white red and yellow candies

We Need to Talk about Jawbreaker

Since writing about the big purple elephant, I’ve done some more ruminating on whether the signs were there in my youth and A. I chose to ignore them or B. I knew all along but my youthful perception was…off. Being a shy, introverted, attention-starved, lonely adolescent who spent a lot of time watching television, movies and reading books, I retreated into my own head and created a lot of fantasy worlds and people to occupy my mind (then, I’d write my own fantasy worlds and people into stories — a hobby that would then become a passion and a career). Media defined me as a person, so it’s easy to look back on my youth and pick out moments in my life with an accompanying film or tv show or novel to go with it. 

As I thought more about sexuality as spurred on by consumptive media, I realized the answer to my question is definitely B. Oh, I knew I had some non-straight urges even after Alien: Resurrection. I just chose to reframe those urges as something else entirely! This is common when a young person is insecure, sexually repressed, a little homophobic, and still dealing with childhood trauma. When I look back on all the signs — the weird jealousies, the obsessions, the creative writing exercises, and the habitual re-watching of certain movies — I’m curious why I didn’t connect the dots sooner. The movie watching habits, especially, were the biggest red (purple?) flag. 

I mean, take Jawbreaker for example. 

Jawbreaker is a brightly-colored, candy-painted, anti-teen dark comedy from 1999. The plot involves three popular teenage girls — Julie, Marcie, and Courtney — who “kidnap” their girlfriend Liz on her 17th birthday as a prank. Of course, it goes wrong because one of the girls — Courtney, played by Rose McGowan, uses a jumbo-sized jawbreaker to gag her accidentally suffocates her. To cover their tracks, Courtney decides to stage Liz’s death as a rape and murder, much to Julie’s chagrin. But Fern Mayo, a mousy, geeky, skinny admirer of Liz’s, witnesses the girls covering up their crime. But rather than kill her, Courtney makes Fern an offer she can’t refuse: her silence for her chance at being Liz. “Take her place,” Courtney tempts. “Be one of the beautiful people.”

I loved this movie. I watched it dozens of times on VHS and on HBO when my family had it. When I went over to my friend’s house, I suggested we rent it out because “it was so good!” I gushed over Rose McGowan who sauntered through this movie like she owned it. “Isn’t she awesome?” I praised. “Man, she’s just so…cool! Evil, but wow, wouldn’t it be great to be that…cool?

The words I was looking for were stunning, attractive, gorgeous, other-worldly, and captivating. But I didn’t realize that at the time. I understood that I couldn’t stop looking at her, couldn’t stop wanting to look like her, and couldn’t stop wanting, if only slightly, to have someone as awesome (i.e., the words above) as her to talk to. When I was 15, I desperately wanted to be beautiful. I was thin, petite, and timid— a Fern Mayo, waiting for a raven-haired Courtney Shayne to scoop me up and fold me into her clique of gazelles in Stilettos, slow-motion walking to “Yoo-Hoo” by Imperial Teen down my high school hallways. Jawbreaker, in a sense, knew my insecurities and knew how to play to them. 

On re-watching this as an adult over the weekend, I see a ton of (intentional?) Sapphic imagery. Fern fawns over both Liz the way a teenage girl would with her first crush. She tells Detective Cruz how she smelled Liz’s hair and fantasized about her birthmarks in algebra class. She refers to Liz as the “cat’s meow” to their principal. She even practices talking to her in their first verbal encounter even though all she’s going to do is give Liz her homework—as if she were preparing to ask her out on a date or to the prom at the end of the film. Fern’s obsession with Liz blurs the line between innocent, geeky idolization and romantic subtext. It’s no different from the fruitless attempts at attempting popularity or attention from the opposite sex: Among the more pathetic attempts at ingratiating myself to someone, I did a boy’s entire English project in 11th grade so he’d like me back. [It was a presentation on a poet, and he got an A. I also got an A on my own project (Ralph Waldo Emerson). He never did like me back. But I’d like to think I got two A’s for that class. Well done, me.] In the movie, Fern volunteers to take Liz’s homework to her despite admitting that her only encounter with her was a silent exchange in the hall where Liz helped her pick up her papers. They have no connection but Fern obsesses one-sidedly in the hopes Liz will reciprocate. 

Unlike Liz, Courtney’s parasocial-relationships with the other girls aren’t ruled with sweet crushes but with passionate cruelty. Courtney overpowers Julie verbally, threatening her if she speaks out about their shared crime. When Julie confronts her about framing Liz’s “rape” on an unsuspecting stranger (Marilyn Manson, Rose McGowan’s fiancé at the time), Courtney purrs, “This kinda turns me on.” Later, she thrusts a blonde-and-pink “Vylette” — Fern made-over — against the bathroom mirror, only for Vylette to pucker up and blow a string of cigarette smoke into her face. 

There I was, fifteen-years-old, going this is the coolest thing ever because I don’t know how to think I also might be learning something about myself right now

Present day, M watched this movie with me and immediately recognized the iconography in my life: “I’ve seen you wear her clothes before. The Lycra skirt and capris and sweater set — yeah, that’s you. You are Courtney Shayne.” 

I mean, I would never gag anyone with a jawbreaker, but yeah. Subtlety, I picked up her style of dress, her strut, her hair toss, and her growl over the years. The movie left an imprint so lasting that it became part of me. 

This movie is a nihilist masterpiece in a hard-candy shell. May it live on in queer cinema infamy.

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