This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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Podcast by: Sarah Michelson (@sarah_michelson)
Hell is a Teenage Girl:
Monstrous Bodies in Jennifer's Body and Ginger Snaps
Content warnings: eating disorders, sexual violence, menstruation, bullying
Early 21st century film is full of monstrous teenage girls, some figurative (for example, Regina George from Mean Girls), but others rather literal, such as Ginger Fitzgerald (Ginger Snaps) and Jennifer Check (Jennifer's Body). In his essay "Monster Culture: Seven Theses," Jeffrey Jerome Cohen famously writes that the monster is the harbinger of category crisis and that the monster polices the borders of the possible. Teenage girls, too, have an inherent sense of liminality, as children on the threshold of adulthood who are trying to make meaning out of their own physical and emotional instability. This is not helped by a culture that heavily polices teenage girls and makes them feel uncomfortable in their own skin— it isn't hard for a teenage girl to feel like a monster. This paper analyses the body horror of Ginger Fitzgerald and Jennifer Check through the lens of abjection and monster theory, considering Ginger as a werewolf and Jennifer as a kind of vampire. It considers these characters' context within other teenage girl media of the era, and within a greater lineage of monsters. What do Ginger and Jennifer's monstrous bodies, and their monstrous hungers, say about the teenage girl experience?
About the Author: Sarah Michelson recently completed her M.Phil in Modern and Contemporary Literary Studies at Trinity College Dublin, where she wrote a dissertation on 1980s gendered body horror. In addition to horror scholarship, Sarah also writes short fiction.
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 8: Cannibalizing Femininity, which will take place at 6:50 PM GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Sarah Michelson. Sarah recently completed her M.Phil in Modern and Contemporary Literary Studies at Trinity College Dublin, where she wrote a dissertation on 1980s gendered body horror. In addition to horror scholarship, Sarah also writes short fiction.
She is a vicious hunter, stalking her prey through the fluorescent-lit halls of her high school. She is furious, she is terrifying, and she is starving. She is the monstrous teenage girl. “The monster always escapes because it refuses easy categorization…so the monster is dangerous, a form suspended between forms that threatens to smash distinctions,” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen famously writes in his essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” The monster is an inherently liminal creature, existing at the borders of ontology. So too is the teenage girl, as she grapples with the messy in-between of adolescence. To be a teenage girl is to be a walking, breathing category crisis— to be, perhaps, a monster. I will be discussing two films from the early 2000s about teenage girl monsters— Ginger Snaps, released in 2000 and directed by John Fawcett; and Jennifer’s Body, released in 2009 and directed by Karyn Kusama. I will consider the bodies of these films’ monsters— Ginger Fitzgerald, a werewolf; and Jennifer Check, a vampiric succubus, through the lens of monster theory and teenage girl culture. I will be asking what these monsters tell us about the teenage girl experience, and the horrors imbued within. Specifically, I will be discussing how Ginger and Jennifer navigate their bodies through desire and conflict.
Female monstrosity has long been discussed in academic discourse, most famously in Barbara Creed’s theory of the monstrous-feminine. The monstrous-feminine is the feminine that transgresses against the patriarchal order. “Virtually all horror texts represent the monstrous-feminine in relation to Kristeva’s notion of maternal authority and the mapping of the self’s clean and proper body,” she writes. “Images of blood, vomit, pus, shit…signify a split between two orders: the maternal authority and the law of the father.” Female monsters are not transgressive just as monsters, but as women— in fact, it is their womanhood and alliance with maternal authority— that is, bodily authority— that truly makes them monsters. In doing so, female monsters expose something before socialization, law, and rules. They are creatures of desire and of the body; social law is what threatens them.
Interiority, for these teenage monsters, becomes exteriority. Elizabeth Grosz, in her book Volatile Bodies, explains quite clearly the connection between interior and exterior. “I will deny that there is the ‘real’ material body on one hand and its various cultural and historical representations on the other,” she writes.
…these representations and cultural inscriptions quite literally constitute bodies and help to produce them as such…as an essential internal condition of human bodies, a consequence of perhaps their organic openness to cultural competition, bodies must take the social order as their productive nucleus. Part of their own ‘nature’ is an organic or ontological ‘incompleteness’ or lack of finality, an amenability to social completion, social ordering and organization.
