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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

We Were Too Stupid For Jennifer's Body

As Jennifer's Body goes from flop to feminist cult classic, its failure gets blamed on lousy marketing. But the film's cynical jokes about 9/11 memorialization suggest the fault was with audiences: we were too stupid for Jennifer's Body.

content warning: spoilers for Jennifer's Body a decade old movie and also discussion of all the possibly traumatic contents of Jennifer's Body

I'm on a plane, headed to Texas. I would rather not be going to Texas, but my girlfriend and I are homeless, and my other girlfriend has a spare room. I sit squashed into a plane seat optimized primarily to maximize airline profits, having survived the obligatory sexual harassment that airport security puts all transsexuals through. Drifting in and out of coherence, exhausted from a bad night in a low budget long stay hotel and the barrage of sensory purgatory of the airport, I consider Jennifer's Body.

Culture was too stupid for Jennifer's Body when it was written (2006). Culture grew no less stupid in the years between its conception and its release (2009). If anything, we degenerated further. Airports did the same thing and have continued to degenerate with each new manufactured crisis. We treat the condition of the contemporary airport with something between grumbling compliance and solemn acceptance of the necessity of endless violation and security theater. Everything, after all, changed after 9/11. We needed to put cynicism and adolescent rebelliousness behind us, in the 90s, where it belonged, before everything changed.

And if it's too crassly juvenile that maybe TSA agents just get off on stripping us naked, Jennifer's Body's suggestion that 9/11 memorialization is a cynical branding exercise at best and a coverup for abuse at worst must've been way beyond acceptable. That's what I'm dwelling on, on this stupid plane to stupid Texas. I chew it over the way the titular Jennifer chews on the gristle of the teenage boys whose organs she rips out.

You'd never know the film's opinions on 9/11 if you absorbed it only through the discourse, mind, which leaves this gristle for me. It took a decade for the film to even get reassessed as a work of electrifyingly problematic queer feminism. At the time of its release, its studio was too stupid to market the film to writer Diablo Cody's intended audience: women. And hey, let's not pretend audiences were any smarter, seemingly incapable of squaring the concept of horror comedy, or appreciating that a film about a girl being turned into a demon after a shitty indie band kills her to curry favor with Satan might have a few things to say about gender politics. The film, which explores the relationship between Jennifer and her comp-het "best friend" Needy as Jennifer undergoes a transformation into a succubus that keeps murdering and devouring Needy's love interests, was instead marketed heavily and received by audiences as titillating. The incredible scene where Jennifer and Needy share a passionate kiss was understood as a gimmick to bring in the boys, rather than a complicated, erotic, tragic, and alarming exploration of unexpressed/unexpressable dyke longing and jealousy.

If people couldn't get this totally basic shit about the film's themes, obviously the 9/11 subplot wasn't gonna read. Not that it's subtle. The movie's b plot is all about how the murderous indie band creeps become icons of a town's "recovery" after a deadly, tragic fire. For most of the runtime of the film we know that SOMETHING is very wrong there: the last we or Needy see of Jennifer before she reappears in Needy's kitchen vomiting black demon bile is indiemoscene band "Low Shoulder" coaxing her into their van. And nothing, as Needy points out, adds up about their valorizing narrative: they weren't helping save people from the burning concert venue, they were driving off who knows where with a teenage girl.

In retrospect, the analogue seems pretty obvious. While Needy increasingly realizes that Jennifer is like, real evil, not just high school evil, every new body that shows up is added to the corpse pile to be memorialized by Low Shoulder. Her world is consumed by cloying sentimentality. I don't think it's a stretch to suggest Diablo Cody had politics on the mind when she wrote this. Given her debut was Juno, a film about teenage pregnancy, I think it was actually a mark of the vapidity of audiences at the time that the political subtext wasn't, like, extremely obvious actually? I mean, for goodness sake, before the club burns down Jennifer orders a 9/11 memorial drink to try and attract Low Shoulder's front man. When she returns to Needy with the drinks (which you have to drink fast "or they turn all brown") she laments that the North Tower is too short :( . The film has the commoditization of mourning and "being strong in the face of tragedy" on the mind, and it's thinking heretically cynical things.

In the 2000s, this stuff was largely unspeakable unless you were the creator of South Park. God damn culture was fucking insufferable in the wake of first Columbine and then 9/11 and then basically every tragedy that followed. Actually, tragedies got mushed together a lot in this period. Everything has changed after [the tragedy mush], critics intoned solemnly, as though events could be transposed so that four planes rammed into various parts of the scenery because KMFDM inspired antisocial teenage behavior. I remember reading this in reviews of nu metal bands like Mudvayne--isn't it time these people Grew Up, and stopped writing songs about violent disaffection? Oh, and anything critical of Christianity, particularly the glazed-eyed capitalist young earth protestantism that so drove culture during the Bush years. Wasn't writing an album like Neon Bible a bit mmmmmmmm played out?

