Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Tag: Friendship

Jennifer’s Body

YEAR: 2009
DIRECTOR: Karyn Kusama
KEY ACTORS: Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 5.2
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 44%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ Are the cast fuckable? It’s Megan Fox as a hot cheerleader. Of course, the cast is fuckable! She’s deliberately sexy but it works!
✔️ And it passes the Bechdel Test – Needy and Jennifer talk about a demonic ritual if nothing else!
✔️ I’ve only watched it once but I really enjoyed it and would watch it again so, yes, rewatchable!
❌ But it didn’t inspire fantasies. The sex is, well, inexperienced and I have no desire to literally eat men…
✔️ It is sex positive, however. Both main characters have sex – the hot one and the nerdy one – and nothing bad happens to them because they’ve had sex! It also showed realistic first/early sexual experiences with obvious condom use that wasn’t really played for laughs, beyond the simple intrinsic hilarity of comfortable, consenting sex!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.49), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this review contains discussions of trauma, sexual assault and rape]

Jennifer’s Body poster, showing Megan Fox in a short cheerleader skirt sat in front of a blackboard that says ‘Hell yes!’

I’m starting to think I need to change the subtitle of this blog – it is a blog exploring movie sex and movie love but it is increasingly becoming a blog where I rant about the patriarchy and feminism. Because I’m starting to realise quite how much movies reflect the attitudes of the time that they were made, and because they are produced in an undeniably male dominated industry, they seem to act as magnifiers for all the niggling problems that grate against women. And horror movies and their obsession with sex and women make it even worse!

So here we are again – week two of my Halloween specials, and I’m writing about another film that was critically panned when it was released and yet hindsight has revealed a film that is not only good but was significantly ahead of its time. It’s just that it wasn’t made for men or for the male gaze (regardless of what the marketing may suggest) and so was completely misunderstood.

Jennifer’s Body tells the story of two teenagers who had been friends since they were children – Jennifer is hot and mean; Needy (I don’t know why she’s called that if not as an over obvious label) is bookish and quiet, but they’re friends. They go to see a band in a dive bar and the venue burns down in mysterious circumstances. In the chaos, Jennifer gets a lift with the band, supposedly for safety but actually because they had picked her out for a violent demonic ritual. Unfortunately for them, Jennifer isn’t a virgin as they’d expected so the ritual backfires, turning her into a demon succubus who feeds on other teenage boys. After she kills Needy’s boyfriend, Needy fights back, killing Jennifer and ending up in a secure mental health facility.

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Chip, dressed for the prom and in a dirty pool. Jennifer has blood all around her mouth after taking a bite from Chip’s neck

Doing my research for this film actually made me really angry – there was just too much sexism! Together, it had a cumulative effect of not only infuriating me but also damaging the careers of some very talented women. Jennifer’s Body was written by Diablo Cody, straight after she won the Academy Award for writing Juno; and it stars Megan Fox in her first role after Transformers. It should have been an escalating point for both of their careers but it wasn’t. It’s critical failure meant that Cody moved to writing for TV until 2018’s Tully and Megan Fox hasn’t yet done anything really impactful (Sorry to Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles fans!).

What upset me most was that they were both affected by different but equally cliched patriarchal bullshit and neither did anything that would have been more than a blip in a male colleague’s career. Cody made a poorly received film, sure, but she was subsequently brought down by the fact that women aren’t allowed to fail. Our actions not only speak for all women and our failures risk closing doors for other women in our industry, but we are certainly not allowed second chances. As Anne Cohen wrote for Refinery29 last year, there was a disquieting tone to the reviews – ‘as if by this one critical failure, Cody had signed her own Hollywood death warrant.’ And it proved to be true.

Megan Fox’s story is more troubling but no less typical. After publicly criticising the work environment on the sets of the Transformers films, she was fired by Michael Bay who also published a letter from some of his film crew that ripped her to pieces in an unnecessarily personal and vitriolic fashion. Should she have criticised Bay so publicly? Probably not. But did she deserve such an obvious and sadly successful attempt to blacklist and discredit her? Absolutely not! Calling her ‘everything from “dumb-as-a-rock” to “Ms. Sourpants” and “Ms. Princess” to “trailer trash…posing like a pornstar”’ is not an objective and fair appraisal; it’s mean and cruel and reeks of that attitude shared by angry men who have been slighted by a woman who they feel is beneath them.

