Girls, Interrupting: The Guns, Girls, and Gender Dynamics of Spring Breakers
There may be guns, girls, and pink balaclavas, but beneath the veneer of the naughtiness of spring break in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is an interesting look at women who are able to be empowered despite the oppressive patriarchal environment around them. Spring Break itself cultivates this oppression. This sense of feminism is so strong that the lead girls, played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, are able to subvert the very notion of the patriarchal environment and take a hold of it with a bang. And by bang, I mean with guns.
From the moment the film begins and Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” blares non-diegetically over bodies slathered in booze, it is clear that we are encountering the New American Dream from the male perspective. Spring Break is not only a very “white” thing, but a very “male thing”. As aforementioned, there are tons of women in these Malick-esque Girls Gone Wild montages , but these women are subscribing to a very male oriented fantasy. Who really holds the power here? Who really is dictating these fantastic images, both from the point of view of the camera as well as culturally? Guys. Modern Spring Break is essentially created for the modern male. Who else would even come up with a title like Girls Gone Wild?
So, in this male driven fantasy, the images of girls are purposely being objectified to present a very specific view and perspective: the Male Gaze. Women fellating popsicles, close-ups of twerking and jumping up and down; this is what people my age (apparently) dream of doing. The subservience of the women, though, is obvious by the above examples: the women are not exactly exerting power in these; they’re performing for a male audience. While one could argue that the performativity of this could be power in itself, it’s the unknowingness and apathy with which the women perform that suggests their submission.
However, this dynamic of the conventional Male Gaze objectifying its minor characters, as naked as the day is young, changes once we finally meet our main characters. The ogling does not stop, per se, but it takes on a different power and a different message. It isn’t ogling; it turns into staring with wonder, shock, and possibly horror, suggesting that the Male Persona that inhabits the camera, that is the camera might have underestimated the women in the film.
One of the first indications of a power shift, a subtle one in the film, doesn’t even seem like it. Towards the beginning of the film, Ashley Benson fills a squirt gun with water and pulls the trigger while aiming the barrel into her mouth. While snickering, she puts her mouth around the barrel and continues to squirt water into her mouth. Obviously simulating oral sex on the gun, it seems like something more similar to the montage that was seen moments ago in the film. But that it is a gun changes the dynamic. They have not even arrived in Florida yet, and Hudgens is testing out how wild and powerful she can be.
Many examples follow later, at least in terms of the girls interacting with guns, but they all seem to suggest the same thing: the girls finding empowerment where men usually would. Guns in and of themselves represent a very masculine ideal. They’re created to kill, which is, culturally, a very masculine thing. But the Freudian motivations behind this are shown in the phallic nature of the weapons. Weaponry in general takes on very male-centric images, resembling phalluses and testes, but when women hold guns, there’s generally a sexualiation of it. The women are made to be sexy, as opposed to embracing their own agency and power. This seems most indicative of the scene with Hudgens and the gun.
Their rampage begins, however, with the simple robbery of a chicken joint. These scary monsters who parade as nice sprites unleash a very masculine rage inside the chicken joint, using weapons, and even using sexist terms like “bitch.” Even something as seemingly tame as that term presents the characters as transcending their nubile façade, taking charge of the location. But they laugh at their rage, brush it off, and willingly admit that they used squirt guns. They basically got away with impersonating the “typical male,” one that exudes violence, power, and a strong sexual drive to dominate. This impersonation, however, becomes much more real later.
There are more guns down in Florida when the girls meet the human manifestation of their original alienation from society: James Franco’s Alien. His masculinity also showcases in how much power he has in the Spring Break habitat. Although he embodies the “get rich or die tryin’” archetype of rappers, his masculinity is embodied in the gun show that exhibited in his bedroom. Walls upon walls of firearms! Guns, guns, guns! And, as Franco says, his teeth gilded, “Look at all my shit!” This is further epitomized by Alien’s obsession with Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface. He’s got the film “on re-peat”, as he says several times. This idolatry of one of the most villainous anti-heroes of film is telling; what’s the most memorable moment of that film? When Al Pacino shouts “Say ‘Hello’ to my little frien’!” of course. He bursts through with an M-16 with a grenade launcher, which explodes, again representing the phallic nature of the gun. Burst, load, the barrel. All of these terms aresexualized, and all of them are staples of power, dominance, and masculinity.