The 9/11 references in Jennifer's Body were remarked upon at the time. The Miami Herald chided the film's writer and director Karyn Kusama for the "offensiveness" of "an ill-conceived riff on 9/11". Vulture meanwhile excused the jokes as not being "the first" to touch on the subject (if it had been, would THAT have been too offensive?) and not cutting too close to these "recent American tragedies".

Both the tut tutting and the nervous defense comes paired with a weird discomfort, though, that I find compelling and telling. The Miami Herald piece follows up its finger wag by suggesting that "Kusama is constantly shifting tonal gears, and she never tells you what you should be thinking or feeling. The film also seems to contradict itself in the way it views its characters. Is Jennifer a monster or a victim?" Vulture meanwhile seems eager to explain away the difficulty of the film's 9/11 touchstones. It always feels to me, though, like a threat lurks: if this WASN'T just jokes, well, we'd have to really take the film to task for tastelessness! Jennifer Doyle in "Hold It Against Me", her exploration of affectively difficult art, asks why critics find it so hard to talk about not around difficulty. We downplay challenging and even legally dubious works as not having ACTUALLY done anything, like, REAL, god forfend. We talk about the controversy surrounding works of art rather than delving into the experience of engaging with them. Maybe this is because it makes us nervous too.

There's lots to be nervous about in Jennifer's Body. It's, I mean, it's a horror film my dudes, which means more than jump scares. For one thing, no one in this film really deserves what happens to them. Like, the football dudes who get iced by JD in Heathers (a film often compared to Jennifer's Body) are assholes at best, aspiring rapists at worst. My sense of the football dude who serves as Jennifer's first on screen victim is that he's just kinda dumb and, more than anything else, parsing his grief for another football dude by uh, well, fucking a girl as a weird emotional stand in?? Like, Jennifer literally seduces him by telling him that his bro would've wanted him to hook up with her--he does it in honor of his friend's memory. This guy doesn't deserve to have his guts ripped and torn he deserves to have full access to his gay ass emotions. When a grieving parent in Heathers bellows "I love my dead gay son," it's a joke about how much better the guy was in fictionalized death than he was in life. Here, it's an uncomfortable joke-horror suggestion that maybe in a less dogshit society this guy could have been the big homo he deserved to be.

At the time even the film's creators seemed nervous about what they had created. Like, when Diablo Cody in defending the film's same-sex kiss talked about her intense female friendships, how she "wanted to sleep at my friend's house every night, I wanted to wear her clothes, we would talk on the phone until our ears ached." Yeah Diablo, I had that with some of my guy friends as a teenager too, it was called being gay. The article that quote is from still finds the time to chide Cody for not doing good feminist representation, though, and I guess that makes me somewhat sympathetic to Cody here. Did she know that culture was in fact going to be too dumb to get the way Jennifer is both a predator and victim, the way her love for Needy is at turns beautiful and toxic, the way expressions of queer desire get warped into complicated, problematic forms by a diseased culture?

The film is full of uncomfortable joke/horror ambiguities, which were at least grasped by some critics (the film did have a number of favorable reviews, though they couldn't compete with the horrible marketing). As far as I can tell, the developing blogosphere, on the other hand, understood none of this from the moment they got their grubby cheeto dust covered fingers on the script before the film's release. Diablo Cody had amassed a considerable loud hatedom at that point, of both the aforementioned cheeto boys and their female counterparts,  going apoplectic over the "fantasy" that "Diablo Cody is a magical snowflake who can spray her unique pixie dust on an otherwise conventional script and give it indie cred". Perhaps the film's obsession with female relationships characterized by violence, jealousy, and crab bucket behavior cut too close to home for such critics?

Or maybe they just genuinely hate Diablo Cody's "twee dialogue". You hear about this? Yeah, Diablo Cody writes twee dialogue. This mantra seems completely unassailable now, basically accepted by even her defenders. What's so god damn twee about it though? To be sure, I remember mentally grouping Juno in with Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine. Jennifer's Body reveals just how much "twee" is a function of the film in its totality, though. I mean, I feel like this should be obvious but the exaggerated quippy dialogue comes across a little differently in the context of a film featuring sexual assault, people being burned to death, ritual murder, demonic possession, and teenagers being sadistically eaten alive.

In that context her dialogue comes across more like a nightmare funhouse mirror version of Joss Whedon's now eye-rollingly ubiquitous quips. Whedon and his bazillion interchangeable hack studio vat clones never aspired for much actual wit beyond the "umm well THAT just happened". Cody's dialogue on the other hand is baroque, in love with weird wordplay and uncouth associations. Needy refers to Jennifer affectionately as "Vagisil". Jennifer, in a line that caught me totally off guard midway through taking a big sip of water, jeers that Needy needs to "Move-on dot org". Yeah, no man, you're right. This isn't how "real" teenagers talk. Also, Jennifer's not "really" possessed by a demon, it's a thing we call "Movie Magic".

