“Jennifer’s Body” Was Made For White Girls
In true girlboss fashion, Jennifer’s Body surged back into the modern pop culture landscape after being tarnished by critics and general audiences when it hit theaters back in 2009.
Its cult following has steadily grown since the film’s release, but it became more mainstream after the Me Too Movement along with a collective reminder of the misogyny young female celebs faced in the 2000s. I was curious about this phenomenon but held back on watching the film until this past Halloween. What I found was that Jennifer’s Body has a glaring amount of racism and ableism that goes unnoticed.
Jennifer’s Body, directed by Karyn Kursama and written by Diablo Cody, centers on mousy, bespectacled Anita “Needy” Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried) and her devotion to her unapologetically bitchy best friend Jennifer Check (Megan Fox). After Jennifer is seduced and brutally murdered by a devil-worshipping indie rock band in an attempted sacrifice, she becomes possessed by a demon who craves human flesh. Needy, aided by an unspoken psychic connection, is the only one to suspect that Jennifer’s newfound appetite is what’s behind the gruesome murders of young men in her class. As a result, the rift between their already toxic friendship grows as Jennifer increasingly victimizes Needy and her clueless boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons).
So here’s a list of moments in Jennifer’s Body that I thought were racist:
- An institutionalized Needy mocks a Latino facility employee by mispronouncing “gracias” as “grassy-ass”.
- Needy kicks a Black female facility counselor in the face so hard that she spits out blood and a tooth as the white prisoners cheer her on and the Black prisoners look in shock. Granted this part was written racially blind but it was striking considering she’s the first woman of color with speaking lines we see on screen.
- (Photo above) Jennifer teases Chip by saying their house smells like Thai food and jokingly asks if he and Needy having sex was the cause of the stench.
- Jennifer calls a boom box a “ghetto blaster.”
- When Needy shows Jennifer her blood-crusted nails after cleaning up the blood a newly possessed Jennifer expels in her kitchen, Jennifer snidely comments that she needs “A Chinese chick to buff her situation.”
- (Photo below) There is a non-speaking South Asian foreign exchange student named Ahmet (Aman Johal) who is mostly referred to by the principal cast as “Ahmet from India.” He is portrayed as culturally isolated and sexless, and Jennifer jokingly wonders if he’s circumcised. He is later presumed to be killed in the Melody Lane bar fire but is revealed to have been Jennifer’s first victim, seducing him by appealing to his loneliness as a foreign exchange student. This could have been a decent commentary on the xenophobia small-town Americans hold for immigrants, but I don’t think this isn’t the case since this is not explicitly nor subtextually commented on further in the film. The story disposes of him just as quickly as the characters do.
This isn’t an isolated incident on Diablo Cody’s part, as she gained some controversy for a disparaging line in her Oscar winning script for Juno, in which the title character jokingly tells the prospective adoptive parents of her child that they should’ve gone to China where they “give away babies like free iPods.” Though both Juno and Jennifer’s Body both have less stereotypical but clueless side characters played by Chinese-Canadian actress Valerie Tian (along with the latter film being directed by an Asian-American woman), this is still not enough to excuse the pattern of anti-Asian racism in Cody’s films.
I also want to note that the film contains a good amount of ableism. Like most films in the early aughts, the r-slur and its variations were used frequently in Jennifer’s Body. The slur was used directly by the meaner characters in the film, Jennifer and Nikolai (Adam Brody), the lead singer of the band who sacrifices her, while Needy used a less direct, frankly awkward variation of the slur (freak-t***ed). These instances are a shameful reflection of the common usage of the slur by everyday people in the 2000s (and I know, I was there).
Don’t get me wrong, the film and the people involved deserve this newfound praise. The trope-defying film is a rare look at the toxicity that festers between two insecure teenage girls who share a seemingly undying bond. I related to Needy’s growing frustration at being dismissed and talked down to by my close friends, and how that resentment fuels her anger throughout the film. The performances from all the actors are phenomenal, especially Amanda Seyfriend and Megan Fox’s layered performances as the two leads. However, the casual racism and ableism that constantly showed up in Cody’s script keeps me from fully loving Jennifer’s Body.