Which, sadly but not unexpectedly, brings us around to the #MeToo movement. Frederick Blichert writing for Vice expresses hope that ‘a poor-faith campaign to frame an actress as difficult may meet some resistance today’ after the methods Harvey Weinstein used to blacklist women who displeased him have been revealed and themselves discredited. But it’s not just the treatment of Megan Fox that hasn’t aged well now – Jennifer’s Body as a whole is a movie that should be looked at completely differently now we are in a post-#MeToo world.

An image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer in a prom dress, covered in blood, floating above a dirty pool

Because the entire plot revolves around the question of what happened to Jennifer in that van with the band. Except we don’t really need to ask what happened; the implications are clear. Just as in Practical Magic, the supernatural is used as a metaphor or substitute for emotions or experiences that are too powerful or difficult to explain – rather than being assaulted or raped by the band, Jennifer is ritually sacrificed. She then processes her trauma by acting out a ‘cathartic fantasy…using her victimised, violated body to wreak bloody vengeance on the patriarchy.’ In a dark, twisted way, it’s kind of empowering! These men have used her body for their own gain and yet it is her sexuality that allows her to take revenge, using that body to ‘entrap and feed on those who once objectified her.’ Jennifer really is a feminist revenge hero!

And there are two particularly interesting aspects of her revenge that I wanted to mention. Firstly, her actual attackers almost get away with it, and they definitely benefit from the ritual, enjoying huge success until Needy wreaks her own bloody revenge. Instead, it is the people around Jennifer who suffer. Considering how rarely abusers and rapists are convicted, this feels right somehow. And despite occurring in a supernatural movie, it feels real. Constance Grady at Vox felt that this reads as a ‘dark bit of satire’ now when we consider how many men have had abusive behaviour revealed during #MeToo but whose career has not suffered long term. Trauma and abuse cause a lot of collateral damage around the people who have been abused, but too often there is devastatingly little impact on the abuser. In fact, many recent reviews mention the election of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court and how it sent a message to teenage girls that ‘whatever their male peers do to them in their youth doesn’t really matter.’ That’s not supernatural; that is real.

But more interestingly and more importantly, Jennifer’s Body is a slasher film that doesn’t punish its female characters for having sex. Spoilers for next week’s post on Halloween: this is not common in horror films! Characters losing their virginity is usually the same as signing a death warrant, but Jennifer is saved by her sexual experience…in a dark, twisted way. If she were a virgin, she would have died when she was sacrificed but her sexuality gave her the power to fight back. And once again, that’s kind of empowering. No wonder the patriarchy and all those male critics didn’t enjoy this film!

But they’d be almost forgiven for expecting Jennifer’s Body to be a ‘normal’ horror film with sexy hot girls getting naked and being killed, because that’s exactly how it was marketed. And I’m afraid that I was one of the many, many people who were put off by the aggressively sexual promotion – I’m wary of slasher films as I don’t like jump scares and I didn’t need to see another overly sexualised film where another naked girl is killed, so I didn’t bother.

Promo image from Jennifer's Body showing Megan Fox in a cheerleader outfit, lying down

It has been suggested that the marketing choices were deliberate and were supposed to draw in a male audience: ‘Come for the scene of Jennifer and Needy making out, get hit in the face with an hour and forty-seven minutes of female storytelling. How do you like that, boys?’ It feels like the much trailed kiss between Jennifer and Needy was only there to appeal to this demographic as it doesn’t quite fit with my interpretation of the rest of the film and felt unnecessary. Megan Fox is hot and is ‘on display for men to pay to look at’ but she’s knowingly hot, knowingly sexy. She’s exaggerating and playing up to the cheerleader stereotype so that her ugliness (in massive inverted commas as she’s still gorgeous) when she’s hungry is more pronounced. She even jokes about looking normal when she’s supposed to look rough. But there seemed no reason for the kiss, except to exaggerate Jennifer’s sexual predator status…and to appeal to the male gaze.

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Needy at school. Jennifer has no make up on and looks relatively plain

But if that was the tactic, it seriously backfired! Critics and horny viewers didn’t get it. It wasn’t sexy enough to be hot, wasn’t funny enough to be humorous, wasn’t scary enough to be horror, and wasn’t trashy enough to be trash!