Though, actually, it's not totally unreal. This baroque, warping dialogue feels now like how teens trash talk under ideal conditions: on the internet. This movie's dialogue is posting. Like Homestuck, the point is not to capture a literal representation but instead a vibe of the kind of unrestrained, often vulgar and offensive dialogue of teens shit talking each other over America Online Instant Messanger or replies to their friends' Xanga posts. It makes perfect sense that both Jennifer and the various Homestuck teens would call each other retards, for example. There's a real sense in the film of characters pushing boundaries, testing the limits of their ability to perform adulthood. It's not just an act in the sense that it's a movie you plodding dullards, but in the sense that these characters are performing their idea of maturity.

There's nothing of that performance when Jennifer, in the back of a van going who knows where, sobering up and getting a grip on her real situation, asks the members of the band Low Shoulder, "Are you guys rapists?"

The climactic flashback, late in the film, when we witness the band's brutal murder of Jennifer, still has plenty of quips, of course. It's just that now Jennifer's ability to perform any kind of mature confidence has been brutally ripped away by a bunch of third rate emo douchebags. All the quipping, over top of her desperate pleading for her life, issues from the douchebags, who treat the whole scene as a joke. The affect of this scene feels complex to me. It's still Diablo Cody's script so there's some pretty good one liners. Megan Fox, though, is playing the scene for pure horror, so the humor adds to the horror for me. For these guys, rape and murder is just, like, kind of a fun night out. They can sing pop songs while ramming a bowie knife ("Bowie! Nice!") into a teenage girl's body because their biggest concern is whether or not they can get their shit band on Letterman. 

I think it's notable that for a solid number of people--particularly though by no means exclusively women--this scene is not damaged in its horror by this dissonance. At least not now. And why should it be? Horror has never just been about what's "scary" or worse about startling people with jump scares. Horror has always partaken of a complex mix of affects: fear and visceral startlement, yes, but also grief, shock, disgust, rage, contempt... attraction... humor. The best horror might fuck with the viewer's head, prompting arousal or humor simultaneous with disgust or fear. Why play these things off each other? Maybe to destabilize us. If we feel a moment during Jennifer's brutal murder where we're just a little bit charmed by these self admittedly cute boys, maybe that prompts a question like: what other monsters might be hiding behind charming fa├žades?

The post-9/11 years and incipient Obama cultural revolution were unfortunately for Jennifer's Body a time for dumb affects. We pretended Rudy Giuliani hadn't spent several years turning NYC into a characterless, facile police state before bungling the 9/11 disaster response. Clear Channel, now the insipidly named "iHeartRadio," banned numerous songs for fear of causing even a shred of offense. The FCC got more censorious, waving its own dick around to far more culturally degenerate effect than any superbowl nip slips. Even researching this period is tedious: the articles I access are full of euphemistic phrases ("Mr. Bush was caught on videotape last July using a common vulgarity that the commission finds objectionable") so tortured they could have been dreamed up by the Bush admin's army of Eichmanns. I did discover that the maximum penalty for saying "fuck" went under Bush from a draconian $32,500 to a wild-eyed spittle-mouthed $325,000. People who objected to the dogshit state of culture and politics were drummed out of society, as The Dixie Chicks were. Or, more commonly, folks sorta slipped out of the public eye after getting played off at awards ceremonies, quietly shelved.

The primary objection to all this unfortunately did not come from anything really resembling a left but libertarians, constitutional bill of rights fetishists, and South Park. Democrats, never willing to lose an opportunity to supplicate themselves in spineless nematoad subservience to reactionary forces, attacked the Bush FCC for not fining stations MORE for Janet Jackson's sexual harassment by Justin Timberlake. Cool!

I wanted to talk about how this extended into the Obama years but here's the weird and ominous thing: a lot of the statistics and research material on the FCC's censorship actions just sorta stop in 2006. A lot of the relevant links from the FCC's own website are dead now. I doubt that means things improved under Obama. I mean, why should the FCC have stopped fining people for saying "dickhole"? It's not like any of the natsec state's border wars ceased, or the detaining of people without trial in the torture pits of Guantanamo, or the deportation of migrants, or the wiretapping of civilians. The prosecution of whistleblowers actually increased drastically under Obama, as did the lobbing of drones at wedding parties.

