By Emma Bernstein
In 2009, Megan Fox was 23 years old—an actress on the rise after starring in the first two movies of the Transformers franchise. She was also Hollywood’s favorite sex symbol, named “world’s sexiest woman” by For Men Magazine just one year earlier, and she was drawing comparisons to previous starlets from Angelina Jolie to Marilyn Monroe. At the same time, however, on-set friction with Transformers director Michael Bay and a penchant for saying things for shock value were threatening to derail her budding career.
At this point in her young life, she starred in Jennifer’s Body, a dark comedy about a teenage “hot girl” who turns into a man-eating monster after an encounter with fame-hungry aspiring rock stars. Jennifer’s Body was initially panned by critics and moviegoers alike and written up as yet more evidence that she was “washed up” (as though anyone can be washed up at only twenty three years old). However, Jennifer’s Body has since become a cult classic, appreciated not only for its sharp wit but also for its critical take on the commodification of young women’s bodies. The plot of Jennifer’s Body, in which older men use Megan Fox’s character’s body to achieve fame and commercial success, in the process turning her into a monster sustained only by the interest of men, mirrors the way that Hollywood treats many of its young starlets and especially how Hollywood, Michael Bay, and the media industry treated Megan Fox after her rise to fame in Transformers.
In Jennifer’s Body, the titular character is an imperfect victim. In the snapshot of her “normal” life, we see a girl who is shallow, who is self-centered, and who enjoys sex, but we also see the power that her own desirability gives her over men. This failure of innocence is the inciting incident of the movie, as Jennifer is singled out by an evil indie band when they believe she is a virgin, perfect for their planned sacrifice in the name of musical success. The fact that she misrepresented her virginity is the reason that the spell backfires and instead turns her into a monster. This preoccupation with virginity reflects an expectation that she will be a perfect victim, and the fact that she lied about her virginity leads to a punishment perhaps worse than death: to be undead, always hungry, unable to survive, not just without men’s blood, but also without their attention and validation of her as a sexual being. Is the message of Jennifer’s Body, then, that she deserved what she got because of character flaws that essentially add up to being a teenage girl? Because she was selfish, because she took sexual risks by getting in a van with men she didn’t know, was she sealing her own fate?
2009, the year Jennifer’s Body hit theaters, was also the year that Megan Fox gained new notoriety for comparing Transformers director Michael Bay’s leadership style to Hitler. It was a thoughtless, trivializing comment, but the response that she received from Bay, Steven Spielberg (an executive producer of the franchise), the cast and crew, and the general public was not so much a critique of her inconsiderate use of one of history’s worst war criminals as a punchline; instead it was a circling of the wagons, a sense of rage and betrayal that a 23-year-old would speak ill of a man profiting off of her talents.
Her costar Shia LaBeouf said, “She started talking shit about our captain. Which you can’t do.” An anonymous crew member wrote in an unsigned letter, “Michael found this shy, inexperienced girl, plucked her out of total obscurity thus giving her the biggest shot of any young actresses’ life,” as if Michael Bay had gained nothing by asking a 21-year-old Megan Fox to bend over a Camaro in a crop top so horny teenage boys would come see his robot movie. The crew member said this as if Bay had done her a favor by capitalizing on Hollywood’s rabid pursuit of young women to sexualize and then mock for that same sexuality—as if she now owed him some kind of undying loyalty. The letter went on to refer to her as the “queen of talking trailer trash” and even suggested that “being a porn star in the future might be a good career option” for her.
Like the titular character of Jennifer’s Body, Megan Fox was not a perfect victim. She was confrontational in interviews and willing to use the sexuality that everyone simultaneously loved and hated to advance her career. But did she deserve to be ostracized for a poor and thoughtless comparison in her critique of Michael Bay’s treatment of her (which she says included verbal abuse and hyper fixation on how to present her body in each scene, as well as an audition in which she was asked to wear a bikini and wash his car)? Did she deserve to be ridiculed by the general public and blackballed from the film industries for years? Why is the vitriol for imperfect womanhood, and imperfect victimhood, so pervasive in Hollywood? What do we lose as women when we strive for a pedestal that no woman, not Megan Fox or Marilyn Monroe or Taylor Swift, can possibly stay on.
Megan Fox’s Jennifer was snarky and indifferent to others and occasionally cruel, but she was also 16 years old, and her chance to be anything else in life was taken from her by men who could not or would not see anything about her except for her body, and who saw that only as a tool. In an overall unsentimental, comedic movie, in which the main character’s last words before dying at the hands of her best friend are “my tit,” one scene that stands out as unvarnished by irony is the one in which Jennifer, in a state of shock after seeing her classmates die in a fire, climbs into the evil indie band’s van. As the doors close behind her, she makes eye contact with her friend, and it is impossible not to be struck by the look of total fear and bewilderment in Jennifer’s eyes. It is impossible not to know with certainty that we are looking at a human being who is about to have her humanity stripped away by men who never recognized it in the first place.
Neither Hollywood nor the media industry that booms in its shadow saw Megan Fox’s humanity in 2009; they saw a body that could be manipulated, and reacted with rage when they discovered that that body contained a woman with agency and opinions of her own. In 2019, as the same industry builds up a new generation of young women only to tear them down when they balk under the restrictions that “perfect” womanhood entails, let’s try to remember the lessons that Megan Fox taught us through Jennifer’s Body and through her own brutal experiences, and see the women instead of just the bodies.