On filmmaking and feminism
by Alicia Swiz | Photography by Shubha Gangal
The first time I saw Jennifer Reeder was at the Hull House Feminist Market. Reeder was seated at a table representing Tracers Book Club, a consciousness raising group she created with her colleagues at University of Illinois – Chicago. In a black jumpsuit similar to the type mechanics used to wear, with “Feministe” stitched in gray where you'd usually see an identifier like “Mike” or “Buddy.” Like I said, representing. The walls of her office at UIC, where she is a professor in the School of Art & Art History, are covered with posters of bands, pictures of women leaders, and feminist paraphernalia. It feels like it could be the bedroom of one of the teen girls in Reeder’s latest short film, A Million Miles Away
, and it’s here we have a heart to heart about why feminism isn’t dead and everyone’s right to a self-determined life.
Q: How did you find your way to filmmaking?
I was actually a dancer in high school but when I got to college it didn’t seem like it was very practical to study or even continue. It’s a difficult life, that of a professional dancer. So, I started taking art classes and women’s studies classes, which is still where my interests lie. I took a class with performance artist Linda Montano
and we had to make videos for her class. That was my freshman year and it just felt…I had never thought about making films before. Being forced to pick up a camera – a video camera in particular – and stand in front of it and perform. It felt like a real natural extension of even my dance practice on some level. The embodying of it. Even today I find editing to be a lot like choreography.
I got my BFA in ‘94 from Ohio State and I moved here instantly. I wanted to get out of Central Ohio, even though all my work theoretically takes place there. Like I’ve been here 20 years and it’s never occurred to me to shoot something on the train or at the lake. Maybe not totally rural but not urban.
Q: Is that part of your personal relationship to the work?
Oh yeah. I wasn’t a city kid. So, I want to consider the not city kid not the suburban necessarily. But the fringes – the rural areas. The rural area is where being a girl is different. It’s not harder or easier. It’s just you’re world has a different texture.
I'm fully about empowering women but that doesn't mean I have to portray only powerful women. Or only likable women. A lot of my characters are assholes.
Q: Your current film, A Million Miles Away, is really an intimate look into some very common experiences unique to women and especially this period of adolescence that never really goes away…
My work is dedicated to considering a female experience and I think we have these waves of coming of age. There is a coming of age in adolescence and another in the early twenties and I think there is another that happens in your thirties. And in there is the potential for the loss of the boldness of adolescence. Maybe things aren’t working out the way you expected. That's where the adult in A Million Miles Away
is. She's at a real deflated time in her life and she's making bad decisions. And I wanted to have this moment where the younger girls who are feeling all that confidence to pull her up. I'm fully about empowering women but that doesn't mean I have to portray only powerful women. Or only likable women. A lot of my characters are assholes. Girls are in trouble but adult women are also in trouble. They are dealing with things that are not that different from when they were 14. At least that’s how I feel.
Q: I was really struck by how intentional the writing was – especially the scene where are the girls are whispering to each other. You expect it to be gossipy and mean but it’s more nuanced. And yet it was still totally authentic.
The relationships among girls that are not the mean girls. The four whispering conversations were very intentional to not talk about boys. I wanted to have a delicate balance of what they were saying but I didn’t want them to mention boys. There is this image of the boy crazy teenage girl. I wasn't really boy crazy. It was odd to me that I was expected to be. So, I wanted the girls to have a clear sense of themselves and the adult woman didn't have a clear sense of her self. She involved in destructive relationships with men.
I have always had a tight group of female friends and there is always room for more. We look at the way women are represented in the media; we are pitted against each other in very different ways than men are. We are asked to compare the most superficial things in terms of beauty or social status. Things that are really narrow in terms of what women are. As someone who is contributing to those images, I feel it's my responsibility to contribute to something that disrupts that. But, that's still accurate. It's not fantasy to say that girls are bold and that self-determination is a human right. That sisterhood is real and a real way to effectively negotiate your life. I really wanted the meanness in A Million Miles Away
to come across as a defense mechanism. It's a tool they have and it's not their core.
We look at the way women are represented in the media; we are pitted against each other in very different ways than men are. We are asked to compare the most superficial things in terms of beauty or social status.
Q: You are personally and professionally an outspoken feminist. What do you think about the backlash around the “f” word and is this pattern of resistance in young women towards identifying as a feminist?
I have never ever had a problem with that word. I just haven’t. I feel like I came up through the third wave and riot grrrl, which was very explicit. Fuck yeah we're feminist and fuck yeah we're bitchy. Or whatever. Just really unapologetic about being self-determined. Really driven by this innocence of youth. Being in your late teens and early 20s and you’re just living your life and it's a bold life. So, I've always considered myself a feminist. But, I also recognize on a daily basis that we just don't live in a feminist world. There is so much global injustice towards women and girls. And so much internalized misogyny.
Teaching at the college level I talk a lot about feminism in my classroom. I teach film production and screenwriting and I show lots of films by and about women. More and more, I was recognizing they were very resistant to that word. It felt over. That just seems so crazy to me. But, they don't see a need for feminism yet. They are just trying to live their lives. Maybe they haven’t experienced the type of sexism you can experience in the workplace. Or when you get married and have children and that inequity becomes obvious immediately. Still, that is no excuse for them to dismiss the word feminism or feminist and then dismiss a whole way of living that demanded equality.
That word matters to me; it matters that we use it, that we see it. That we don't replace it. Fuck yeah I’m a feminist and that doesn’t preclude me from being a mom or having a boyfriend or male partner. Feminism is also where men get to be stay at home dads, and trans people get to use any bathroom they want. Feminism doesn't mean I'm only considering women. It's a perfectly good word that we can dust off and re-evaluate in a 4th wave place, which is a non-binary place. It's not about men vs. women. And, that's where Tracer's Book Club
came from [ed. note: Tracer’s began as a space to spark open dialogues around feminist issues and has developed into a national network of chapters.
We thought let’s just start a consciousness-raising collective. Let’s make it a conversation and inclusive of the bros and the brides. We really wanted to call it something that got people curious. I wanted it to feel a little nerdy and intellectual. But, Tracers also felt like the bar at a suburban strip mall.
It’s been successful in the public events where it brings audiences in and they've heard conversations that resonate. Coming together and sharing anecdotes is a real part of human development and learning from each other. And there has been this organic evolution of the word into an adjective so that people are “tracing” anti-feminist behavior. It’s a revolution.