Watching it now, I can’t believe that no one realised at the time that it was satire – hilarious, cutting, subversive satire that turned all those movie tropes in on themselves. And it is not a fantasy for men! Roger Ebert describes it as Twilight for boys, with Megan Fox in the Robert Pattinson role, except that I recall Pattinson was shirtless’ as if straight boys want ‘demonic cheerleaders’ in the same way straight girls want vampires. The more I read about how badly the film was received initially, the more I wanted to scream ‘it wasn’t made for you!’

Because Jennifer’s Body is about being a teenage girl. It’s about how cruel we can be to each other and how we cling to toxic friendships way beyond their natural life because so much else is changing. Jennifer was an arsehole to Needy long before she became a demon. In fact, her possession didn’t really change her personality that much – just her focus. But it took that kind of dramatic crisis to end their friendship. There were no demonic possessions at my school but, wow, there was drama! We really hurt each other and were mean and screamed at each other. And we’d run home and cry at how much someone had changed and how we couldn’t believe the way they were acting, and then we’d make up the next day and start again. Being a teenager sucks!

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Needy in front of their school lockers. Jennifer is pulling a strand of Needy’s hair

And Jennifer’s Body is about how there is no perfect victim – something that is too often forgotten. Jennifer was a bitch and went to that bar intending on hooking up with the band, but that definitely doesn’t mean that she deserved what happened to her. As was so eloquently put in that Refinery29 article, ‘Jennifer may be a mean girl possessed by a demon, and her murderous rampage sets her up as someone who needs to be stopped, but she’s also a victim. She’s a beautiful girl with low self-esteem whose been taught that her entire self-worth is wrapped up in her looks and sex appeal. Wouldn’t you want revenge for that?’

Megan Fox got in. She knew exactly what she was doing, vamping up her sex appeal and exaggerating her plastic and bouncy character, as it made her vulnerability during her attack more shocking. She did it so well that I actually felt quite sorry for her when Needy finally killed her. And she knew how important it was to be that imperfect victim, that real person who does bad things but still did not deserve her fate: ‘If I was to have a message, it would be to be a different kind of role model to girls….It’s O.K. to be different from how you’re supposed to be.’ Fox told The View and quoted in the New York Times. ‘I worry that’s totally lost.’

And it was totally lost. ‘2009 just wasn’t ready for this movie’ Vox claimed, and I am so pleased that it is finally receiving the recognition it deserves, appearing on lists of top horror movies directed by women and being reclaimed as a ‘forgotten feminist classic.’

It’s just a shame it’s taken so long for these women’s voices to be heard…

Next week: Halloween

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

When Harry Met Sally…

YEAR: 1989
DIRECTOR: Rob Reiner
WRITER: Nora Ephron
KEY ACTORS: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.6/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 90%

SEX SCORE: 3/5

✔️ Passes Bechdel test…just! Although most conversations between the named women are about men and dating, Sally and Marie talk about wedding dresses at one point and there are conversations at the wedding that don’t include men!
✔️ Rewatchable and still wonderful – despite my criticisms!
✔️ Inspired romantic fantasies more than sexual fantasies, and not always in a good way as it certainly encouraged me to see and believe possible futures with hot friends when I shouldn’t…
But I don’t want to fuck them – they’re all much too neurotic for me!!
And it’s not really sex positive. Sex is something men do with people they don’t like and where women must fake enjoyment in search of love..

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Netflix, YouTube (from £7.99), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), iTunes (rent £3.49, buy £8.99)

The poster for When Harry Met Sally with Ryan and Crystal looking at each other in Central Park

So it seems that my plan to start a blog looking critically at the sex content in movies was not as original as I thought – not only have I discovered a podcast on exactly this theme but also two days before I published my first review, my favourite sex educators and podcasters, Meg-John and Justin, released a special episode of their brilliant podcast that followed roughly the same idea. They watched When Harry Met Sally and recorded their live commentary, discussing the key themes within the relationships on screen, and I would definitely recommend listening to their thoughts as you watch the movie.

I was particularly pleased that they’d chosen this film to start as I’d always thought of When Harry Met Sally as a film about love but this rewatch has shown me that it’s much more a film about sex – and I have learned so much about sex and relationships from Meg-John and Justin that having their input definitely helped me see nuance that I might have otherwise missed.

Talking of favourite podcasts, I was also reminded of an old episode of the Allusionist that I was listening to recently that blew my mind a little. It claimed that dictionaries should be descriptive rather than prescriptive and describe current word usage rather than what might be considered the correct use, exemplified by the new definition of ‘literally’ to add emphasis. This crucial difference sprung to mind when watching this film – did Nora Ephron describe attitudes as she saw them in 1980s or did she create them?