This scene is the most disturbing of all. When we are presented with Franco’s Alien, it’s clear that he’s the ringleader of his gang. But a critical change occurs when he’s showing off his belongings. Benson and Hudgens pick up a pistol and an automatic pistol, both fitted with silencers. Franco shows his fear, telling both to stop pointing at them and that they’re loaded and that they’re dangerous. But that, for the girls, is what intrigues them. It’s a shift in paradigm for the culture, not just the two of them, and how the culture, dominated by men, perceive this scene. The girls press Franco against the wall of his bed and shove the silencers in his mouth, whispering that they may have used him to get where they are now. There’s a carnal, animalistic sense to this scene. It is not exactly that the girls are letting out their wild side, not like they were in the parties and montage scenes, but they seem to be revealing their true nature. Now, these girls have the power, even over Franco.
What’s frightening about this sequence is that after Franco gets over his fear, he buys into this shift. This subversion of expectation is surprising, but the fact that Fraco accepts this also is. I suppose that it is a reflection of myself as a viewer that I was surprised by the power, or frightened rather, that these girls exerted over Franco. He has become the submissive archetype, and he becomes “turned on” by this shift. He seems to willingly accept this, and begins fellating the silencers. Together, almost unified, they’ve come to a silent agreement: Franco may still be the front for this gang, but now it’s all about the girls.
I was struck by this scene in particular and its resemblance to a scene in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, which is based on the play by Tracey Letts. In the film, there is a similarly disturbing scene, and one that garnered the film an NC-17. The amoral cop-slash-hit man Joe (Matthew McConaughey) carries out his retribution by having the wife of his client (Gina Gershon) fellate a chicken wing from KFC. It’s a violent scene, that is also rather gross, but entirely commonplace in terms of BDSM dynamics. You have an archetypal dominant character who is male and you have an archetypal submissive person who is female. Spring Breakers turns this on its head and switches those roles, basically to subvert the expectations of audiences who think they’re familiar with BDSM scenarios. But even when the roles are switched in terms of male/female dominant/submissive scenarios, in mainstream media, this switch is often used to sexualize the dominant archetype. So, in most cases, the female, regardless of role, is sexualized and objectified. If my recollection serves me correctly, the scene in Spring Breakers is not sexy. Its eroticism may lie in how dangerous it all feels (which is part of the appeal to Alien and the audience), but the Male Gaze is fearful, as is the audience, and looks at these girls with awe and wonder. (Also, I think there’s a lot of time that the camera spends on Franco with his mouth full.)
Is there a double standard here, in terms of the NC-17 rating versus the R rating? I don’t know. You would expect (or I would) that the sexualisation of the woman in Killer Joe, regardless of how violent it is, would garner the R, as the MPAA has a tendency to let more conventional and archetypal “male-as-dominant” scenarios get away with things, and not subversive or transgressive scenarios. So, I don’t know.
This transition of power is also evident in the balletic sequence featuring the timeless track “Everytime” by Britney Spears. Undoubtedly the most elegant and show-stopping scene in the film, the women exert as much power as any man in the situation, toting their guns and pink balaclavas with fervor. Though, as they stand by the piano, they circle around with their guns, acting like typical young girls listening to their favorite song. This transition and change in personality only proves that the women truly embrace their power and agency in their ability to oscillate between the masculine and the feminine.
Their feminism and embracing of power comes to a climax with the raid of Gucci Mane’s mansion. Gucci Mane, too, represents a certain male archetype, just as invested in hedonism as Franco. But his dynasty of masculinity (with more sex and drugs than even Franco) comes crumbling down. Franco “leads” the remaining girls, Hudgens and Benson, to the assault, and only moments after they take a step on the neon lit dock, their dominant position in the gangsta hierarchy is solidified with Franco’s death. Still dressed in only a bikini, the somewhat cartoonish and unbelievable battle is in the girls’ favors. This weird, inconceivable battle depicts the girls being totally invincible. This invincibility may be a metaphor for their true empowerment, their true upheaval of the patriarchal standard in that society. It may be them finding “their true selves”.
