Through Her Eyes: The Feminine Power Of ‘80s Pop in Knives and Skin

Through Her Eyes: The Feminine Power Of ‘80s Pop in Knives and Skin

When speaking of the present, Jennifer Reeder lets her young women sing from the past - the female experience continues to be a minefield, but Katherine McLaughlin explores how the use of ‘80s music in the stylish neo-noir Knives and Skin sees light at the end of the tunnel.

Teenage girls live in a world where YouTube channels run by aggressive ‘pick-up artists’ like Addy ‘Agame’ and Roosh V who incessantly follow women around for sexual conquests impart their twisted wisdom to the male population without a hint of embarrassment. Women are the target, and to these men, they represent little more than another notch on the bedpost. Harassment, objectification and violence are part and parcel of being a living, breathing woman in a society that often does not appear to value them or their safety.

Jennifer Reeder’s intersectional feminist noir musical Knives and Skin confronts this truth, but also explores the power in sharing the good and bad experiences. It merges teen life with motherhood, suggesting that coming-of-age is a timeless battle. The film asks provocative questions: what is the best way to navigate the world as a woman, how can we best equip ourselves to survive, what can we learn from each other? The film’s multi-generational approach places female stories front and centre, and uses emblematic music from the 1980s to connect its players. It reinterprets the words from the songs and gives them new meaning through each character’s narrative.

The way Reeder continually interrogates the essence of nostalgia rather than luxuriating in it proves a refreshing antidote to recent hits like Stranger Things. Eleven may be the most powerful character in the Duffer brothers’ show as she continually saves the day, but the way her coming-of-age is handled under the psychology of her gruff guardian Jim Hopper feels outdated, even in the 1980s setting. Choosing to push forward the female adolescent narrative, Reeder uses specific cultural touchstones with nods to John Hughes’ oeuvre, reworking the jock, princess and mother archetypes for the modern day and permitting them to be critical of traditional American culture. Both parents and children make mistakes and learn, with wisdom from daughters being passed back to their mothers across mix-tape cassettes. 

When teenager Carolyn Harper goes missing, her disappearance sparks a strange disturbance in close-knit American suburbia, and the film explores its effect on the community. The audience knows where she is; she’s been left by the side of the road by a jock whose sexual advances, initially welcome, are then halted when Carolyn retracts her consent. We follow the fallout through the stories of a group of students made up of staunch feminist Joanna (who defiantly dons t-shirts with the names of iconic women including Angela Davis, Yoko Ono and Joan of Arc), cheerleader Laurel, and punk musician Charlotte. All three young women are confident and insecure in their own ways, without abiding to rigid archetypes. 

There’s a Twin Peaks vibe to proceedings, as Reeder builds on David Lynch’s otherworldly ambience blending it with the dreamy, hazy hues of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and creating an off-kilter world where women are trapped by their bodies. Reeder sprinkles in radical new takes on popular teen movies including Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything or the John Hughes’ written Some Kind of Wonderful.  A scene where a jock serenades Charlotte is met with all kinds of hilarious questions from the cynical musician, as to why this is a romantic notion and it ends up being a teaching moment for both of them. Reeder merges that confrontational attitude with dry humour and self-awareness, similar to Heathers and YA TV shows like Pretty Little Liars and Riverdale, all the while reassessing the positive shifts in attitudes and screen representation on sex, love and power over the decades. The film’s music beautifully conveys this by slowing down the tempo to six ‘80s bangers, and placing the lyrics in the mouths of young women so the viewer can listen closely to the words. Reeder conjures an intoxicating ambience that evokes a powerful scent of melancholy. 

