When I decided to review Spring Breakers, I didn’t know what a challenging experience it would be. On the heels of a slew of anti-choice legislation in Kansas, Arkansas, North Dakota and Virginia, news of the sexual assaults and suicides of 2 young women in Nova Scotia and San Jose, and the start of the terrible, awful Gosnell trial, I was already burned out on anti-woman bullshit. Otherwise, maybe I wouldn’t have left the theater feeling so angry.
The newest film from writer of Kids and director of Trash Humpers, Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers is the story of 4 college friends who long for a spring break getaway. They lack the funds, so they rob a diner with squirt guns and some video game-inspired swagger. A few days after their arrival in Florida, they are arrested and bailed out by a rapper/gangster twice their age, who draws them into a whole new realm of debauchery.
The film could have been a biting commentary on youth culture in the United States. Korine could have drawn audiences in with the promise of another American Pie-esque, silly teen bender adventure, only to flip it on its head – and he almost went there. But, true-to-form, when asked about the film’s glorification of gun violence, Korine stuck to his art house commitment to voyeuristic ambivalence, and all potential for social commentary fell flat.
Take, for example, the scene in which the women are arrested. They are taken out of the party house and made to stand, cuffed, in front of a police car, wearing nothing but bikinis. It looks like a great promo for a porno. Later, we see them in a court room… still wearing nothing but bikinis! Surely they would have been given cover-ups of some variety. What could have been the purpose of their continued almost-nudity if not to cater to the male gaze? The Village Voice’s Scott Foundas opines that, “as in the best work by Korine – the agile agent provocateur… – it is impossible to say where exploitation ends and deconstruction begins.” I hardly agree. The exploitation begins in the film’s opening scene and never ends, and the specter of deconstruction never quite comes into focus. Social commentary is only effective if said with a clear voice. To leave interpretation up to the audience is to be complicit in the perpetuation of the underlying prejudice(s).
So, what prejudices are being perpetuated? Most obviously, there’s the notion that women’s bodies – especially young women’s bodies – exist for the sole purpose of enjoyment by heterosexual men. Perhaps Spring Breakers wouldn’t have been as bad if not for the excessive shots of bouncing breasts and barely-covered butts. Perhaps the excessiveness was intended to desexualize the film in favor of a “more appalled than aroused” reaction. But one can also imagine creepmaster Korine snickering and enjoying every minute of every shoot.
Spring Breakers also promotes the “virgin/whore” dichotomy. Throughout American popular entertainment women are often represented as either “pure” or “dirty.” The juxtaposition of the God-fearing Selena Gomez character (aptly named Faith) and her lascivious companions serves to reinforce this idea, especially when Faith makes the “right” decision and goes home. She is the “good” gurl and her friends are “bad” gurls. Within the virgin/whore narrative, there can be no grey area.
One of starkest offenses is the racial divide central to the film. Despite the white youths’ appropriation of black gangster culture, I felt a sense that the underlying sentiment in several scenes was, “black people are scary.” In one scene, our dear fair-skinned Faith breaks down, exclaiming that she is uncomfortable. The backdrop to her crying is a garage full of African American men. In another scene, white rapper Alien’s voiceover states “he’s the enemy,” while we are shown a room full of African American people of all ages. I could go on, but I can’t say it any better than Richard Brody in his brilliant critique in The New Yorker: “The very mainspring of the movie is [Korine’s] stereotypical view of black life as one of drug dealing and gang violence.”
Finally, James Franco’s “Alien” is the very personification of rape culture. His sense of entitlement to the bodies of these young women is brazen. In the garage scene, when Faith breaks down, Alien proceeds to gaslight her, convincing her that her fears are unfounded. Everything is better here, and after all, he really likes her! When he grabbed her face in a seemingly affectionate but truly controlling manner, I felt the same sense of disgust and violation as when watching the rape scene in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The emotional violence he inflicts on all four young women is nauseating. But, as we see during the infamous “look at my shit” scene, to him they are nothing more than property. After all, he bought them from the jail. Now they belong to him.
I wanted more from Spring Breakers. I wanted it to serve as social commentary, or buck my expectations and construct a gurl-positive depiction of young American women. Instead, Korine’s film lands him unsurprisingly among the ranks of the most egregious teen sexploitation offenders. The only shocker was the overwhelming lack of thoughtful criticism from the mainstream criterati.
No matter your interpretation, Spring Breakers offers ample food for thought. I encourage everyone to see it, just make sure you bring a critical eye with you. And a barf bag.