We mark can mark our teenage girl monsters out in the theoretical space of the material body as it responds the the psycho-physical space of adolescence. It is the process of becoming, of their being a sort of vessel of want and desire, pushing through a symbolic superstructure that denies them their needs. They become monsters as they become women. Like with puberty, both Ginger and Jennifer experience irreversible transformations. These transformations allow them to indulge in the desire and rage of adolescence that they have been forbidden from expressing.
Ginger Fitzgerald’s body is specifically marked out by the narrative as a pubescent one, on the verge of menarche. “[Menstruation] is nothing to be scared of,” Ginger’s mom tells her, trying to comfort her into accepting her oncoming first period. “It’s the most normal thing in the world.” Ginger and her sister Brigette are both three years overdue to begin their periods, and it is clear that the adulthood that such a biological process represents is deeply anxiety-inducing for them both. When Ginger finally gets her period on the playground, which is symbolic of the world of childhood, she describes it as “the curse.” It is a bloody ripping-away from childhood in the most literal of senses, for mere moments afterwards, Ginger is mauled by the werewolf that is to begin her monstrous transformation. The werewolf, itself a cultural symbol of transformation and liminality, is implied to have been drawn to Ginger by the scent of her menstrual blood. And indeed, Ginger, a child on the verge of transformation in multiple ways, is monstrously defined by her liminality— between girl and woman; between human and beast, with her changing body the nexus of narrative. “Something’s wrong,” Brigette tells Ginger. “Like, more than you being just…female.” As Ginger is ashamed about her transformation from girl to woman, so too is she ashamed of her increasing lycanthropic qualities. In the same way a young woman might shave her armpits and pubic area, Ginger aggressively fears her newfound canine hair. “I can’t have a hairy chest, B, that’s fucked!” she privately tells her sister. The physical changes a body undergoes during puberty are of course linked with emotional reality. “The concept of the ‘somatic self’ as a characteristic captures the female adolescent’s sense of herself and her body,” writes Mali Mann. “The shape, size, and functioning of the body contributes to her psychic reality.” Indeed, Ginger’s transformation into a full-fledged werewolf is in fact the embodiment of the somatic self. Ginger spills blood in multiple respects; the process of becoming is externalized as the monster.
Unlike Ginger, who revels in being an outcast, Jennifer Check of Jennifer’s Body is the queen bee. Her body is the locus of high school desire. Jennifer is used to being wanted and asked out, as she explains to her best friend Needy Lesnicki. And yet, like Ginger, Jennifer’s body is imbued with a certain degree of becoming, for her social power depends on maintaining a sense of physical desirability. Needy points out to Jennifer the latter’s shame and insecurity, and the lengths to which she goes to stay beautiful and popular, including taking laxatives to remain thin. This reliance on desirability and male attention is literalized when Jennifer begins to feed on the boys that admire her. Let us take a moment to discuss Jennifer’s “becoming”— her monstrous transformation— in depth. Consider Ginger, whose lycanthropic transformation begins on the playground, opposed to Jennifer, whose brush with the supernatural begins at a concert for the indie band Low Shoulder. Low Shoulder represents everything that Jennifer wants out of her life— the members of the band are hip and urban, as opposed to Jennifer’s rural, dead-end town of Devil’s Kettle. Jennifer is also certain that her attractiveness will win her what she wants. “I think [Low Shoulder] needs two groupies,” Jennifer suggestively tells Needy. “They’re just boys, morsels. We have all the power. Don’t you know that? These things,” she says, pointing to Needy’s breasts, “these, are like smart bombs. Okay? You point them in the right direction, and shit gets real.” Jennifer is self-aware about her power, but fails to realize Low Shoulder’s actual motivations for being in Devil’s Kettle— to perform a human sacrifice.
