2016 Film Essays

The Feminine Grotesque #6: Neon Nightmare – On ‘Jawbreaker’

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What does female wish fulfillment look like?

Is it being the most beautiful, the most wanted or is it having the freedom to not care about who desires you? Is it the cool machinations we see in empty modern femme fatales like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl and Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct? Or is it the eccentric freedom we see in spinster figures like Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress? Is it using what this patriarchal culture expects of you — red lips, fuck me heels, legs that go on for miles, and an ever-smiling face — and turning that into a weapon?

When director Patty Jenkins was asked by Entertainment Weekly about why Wonder Woman and the other Amazons are wearing heals with their battle armor, she replied, “It’s total wish-fulfillment. I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time – the same way men want Superman to have huge pecs and an impractically big body. That makes them feel like the hero they want to be. And my hero, in my head, has really long legs.” The impressive physicality of superheroes like Superman are indeed male wish fulfillment. But seeing a sinewy, lithe Wonder Woman in heels is too. It’s amazing to see how women being fuckable by the standards of a culture that William Moulton Marston sought to critique through creating Wonder Woman in 1941 is confused for empowerment. Jenkins’ thinking isn’t anything new. The 1980s and 1990s are riddled with pop culture that is incredibly post-feminist. Basic Instinct, The Last Seduction, Body Heat, and Sex and the City, for starters, espouse the post-feminist belief that empowerment is found through self-objectification. It’s a selfish sort of feminism that believes instead of dismantling the systems of oppression, women must move through — we should co-opt its gaze and expectations. Why be free when you can be beautiful and powerful? But weaponized femininity is a fleeting power.

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As a teenage girl, you realize this fraught power either because you have it or you’re watching others wield it. When we first meet Courtney (Rose McGowan), the queen bitch at the center of Darren Stein’s Jawbreaker (1999), she isn’t aware that the power she’s wielding is temporary. That if she got into an accident or was born outside of the parameters of what her culture’s male gaze expects (too big, too tall, too black for example), she’d exist on a much different plane of her high school’s caste system.

When we’re first introduced to the “Flawless Four” of Reagan High School, they’re on top of the world. The clique consists of “Satan in Heels” Courtney Shayne, the empty-headed Marcie Fox (Julie Benz), the tender-hearted Julie Freeman (Rebecca Gayheart) and the utterly perfect Elizabeth Purr (Charlotte Ayanna). Their world comes tumbling down when the birthday prank on Elizabeth leads to her death. When they find the jawbreaker lodged in her throat (while they had her in the trunk), Courtney quickly comes up with a story to cover up their involvement: Elizabeth was raped by a paramour while her family was out of town, and her screams were muffled by the jawbreaker he shoved into her mouth. “They’ll believe it because it’s their worst nightmare. Elizabeth Purr, the very picture of teenage perfection, obliterated by perversion,” Courtney says.

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The plan somewhat unravels when the nerdy, obsessive Fern (Judy Greer) shows up just when they’re putting Elizabeth back in bed and staging the fake rape scene. Fern is an arch rendition of the usual nerd that pops up in these kind of movies. Her body hunched over like a perpetual question mark. Her long brown hair shaggy and unstyled. She’s a bundle of nerves just waiting to be molded. So, Courtney proposes a deal. If Fern keeps quiet, they’ll make her over in their image and give her the popularity she so desires. Fern morphs into the platinum blonde, perma-bitch face wearing Vylette, with the newfound power quickly going to her head. And Julie is soon out of the group unwilling to keep up appearances. They’re still in the line of fire as Vera Cruz, a badass, no-nonsense detective played by Pam Grier, gets close to the truth, but Jawbreaker is less concerned with the actual murder than what it says about the ways girls wound each other.

At first glance, Jawbreaker is a parade of empty, kitschy cliches. There are horrific moments next to those that center on beauty politics: Elizabeth dead in Courtney’s trunk with the jawbreaker lodged in her throat (as her friends strut inside school pretending everything is okay), rituals of beauty next to bugs crawling over delicate flowers, Looney Tune-esque sound effects over sex scenes. But writer/director Darren Stein taps into something potent, making a cross between a late 1990s Heathers and a bitter little sister to the overheated dynamics of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Problem is, I don’t think Stein is aware of what he’s stumbled into. Jawbreaker enlarges the archetypes and issues of teenage girls but ends reaffirming much of what it wants to critique.

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The ending aims to lay to waste the power that comes with the beauty Courtney wields. She’s crowned prom queen but doesn’t get long to bask in the moment. Her previous, accidentally recorded confession (“I killed Liz. I killed the teen dream. Deal with it.”) blares over the speakers as she stands on stage. The same people who were torturing Fern turn on Courtney. They throw corsages at her and scream obscenities, the clearest being “slut.” Her face contorts in fear. In trying to protect herself, she smears her makeup. And it’s all set in slow motion to “Young at Heart” by Bing Crosby. But Courtney is just an emblem of a problem that continues to crop up in life and in art. And who knows what happens to her after the credits roll? Maybe she’s able to put her mask back on and wiggle out from under the glare of the police?

Jawbreaker isn’t a noir, but the girlish women it follows remind me of how modern filmmakers have turned the femme fatale’s potency into a sort of farcical, hyper-sexuality. Even its ending, which focuses on Courtney’s undoing, still reaffirms much of the beauty politics it’s critiquing. Ultimately, Fern doesn’t learn that dramatically changing herself is a bad thing, but that she must better hide who she is underneath. Beauty is still necessary for survival.

Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer based in Chicago. She has been published by The Atlantic, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Movie Mezzanine and writes regularly for Vulture. You can find her on Twitter @angelicabastien and her website madwomenandmuses.com.

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