC has published a glut of post-feminist and pseudo-feminist reevaluations of popular art, of which Nicholas Barber’s lamentation of the public reception of The Silence of the Lambs was perhaps the most memorably boorish example. On Wednesday, the seventh of April, the same media outlet printed an assessment of Jennifer’s Body, written by Lisa Wehrstedt—an author hitherto unknown to me personally, but regretfully familiar philosophically.

As Wehrstedt did, we will assume that our readers are unfamiliar with the film in question, though for very different reasons. Jennifer’s Body tells the story of two teenage girls—the titular character portrayed by Megan Fox, and her best friend, Needy, portrayed by Amanda Seyfried—undergoing their uneventful adolescence in a midwestern American town. One night, a group of incompetent Satanists kidnap Jennifer and attempt to slaughter her for ritualistic purposes, but she lives on as a vampire, or a zombie, and embarks on a cannibalistic crusade. Naturally, the episodic bloodshed coincides with the deterioration of Jennifer’s friendship with Needy, culminating in a resolution that is not as poignant as it probably should have been, but that is certainly more affecting than it could have been.

The critical elite may have agreed with us, at least on this point, as even those who recognized the movie’s flaws praised it for its “unexpected emotional resonance”, in the words of Dana Stevens, who reviewed the film for Slate. Wehrstedt has a remarkably different understanding of the critical appraisal, alleging that the film was “mauled by critics around the globe”. We cannot deny that the film inspired mixed reviews, the negativity of which might have been more conspicuous than the praise; but we cannot accept Wehrstedt’s attribution of this disapproval to sexist disappointment, either. She instructs us to believe that the critical consensus was unfairly influenced by resistance to the notion of a female director and a female writer working together to make a film about young women.

Such is the predicted and prescribed response of the bourgeois feminist: to reduce all opposition to the theory, even in so subjective a field as artistic criticism, to uncultured bigotry. If the bourgeois feminists have accomplished anything, it has been the apotheosis of the ad hominem attack. Yet, Wehrstedt extends this accusatory interpretation to the film’s commercial struggles, as well. She believes that Jennifer’s Body failed to interest potential ticket-buyers for the same reason that it failed to impress professional critics: a subconscious contempt for feminine artistic expression. It would be awfully difficult to prove that the “teenage boys” whom Wehrstedt blames for the film’s unprofitable performance would defer to the snobbish opinions of critics, though not as difficult as it would be to apply the same explanation to dozens, if not hundreds, of other similarly unlucrative horror comedies.

As of this writing, twelve years removed from the release of Jennifer’s Body, only six horror comedies have grossed more than $100 million at the American-Canadian box office. A few other films in the genre have enjoyed modest financial success, but the overwhelming majority—if not the effective entirety—floundered. Included in this latter category is the postmodern masterpiece American Psycho (a film written and directed by women, although not about women, per se) and the notorious fiasco Grindhouse, a film whose calamitous theatrical run was blamed on its inability to appeal to anyone but adolescent men. Might I suggest that the commonality here isn’t gender, but the fundamental challenge in convincing broad audiences to find humor and joy in depictions of suffering and death—which is probably the philosophical value of horror comedies in the first place? Maybe the market for such material is inherently limited even before the introduction of any personal prejudices?

Let us suspend this speculative inquiry into consumerist behavior and commence our analysis of Jennifer’s Body. If we measure the film by the scale that its genre has established, then we discover a film of relatively impressive stature. Certainly, it is an effective antidote to Jawbreaker and Idle Hands, two slovenly mediocrities released a decade before Jennifer’s Body; but if we envision its potential as a film, and not simply as a horror comedy, then we inevitably recognize the modesty of its own ambitions. We are not suggesting that a film is bad for this reason, nor are we arguing that Jennifer’s Body is a bad film, but we are acknowledging that the film is small where it might have been great.

Tellingly, Wehrstedt sees the film’s greatness in its transgressive political function. She dedicates much of her essay to an extensive critique of the film’s marketing campaign, which, she rightfully argues, diminished the film’s “exploration of the complexity and toxicity of female friendship” in an attempt to emphasize its more decidedly lurid potential appeal to male adolescents. The studio misrepresented this film, she proclaims, and we agree with her completely, even if we doubt if this is the reason why the film did not attract a sizeable crowd—but even if we concurred with her on this latter point, too, what does this tell us about the film’s artistic or psychological merits? It tells us nothing, but it does supply the bourgeois feminist with cause for indignation: she believes there would have been a gendered triumph here, were it not for the damnable interference of the chauvinists.

We have been involuntarily returned to the question of the film’s commercial exhibition, and while we do not mind the digression (seeing as we are having a worthwhile and productive discussion), we are growing suspicious that Wehrstedt champions the film primarily because it was undermined in its theatrical run. If it had been a blockbuster, would she fault the film for its limited expression of a feminist ideology? Black Snake Moan is an earnest and emotional film about female sexuality (among other subjects), and it was advertised falsely as a sensational exploitation film, too; but it is because of the former element, not the latter incident, that the film deserves our respect.

Jennifer’s Body does not deserve our disrespect, but it is only a melancholic approximation of the more ambitious film that it could have been. Wehrstedt credits Diablo Cody, the screenwriter, for attempting “an inherently female story”, more specifically an examination of bourgeoning female sexuality; however, the film offers surprisingly little insight about this latter subject, likely because it is bound by moral fundamentalism. Cody depicts sexuality—adolescent female sexuality, if you prefer—as a mortal danger, but stops herself from saying any more on the subject. If sexuality is, in fact, dangerous, then why is this so? Cody hasn’t seemed to have asked herself this question; like many bourgeois feminists before (and, in Wehrstedt’s case, after) her, she may have assumed that it was sufficiently profound and sacrilegious to depict female sexuality as the volatile element and to leave all other conventions untouched.

This superficial approach and misguided prioritization have been sicknesses unto bourgeois and mainstream feminism, burdening us with the intellectual dishonesty of the third wave and the dogmatic separatism of the fourth. Their errors have preserved the discredited theory of categorical representation and empowered neoliberal warmongers and crony capitalists like Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris. In such a context, Wehrstedt’s excessive reverence for Jennifer’s Body is benign, but it is symptomatic of a more pervasive problem. The bourgeois feminist writer considers herself irreverent and daring because she has cast a woman in the lead role of her morally formulaic story. If the structure hasn’t changed, if the rudiments have yet to be uprooted, then what have we achieved and what have we learned merely through recasting?

Jennifer’s Body might not have much to contribute to our understanding of sexuality, be it female or adolescent or otherwise, and while it might have something substantive to state on the topic of female friendship, I suspect I am not learned enough to comment on this matter. I am, however, prepared to recommend viewing Jennifer’s Body through the lens of a generation in despair. Much like the classic-horror remakes of the early 2000s, which were significantly grimmer in content and tone than their 1970s counterparts, Jennifer’s Body expresses (however facetiously) the haunted pessimism of the so-called millennial generation. We believe there is nothing to look forward to, no trustworthy or respectable foundation on which to build ourselves, and oftentimes we are convinced that we would be better off dead. Jennifer’s Body addresses the suicidal fantasy that has become the gloomy dream of this generation, and it is as a testament to our cultural despair that the film is most effective.

There is an important essay to be written about that, but it won’t be published by the BBC, which seeks to convince its readers of convenient political solutions to problems that we would rather leave unconsidered. The BBC much prefers the quotidian reflex of bourgeois feminism, and if that kind of material can be exhumed from Jennifer’s Body, then it will be—even if it brings us no closer to understanding the film than did the dishonest marketing campaign.

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