Exploiting Exploitation: The Brilliance of Spring Breakers

 

SPRING BREAKERS, the much-anticipated “neo-teensploitation” film by infamously gritty, formerly underground writer-director Harmony Korine, premiered in March to mixed reviews of its hyper-real (yet simultaneously surreal) tale of four college girls who will do whatever it takes to achieve their ideal MTV-style spring break. Right off the bat, the movie is founded on a gimmick: two of the four leads are teeny-bop Disney stars Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, acting in their first “edgy” film, a move that New York Magazine wrote off as exploitative. It is exploitative, but there seems to be thoughtful and provocative intent behind the choice: it’s an exploitative movie about exploitation. Korine casts incessantly objectified teen icons in roles about an environment spring break party beachesthat incessantly objectifies young women. This sets the tone of irony and social deconstruction that underlies the film’s neon-bikini chaos. Despite Korine’s claims that all he wants to do is “overwhelm people’s senses,” this movie covers a lot of ground.

The story is about four girls so desperate to go on spring break that they put on ski masks and rob a diner. Then they party in an unnamed town in Florida for a few days and get arrestednot for the robbery, but for spring breakingalong with a slew of other kids who have committed standard party fouls. Alien, a sleazy local white-rapper (James Franco), bails the girls out of jail. Absurd adventure ensues as we watch four pop-star princesses don hot pink ski masks and rob the same spring breakers with whom they had previously been partying, sidekicks to Alien in an escalating drug war with his rival dealer and former best friend, Archie (Gucci Mane).

It seems important to first acknowledge the things that most people took away from the film: the fascination of how sexual body parts come into close focus for so long that the sex stops being sexy. How the vibe of partying is rendered so true to life that the entire film starts to seem like one long, discombobulated hangover memory. But this desensitizing and this realism both point to a larger purpose. The film delivers a jarring, sweeping, disjointed but vivid layout of social America: a bunch of people ruining each other as they scramble for their American Dream. It’s about gender, class, race, and powerso of course it’s also about capitalism.

Archie, the more powerful of the two drug dealers, talks about The American Dream while he’s half-asleep and being ridden by a woman. Alien speaks of it too, standing on a bed in his depressingly empty home with machine guns in both hands. The only main characters who don’t use the term are the main girls. What we hear about instead is their “spring break” dream as they busy themselves by sucking on red-white-and-blue Popsicles.

There’s a scene early on when the bad girls reenact their robbery for Faith (Selena Gomez) in the parking lot. They scream, too convincingly, “GET ON YOUR KNEES,” a regurgitation of a message that girls have digested time and again: get on your knees, or else—participate in the “patriotic” ritual of pleasing men and produce the spring break culture that Korine so accurately depicts in the film. The girls even go so far as to become complicit in the hyper-sexualization of the moment—when they have their pink-haired friend (Rachel Korine) face-first on the pavement, one of murmurs, “You like that?” Not long after, Faith, the good Christian girl of the group, leaves early for home.

Still, it’s a more complicated story than simply one of girls being exploited. The point is that the trio has figured out—for better or worse—how to turn the violence that has inherently been done to them as young women in this culture into violence that men can understand. When they need money for spring break, as beautiful and shameless girls, they have a lot of options, all kinds of sexual bartering that they could undertake. But instead they choose a more masculine method of getting money: armed robbery (important to note that in their case they were merely “armed,” robbing the diner with squirt guns). In a brilliantly bizarre scene in Alien’s bedroom, Candy and Brit force him, at gunpoint, to perform fellatio on his own guns—guns which the girls, of all people, finally acknowledge for what they are: metaphorical phalluses globally symbolic of male dominance. This is the moment when the tables turn and the menacing older man falls in love with them, becoming putty in their hands.

