Jennifer Reeder's Crystal Lake: Aspirational Feminisms

The first shot of Jennifer Reeder’s film Crystal Lake is a locked-down, long take of a series of objects tossed in a red suitcase: a cat shirt, Gypsys, Tramps and Theives on vinyl, issues of Sassy magazine, Lisa Frank notebooks, a paperback copy of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Purple Rain, and Aliens on VHS tape, a pillow emblazoned with Pocohantas’ face, a broken skateboard. The shot is a manifesto of sorts; the footnotes of an American childhood.

Through her most sacred belongings we meet the film’s protagonist, a teen girl named Ladan who has been sent to live with her cousins Samiyah and Samer. The cousins inspect one another with familiar adolescent suspicion. Ladan and Samiyah flirt with female intimacy while testing one another's trustworthiness. Samiyah applies make up to the introspective Ladan’s face, telling her “This is a really good look for our skin tone but it’s not for everyday.” It's a John Hughes reference - the loner and the social butterfly - except these girls both wear hijab. Ladan confides that back home she spent her time skateboarding at night alone, when she could be sure there wouldn’t be any boys around. The girls are both Muslim, and Reeder does a thoughtful and respectful play here on the clash between traditional Muslim values and American millennial desire. In Reeder’s world it’s a conflict the girls can navigate – together.

There is a moment in each girls life where looking at another girl, one understands acutely her own being, light and power. A lot has been written about girls and heartbreak - particularly the unraveling of first romantic loves. Not enough has been said about the scars girls bare from friendships and alliances they have loved and lost while coming into womanhood. Once exposed, the fissures that emerge between girls, as they become fully indoctrinated members of society, continue to replay throughout adulthood. Women with the best of intentions struggle to be accountable to one another as their interests diverge. Patriarchy exploits these rifts with a precision male-identified Americans may never know.

The epistemology of utopia and feminisms dates back to Seneca Falls, however many of these renderings have not stood the test of time and must undergo periodic revision. Visualizing utopia is a moving, fluid conjuring of collective desire. What remains consistent is the reliance of utopian performance as a tool in the activist and artistic realms. Writer Jill Dolan describes utopian performance as aspirational acts that make desire visible. Dolan writes “A performance itself becomes a “doing” … as tangible and effective as saying “I do” in a wedding ceremony.” Desire is at the root of the feminist movement. This desire is exorcised through political and artistic action. Rendered vulnerable through announcing our desire we open ourselves up to the disappointment found in falling back down to reality, but we also have new embodied memory of how things could be.

In a pivotal scene in the film Crystal Lake, Ladan cries herself to sleep in the room she and her cousin share. Samiyah throws pillows her way. She begins an ominous text conversation with a friend, plotting retaliation for Ladan's disturbance. What comes next is a radical departure from the conventions of films about teen girls. Whether you see Reeder’s intervention in the mean girl film genre as fantasy, or as a clear-eyed battle cry says a lot about how you see the current feminist milieu. In her own words Reeder rationalizes: “I will always claim feminism and I consider my films a form of social justice…I am entirely invested in inclusion….Crystal Lake, features only young actors of color for all the speaking roles. Stories matter, casting matters. I don’t see the point if I am not making a difference.” For Reeder, Crystal Lake is an intentional provocation for us all. What if girls (and women) prioritized each other?

Writing about Reeder’s film, I can’t help but think of January 21st the day after the 45th president of the United States was inaugurated on the steps of the capital building. On this day 500,000 women marched on Washington DC and up to 5 million women participated in local marches worldwide. I was in attendance in Washington DC that day, and stood by the main stage to hear speeches from the fledgling coalition of affiliated organizations and public figures. The one thread that seemed to unite the otherwise vastly diverse attendees was that everyone felt they’d been ripped open by recent events. What went unspoken was what some saw as a telling failure, that the defeat of the first female candidate representing a major political party in the United States was sealed by the 53% of white female voters who elected her competitor. It was a wake up call for feminists, making visible what has always been there. For the afternoon attendees of the Women's March in January, the event was a symbolic do-over, rehearsing the coalition that failed in November. Maybe next time we would get it right.

Film still and excerpt Jennifer Reeder, Crystal Lake, 2016

Dolan, J..Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005

Filmmaker Jennifer Reeder talks feminism, the Midwest, cat films, Ashley Altadonna -

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