“Part of my general interest in life is just girls and how girls have fun in the world,” said Chicago-based filmmaker Jennifer Reeder during the Q&A session following a screening of three of her short films at CalArts’ Bijou Theater. Just as after a screening of her films at REDCAT earlier in the week, audience member after audience member raised their hand to share how the films spoke to a core aspect of their lived-experience that they had rarely seen reflected in film. One CalArts student pointed out how meaningful it was to see a film about teen girls who are not “boy crazy;” a faculty member teared up as he described the way in which Reeder’s films capture the moment when a parent needs more from the child than the child needs from the parent; film critic and curator Bérénice Reynaud discussed the motif of teen girls doing each others’ make-up, “they are not putting on make-up to go and pick up boys. It’s a pretext to touch each other.” This is the radicalism of Reeder’s films: they depict moments that resonate with a wide audience and yet are almost never seen in mainstream media.
In addition to her filmmaking, Reeder founded the social justice initiative, Tracers Book Club and teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I got the chance to speak with Reeder about how her feminism, filmmaking and pedagogy intersect…
Sallie Merkel: At the REDCAT screening you spoke about your filmmaking as a form of social justice. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Jennifer Reeder: On the one-hand, I think the films are entertaining and they are fiction. It’s not like I’m making documentaries about the plight of the adolescent girl in the US. But I do think that we have the opportunity as writers and directors to present stories or questions that contribute to a bigger dialogue about how young girls and women are represented, or how we talk about girls and women. So, for instance in Blood Below the Skin, there’s a scene where the characters are discussing the question of are you a tease or are you a slut? On the one hand it’s a scene that’s just building the dynamic between those two girls. But it’s also a scene that could start a conversation about why we use those words to define young women, and why young women are asked to be sexual bodies as opposed to simply bodies in the world. And starting that conversation is in the trajectory of social justice.
And so then, on a practical level, casting matters. When I’m writing a script, I never think like, this has got to be a tall, thin, pretty, white girl. I just sort of write the character. Sometimes I have somebody in mind, but so often when we’re casting a girl will walk through the door who is not what I imagined at all. So, for instance, in Crystal Lake, all of the speaking parts in that film are played by young actors of color. But that’s not something that I set out to do; it was just something that happened. But that then goes back into that community, and presents a film about these teenagers where they’re not like, “misguided urban youth,” or something like that.
Then I try to stack my crew with lots of young women, or lots of feminist guys. And you know, if there’s a young girl who has never been on a set, but she says I just really want to help you make your film and she seems serious about it, then I call her up when we’re getting ready to shoot and I’m like, we need a PA, come on board. I’m not somebody who needs to be surrounded by just the professionals. I think that somebody’s got to give somebody a chance. And so I feel like those are the ways that you have the ability to make a difference as a filmmaker.
SM: A lot of working for social justice takes place on that interpersonal, micro-level.
JR: When we were shooting that scene in Blood Below the Skin, [in which two girls discuss the question of are you a tease or are you a slut?] those two actresses—on their own—entered into a conversation about having experienced moments like that at school. And I didn’t butt in, it was their conversation, but it let me know that they’re still dealing with what I was presenting in this fictional form. Even if they are self-possessed, poised, outspoken young women, they’re still fourteen, they’ve been on the planet for fourteen years; they’re children. And they still have to deal with all of the ways that we don’t respect them.
And I think, what is the flip of all these micro-aggressions? It’s micro-validations. For every micro-aggression that happens, where can you present a micro-validation? That’s what I try to do. And I teach at the college level, so I understand what it means—if I’m teaching a screenwriting class—to show a lot of work that’s been directed by women, a lot of work that’s been directed by people of color or films that represent people with disabilities. Then, maybe one of my students sees themselves reflected either in the storytelling or in the characters.
And I think, what is the flip of all these micro-aggressions? It’s micro-validations. For every micro-aggression that happens, where can you present a micro-validation?
I think it’s a lot about not being lazy. At the beginning of the semester, when I want to update my syllabus, it’s not like I just know off the top of my head who some of the awesome new young female directors or directors of color are, so I ask around! It doesn’t take very long, I ask around, do a little bit of research, watch those films, decide whether they fit in and go on from there.
SM: Where did the idea for your Tracers Book Club originate?
JR: It was partially being a college professor and realizing that so many of my students, so many of the young women who were nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, and clearly living under the tenants of feminism, refused to call themselves feminists. Somehow there was still this idea that a feminist couldn’t wear make-up or didn’t like boys or was angry—all of those ridiculous caricatures that don’t belong to any real feminist. And so, every time that those conversations would come up, I’d think, what they need is a good dose of some feminist literature. And then Vice Magazine published a fashion spread online that portrayed historical, female figures who had committed suicide—literally it was like a model dressed up like Sylvia Plath with her head in an oven, stuff like that—and it was a fashion spread! And I was just like, how did this go through so many conversations? They had the conversation and nobody was like, you can’t do this, you cannot have a fashion spread that reduces these incredibly remarkable women to the moment of their death and I was like, this is where we live, this is the culture in which we live. So then I thought, enough is enough. I just wanted to do a kind of grassroots conversation thing, so I started the book club. Anybody was invited, and the first book we read was The Feminine Mystique. And we followed it up with a book that was written in 2000 called Manifesta—so it was second wave and then third wave feminism—and they were almost identical. And then we realized we were all too busy to keep reading books and coming together to talk about them regularly, so we asked, what else can we do?
