By Jeremy Lehrer
No other superhero fights for the oppressed like White Trash Girl. While battling misogynists, she dons no cape or cowl--she sports a straw hat, cowboy boots, and a miniskirt. She wears a T-shirt with a big yellow smiley face because she feels good about what she does. Forget superhero angst: for White Trash Girl, "any day is a good day to kick some ass."
Like most superheroes White Trash Girl has her own creation myth, a story about how she acquired her powers. But her tale is more trashy than Superman's. Her mother, Cherry, gave birth to this "slimy little ball of piss and shit" and flushed the baby down the toilet. Cherry then killed her uncle--who happened to be White Trash Girl's father--before committing suicide. Against all odds, the orphaned child thrived in the underworld cesspool, and her bodily fluids gained a potent toxicity. As legend has it, "The ooze fed and nourished the baby, it made the baby strong--super strong. Her tiny baby body became more toxic with every tiny baby breath and every tiny baby heartbeat. No one knew then that this weren't no ordinary baby. This was a super baby. A little tiny super hero. This was White Trash Girl!"
Her story is told in the first two episodes of "Clit-o-Matic: The Adventures of White Trash Girl!" Jennifer Reeder, 27, plays White Trash Girl; she also writes, directs, narrates, and assembles found footage for each episode.
"Clit-o-Matic" is a sort of tall tale, chock-full of backcountry inflections and outrageous hyperbole as White Trash Girl exposes some of society's inner demons. In one scene from her ball-bustin' debut, The Devil Inside, White Trash Girl flips the bird to a Wicker Park hipster. When the gesture fails to express the magnitude of her rage, she rips off her hat, props her left leg on a tree trunk, and comes on the poor cretin, using her "beaver blaster," one of her panoply of toxic secretions. This is true pussy power, not to mention a powerful send-up of traditionally misogynistic porn.
The Devil Inside runs like a trailer for the trailer park antihero, documenting the genesis of White Trash Girl and introducing her "crew of shitkickers": Scrappy ("she fights dirty"), Mental Girl ("half woman, half child, fully delusional"), Eddy ("the sort of guy you could tongue kiss over and over and over"), Trelita ("she's like a big pink popsicle--you'll want to lick her up one side and down the other"), and Ron ("Ron ain't dangerous; he's just gross").
The second episode, Law of Desire, finds White Trash Girl on the lam. She nevertheless stands up for Trelita against the abusive operator of a phone-sex line. To neutralize this scumball, White Trash Girl climbs onto his desk and fires the beaver blaster. While still outrageous, Law of Desire is more concerned with social criticism than The Devil Inside; the narrative touches on problems ranging from exploitation of migrant workers to domestic violence.
During her first semester at the School of the Art Institute, Reeder had been contemplating some of her own "neuroses with class issues" and wanted to explore her history with eating disorders. At the same time she came across an essay by Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis on Hustler magazine and the politics of pornography. Reeder wanted to bridge the gap between the alienating intellectual discourse of critical theory and the personal struggles and social problems that seemed more relevant to her life. "I was feeling like I didn't fit into this whole art community, even the film and video making community. And so I was thinking on this daily basis, 'Oh gee, if I was a superhero, what kind of superhero would I be?'" During Christmas break, Reeder found an issue of RE/Search called "The Guide to Bodily Fluids," which became a catalyst for White Trash Girl.
"It occurred to me that I should come back to grad school and just go balls out with this project," Reeder says. "I'm going to do this series about a girl superhero named White Trash Girl; she's going to have toxic bodily fluids and a knack for upsetting polite society, and it's going to have this critical subtext about class and gender and sexuality and race."
Reeder has stoked a powder keg of controversy--she rarely makes it through a screening without arousing the passions of someone in the audience. While the liberal exploration of bodily excretions is bound to upset some people, it's Reeder's commentary on "white trash" and her inclusion of such characters as Trelita that draw the most ire. One woman objected to the fact that Reeder was "a white girl talking about a Latina." But the "authenticity" card means nothing to Reeder, who argues that these critics are missing the point.
