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Tuesday, March 9, 2021

March 9, 2021: Spring Break Films: Spring Breakers

[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 the fine, fraught line between challenging and exploiting the objectification of female celebrities.

First things first: despite their very similar titles, Spring Breakers (2012) is a much more complex, ambitious, and thoughtful film than yesterday’s subject, Spring Break (1983). Yes, indie filmmaker Harmony Korine, who wrote and directed the film, has said in interviews that he wanted to make it in part to make up for his own missed Spring Break experiences (he was apparently too busy skateboarding to venture to sunnier climes), so Spring Breakers could be said to reflect the same hedonistic goals as the earlier film. But as has been evident since the controversial and groundbreaking film Kids (1995), his first writing credit, Korine is ultimately more interested in deconstructing than in celebrating such youthful desires and pursuits, and Spring Breakers, an unremittingly bleak and violent film which he’s referred to as a “beach noir,” is no exception.

None of that is what led the media coverage of Spring Breakers, however. The consistent focus was the fact that two of its four female leads were Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, known at the time as squeaky-clean teen icons (Gomez mostly from a pop music career that had begun on Barney & Friends and Hudgens mostly from the High School Musical films) who in the film give far grittier and more sexualized performances than they ever had before. That was also relatively true for a third lead, Ashley Benson, although her role on the TV show Pretty Little Liars had been a bit darker than Gomez’s and Hudgens’ prior work; the fourth lead, Rachel Korine, is Harmony Korine’s wife and so had been part of his films for some time already. Between spending a good bit of the film in bikinis, taking part in numerous scenes featuring sexual situations and drug use, and eventually killing quite a few characters in a violent climax, these previously and famously Disney-fied actresses thoroughly challenge that image, a reversal that understandably drew a great deal of attention.

While I’m sure Harmony Korine would say that he cast these actresses due to their talents (and their performances are excellent across the board, to be clear), it seems clear to me that he also did so (at least in part) because he knew the controversy over their image revisions would draw more attention and coverage to the film. Which is fine up to a point; but since those revisions again require the actresses to do things like wear skimpy outfits for nearly all of the film, it does feel possible to argue that Korine is both exploiting their celebrity and objectifying them in the process. In her review of the film for The Guardian, critic Heather Long advanced that analysis, arguing that it “reinforces rape culture” and “turns young women into sex objects.” But Rolling Stone’s Josh Eells argued the opposite position, claiming that the film features “a kind of girl-power camaraderie that could almost be called feminist," part of Korine’s career-long goal of doing “the most radical work, but putting it out in the most commercial way to infiltrate the mainstream.” A complex duality which, to be honest, is really at the heart of the whole concept of Spring Break in the 21st century.

Next Spring Break film tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Responses to this film or other Spring Break texts you’d share?

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