Jennifer’s Body is in many ways a “rape-revenge” film, and its characters live in the modern, disenchanted world. Everything that leads up towards the sacrifice of Jennifer by Low Shoulder is figured by the characters as leading up to not a demonic ritual, but a violent act of rape. When Needy overhears the band discussing Jennifer’s virginity she assumes they’re discussing whether or not she would make for a good lay. After the girls escape from the fire that burns down Melody Lane, Nikolai convinces Jennifer to get into their archetypal predatory van. On the phone to her boyfriend Chip, Needy tearfully describes the van as an “’89 rapist.” When the film gives us Jennifer’s perspective of her abduction and sacrifice, she too begins to believe that she is going to be raped. She outright asks if the band members are rapists, and lies about being a virgin because she believes it will spare her from sexual violence. Tragically, this seals her fate, for it is indeed a virgin that the band is looking for. Jennifer is tied down and gagged while Nikolai explains to her the reason for her sacrifice— it will guarantee them celebrity and artistic success. Low Shoulder, then, considers Jennifer’s life— to them, a podunk nobody from nowhere of relevance— a worthwhile trade for their own fame and glory. The social power dynamics in this scenario are particularly significant. In a world of people like Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski, and Jamie Spears (just to name a few), the image of a group of men sacrificing a young woman for their own artistic careers is a powerful one that speaks to a legacy of abuse— indeed, of rape on a systemic scale.
Because Jennifer is not actually a virgin, the attempted sacrifice instead transforms her into flesh-eating succubus. While this speaks to the violence of sexual trauma, Jennifer’s Body avoids conflating being a survivor with being a monster, because in a social sense, Jennifer was already a monster prior to her demonic transformation. She has a distinctive lineage of alpha teens in pop culture, popular girls who know that they are powerful in a way that their classmates are not, and who use that power to torment everyone around them. They are both hot and terrifying— a mortal succubus in a designer skirt. From Regina George in the appropriately named Mean Girls, to Heather Chandler and her posse in the eponymous Heathers, to Massie Block and the Pretty Committee in young adult book series The Clique, popular culture is full of teenage girls who rule their adolescent kingdoms with a perfectly manicured iron fist. This genre hardly sprouted out of nowhere— the social dynamics of teenage girls are brutal, and they are often horrifically vicious towards one another in a particularly psychological manner. As Rachel Simmons explains in Odd Girl Out,
Our culture refuses girls access to open conflict, and it forces their aggression into nonphysical, indirect, and covert forms. Girls use backbiting, exclusion, rumors, name-calling, and manipulation to inflict psychological pain on victimized targets. Unlike boys, who tend to bully acquaintances or strangers, girls frequently attack within tightly knit networks of friends, making aggression harder to identify and intensifying the damage to the targets.
These mean girls do not fight with their fists; rather, they use tactics of psychological warfare— and they often use it on their friends. And indeed, Jennifer Check is viewed as particularly vicious. “Jennifer’s evil,” Needy tells Chip after researching Jennifer’s demonic transformation. His response is a mere shrug and an “I know.” Needy, trying to explain further, says, “no, I mean she’s actually evil. Not high school evil.” Jennifer’s casual cruelty, her “high school evil,” is a non-question in her social sphere. She is in fact so mean that, sans her victims and Needy, no one really notices that she has changed into a literal monster— her behavior, outside of her feeding habits, remains nearly the same. The Mean Girl genre also tends to have a particular axis of conflict between the Mean Girl and a girl who she views as a social threat. Consider Jennifer versus Needy, or Trina versus, and later Ginger versus Brigette. These conflicts are deeply personal ones, scratching and biting below the emotional surface.
Both girls also find themselves conflating violence and sexual desire. Jennifer “consumes” boys as sexual partners prior to her transformation, and consumes them literally after the fact. Jennifer even discusses eating boys in erotically charged terms. After seducing and eating Jonas Kozelle, Jennifer explains to Needy, “you know when you kiss a boy for the first time, and it feels like your entire body is on vibrate? It’s that good.” But it is not just that eating boys makes Jennifer feels good— it is what literally sustains her. When well-fed, Jennifer is gorgeous, “glowy,” as Needy tells Chip. Which, of course, allows her to maintain her social standing and continue to dominate as her high school’s queen bee— and attract more boys to eat. It is a more cyclical form of becoming, one that demands a continuous sense of emotional and physical indulgence.
