In this week following the birthday of esteemed feminist and anti-pornography pioneer Gloria Steinem, let’s take a moment to talk about a modern example of feminism at its finest: Spring Breakers, the latest film from “auteur” Harmony Korine featuring “former Disney starlets” who like to party and kill people and don’t own pants.
I didn't catch that Spring Breakers is pro-lady when I saw it, distracted as I was by the recurring boob motif and shots of girls making out, but its famous young leads (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson), director, and much of the media purport that its theme of chicks with guns must be an exercise in female empowerment. As Boston Globe reporter Peter Keough pointed out, “the women have power and aren't the victims,” so it follows that this is a feminist movie, right? Korine agrees, asserting that his film is feminist because its heroines transcend the limitations of sex, race, and economics (i.e. they don’t act like the good little white girls they appear to be). And Starlet Benson even confessed that Korine told her (I imagine in a voice a porn director might use on a hesitant first-timer) that the film would be freeing.
And yet, Spring Breakers ultimately fails to be anything more than an entertaining mash up of teenybopper innocence and Skrillex-fueled depravity, because it promotes the problematic notion that for young women, sex - particularly the kind that just so happens to fit the stereotyped predilections of the heterosexual male — is power.
Rarely is a film so tied up in its context, but Spring Breakers would be nothing without the extenuating circumstances of its doe-eyed Disney princesses. I have yet to read a review that doesn't mention the purposeful tarnishing of their oppressively clean reputations, and it’s no secret that Korine cast these specific leading ladies in order to present his femme fatales in the most incongruous packages possible. In its attempt to mess with the expectations of guilelessness that society has grafted onto these women, Spring Breakers succeeds; a much talked about scene of gender reversal via firearm fellatio with James Franco reveals that these little chickees are not to be pigeonholed by their penchant for Hello Kitty earrings and fuzzy animal backpacks.
But confounding expectations does not a feminist make. Our heroines may show agency when they free themselves from the constraints of coed life, but they are also interchangeable party hounds who spend the entire movie in bathing suits (seriously, no one thinks to give them a towel even when they're in court?). And it’s hard to extract a viable feminist message from a film when all its female characters are more akin to the daydream of a horny teenager who plays too many video games than actual human beings (I was half expecting them to have a pillow fight in their underwear at some point). They may not be victims, but their sexual liberation sure looks like it's been torn from a straight man’s fantasy.
What's more, in a case of life imitating art, the actresses playing these characters found their own sense of liberation in the process of sexifying the wholesome images imposed on them from years of acting on family friendly channels. These roles were freeing in that they allowed them to shed their oppressive good girl personas along with each successive layer of clothing, but when the Internet is ablaze with questions from guys regarding whether or not your boobs make a cameo in the final movie product — thereby reducing your sexual liberation to cheap entertainment — how empowering can this really be?
Spring Breakers wants to shield itself from criticism of misogyny by hiding behind a guise of irony and apparent contempt for whatever's going on onscreen, but its posturing shouldn't fool viewers into thinking it's anything more than exploitation. Though the subject is viewed through the lens of contempt, the gaze is clearly male. And Spring Breakers’ array of bouncing boobs, kinky gender reversals, and neon bikinis is female empowerment only in the eyes of the middle-aged dude who directed it.