"Sometimes I think that in this day and age you can never be black enough to make work about black culture," she says. "Or you can never be woman enough to make women's art, or you can never be poor enough to make work about the state of poorness in this country. I think that's so crazy. That's just this way of people still not talking about all the sort of dreck already in this country. The people who are most critical are the people who think that it's not coming from anywhere in particular and she's completely this fictional character. She is fictional--White Trash Girl doesn't really exist--but I don't think she would be as interesting if there weren't aspects of me in her and vice versa. Something that makes it successful or rewarding for me as the maker--but also for people who see it and like it--is that it does come from someplace that's true."
While she shares some traits with White Trash Girl, Reeder is not necessarily comfortable with all the issues raised by the character. For instance, she says, "White Trash Girl is born out of this rape-incest situation. God, you know, it's really difficult for me to watch; it was difficult to shoot. But I felt like she had to be born out of a really horrific situation and move beyond it. Not forget it, but really triumph over it."
Reeder says her critics are the kind of people who crucify artists without trying to understand the ideas that inform them. "When I'm in the midst of either shooting or editing or collecting footage or something, I will just go and pore back over articles that were helpful before or read new stuff and think, 'Now why again does she need to do this? And what about if she did this? And who is the enemy again and what do they do?' When I have those questions, it's way too hard to rely on myself for those answers, to have those answers be interesting or smart or funny or entertaining or transformative or whatever. And so going back and reading, and specifically reading the theory, I always think, 'Right. Oh, that's it.'"
In "The Guide to Bodily Fluids," for instance, Reeder came across an anecdote that recounted the history of fiber in the American diet: graham crackers and cereal were invented during the Depression because, as Reeder tells it, "So many people were overwhelmingly concerned with their money that we had this whole group of people in America that were totally constipated." Reeder describes the greedy businessman in Law of Desire as so constipated that "he'd go for weeks without shitting at all."
More than 40 festivals in the U.S., Canada, and Europe have shown one or both episodes of "Clit-o-Matic," at venues ranging from the Whitney Museum to the Hamburg Short Film Festival. In March, Reeder traveled to New York to attend a screening of Law of Desire at the New York Underground Film Festival, where The Devil Inside had played the previous year. It also graced last year's Chicago Underground Film Festival, during which Reeder met no-budget kingpin George Kuchar. Kuchar was in town for a CUFF retrospective of his films; after seeing The Devil Inside, he told Reeder that he would "love to be in one of your tapes." Reeder enlisted him to play a part in Law of Desire. In their scene, White Trash Girl would be walking down the street and Kuchar would accost her. Reeder instructed him to "say something lewd, and I'll turn around and tell you to go fuck yourself." With the tape rolling, Kuchar waited for Reeder to walk past him, but instead of delivering the expected come-on, he pinched Reeder's fanny. Reeder whirled around: "There was a millisecond when I thought I was going to laugh or cry. I didn't know how to handle it; it was completely unexpected." Then her instincts kicked in--she pulled herself together and kicked some ass. It took one take.
Reeder would like to continue the cameo tradition (Chicago film and video artist Sadie Benning appeared in The Devil Inside), and she mentions the possibility of including other underground film celebrities or perhaps "a supermodel" in future episodes of "Clit-o-Matic."
With supermodels all the rage, Reeder says she wants White Trash Girl to be a more assertive presence, recalling Courtney Love onstage and the way her performance resonated with young women in the audience. "That's not to say that all those gals banging their heads to Courtney Love and lovin' it aren't secretly miserable in their life and racked with self-doubt. Role models just don't exist for girls that are that age."
Reeder would like nothing more than to provide that role model, though she acknowledges that White Trash Girl may not necessarily be the woman for the job: "The last thing I want is mothers coming after me saying, 'The only thing my girl knows how to say is Fuck you, cocksucker.'"
Or perhaps this is just the mantra that will exorcise the demons and hang-ups that haunt us. "It's worth it," says Reeder, "to take that risk and look into those deepest, darkest, nastiest places of yourself and say, 'OK, how do you really feel about that?'" o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jennifer Reeder Photo by Cynthia Howe.