[Like many universities, Fitchburg State cancelled Spring Break for this academic year. But that doesn’t mean we can’t jet off to Daytona Beach in our imaginations, with the help of the Spring Break films I’ll AmericanStudy this week. Share your own Spring Break texts or contexts for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll have a little umbrella in its drink!]
On more and less destructive pop culture stereotypes.
I’m not gonna pretend that 1983’s Spring Break was any kind of groundbreaking cinematic achievement, or even that I had heard of it prior to researching this week’s series. The sex comedy, produced and directed by Friday the 13th (1980) co-creator and director Sean Cunningham, seems from the clips and reviews I’ve seen (and as always feel free to correct me in comments, although I’m not anticipating a lot of Spring Break defenders here) to be a pretty formulaic, unimaginative, and uninteresting depiction of various Spring Break and college stereotypes, from sexy women in wet t-shirt contests to nerdy college guys looking to get drunk and score with those women to straight-laced parents seeking to prevent their kids from taking part in the hedonistic festivities. But the thing with stereotypes, even (or perhaps especially) the lazier varieties of them, is that they can tell us a good bit about their cultural and social contexts—and so it is with the stereotypes that seem to drive the plot of Spring Break.
The film’s more overtly limiting and thus destructive stereotypes seem to be (I know I keep using that phrase, but I haven’t seen it and I don’t want to pretend otherwise!) those related to gender and sex. The most blatant are the depictions of young women, which from what I can tell fall into two and only two categories: the vast majority of them (indeed, all but one), who are nameless and identity-less characters defined only by their sex appeal and the protagonists’ attempts to score with them; and the one more individualized young woman, Susie (model Jayne Modean), whom nerdy protagonist Nelson (David Knell) meets at a wet t-shirt contest, nearly has sex with during that first encounter, and then eventually (like, a day later) does have sex with. But while male characters like Nelson seem to be a good bit more fleshed-out (pun very much intended), they are likewise defined in quite thoroughly stereotypical ways, presented as driven by their basest desires (for women, for booze, for hedonism) in ultimately quite unoriginal and unattractive ways.
While those pursuits provide the protagonists’ and film’s initial motivations, the central plotline is actually driven by different and more interesting stereotypes around class, wealth, and power. Nelson’s step-father, Ernest (Donald Symington), is a wealthy asshole running for political office, and in the course of the film he pursues Nelson to Florida (worried that his step-son will embarrass his campaign) and befriends a local wealthy asshole (Richard Shull’s Eddie) who is trying to strong-arm his way into purchasing the hotel where the kids are staying. Together the two wealthy assholes conspire to bribe a building inspector to shut down the hotel (killing both of those birds with one wealthy asshole stone), but the kids, with the help of an army of fellow partying college students armed only with beer and whipped cream, get the better of Ernest and Eddie; their machinations are revealed, Nelson’s Mom decides to divorce Ernest, and the little guys triumph in the end. Sticking it to the Man isn’t exactly a revolutionary premise for an 80s comedy, but these themes of political and financial corruption are at least far more compelling and important than wet t-shirt contests.
Next Spring Break film tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this film or other Spring Break texts you’d share?