A bunch of the people involved are visual artists, so I thought, we should do like an alt-holiday craft fair, which turned into the first Feminist Parking Lot. And those have been a blast. We’ve done those all over the place, even as far away as Florence, Italy. And they are all ages and they range from people doing hair braiding to nail art to screen-printing… And what takes the place of the conversation around the book is that, for example, there have been people who teach zine making: and it’s an intergenerational group and it’s a long table and everybody is cutting and pasting—doing very analogue things—and having conversations across the table: Who are you? What brought you here today? Just the most basic conversations.
And so right now, the painter Kerry James Marshall, is going to have a big exhibition of his paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. And the museum asked a group of Tracers people if we would construct a kind of parallel historical timeline from 1400—because they wanted it to start with Joan of Arc—onward. So that feels like a little bit more of a serious endeavor, but I love that they reached out to us. And it’s also like, a really nice, paid gig, so it’s gone from being like do you guys want to get together and talk about what is going on and why women don’t want to call themselves feminists anymore to actually culturally contributing back.
And it started out that we had an advisory board, but now it’s just anybody and everybody who wants to do it, we have sort of a mission, and I always say “we” even though it’s me that mostly coordinates things, but it’s not about my ego, I really want it to be like, whoever comes that night is a part of the book club. Anybody who wants to host a Tracers event under an umbrella that already exists, go for it.
SM: Speaking of the crafting side of those events—and the devaluation of women’s work by, for example, replacing the word art with the word craft—a lot of those craft-traditions are so present in your films…
JR: I am a filmmaker but I have a lot of friends in the fine art world and it just blows my mind that, even in my school, if one of the female students has any kind of fabric or fiber in their project people are like, well it just sort of feels like, 70s feminist, kind of women’s work-y stuff. They are so dismissive. But if a guy does needlepoint people think that he’s done something radical.
The funny thing is, I’ve found that amongst my young students that the guys are much more willing to be like, yeah, I’m a feminist.
SM: There’s no risk for them.
JR: Right, there’s nothing at stake. But I think it’s really important that we allow men into that conversation. And for me, what’s really been important, as a white feminist, is being just utterly ears open to what feminists of color need and want. I do a lot, a lot of listening, I really try to check my white privilege and check my white narcissism and keep it in check. And I understand that intersectionality is real and deeply important and that everybody’s feminism is quite personal.
Intersectionality is real and deeply important and everybody’s feminism is quite personal.
Also, I have three sons. And I do feel like it is my lot in life to raise three sons who will go forth in the world and be good guys. I hope. So far so good. I mean they’re little still, but so far, so good. My nine-year-old did this really sweet thing recently, and I never ask them like, do you like anyone? But he said I do like this one girl in my class and I said, okay, he said she’s not the prettiest girl in the class, and I said, okay, then he said, but she’s soooo funny. So I was like, yes! And he’s in third-grade. So I appreciate that. Yeah, he already understands what “the prettiest” means…
SM: That’s unavoidable.
JR: It is. All that stuff is. Even my three-year-old will say things like, that’s what girls do. And I don’t talk like that, but he goes to school where it just trickles down. So as a mom you just try and correct that. My same nine-year-old, when he was probably seven, one day he was in the back seat and he was just like, ugh! Like moaning. And I said, what is your problem back there? And he said, well, boys can’t wear purple. And I said, that is ridiculous. Yes boys can wear purple. And he said, well then, will you make me some purple pants? And I said, yes! Whatever you want. And, you know, I’ve sent them to school with feminist pencils [Tracers gives away pencils emblazoned in gold with the word “feminist”]…
SM: Those pencils are great.
JR: Yes! Just last week something came up in my social media feed—MAC cosmetics had posted an image on their Instagram feed of an African American woman wearing a MAC lipstick, it was just her lips, and in the comments were so nasty… so now there’s a hashtag #prettylipsperiod and these black women are posting pictures of their lips. So my friend Sydney posted one where she’s biting one of the feminist pencils and it got all these awesome responses like, I need one of those pencils. And I was like I don’t know how to get them to you, but we’ll have to figure out a way! Stuff like that has been really nice. Just moments like that. The most simple thing can just be like, fun and delightful, rather than this really hard conversation about how can we fix it all? Because I don’t know how to do that. And I’m a filmmaker. So yes, there’s a trajectory between Tracers and what I like to think about in my films, but I also want them to be separate. I sort of feel like, I want my films to be entertaining, and I can do certain things in my films, but then I can go and do other things that seem more like traditional activism on some level, but are still honestly fun. Life is too short.
Jennifer Reeder constructs personal fiction films about relationships, trauma and coping. Her award-winning narratives are innovative and borrow from a range of forms including after school specials, amateur music videos and magical realism. These films have shown consistently around the world, including the Sundance Film Festival, The Berlin Film Festival, The Venice Biennale and The Whitney Biennial. Her awards include several that have qualified her films for Oscar nomination. She won a Creative Capital Grant in Moving Image in 2015 and short film funding from the Adrienne Shelly Foundation in 2016.