| Celia Mattison |
Watch Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body at the Trylon from Friday, October 15 to Sunday, October 17. For tickets and more information, scroll to the bottom of this page.
Name some famous brothers. Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, the Grimms, the Wrights, the Marxs. In modern filmmaking you can take your pick of Coens, Safdies, Russos. Sister pairs are rarer in the Western canon—especially as creators—and if women are underrepresented in Hollywood than sisterhood is also underseen. Draw a line from the seventeenth-century murder ballad “The Two Sisters” to any set of fairytale stepsisters to the last line of White Christmas’s “Sisters” duet (“And lord help the sister who comes between me and my man”) and see what men think sisterhood looks like: a tangle of violent jealousy, vanity, and sexual competition. But films written or directed by women portray a sisterhood that is more intimate and nuanced, although just as potentially sinister.
From the outset of Ginger Snaps (2000), death is in the air. Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald are two sisters as obsessed with suicide as they are disgusted by their vapid Canadian suburb. Had these girls been born a bit later they would’ve been the absolute queens of MySpace, posting Christina Rossetti poetry underneath staged photoshoots of gory homemade crime scenes. The two have little use for the world outside their friendship and resist adulthood at every turn; it seems like it’s by sheer force of will alone that both Ginger and Brigitte have yet to start their periods even though they’re in their mid-teens.
Ginger as the older sister is quite protective of Brigitte, but when Ginger is bitten by a wolf and her sudden puberty takes a dark turn, Brigitte takes on the guardian role. There’s a matter-of-factness to Brigitte’s new position. Her sister’s survival and happiness is a given; she will do anything she can to protect her. Although it’s foreshadowed, Ginger’s death is devastating because we know what it means for Brigitte. These are two sisters so intermeshed that they have sworn not just to die for each other but to die with each other. How does one exist without the other? It’s a question at the center of many movies but almost always reserved for romantic, not sisterly, relationships.
Jennifer’s Body depicts a similar relationship, although Needy and Jennifer are emphatically not biological sisters, just intimate childhood friends. The phrase “female friendship” has become a kind of placeholder expression to slap on the cover of any work that interrogates two women interacting meaningfully but Jennifer’s Body deals with the true thorniness of girlhood relationships.
Like the sisters in Ginger Snaps, Needy and Jennifer live in a world they’ve created to resist the dullness of their small town, but it’s clear even before Jennifer’s transformation that this relationship has an expiration date. Jennifer has zero interest in anyone outside of Needy—she has relationships with men, but they’re transactional and superficial—while Needy has a boyfriend and is friendly to other students. Jennifer might talk shit about Devil’s Kettle but this “State Fair Butter Princess,” as demon worshipper/aspiring rock star Nikolai Wolf (played by Adam Brody) puts it, doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of interest or ambition that would take her elsewhere. It seems certain that next year Needy will go off to college while Jennifer sticks around Devil’s Kettle, half-assing some job, borrowing her mother’s car, and fucking police cadet Chris Pratt. Jennifer is about to lose her grip on her soulmate.
What else but jealousy motivates Jennifer’s choice of victim? It’s reiterated multiple times that Jennifer can have whoever she wants, for sex or for feeding, and yet she picks three men who Needy cares about. Jennifer’s first attack is the exchange student Needy says hello to at the bar. You see Jennifer’s face change when Needy says that she thinks goth guy Colin is cool. Suddenly Jennifer is threatened by Colin, a boy she just moments ago was calling a no-dick loser. And of course Jennifer’s final act, seducing and killing Chip, is her last ditch attempt to possess Needy. There’s a sapphic angle—perhaps Jennifer seduces men close to Needy because she can’t express her attraction to her best friend. But her kiss with Needy is not romantic, it’s manipulative. It’s the tactic she’s used to procure things from men but it doesn’t work on Needy because Needy knows her. They have their own oh-so-Diablo-Cody language, “Jennifer-Speak.” At times they seem almost telepathic—Needy can sense when Jennifer is attacking Chip, almost as if she knows Jennifer is being “unfaithful” to her. Jennifer’s tricks are powerless against her.
The irony is, of course, that Jennifer doesn’t have to fight to keep Needy. Needy adores her. She recognizes the wit in Jennifer’s cruelty, she admires Jennifer’s confidence. There’s a world where Jennifer grows up: learns to express vulnerability, dials back her meanness, and stays friends with Needy. But as we’re reminded when Jennifer is starstruck over some Minneapolis C-grade hipsters, Jennifer is still a child and not particularly emotionally mature. And we see no other female pairs, we rarely see anyone’s parents or family. There are no models for their friendship or even for well-adjusted adult women in their world.
In a role reversal from traditional horror films where female sexuality is intended for male consumption, these films grant women a visceral power over their sexuality. Ginger and Jennifer have learned to reverse the predatory male behavior inflicted on them in order to satiate their own desires. Tying magical, and often horrible, powers to female puberty is well-trod ground. The idea that along with a period and pubic hair one could also receive a power that protects you from male desire is a deeply alluring female fantasy. But sex is also a threat to sisterhood. A male lover is an interruption to an established sisterly dynamic. Their power comes with devastating costs.
The unique brutality of sisters is on display in these films in equal parts viscera and play. The pairs of Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body are harsh to each other because they know each other. They are the only ones who know each other. They oscillate between tenderness and cruelty, their slights cutting deeper while also healing faster. They’ve spent their lives preparing for the psychic warfare that only occurs between people who know each other intimately.
It’s hard to grow alongside another person. It’s not surprising that these pairs don’t make it out together on the other side. People change, childhoods end, sisters part. Someone who knew you when you were a girl might not know you when you become a woman. Perhaps there is a world where even the most monstrous girls can survive together, but this one isn’t it.
More from the sisterhood canon:
The Lure (2015)
Little Woods (2018)
Blow the Man Down (2019)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)
Edited by Brad Stiffler