We bore this because Obama offered an alternative to divisiveness and the stale politics of the Bush era. We didn't have to tear down and dismantle what the Neoconservatives and Bible-brandishing Evangelical cultists had built through rancor and strife, we simply had to present a different way. A way that would unite the country. A way of hope. THROUGH THE TREEEES I WILL FIIIIIND YOU I WILL HEEEEAL THE RUINS LEFT INSIIIIIDE YOU

Now Needy's increasingly frantic sense that something is very wrong and all the memorial rallies and posters in the world can't fix it resonate pretty strongly with me. And, of course, after watching Low Shoulder brutally murder a teenage girl the whole grief and recovery (with a hit song!) thing feels like a cathartic confirmation of what I felt a lot during this period: that all sorts of cynical fucks were exploiting tragedy to their own ends. It never seemed to be quite the right time to bring up how cloying and often disturbingly fascistic a lot of the Strong In The Face Of Tragedy pop culture was. It was either offensive to the victims of terrorism, or offensive to Our Troops, or, extremely conveniently, before the critique even had a chance to be levied it was suddenly old hat: the Village Voice sneeringly dismisses this film's "routine “risky” digs at 9/11 kitsch". It was hard to tell Republicans to go lick a d*ckh*le when President Obama was wearing flag lapels and having grotesquely performative "beer summits" to bring together a completely innocent black college professor with the racist pig that arrested him. You wanna talk kitsch? Obama was so fucking kitsch, homeskillet. Kitsch and twee to a degree no Diablo Cody dialogue could ever sink.

Here's something that's not kitsch or twee: Needy finding the sacrificial knife that stole her friend/love interest, and using it and inherited succubus powers to murder the shit out of every member of Low Shoulder. That's cathartic as hell. I said earlier that no one in this film really deserves what happens to them. Low Shoulder are the exception, and it's so satisfying to see that knife buried to the hilt in the lead singer's shitty torso.

I don't think anyone that contributed to things getting worse and worse for the three decades of my life, both in broad political terms and in my personal life, will ever face a single consequence. I am tired of pretending that if I just be "sincere" and be strong in the face of tragedy anything will improve. Sincerity is a fucking joke. Sincerity just means carrying out an acceptable affective performance. If I like irony, sadism, offensiveness, and fucked up and messy affects, that's a sincere expression of what I'm feeling. Low Shoulder's "Through The Trees" is a catchy, moving, sincere, affectively and politically correct work of art, and you see how much THAT'S worth. A knife between the ribs, mostly.

I'm glad Jennifer's Body has a second life as a feminist cult classic, and even a lesbian cult classic, but I don't think we're assessing the film in its totality without exploring this complex interplay of politics and affect. I wonder a lot if we're even ready for that now. Diablo Cody has gotten work since Jennifer's Body, work still focusing on problematic women, but you don't really see things branded as "written by Diablo Cody, creator of Juno" anymore, and most of the work has been with other creators (Spielberg, Reitman) who have their own clout. No one really cancelled Cody, not in a way that she could instrumentalize and turn into the new version of this stand strong sincerity culture: getting paid ludicrous amounts of money to tell everyone that you won't be silenced. Like so many, her difficult art was just quietly ushered off stage.

I've seen people say this film would've been an easy sell in 2021.

Would it? Fucking would it?

Because I saw the reaction to the leaked script Diablo Cody wrote for an adult Powerpuff Girls show on CW! I fucking watched people--this time trading out tenderqueers outraged at the desecration of their childhood for the neckbeards of yesteryear--jeer and whine about Diablo Cody's dialogue all over again. Sorry, ladies, deciding a decade AFTER a thing comes out to stan it doesn't count. There's an anecdote about John Carpenter I like, where someone comes up to him at a convention and tells him oh man I love The Thing. Carpenter, bitter about a lifetime of commercial flops for genuinely great movies, responds something to the effect of cool man, pay me, cause you liking the film doesn't do shit for me now. It's cute that you and I can agree now that Jennifer's Body is good. Too bad we weren't there at the time, and too bad our idea of "supporting diverse art" now so often seems to involve giving all our money to the Disney Corporation for safe, unproblematic Representation.

It's been 20 years since 9/11 and 12 since Jennifer's Body released. The vice president of Barack Obama is now president, kids are still in cages, there's still a housing crisis, Covid still racks up a 9/11 body count every few days with nary a response beyond competing culture war chest thumping and grandstanding. I am on a plane to Texas. I hear Low Shoulder is playing there. Low Shoulder is playing everywhere, and will be playing everywhere until we find that knife.

This has been

We Were Too Stupid For Jennifer's Body

I can't do a bunch of fancy links at the end of this one cause I have to do all that by hand using self-coded tools that I don't have on this laptop, but you can check out my patreon and my books and games on itchio or contribute to my efforts to stop from being homeless and couch-surfing by sending me some money on ko-fi.

1 comment:

  1. Jennifer's Body is a good movie. The Powerpuff Girls script was dumb. These two things can be true at once.


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