Spring Breakers: Gender, Power, Oblivion

Lazy social scientist trick: pick three conceptual terms from your paper, put them after a colon, and you have a title. It works for courses as well as it does for papers. Environment, Economy, & Culture. Race, Politics, & the 21st Century. Science, Technology, & Magic. Ad nauseum.

A fun game I like to play is to ask a group who can think of something that there isn’t a word for first. My favorite example of something there isn’t a word for is that phenomenon where you are approaching a locked car and the driver unlocks the door at the immediate moment that the passenger is pulling on the handle. On many cars, this results in the passenger door staying locked while the driver door opens easily.

This all has a point, I promise… and that point is:

Is there a term for works of art that are taken by audiences to endorse actions, depicted in that art, which the artist probably has very ambivalent feelings about? Some examples:

  • drug use in Requiem for a Dream or Trainspotting–these films obviously depict drug use, and heroin specifically, as being pretty much terrible. But don’t we all know that person who would see that and think, whoah, that’s hardcore, I gotta try that?
  • narcissism in The Social Network–a central theme of David Fincher’s film on Mark Zuckerberg is the question of whether Zuck’s narcissism is extricable from his genius. And yet–don’t you think a generation of geeky kids saw Zuck’s rise to fame as confirmation of their own superiority, without noticing the shadow of his, well, moral and personal emptiness?

There are lots of other examples. In any case, slacker wunderkind turned trash-pop auteur Harmony Korine is certainly on his way to mastering this genre. Korine rose to fame in 1995 after writing the harrowing Kids, which gained notoriety for showing kids, well, basically doing everything they shouldn’t be doing.

Spring Breakers‘ basic premise is much the same. On first glance, some might class the film with movies like Project X, what might generally be called a “party glorification.”

What I mainly want to talk about, however, is the gender and power dynamic depicted in the movie. When the film begins, the girls lack agency or control of their situation. Despite saving up for months, they don’t have enough money to go on spring break. They’re stuck at the empty school, wishing they were elsewhere. From that point on, the girls take control of their situation with starkly transgressive means, starting with robbing a Chicken Shack.

Spot the pattern in these instances where the girls “exercise power”:

  • While robbing the Chicken Shack: “Get down on your knees, bitch!”
  • Seducing Alien (James Franco) then pulling guns on him and shoving the pistol barrels into his mouth
  • In a strip club, they take the money Alien gives them and make (female) strippers work for it, then shove the money into the women’s g-strings
  • Trying to convince Alien to go on a revenge mission: “What are you, a little bitch? Are you a pussy?”

Now, these are cherry-picked, but the trend is that the girls generally express “power” in the terms of traditional masculine dominance. Femininity is coterminous with weakness and identified with subservience, particularly sexual subservience. The girls state that they go on spring break not just to have fun but to “find themselves.” Given freedom and agency for the first time, they are–in some ways–constrained by their past experiences, which we can infer occur in a world of traditional male dominance. Knowing no other formula for expressing agency other than masculinized violence means that is how they inevitably do so. Control over self seems to be related to control over others.

More to come.


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