When the first song, “Our Lips are Sealed” by The Go-Go’s, kicks in, the teenage girls are singing it to Carolyn’s mother, Lisa, in choir practice. In her grief-stricken state, she has started playing dress-up in her daughter’s sequin-embellished clothes as an attempt to get closer to her. She’s moved to tears, but distracted from what the girls are singing about. This song about sisterly spirit has gained influence since it was covered by Hilary Duff and her sister Haylie for the 2004 film A Cinderella Story, in which an online admirer in the form of Chad Michael Murray appears to save her from a wicked stepmother. He’s also, conveniently, the most popular guy in school – a football player repurposed as a ’00s Prince Charming. 

Reeder’s film presents two sides to the old-fashioned happy ending between the jock and the geeky girl. One is an intellectual and beautifully drawn flirtation between Charlotte and a boy she is tutoring, and the other is ugly – as seen through Carolyn’s untimely demise. On the toxic side of burgeoning sexuality, films like Nancy Schwartzman’s Roll Red Roll or even Katt Shea’s The Rage: Carrie 2 show how when the rumour mill starts, things can get nasty. From the outset, through each girl’s perspective, Reeder conveys the violent and permanent impact of violating boundaries, be it through spreading gossip, bullying, or sexual misconduct. The lyrics from “Our Lips are Sealed”, ‘There's a weapon, that we must use, in our defence, silence’, could point to lessons that need to be unlearned by society. Both Carolyn and her mother scream for help in the same way in their most desperate moments, vocalising their pain. Though it’s too late for Carolyn, her closest friends learn something valuable from Lisa’s torment – the full impact of which is seen when they sing a rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s rallying cry for female solidarity, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, in the tattered bedroom of the deceased teenager. As Lisa laments that she’s taught them nothing, the young women disagree in unison, breaking into song as a way to comfort her and show their appreciation. 

“I Melt With You” by Modern English, which also featured in Martha Coolidge’s teen romance Valley Girl, is reinterpreted through a beautiful queer love story between the artistic and introspective Laurel and another high-school girl. They lie in their separate bedrooms dreamily singing the tune and thinking of one another. The song was originally used for a romantic dating montage to tell a straight love story between an outsider punk played by Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman as the titular valley girl, Julie. Even the lyrics, ‘You've seen the difference and it's getting better all the time’, point to hope, an indicator that things are moving in the right direction when it comes to diverse representations of love in teen films. Giving women the chance to have their say in cinema results in fresh perspectives.    

When Carolyn’s corpse breaks into song from the flowery grave where she rests, her voice acts as a powerful reminder of her betrayal of trust and the shocking repitition of history when it comes to sexual violence against women. Singing a gorgeous rendition of “Promises, Promises” by Naked Eyes, the film cuts to friends and family members as they each relate their heartache to the lyrics. The song links the regrets and pleasures of both parent and child. Laurel finds happiness in her loving relationship after breaking away from her manipulative jock boyfriend, while her mother Renee laments her dying marriage. The women eventually find common ground when they share these secrets. 

As the film comes to a close with a prom scene that features Charlotte’s band whipping up a frenzy with “Birds Fly (A Whisper to a Scream)” by The Icicle Works, it recalls the empowering modern reworking of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, 10 Things I Hate About You. Each young woman eventually ignites a similar fiery feminism to the iconic Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles) through their creative outlets, whether that’s bold fashion statements or Riot Grrrl-inspired musical expression. As the song plays over the denouement of Knives and Skin, Charlotte’s love story shows what happens when men are taught to treat women with respect, Joanna breaks the silence with her depressed mother, Laurel returns the toxic jock’s varsity jacket with the words ‘I Treat Women Like Shit’ emblazoned on it in sequins, and Lisa Harper picks up her late daughter’s glasses to see the world from her point of view. 

Katherine McLaughlin (@Ms_K_McLaughlin) is a freelance culture writer, broadcaster and horror devotee from London. She regularly contributes to SciFiNow, Sight & Sound, Dazed, The List, and BBC Radio Scotland.

READ ME is a platform for female-led writing on film commissioned by Girls on Tops. Louisa Maycock (@louisamaycock) is Commissioning Editor and Ella Kemp (@ella_kemp) is Contributing Editor.

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