Women, Genre, and the 2010s
Do you remember Sucker Punch? Neither did I until I had a conversation about all the critically and popularly despised action movies that came out of the early 2010’s. Green Lantern (the one with Ryan Reynolds) came to mind, followed quickly by Battleship (the one with Rihanna), and then we remembered the one with the girls. “Who was in it?” None of us remembered. “What happened?” Something about a lobotomy. And a brothel. And a dragon, maybe? It took some advanced Googling maneuvers but finally I found it: the poster for Zack Snyder’s 2011 feminist(?) epic, Sucker Punch.
I’m ten years old walking out of the movie theater with my dad. We just saw Megamind (or maybe it was Despicable Me) and as we turn the corner, I find myself face-to-face with five women fighting their way out of some green-hued hellscape. They’re huddled together close enough to protect each other from the faceless soldiers and the dragon, but not close enough to conceal their outfits. They match schoolgirl skirts with samurai swords, tube tops with tomahawks, and fishnets with firearms. “That can’t be practical,” I observe, wiping blue Icee and popcorn from my mouth, cuing my father up to approve of my disapproval. Truthfully, I wasn’t offended at all- I was captivated. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be, so I followed proper 2010 “there are scantily clad women in the vicinity” protocol: snide remark, judgmental expression, move on and pretend they’re invisible. But inside, I thought they were perfect. They were beautiful and tough and in control of a situation I’d only seen Avengers and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in prior. I wanted to be just like them.
My dad and I chatted about the movie we just saw and the movies we wanted to see, but I couldn’t quit thinking about that poster. I suggest that we go see Sucker Punch when it comes out- just to make fun of it, obviously. He winces a little and shakes his head before delivering the bad news. “I think that’s one for when you’re older, kiddo.”
I’m older now- ten whole years. I’ve grown up to love movies like Clueless, Marie Antoinette, and Jennifer’s Body: films made by and for women. Jennifer’s Body is the newest addition to my roster thanks to its recent resurrection in public consciousness. Diablo Cody, screenwriter of Jennifer’s Body and most famously Juno, set out to write a horror-comedy with both a female protagonist and antagonist, and a message about the complicated and often toxic dynamics of female friendships. She accomplished exactly that, but we wouldn’t realize it until around 2018, when the #MeToo movement invited us to reconsider the film through a feminist lens. All of the 2009 promotional materials for Jennifer’s Body made it clear to prospective audiences that this was just a movie about Megan Fox being sexy. Consequently, audiences and critics alike scorned the film: the critics for its vapid sexuality, and the largely male audience for the lack thereof. There was no commercial space for genre films led by and made for women in 2009- horror, sci-fi, action, or otherwise. We saw female characters in these types of films, sure, but certainly not in these kinds of roles telling these kinds of stories. Further, there was no evidence that men, to whom all genre films were marketed, would show up without incentive. Thus, the movie’s marketing team did what marketing teams did best in the latter aughts and crafted a campaign around a sexy woman doing a sexy thing that only vaguely relates to the plot of the film. Fellow offenders include John Tucker Must Die, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, or all of the films featured in Marcia Belsky’s Headless Woman Project . Having been made to feel that they would be unwelcome in theaters showing Jennifer’s Body, the women for whom the film was written stayed home as the coveted “males 18-24″ demographic filled the seats. With a modern, corrected understanding of Hollywood’s relationship with women we reevaluated the film and found its merits outside the context of its faulty marketing. Critics initially faulted Cody for her trademark snarky dialogue, claiming it was unrealistic and teenaged girls would never speak like that; now young women quote Jennifer’s Body to one another. Fox’s performance was called flat, unskilled, and altogether irredemable, but the character she embodied, Jennifer Check, has become a modern icon of feminist cinema. The largely male audience of 2009 was left theaters sexually unfulfilled, but the largely female audience of 2018 and beyond has found the film both empowering and representative of the female experience. It’s fortunate that we’ve dug Jennifer’s Body from its early grave, but it forces you to wonder which similarly maligned films we’ve left for dead.