Likewise, as Ginger becomes more and more wolflike, she experiences an increased libido. But for Ginger, it soon becomes clear that this feeling is something far more intense. “I get this ache,” Ginger says. “And I thought it was for sex, but it’s to tear everything to fucking pieces.” Ginger feels a particularly gendered sense of shame regarding her desire, both for sex and for violence. As Brigette prepares to pierce Ginger with silver, Ginger reflects on her sexual rendezvous. “Jeff’s probably out there telling everyone what a freak I am,” she says. “He got laid. I’m just a lay.” But the more animalistic she becomes, the less she cares. After rampaging through their school and murdering the janitor, Ginger confronts Brigette. “[Killing] feels so good,” Ginger says. Slowly licking her bloody fingers, Ginger tells her sister that murder “is like touching yourself.” She says that after, she sees “fireworks. Supernovas. I’m a goddamn force of nature.” Ginger sheds her shame like she sheds her uterine lining and encourages her sister to join her in erotically charged terms. “You love it,” she says. You should come for the ride. A little scratch. Swap some juice. It’ll be our own pact, like before.” What is clear is that Ginger needs her sister and wants her to come to this new place with her in an incredibly physical sense— she desires continuity. Their intense relationship is summed up in their mutual mantra: “out by sixteen, or dead on the scene, but together forever.” Ginger’s transformation, her becoming, frightens Brigette. It challenges their togetherness. Ginger is increasingly the thing of abjection that is cast off from their shared psychic body. It is as if Ginger is becoming menstrual blood herself— gory discharge from the sisterly self.
Similarly, I want to briefly take a moment to discuss Needy and Jennifer’s mutual attraction, and what that means for the grander stakes of the narrative. Needy has clear feelings for Jennifer, and Jennifer, repressed feelings for Needy. During the concert at Melody Lane, Needy and Jennifer hold hands— Needy looks at Jennifer longingly, but Jennifer only has eyes for Low Shoulder. Later, when Jennifer breaks into Needy’s house after the botched ritual, she pushes Needy into a wall and leans up against her, softly whispering into her ear before kissing her on the neck and then throwing her across the hall. And eventually, after killing and eating Colin, Jennifer returns to Needy’s house, where the two passionately kiss— with Jennifer initiating the encounter, and Needy responding in turn. What I want to point out here is that after multiple sexually charged, violent scenes— first, the sacrifice; and later, Colin’s murder— Jennifer’s first instinct is to find Needy and initiate some kind of erotic situation where, unlike Jennifer’s male partners, Needy is not eaten. That said, Jennifer often eats boys that have some kind of connection to Needy, like Colin, a friend of Needy’s; and Chip, Needy’s boyfriend. Take Colin’s murder, which is intercut with Needy and Chip’s sex, underscoring the way in which Needy is psychically connected to Jennifer. While it is technically Chip having sex with Needy, through Needy’s psychic experience of the violence of Colin’s murder, Chip is instead something of a conduit for Jennifer. As Jennifer devours Colin, so she, in a sense, consummates her homoerotic bond with Needy. This is strengthened by the audio— the death screams of Colin blend in to the horrified screams of Needy.
At her core, Jennifer really does love Needy, but that love is incompatible with her image as the popular girl. Jennifer’s sense of self relies largely on filling this particular high school niche. She has to be the best and the hottest, the one who gets the guy, who devours him, who is sustained by male attention and male flesh. She cannot reconcile her feelings for Needy with the way she views her as competition, and specifically undercuts Needy (either through insults or through eating boys that matter to her) in order to maintain her fragile self esteem. There is something remarkably abject about Needy and Jennifer’s relationship; the way that they simultaneously adore and loathe each other— an evolution of their childhood friendship, which Needy dubs their “sandbox love.” Likewise, Ginger loves Brigette, to the point where their mother chidingly comments that as much as they wish for it, they are not physically connected at their wrists. But as Ginger becomes something more, Brigette finds herself being left behind. There is little room for Brigette in Ginger’s new world. “You wrecked everything for me that isn’t about you,” Brigette tells Ginger. She then slices both of their palms and clasps their hands together, joining them in the lycanthropic curse. “Now I am you,” Brigette says. The combination of blood is a return to the sense of sisterly bodily continuity, of being “connected at the wrists”— or palms. Now under “the curse” due to mixing their blood, Brigette is going to the same place as Ginger. And indeed, Ginger and Brigette partake in a kind of dark communion together shortly after Ginger’s final transformation into a wolf, drinking the blood of Sam, Brigette’s companion who helped to engineer a cure for lycanthropy. However, the blood disgusts Brigette, who spits it back up, and it is this visceral, bodily rejection of their symbolic union that leads to the final battle between sisters.