As the girls drive away back home, on their journey to forget what’s happened, they still have that slick car to remind them that they’ve found power like no one else: by inhabiting a male persona and subverting that persona to its very core.
Korine’s film might have similar origins to Zack Snyder’s detestable pseudo-feminist videogame Sucker Punch, but where Korine succeeds is granting his characters legitimate power without being preachy, subverting the very Male Gaze that drives the society and culture it deconstructs, and creating characters that are nuanced and can oscillate between masculine and feminine personas. As I said, the girls get away with it all, and with a bang.
Listen to All My Sh*t: The Music of Spring Breakers
For all of its universality in portraying seemingly good people revealing their true nihilistic selves and behaving badly, Harmony Korine purposely focuses his debauchery filled new film Spring Breakers at contemporary youth, or what some people have labeled as “Millennials”. But he does this neither in the choice of Spring Break in general nor even choosing the nubile actresses themselves, but, most notably, in the choice of music. Korine is, like Tarantino (but perhaps less well known), good at choosing music, often to ironically tonally subvert a scene, or, in this case, an entire film. Korine’s choice to hire Cliff Martinez and Skrillex is telling, as well as their decision to include certain tracks and music in the film. All of these points to a focus on a particular group of people and how nasty they really are. Three tracks in particular perfectly illustrate the themes of the film and the personalities of the characters: Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, Britney Spears’ “Everytime”, and Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”. The three tracks work not only as a representation and epitome of the generation that this film is directed at, but also as a distillation of the film itself.
The “Monsters” Within
It may be one thing to choose Cliff Martinez to score your film, whose nostalgia drenched Drive is one of the best soundtracks in recent memory, but it is entirely something else to also have Lord of the Bass Drop, dubstep mastermind Skrillex, to also be on board. So, while the film’s score oscillates between various transmutations of dubstep, electro-hip hop, and something a little ‘80s driven as well, it might be a little surprising at first to hear Skrillex’s most famous track begin the film. “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” is originally off of the DJ’s second EP of the same name, and its title alone suggests the characters. When you listen to the track however, the thematic elements of the title play in reverse, almost as they do in the film. Something sweeter and nice starts playing, sort of like an electronically produced candy land, with something sinister underneath. This is, of course, juxtaposed against images of teenagers “celebrating” in Florida. But that sense of unbelievable, too good t be true pureness in electronic sound suits the film’s four characters, played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine.
When you just look at these four attractive actresses, you wrongly have the sense that they’re nice and sort of angelic. Their neon bathing suits, streaked hair, and distinctively feminine qualities are exemplified in the beginning notes of the track. Once you get deeper into the film and get to know the characters, the monsters are let loose. For, what is scarier to the general male that the concept of a woman being in control of her own agency, her own sexuality, and using that as a form of power? These “scary monsters” are scary from a popular cultural perspective, a society which undermines young women’s intelligence, their abilities to decide for themselves, and the fact that they can give any man a run for his money when it comes to toting a gun. The femininity of their “sprite-like” façade is subverted by Skrillex’s trademark “bass drop”, where you hear the screams of a young girl saying, “Yes, oh my gosh!” This is a shout of triumph, the girls perhaps being stunned by their own power and subsequent prowess. The progressive house tone that the song transitions to is intentionally cacophonous, thereby showing that the girls can be mean, but drawing the line at evil. Who are we really to classify these girls as monsters? Or are these the monsters we made ourselves by our reflexive oppression and objectifying? However, the song is able to transition back and forth between these two qualities: the sound of the Nice Sprites and the sound of the Scary Monsters. The girls themselves oscillate between being those sprites and monsters; between the immaturity of young girls and the maturity of grown women. These women are in control, in such a way that we, as an audience, cannot even fathom it.
