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In Queer Horror Anthology “It Came From the Closet,” Carmen Maria Machado Considers Jennifer’s Body

The following essay is excerpted from Feminist Press’ queer horror anthology It Came From the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror, on sale next week and available for preorder.


Both Ways

Queer Reader, let us take a moment for Jennifer’s body. Not just the 2009 film — a once-panned, now-beloved feminist cult classic — but Jennifer’s body. Megan Fox in knitted leg warmers and short-shorts, a puffy coat and red fishnets, a color guard uniform, an Evil Dead raglan tee and star-spangled underwear, a cropped hoodie and low-rise jeans, an Edwardian prom dress with long white opera gloves. A wet strand of hair drawn through her mouth. Swimming naked in a lake glassy with twilight. Blackening the tip of her tongue with a lighter. In hunger, wan and beautiful as a consumptive heroine. Levitating. Snarling. Doe eyes, full and glossed lips. Dropping onto a car like a wild cat. Projectile vomiting an unctuous, inky liquid onto her best friend. Teeth like a nurse shark. A distended, disarticulated jaw like a python. Jennifer’s body on a sacrificial altar, sobbing. Jennifer’s body moving eerily from a great distance; then too close, and from the wrong angle. Jennifer pulling a rod out of her shish-kebabbed torso, saying, through a mouth of blood, “Do you have a tampon?” Jennifer’s body underlining the politics of Jennifer’s Body; a sex symbol through a funhouse mirror. (The film’s execs thought she’d be a draw for teenage boys, but teenage boys hated it. They didn’t know they were coming to be eaten. Not like that.)

It’s happened to me several times now: someone who doesn’t know me very well asks me about my favorite horror movies. I am excited; I list this one among them. Sometimes they also love it; sometimes they’ve never heard of it, but once — well, more than once — they’ve scrunched up their nose. “Jennifer’s Body?” With Megan Fox? Isn’t it . . . ?” Then they express a riff on a concept. Queerbaiting, gay for titillation, performatively lesbian; whatever they call it, it’s always delivered in the tone of an unforgivable crime. In a way, I can hardly blame them; the film was marketed in precisely this fashion, high- lighting Megan Fox’s tongue dipping into Amanda Seyfried’s mouth and, of course, this iconic exchange:

“I thought you only murdered boys.”
“I go both ways.”

But no, I explain, it’s a great movie. A fucking classic. When indie-rock band Low Shoulder comes to perform in the tiny town of Devil’s Kettle, Minnesota, two lifelong friends — Needy (Seyfried) and Jennifer (Fox), a “dork and a babe,” respectively — end up at the local watering hole, watching them perform. Midshow the venue goes up in flames; the band disappears Jennifer in their van. She shows up later in Needy’s kitchen, ravenous and beaten to hell and vomiting a mysterious black goo. As the community reels from the catastrophe of the fire and its fatalities, Jennifer is unfazed, and possibly even more beautiful than before.

But boys keep going missing and showing up in isolated areas, their bodies ravaged and cannibalized. (The phrase “lasagna with teeth” is used twice.) Needy eventually learns that Low Shoulder — attempting to curry favor with Satan by sacrificing a virgin for fame and fortune — sacrificed Jennifer, a nonvirgin, and she ended up with a demon inside of her. Only Needy knows what’s really happening, and only Needy can end her reign of terror.

There are several showdowns in the film’s climax and denouement: Needy interrupts Jennifer killing her boyfriend; later, she suits up and goes to Jennifer’s bedroom, where the two of them wrestle, levitating in the air before Needy plunges a box cutter into her heart. Needy is sent to an institution; she escapes. As the credits roll, Needy hunts down the band, killing them gruesomely in their hotel room.

Though you’d never know it by reading the contemporaneous reviews, Jennifer’s Body is terrifically smart and gut-bustlingly funny, gross and tender and nimble all at once, a punchy tribute to small-town survival and a sendup of the saccharine stupidity of post-tragedy rhetoric. (When Jennifer orders two “9/11 tribute shooters,” she get them and pouts, “Ugh, Tower One isn’t full enough.”)