Because this film is full of what would now be considered cliches about how men and women interact – women want love, men want sex; women are desperate to find The One amongst an ever shrinking pool of available men. And the main point of Ephron’s film is, of course, that men and women can’t be friends because they are too different. They approach sex and love too differently to relate to each other – as Harry puts it, ‘the sex part always gets in the way.’

But is that still true now? Was it even true then? Aside from being ridiculously heteronormative, it seems too simple, too stereotypical, and yet those are the stereotypes that exist in this film and are the same ones that we still have to fight against now. Women still bemoan how their age is reducing their attractiveness while men become more valuable, and friendships between opposite sexes are still often viewed with suspicion. So did the film describe how we already were or did it help create these divisions?

Now, I must emphasise that I do love this film and could happily watch it every day, but I also feel that it is starting to look dated and parts of it are certainly at odds with current attitudes. For example, this is another film where, on rewatching now, the male protagonist proves to be a bit of a creep! I have always struggled to like Harry and, while I can see why they’re friends, I now equally struggle to see him and Sally being happy long term. They’re just too different! She’s blonde, light and breezy while he has a dark side. They are optimist and pessimist, innocent and sexual, controlled and emotional, and as much as I enjoy this film, I just don’t think Harry is the nice person he’s supposed to be and it makes it difficult to like him.

I may be accused of making generalisations here but I think a lot of people know a guy like Harry and a lot of women know to be wary of him. He talks about sex even though he barely knows you, he lets you know whether or not he’d want to fuck you even though you’ve just met and now have to spend a long car ride alone together, he doesn’t listen when you say no and still sits next to you on a plane anyway or buys you a drink when you don’t want one. He feels that lying to or subtly manipulating the people he’s dating is just part of the game – ‘I don’t have to lie because I’m trying to get her into bed. I can just be myself.’ He mocks and negs you, making you feel grateful for every compliment. He’s funny but often at someone’s expense and he’s astonished when people don’t like him or when partners leave him.

Harry in a book store, pretending to read but staring somewhere else

Harry and Sally’s inevitable sex scene is both the culmination of the plot and the key moment in my understanding Harry’s character, because the fact that they had sex shouldn’t have been inevitable and it certainly shouldn’t have happened when it did. After controlling her emotions for so long, Sally’s breakdown at the news of Joe’s marriage does demonstrate how close a friendship she has with Harry as he is able to support her and actively listen to her, not ridiculing her for her hyperbole and just being there for her. But this means that he should have understood how vulnerable she is and he should have stopped the escalation to sex. As Meg-John questioned, was their friendship ruined afterwards because they had sex or because they had sex in a poorly consensual way? Harry knows that Sally hasn’t had sex since Joe, he knows that she doesn’t see sex as casually as him and yet he doesn’t stop. Even though he questions how she values sex – ‘I’m not saying it didn’t mean anything. I’m just saying why does it have to mean everything!’ – he knows how she feels about it. He is able to see clearly, he has the power; he took advantage of her.

Harry and Sally in bed together. She looks happy, he looks horrified

So Sally’s distress afterwards is understandable – to put it mostly bluntly, she’s been violated by her friend – and Harry’s persistent demanding of her attention to try and fix his mistake is practically harassment. Again, Meg-John and Justin’s view here was really interesting – why do they need to fix their relationship by doubling down on their mistake? They both agreed that the sex didn’t feel right so why do they want to fundamentally change their relationship to a more sexual one? Perhaps Harry should have apologised and given Sally time to allow their friendship to recover instead. As Meg-John so succinctly put it, you can’t just show up and say I love you and make everything alright. In reality, can we expect the same fairytale ending?

Despite my concerns about Harry, however, Ephron does write about women in a much more positive and inspiring way. In her book about 80s movies, Hadley Freedman notes that the women have strong careers that are equal to their male counterparts – Sally even has same job as Harry’s friend Jess, both working as journalists for New York magazine. This is just not how professional women are now depicted in movies. They’re either bitches that need a man to put them in their place or work in safe, female friendly professions such as bakery, florists or fashion. The women in When Harry Met Sally are smart and capable, but it’s hardly even relevant. It’s just how it is and that’s kind of wonderful.

