Tech in Film
“Spring Breakers” is easily the most controversial film out this year. Its celebrity ensemble includes Disney Channel stars such as Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens Ashley Benson and the wife of director Harmony Korine who cast aside their “good girl” image for the film as well as NYU’s very own James Franco who is more readily recognized for his role in serious Oscar nominated films such as “127 Hours.” The plot follows a group of four female college students who rob a restaurant at gunpoint under the influence to get enough cash to afford a spring break getaway. Once in South Florida, their drug and sex filled escapades come to an abrupt end when they are arrested and then subsequently bailed out by Alien (James Franco) who has some sort of perverse interest in them after seeing them scantily clad at the courthouse. Three of the girls then enter into a strange sexual relationship with Alien and become his crime accomplices until he dies in the final scene and they drive off into the distance with their newly acquired wealth. These prominent actors lend a certain prestige to a film with a very limited distribution in theaters and certainly generated much of the controversy surrounding the film as the girls featured are barely of age and typically considered to be role models for young girls who knew them from their very recent Disney Channel days. When questioned about their participation in press interviews, the young actresses seem to be under the impression that this is somehow a feministic film and that the adult content is potentially misunderstood but necessary because the film is a satire of the “American Dream”- a phrase heard many times throughout the film.
Unfortunately it is not enough to create a very misogynistic and exploitative film and then call it a feminist work by claiming that it was all done as a satire to mirror what actually is seen in our culture as being the american dream. The roles of the women here are very much as a sexual object and the insinuation that they only find power by manipulating men with their sexual wiles further perpetuates gender stereotypes. Through costumes, camera angling as well as the characters behaviors and their interactions with each other and the male protagonist, director Harmony Korine creates a film that enforces the more horrifying gender stereotypes about women, namely that they are sexual objects denied any chance at individuality until they adopt male characteristics and male given power.
The scene that most clearly exemplifies attitudes about women throughout the film is towards the end of the film when the gun wielding drug lord thug Alien begins to play and softly sing the song “Everytime” by Britney Spears on a white piano on the beach while the three remaining female characters dance in a circle while wearing matching pink outfits and holding multiple machine guns. This takes place shortly before they embark on a killing spree at the house of Alien’s rival in the drug business. Particularly through the positions in which the characters hold the guns, the director makes it obvious that they are using the weapons as a phallic symbol and as a source of power. As Kimmel put it so cleverly in Inequality and Difference “How can one speak of gender without speaking of power… At the level of gender relations, gender is about the power that men have over women as a group.” This is exactly what the female characters were trying to tap into when they adopted more masculine characters and proceeded to engage in a violent shoot out where they emerged alive. Before this scene they were simply at the mercy of Alien who was attracted to their sexuality which they wielded to be literally rescued from jail. The girls who dance sexually around Franco in this scene are not attracted to his character in a genuine sense but are attracted to the idea of wealth and power which they feel they will gain through their compliance with his violent acts. They do not know how to feel empowered until they conform to actions they characterize as being male.
The costumes in the described scene play a large part in the representation of females in the movie. The girls are in skimpy bikinis the entire film which makes some sense in the context of being at a spring break beach party but less sense when they spend the night in jail and huddle together because they are not offered any sort of covering by law enforcement. When Alien finally buys them clothes that they wear in the piano scene (after professing that he is in love with them) the outfit choices are very telling of female portrayal in the film. They don pink ski masks with unicorn horns (a phallic symbol), matching pink leopard leotards and sweatpants with DTF on the back. DTF, of course, standing for “Down to Fuck”. They are matching, faceless, pink, giggling criminals with sexually explicit messages on their clothing literally inviting people to have sex with them. Particularly the ski masks that cover their faces show exactly how they are not perceived as being individuals but are interchangeable hyper-sexualized versions of how femininity is shown in the film. It’s important that they are given matching outfits after Alien professes that they are his “soulmates”. He never addresses them by their individual names and seems to see them as a three headed female with whom he can play with, so individuality in terms of outfits would obviously be seen as unnecessary in this situation. The voiceover in the background of this scene is the voice of missing character “Faith” played by Selena Gomez and juxtaposes the sexuality and violence of the scene as she says things like “We’ve never felt so alive- so free” and “This place is magical; we’re finding ourselves”. This suggests that through the opportunities given to them by Alien, the girls are able to finally gain some power and come into their own. This is emphasized by the phallic symbols- the guns that they hold and dance with suggestively as well as the unicorn horns on their pink ski masks. Essentially the scene is perpetuating the idea that the girls were powerless until the met the male protagonist and were given the (phallic) tools to carry out violent acts- something that is typically reserved for male characters.
The male gaze could not be more accurately represented through the camera as it angles in slow motion up and down the many naked bodies of the film- taking close care to pause at breasts and inner thighs. Filmed in a style akin to Girls Gone Wild films and reminiscent of any of the sexually explicit music videos shown on networks such as MTV, the film is called into question by reviewers such as Brooks Barnes from The New York Times who ask if it is “effectively satirizing vapid MTV exploitation shows or merely complicit in the glossy meretriciousness of the culture they represent.” “Spring Breakers” perhaps effectively plays with the grey area of female sexuality and its place in feminism. A filmmaker can show naked girls gyrating while covered in alcohol and label it as sexual liberation and many will agree with him – after all the film was praised by the Huffington Post as being the “most intelligent American film of the year”- but truly reads as a tactic employed by a director to appeal to the voyeur in the audience who wants to see pornography thinly disguised as an edgy indie film. Ultimately this film portrays women as being weak, identical, hyper-sexualized, wild characters who only perceive themselves in a power position when they adopt male characteristics through phallic objects and violence.