When the film celebrated its tenth anniversary, a new generation of critics and viewers got to experience its insight and prescience, especially in the shadow of #MeToo. The sexist coverage of the film (which in large part was due to the misogyny directed at Megan Fox) now seems unspeakably dated. But I cannot help but wonder about the charge of queerbaiting, which seems on some level to have survived, even intensified.

***
There are many themes moving through Jennifer’s Body — the precarious insecurity of girlhood, the violence of male entitlement, the extreme badness of midaughts rock — but it’s impossible to miss its queerness, though for a certain kind of worldview,1 it’s very easy to dismiss. Jennifer and Needy experience so many kinds of intimacy it’s amazing we’ve retconned it into a kiss and a catchphrase. As children they are in love and already unequal: Needy brings her mouth to a cut on Jennifer’s hand; Jennifer tells her not to tell. They exchange such long and devoted looks toward each other that a classmate calls them “lesbigay.” Needy knows when Jennifer is near, even before the film turns supernatural. A ravenous, freshly turned Jennifer nearly bites Needy, though she resists. They eventually kiss, long and hard and sensuously, on Needy’s bed before Needy bounces up, shrieking, “What the fuck are we doing?” Jennifer assures Needy she won’t bite, then delivers silly, porny dialogue about “sharing a bed during sleepovers” and how they used to play “boyfriend-girlfriend” in the past. When Needy eventually kills Jennifer, she does it facing her, straddling her; this is how Jennifer’s mother finds them, compromised in Jennifer’s canopy bed. Just before this, Jennifer breaks her promise and bites Needy in the shoulder, leaving a mark that transfers some of her powers to Needy permanently.

But one of the most interesting things about this film, one of the things that brings me back to it over and over again, is that it is not a film about lesbians, per se; it is not a generically queer perspective on wlw relationships. Instead, its energy is exceptionally specific: what it means to experience parallel sexualities with your best friend as you punch through the last vestiges of childhood; and, significantly, the central body of water that is bisexuality.

The moment in which Jennifer is lured into the band’s van — and Needy watches the door close on Jennifer’s vulnerable face — is one of rupture; from then on, they are staring at, and moving toward, different horizons. Queer Reader, set your gaze far away — imagine where they are going. Envision them as adults. Needy is a girl just learning she likes girls, sometimes, and loves Jennifer; Jennifer is a girl who, were her life uninterrupted by Satan, would have swung much harder into lesbianism.2 (For all her talk about dicks and how “salty” boys are, Jennifer is remarkably obsessed with her best friend. Girl, same!) Just before the infamous making out scene, Needy has sex with her boyfriend while Jennifer devours an emo kid she lured to an empty house. Needy’s bisexuality comes in fits and starts, serves her and fails her and confounds her; Jennifer dives teeth-first into hers.

***
When I was in my early twenties, I followed a woman with whom I was deeply infatuated to her family’s vacation home in Rehoboth Beach. One afternoon, she told me through tears of laughter that when I’d gone to take a shower, her mother had politely inquired if I was a lesbian. No, my friend said, Carmen is bisexual. “Oh!” her mother said, genuinely curious. “I’ve never met anyone who does both things before.”

“But which things?!” I asked. My friend could not say. We spent the rest of the afternoon speculating on the precise nature of the two things, the way it suggested some massive paradigm shift while also being hilariously specific.

That evening, as we walked along the beach in the dark and while stepping around the clear bodies of hundreds of beached jellyfish, I asked her to be my girlfriend. I’d been waiting so long to ask her, and being surrounded by a landscape of stilled danger felt correct. She was silent for a long beat. “I think I’m straight,” she said. “It’s not you.” Now it was my turn to be silent. “Are you upset with me?” she said. Eventually, I said no, but I was lying. I was heartbroken.