And although it is used as another way for Harry to mock her, Sally’s specific ordering habits do suggest a level of self-awareness that is admirable and, if I’m honest, somewhat enviable. It took me a really long time to know what I want and even longer to be able to ask for it, and I still sometimes struggle, but Sally is able to ask confidently for very complex meal orders right from the start. ‘I just want it the way I want it,’ she says and I would hope that this also translates to knowing what she wants sexually too! (This was another insight from Meg-John and Justin that makes a lot of sense!)

But I suspect that this was an accidental element of sex positivity as the female characters are generally shown as wanting love, rather than sex. Harry is able to have sex with people he doesn’t even like while Sally waits for someone she loves. The women are just so desperate to find The One – Marie, played by the wonderful and much missed Carrie Fisher, carries her Rolodex with potential dates on index cards with her and whips it out as soon as Sally announces that she’s single again, making jokes about literally finding someone before they all die. As a 34 year old women, I thought it was interesting choice to make the characters over 30 when the main action takes place. It adds a definite note of desperation to their search as their biological clocks keep ticking while the list of potential partners gets smaller and smaller. Is that why Harry and Sally are happy to risk having a sexual connection that isn’t perfect as they don’t think they have time to find better? Or do they just not see how they could stay such good friends if they’re not lovers?

Harry and Sally, smiling at each other at a party

There is a sense that Great Love means sacrificing great sex and Ephron uses Casablanca, a movie I might write about soon, as an analogy. Should Isla have stayed with Rick, claimed to be the best sex that she’s ever had, or gone with Victor, her steady and safe love? Young Sally chooses Victor, much to Harry’s disgust – ‘You’ve obviously never had great sex’ – but older Sally understands Rick’s appeal. Of course, Isla does choose Victor, perhaps just as Sally chooses Harry.

The loss of sex is longer term relationships is also almost stated as a fact without any critical judgement or contradiction. Initially Sally doesn’t want marriage or kids so that she and Joe can fly off to Rome at the drop of a hat or have sex on kitchen floor. She wants to keep all of the hot sex and freedom, even if she admits that she doesn’t utilise it, until her desire for a family trumps those needs. I risk being called hopelessly optimistic and as a new mother of a 6-month old I’d rather you didn’t contradict my hopes, but why can’t we have both? Surely it’s not too much to hope that we can fit our wish for a family into a relationship that otherwise satisfies us? Yes, spontaneous holidays may be a thing of the past but there are other ways to scratch that itch!

OK so I’m running out of space and oh my gosh, there is so much more that I could write about this film! Why are the men only able to talk intimately when they’re doing masculine activities, like playing baseball? Isn’t it clever that the film is set in such beautiful locations and yet the characters never notice them, just as they don’t notice the possibilities of love with each other? And because I can’t ignore the fake orgasm scene entirely, why do we always equate orgasms with good sex? Harry’s partners may have had great sex, even if they didn’t come!

So after all this, can men and women be friends?

It’s an area where my opinion has definitely changed over the past few years. I think I knew about When Harry Met Sally long before I actually saw the movie, so much so that I can’t actually remember when I first saw it, because my parents had a similar love story and were also friends for years before falling in love. As I wrote in my sex blog in 2015, this gave me a pretty skewed opinion on friendships between men and women because I always believed that everlasting love was a possibility. I argued that the sex part does get in the way and that friendships were always unbalanced, even if that was never acted on or acknowledged.

But I can see now that it’s actually a really messed up way to approach friendships! I fear it may be why I had so many unrequited loves in my twenties – they wanted friendship, I wanted more and, deep down, expected more and couldn’t see how weird that was. I do blame When Harry Met Sally for perpetuating this myth and giving hope to dreamers like me.

Because although it may be possible to fall in love with your best friend, it is much more valuable to understand that romantic relationships aren’t necessarily the top of the hierarchy. Deep, intimate but not sexual friendships can exist and can be wonderful. Feeling a strong emotional connection to someone doesn’t mean that they have to be a sexual partner, just as thinking they’re hot and wanting to fuck them doesn’t mean that they have to become a great love to stay in our lives. Changing relationship boundaries doesn’t need to ruin a friendship if it’s consensual and communication is open and equal. One person doesn’t have to be everything all the time.

We can have it all; we just have to be willing to ask for it and accept that some relationships have limitations. Or am I still being an optimistic dreamer?

‘You’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right.’

Next week: What Women Want

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only. Gifs from Giphy.com.