We see no true seduction in this film, unless you count the gun scene. For girls who claim to “love penis” and equate sucking dick with feeling free, we never see Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) or Brit (Ashley Benson) having sex until they’ve begun their relationship with Franco. In fact, we see them watching cartoons and going to bed early in their hotel room. It’s easy to call the girls “empowered” because of the comfortable way that they wield the guns they get from men or drive the cars that they steal from men. The fact remains: they still need to get these items from the men. During a pre-dinner robbery pep talk, one of the girls says, “You have to act hard. Pretend it’s a videogame.” They find the courage to do all of the boundary-pushing things they’re doing by “acting hard.” They may be highly competent at doling out the violence they’ve learned, but ultimately they’re acting. By the end of the movie (spoiler alert!), with the surprise of a last scene, you could call them “strong women” because they are fearless and commit to finishing what they start. This would be a lazy feminist reading of the movie. They are as fallen as everyone else, entangled in a mission that nobody involved really understands.

But they do obliterate the entire underground system that had been exploiting the “harmless” spring breakers. Which brings us to the question of class. They take out the two primary players of the city’s drug business. The drug dealers are maybe the most complex tragedies of the movie. The girls shoot up Archie’s whole operation, with powerful coldness, “as though it were a video game.” The gangster victims, dropping like flies around the pool, don’t seem like people. The camera looms behind the girls, POV-style, like a video game, neon lights lining the entire frame. And then we see the bullet holes in the men’s skulls, as Faith’s voiceover sings the praises of what a transformative vacation it had been (note that the girls don’t shoot any women).

Alien broke my heart the most. He is the only person we see in the movie who does not have a community. The girls, irresponsible as they seem, have each other. Archie sits in the middle of a long white couch surrounded by family and friends. Alien is alone, delighted by a chance to save the girls so that they will be indebted to him. But it doesn’t seem like he desires sexual favors in turn so much as he wants friends who will listen to him, people who will “look at his shit.” In a scene when he’s getting to know the girls just after bailing them out, he talked about his love of rapping: “All those people listening to you. It’s humbling.” There’s a childlike sentimentality to his character: he’s unable to let go of his attachment to Archie, whom he never stops referring to as his “best friend,” even when Archie started calling him “the enemy.” Alien is very alone.

Originally we see him as a threat. The moment his character is introduced, the soundtrack switches from the fun white-people party rap (ASAP Rocky/Skrillex) to intense, authentic Southern rap (Gucci Mane/Wacka Flocka). We see Alien as a liaison into a world that the girls, however “bad,” are not cut out for. It’s true that he originally intended to exploit them“and they all make it so easy for me,” he sing-songs at some point early in their friendship.

But this all changes as soon as he falls for them. I think he enjoyed being deep-throated by the guns because his entire life has been a slow suicide. What fascinates me is that every male I’ve spoken to about the film did not gradually come to empathize with Franco’s character —my male friends saw him as a scummy quasi-villain from his introduction up until his final moment. It was the women I spoke to who could identify Alien’s weakness and earnestness, just as the girls in the film did. I don’t know why it is that the feminine eye can locate those loopholes in a game of power, but it feels important. By the end, the girls are a danger to him.

It’s hard to know which is the biggest tragedy of the movie. The majority of those killed ended up being black, Alien dies alone, and the girls get to drive home in a stolen car, diabolical and dead inside as a means of self-protection in a world constantly telling them to get on their knees. The spring breakers will come in and out of that town each year, ignorant to the violence beneath their pleasure seeking.

It’s a movie that invite intense analysis, but its brilliance is that it somehow remains impartial, presenting to us extreme images and stories without instructing us how to feel. Korine’s investment in providing overwhelming sensory stimulation allows the plot to speak for itself, and without even realizing it, we’re digesting a story about the fluidity of power, systemic oppression, and the sadness of peoplewhile we believe we’re enjoying bikinis, beaches, and pop music.

 

About M.J. Corey

M.J. Corey lives and writes in Manhattan, where she attends Columbia University's nonfiction writing program. Her work has been featured by The Brooklyn Rail, Killing the Buddha, and The Newer York, among other places. For more, check out her blog at mjwriting.tumblr.com.
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