Did I mention we’d had sex? I’d hooked up with her and her boyfriend, back when she’d had one. That was our first encounter: I was a virgin, a unicorn who could only ride herself. Then, I was neither. After they broke up, we stayed in touch. She had a real job and would take me out to dinner; she always let me order extra food and dessert to take home. She started coming over to my house to watch TV and every time there was a commercial she’d kiss me, stopping when the show resumed. I don’t even remember what we watched; whatever it was, I couldn’t hear it over the sound of my thudding pulse. One time, she asked me if she could draw on me, and I took off my shirt and bra and she straddled me on my bed with a Sharpie in her hand and drew and drew. It felt beautiful, like how I imagined it felt to be tattooed, even though when I eventually saw the marks in the bathroom mirror, they were surprisingly imprecise and childish and I was embarrassed for both of us.

For a short and terrible time, I was so in love with her it hurt. But then she stood on that beach and said that she was straight, and I had nothing to say. I was already somewhere else.

***
I have a real soft spot for stories on conflicted, spectral, transient bisexuality. I always have. While many of my peers turned their nose up at Britney and Madonna and Christina’s kiss (staged for attention!) and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” (fake-gay titillation!) and a million other queer media fragments of my Millennial late adolescence and early adulthood, I always found them somewhere on the spectrum between harmless and delightful; an exercise in reading between the lines that I suspect José Esteban Muñoz would understand. (Plus, “the taste of her cherry ChapStick” is just pure poetry.) I am sympathetic to the desire to name and shame queerbaiting — it is, after all, an attempt to protect queerness from dilution, from interlopers, from accusations of unseriousness — but every piece of present-day me bristles against it. Who established these terms? Why is it always bisexuals who seem to fall afoul of these rules? It always struck me as odd to think of public queerness in heterosexual terms, even for ostensibly progressive reasons.

I suspect that it’s partially an issue of visibility. Bisexuality is slippery; it can appear to be other things, it can disguise itself in ways monosexuality can’t, reveal itself against all knowledge and expectations. Bisexuals are coded as fickle, untrustworthy dilettantes. And like homosexuality, but unlike heterosexuality, bisexuality is temporally unmoored, unfixed from the sexual activity or desire of the current moment; a true teleological orientation.

In any case, I suppose you could call my skepticism of “queerbaiting” as a concept pure pragmatism: unless you’re lucky enough to grow up in a world in which all forms of sexuality are totally understood, accepted, expressed, and contextualized from an early age as a default potential, many queer people are, at some point, conflicted bisexuals, or something akin to it.3 Sometimes bisexuality suits you, and you stay; sometimes it doesn’t and you keep moving; sometimes you return to it, surprised by your own capacity for mystery; but, at some point, you’ve crossed those waters. You think you know one thing until you know another. Aren’t we all dilettantes, until we aren’t anymore?

I went to college in 2004. I saw so many allegedly straight girls kissing each other at frat parties it would’ve made you want to burn down an Abercrombie & Fitch. Sometimes it was stiff and strange and sometimes it was organic, and yet far be it from me to say who really wanted what, or if the kiss itself wasn’t a gateway, or if one of them (or both!) wouldn’t be wrist- deep in a date in twelve years’ time. People always talked cynically about this gesture as if men were the reason, but it felt like no one ever considered that men were the excuse.

“We can understand queerness itself as being filled with the intention to be lost,” Muñoz wrote in Cruising Utopia. “To accept loss is to accept the way in which one’s queerness will always render one lost to a world of heterosexual imperatives, codes, and laws . . . [to] veer away from heterosexuality’s path.” A girl kissing her best friend — because she wants to see how it feels, because she’s curious, because a boy is nearby, because she’s in love, because she once bent her mouth to her best friend’s bleeding hand in supplication and this just feels like the next logical step — is the acceptance of loss, the veering from the path. No matter where she goes afterward.