Hit Me Baby “Everytime”
The centerpiece of the film and what is, by consensus, said to be the very best part, is the use of Britney Spears’ “Everytime”. I made a point in my review to make some comparisons to Britney Spears as a person and as a songstress, but “Everytime” is the kind of majestic scene that only one could ever hope to conceive, never mind execute flawlessly. Calum Marsh wrote a very good, very interesting article about how the song and the scene essentially prove that Spring Breakers isn’t a satire. I would go a step further and assert that, not only is the song not used ironically, but that it fits the relationship between the girls and James Franco’s Alien. The song originally appeared as a single off of the Princess of Pop’s fourth album In the Zone, and was allegedly written in response to ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake’s hit single “Cry Me a River”. The song plaintively apologizes for all the harm and wrong that occurred in a relationship, where Spears’ persona basically “owns up” to most of those faults. Why is the song played at all? The remaining three girls, Hudgens, Benson, and Korine, ask Alien to play something inspiring and uplifting. Perhaps a little odd considering that the song is basically a breakup… but is it?
This is well into the film, and after the young women have asserted their power over Franco himself. So, now that the girls essentially have shifted the power hierarchy in their bizarre relationship, why not sing a breakup song? Or, rather, a “post-Breakup song”. The girls are saying goodbye to Franco, for they know, for all of their feminine power, they can supersede him in Florida and then return home as if nothing ever happened. That is what college spring break is all about: creating momentary relationships with people you don’t really know, creating a dynamic that doesn’t last, and then leaving it all behind. Not only that, but the song opens with the words “notice me”; by exerting this power, the girls are able to get people to notice them. Even Gucci Mane. It feels a little ironic and a little satirical, though, because of where the song is used and over what. In beautiful slow motion, “Everytime” is played over scenes of Franco’s gang assaulting people, pistol whipping them, while the girls are just as much a part of the action. Who the leader of this gang is becomes incredibly blurred. Even from an aesthetic point, the use of the song is transcendent and one of the film’s most dizzyingly beautiful moments. Like Korine said, it’s all about that haunting piano. It’s sinister yet innocent, and completely beautiful.
Turn On the “Lights”
The song that plays over the final the neon end credits is fitting to the film: Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”. Off of her album of the same name, Goulding’s ethereal vocals and equally bedazzling song production become sonic manifestations of the glowing and neon soaked cinematography. Deep in the rain and under the water, on the streets and as they drive, the lights shine representing the danger that so entices the girls. But, that danger is what they find alluring and safe. As Ellie Goulding said, she feels safe sleeping with the lights on. By that, the lights reveal things about the characters that they seem to come to understand towards the end of the film. Their Malickian voice over messages colliding with their Godardian rhetoric and a little bit of a sneer of insincerity are the result of this change.
From the 120 beat per second drum/bass line to the star studded eletronica (reminiscent of bounding lights and bouncing piano keys), “Lights” assaults the listener with dark thoughts and a boom that seems like a blast of darkness and then of light. The lights flicker, as they sometimes do in the film. However, here the lights don’t obfuscate. They may be blinding, they may be alluring, but they reveal desire, lust, and dreams. They offer safety and clarity. The importance of light is evident in the film, as lens flare, bright colors, and the lettering of the title are used to intoxicate the viewer and the characters. There is a small bit of irony here, though. Since the song is about feeling safety when the lights are on, this reveals the childish aspect of the four girls’. They may be fascinated by the lights, but they don’t want the dark. Again, as I mentioned earlier, the girls, and the songs, oscillate between the immaturity of young girls and grown women.
Generationally, it makes sense for these tracks to be used. Dubstep is popular amongst the party scene, so Skrillex is an obvious choice. The girls, and the audience, grew up with Britney Spears, watching her rise to fame to her fall from grace and then resurgence years later. And Ellie Goulding is one of the hottest new artists on the scene. It was therefore a wise choice for Korine to use these tracks, appealing to his main demographic and yet fitting them to the characters specifically enough that the film’s commentary on youth culture was that much more on the nose.
If you couldn’t tell by the fact that this is my third post in a row about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, I’m totally enamored of this film, from every aspect. Every element, thrown against the wall or not, seems to fit. But the key tracks of the film shed light on the characters, the environment, and the commentary. Thus, Skrillex, Britney Spears, and Ellie Goulding all accentuate the atmosphere of the film. Spring Breakers is film fueled by its ability to stagger and stun every sense, and sonically, the film couldn’t do better.
“Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” – Skrillex
“Everytime” – Britney Spears
“Lights” – Ellie Goulding