Appropriately, the ultimate showdowns between the two pairs of girls happens in each monster’s childhood bedroom. When Needy arrives at Jennifer’s house to finish her off, the two fight on Jennifer’s bed. As Needy screams at Jennifer, Jennifer takes the opportunity to bite Needy on the neck, and then licks the blood from her lips suggestively. Consider here Barbara Creed on the female vampire— “sucking blood from a victim’s neck places the vampire and victim in an intimate relationship,” she writes. “Unlike other horror-film monsters, the vampire enfolds the victim in an apparent or real erotic embrace…She embraces her female victims, using all the power of her seductive wiles to soothe and placate anxieties before striking. Of necessity, then, the female vampire’s seduction exploits images of lesbian desire.” Jennifer’s violent bite thus doubles as a kiss. The euphemistic banter between the two as they fight also underscores the erotic undertones of the encounter. “You know what this is for?” Needy asks. “It’s for cutting boxes.” Jennifer lifts them into the air, where they rapidly swap positions— until Needy, on the top, tears off Jennifer’s bloodstained “BFF” necklace, severing the psychic link and causing Jennifer to fall to back on to her bed. This is remarkably revealing— for better or worse, Jennifer truly does love Needy, and with the symbol of their bloodstained relationship destroyed, so too goes their physical relationship. The destruction of their erotic bond is epitomized by Needy’s killing blow— a strike from the boxcutter straight into Jennifer’s heart. The violence of their relationship paints a tragedy, about two girls who could have experienced a healthy kind of love if not for the exterior violence of the teenage girl social order.
While it is Needy who attacks Jennifer in the end, the positions are reversed in Ginger Snaps. Ginger chases Brigette after the latter’s refusal to drink blood, and Brigette quite literally breaks down the wall to escape into their bedroom. Ginger follows her nonetheless, and Brigette, holding a knife and the syringe with the cure, gives Ginger a seemingly final rebuke of their mantra and relationship— “I’m not dying in this room with you!” Together forever the sisters are not, as they fight to the death in the room where they grew up. This violent ripping apart between sisters ends when Ginger pounces on Brigette and lands on her knife, growling, snarling, and bleeding out between their beds. However, the abjection, the tearing apart, the separation, is not a complete one. While Brigette still holds the cure, she neglects to use it on either Ginger or herself. Instead, she goes to her sister and leans her head on her, embracing Ginger tenderly as she dies. There is both fear and acceptance in Brigette’s final interactions with Ginger. Brigette does not, within the context of this film, choose to cure herself; instead opting to comfort Ginger as she traverses that final, mortal border. Brigette cannot bring herself to fully reject her sister; certainly, while the pair have been at odds throughout the film, everything that Brigette has done has been out of love. Ginger Snaps explores the female adolescent experience as a painful one, full of anger and discomfort; but also full of care. There is no going back to where you began, but horrific as the journey may be, you do not have to go alone. Teenage girl monsters, through their becoming, embody the violence and the fear implicit in the experience of female adolescence. They are messy, angry, and thoroughly imperfect. They struggle, suffer, and cause pain. The monster exists at the border, a place of inherent conflict, and through her monstrous transformation, the teenage girl can come into conflict with the border on her own terms.
Thank you so much, and before I finish, I want to take a brief moment to highlight the work of Dr. Miranda Corcoran on the female teenage witch, which is both exceptional and exposed me to some of the theoretical frameworks that I needed to write this talk. Thank you again.