***
For a while, I was furious at her, for all the reasons you might expect. My friends comforted me, assured me I’d been used, told their own stories of identity misfires and capricious lovers and x-sexuals-until-graduation they’d known. She started dating a new guy, and eventually married him. Even invited me to the wedding, though I declined to go. I have no idea if she’s slept with women since then, if she ever thinks about it, if she identifies as something other than straight. For a long time, I remembered that conversation on the beach—the nakedness and vulnerability of my want—with a dense and unctuous emotion you could probably call shame. I was determined to be angry.

But as the years have gone by, sympathy softened my resolve. How little we know of ourselves at any moment; how distinctly human that is. There is such little grace given to the perfect messiness of desire. Even queers feel pressure to homogenize the experience into catchy slogans. The “born this way” narrative, while politically expedient, has done untold damage to narratives of the queer experience, implying any number of horrible ideas: that you cannot move toward desire without some genetic component urging you to do so, that experimentation is inherently problematic, that you have to know your truest and deepest self to act on something. There were times in my adolescence where people asked me if I was gay and I said no, not out a sense of self-preservation but because I truly believed it to be so. You can be a stranger to yourself; you almost certainly will be, at some point or another. It is inevitable, as inevitable as the moment of rupture that sends you hurtling toward the self you were always going to be.

And so, Queer Reader, we return to Jennifer’s Body, how the accusation of queerbaiting flattens, impotent, against its walls. Not just because the film is uniquely bisexual but because bisexuality itself is inherently resistant to heteronormative frameworks; because gatekeeping is shortsighted and unbecoming; because desire and understanding do not always go hand in hand. The project of identifying “false” or “performative” queerness is dead in the water. Do not trouble yourself to rescue it. Do not grieve at its graveside. Kiss someone, fuck someone, think about fucking someone while kissing someone else. Let sex be unknowable, warm, thrilling, funny, erotic, terrifying; let sexuality be all strange currents and eddies and unknown vistas and treasures and teeth. Because, Queer Reader, when Jennifer’s body came for you — publicly, privately, neither, both — it was more than more than enough.

1 Which I think of as a mix of (understandably) hungry for queer media, (understandably) cynical about queer representation, and extremely sensitive to even a whiff of phoniness.

2 This impression is probably aided by the fact that Megan Fox is, herself, bisexual — she once told Marie Claire that Olivia Wilde was so sexy it made her want to “strangle a mountain ox with [her] bare hands” — and was famously extremely into the kissing scene.

3 It is, understandably, considered gauche to describe bisexuality as transitory, almost as gauche as the word “bisexual” itself. Perhaps it would be better to think of bisexuality as queerly universal — stem cells potent with potential. As long as compulsive heteronormativity exists, queer people will pass through bisexuality at some point, however briefly. Some tear through it on a speedboat, heading for a more monosexual harbor, others circle, content, drinking aperitifs in the sun.


It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror comes out on October 4, 2022.


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Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado is the author of the bestselling memoir In the Dream House and the award-winning short story collection Her Body and Other Parties. She has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Prize, among others. Her essays, fiction, and criticism have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Granta, Vogue, This American Life, The Believer, Guernica, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Guggenheim Foundation, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts.

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13 Comments

  1. “The “born this way” narrative, while politically expedient, has done untold damage to narratives of the queer experience, implying any number of horrible ideas: that you cannot move toward desire without some genetic component urging you to do so, that experimentation is inherently problematic, that you have to know your truest and deepest self to act on something. There were times in my adolescence where people asked me if I was gay and I said no, not out a sense of self-preservation but because I truly believed it to be so. You can be a stranger to yourself; you almost certainly will be, at some point or another. It is inevitable, as inevitable as the moment of rupture that sends you hurtling toward the self you were always going to be.”

    I am dead. Also, this is now my go-to definition of my bisexuality: “circl[ing] content, drinking aperitifs in the sun”

    • I have never seen this movie and am generally not a big horror fan, but this essay speaks so much to me. I wish I could have read it in 2009 when I was in the process of “veering off heterosexuality’s path.” It might have made the ride feel less bumpy! Thank you Carmen and Autostraddle for helping the scared little baby gay who still lives in me feel seen.

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