While I understand that the characters were framed as unlikeable when they say these things, their engagement in these behaviors is never explored nor critiqued any further than the laughs they received from audiences. Though it is a reflection of the characters’ boldly crass nature, the actual racism and ableism in their statements is never pointed out as anything other than hilariously inappropriate (if it’s pointed out at all). It does nothing to serve the characters nor the plot, and is thus nothing more than an exercise of casual bigotry regardless of intent.
As I previously mentioned in my essay “Mean Girls: A Time Capsule of Casual Bigotry”, this type of everyday bigotry was a source of “dark” and “edgy” humor at the time. It reinforced the notion of white, cishetero, able-bodied people being the “default”, and this was rarely questioned let alone called out for how disrespectful and offensive this idea was to people from marginalized groups. As someone who was an autistic black teenager when the film came out, I not only understand how widespread this attitude was, but how difficult it was to stand up against it without being socially chastised for it (let alone the lack of understanding of exactly why this attitude was so frustratingly pervasive). I don’t relate to Needy because my friends were more attractive than me, I relate to her because I was forced to laugh off the racist and ableist jokes my friends constantly made at my expense.
To me, it’s clear that Cody and co. made this film for women like her in mind: white, able-bodied women. While the story contained feminist themes such as toxic female friendship and empowerment against predatory men, the racism and ableism in the script makes it clear that she wasn’t thinking about the women of color nor the disabled women who will inevitably watch the popular film. In a recent interview, Cody was thrilled that one of her most racist lines from Jennifer’s Body was quoted by fans, saying that the Thai food line was her “favorite quote” in the film. This, along with the lack of attention brought to the issue despite the large amount of social media discourse surrounding the film (aside from a few articles and tweets I found offhand), made me suspect of the lack of intersectionality of the film’s brand of feminism.
This is especially ironic considering the reason why Jennifer’s Body regained popularity in the past few years. The reason why the film gained traction is because its fans are reexamining the regressive values of the time it was made, as the film was unfairly maligned by a male-led industry through a disastrous marketing campaign that aimed for straight college-aged males rather than the young women and queer people it was written for. While I understand why the fans were more focused on this phenomenon, I still thought these concerns were worth expressing. Naturally, I posted about it on TikTok and in a feminist film group on Facebook, and the results were interesting to say the least.
I was relieved by the amount of people, particularly people of color and disabled people, who were equally shocked (but not surprised) by the gross amount of casual bigotry in a supposedly progressive film. It was nice to relate to people over the out of body experience we feel when a film we’re starting to enjoy contains an offhand comment or joke that is simply too uncomfortable to brush off. However, I also received pushback from certain fans. Among the fans minimizing the film’s bigotry to it being dated and that the people offended shouldn’t be so “sensitive”, a surprising amount of fans felt attacked by my observations, as if I was personally judging them and an entire fanbase for liking a film that had problematic elements in it. Here’s the thing, we all have our problematic faves but calling attention to what makes your beloved media property problematic is the least fans can do, especially since the current discourse is centered on how progressive Jennifer’s Body is.
Jennifer’s Body is a film that deserves to be put in the spotlight, but its problematic elements deserve to be illuminated along with its positive qualities. When Cody laughs about a bigoted joke she made over ten years ago without any self-reflection, she is reinforcing the prevalent idea that it’s okay to look down on marginalized groups as a deviation of the “default” white race, whether she meant to or not. This is more than just Diablo Cody and Jennifer’s Body. Overall, this is an expression of disappointment for the lack of priority and care given to marginalized groups from supposedly progressive and enlightened fans, creators, and the media as a whole, and that is more soul sucking than any flesh eating demon.