Monday, March 25, 2013

Spring Breakers and Female Exploitation

[Content note: Possible spoilers]

So, this past weekend I saw Spring Breakers. Familiar with it? If not, check out the trailer here.

And here's how the film is described on IMDB, "Four college girls who land in jail after robbing a restaurant in order to fund their spring break vacation find themselves bailed out by a drug and arms dealer who wants them to do some dirty work."

Let me say from the outset: there is certainly a lot that a feminist blogger could tackle about this film. In particular, the race elements deserve a lot of attention and critique. However, I will leave it to Aisha Harris at Slate to give you a good run down of that.

What I am focused on is how I think that Spring Breakers is a perfect example of how male filmmakers exploit women in their storytelling.

Let me back up for a moment.

When I saw Spring Breakers on Friday night, I didn't really know what I immediately felt. I realized that the director, Harmony Korine, is known for his bleak depictions of things, so I wasn't surprised that the story was so gritty. Its style was engaging to me and ethereal in parts, which was certainly an interesting contrast to the horrific nature of the stuff on screen.

But beyond the style, the more I began to think about it, the more that I realized something was bothering me about the film, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I heard a few opinions here and there--mostly a bunch of my male Facebook friends posting about how it was so amazing and they loved it. And amongst the ideas shared was that Korine was intentionally pointing out just how fucked up the spring break lifestyle can be. I went back in forth in my own mind about what I saw. On one hand, there was a ton of female objectification. Korine takes his viewers through stereotypical spring break scenes like men pouring beers held at their groin area down into the mouths of naked women at their feet. But on the other hand, two of the four girls end up taking a lot of control at the end and go out guns blazing (literally.) They're not doe-eyed innocents, passive in their situation. They do display agency--but something still didn't feel right.

I finally found what bothered me about it all when I got around to Googling "Spring Breakers feminist." I came across a few things that beautifully summarized what I was thinking. First, we have NPR's David Edelstein. He said,
Korine is an art-house darling and doubtless thinks he's parodying girls-gone-wild pictures while delivering one that's like Where the Boys Are on acid. It's among the skeeviest films I've ever seen: The camera glides up, down and around these women's bodies like a giant tongue.
Hudgens, Benson and Gomez are good actresses and manage to convey genuine emotion — especially Gomez as the hitherto obedient Catholic girl. But what's clearly their attempt to free themselves from the shackles of corporate teen celebrity backfires. Korine exploits them more than their Disney overlords ever did. 
Nathan Givens expands on Edelstein's review and actually compares Korine to pornography directors. He said,
So the problem is not the female body or nudity, but that doesn’t mean that all nudity or clothing is innoccuous [sic]. Spring Breakers does not merely depict the naked female form, but rather obsesses on it. Remember Edelstein’s friend’s quote about the camera being a tongue? Gross, but vivid and accurate. Nudity is not intrinsically sexual (shouldn’t be, anyway), but Spring Breakers isn’t just nudity. The young stars are not merely being neutrally depicted, they are being packaged for sexualized consumption. That is the reason that no matter how much Korine (director) or his young stars might have been trying to strike a blow for liberation they have only succeeded in contributing to the objectification of women.
[Emphasis mine.]
I'd like to avoid the whole pornography as exploitation vs. empowerment general debate for a moment and just talk about how Spring Breakers, in specific, treats its female subjects.

What it comes down to for me is that the the women aren't the storytellers, so it's very hard to make the claim that there is an authentic, empowering female voice. In my view, no matter how sympathetic and/or kick ass they might be at certain moments in the film, they are ultimately puppets in Korine's voyeuristic world.

I get that it's his "thing" to show the seedy underbelly of life, but let's be honest: these stories do not exist in a vacuum; they come out of the deeply misogynistic cultural content in which we all operate and they are viewed by your average person who carries all of that misogynistic baggage with them. This average viewer may or may not engage in any critical thought beyond consuming the exploitative images. In this context, it's very hard to see how Spring Breaker's is any different from any other exploitative text. All in all, the prevailing theme just left me feeling dirty.

This blog has strict comment moderation intended to preserve a safe space. Moderation is managed solely by the blog author. As such, even comments made in good faith will be on a short delay, so please do not attempt to resubmit your comment if it does not immediately appear. Discussion and thoughtful participation are encouraged, but abusive comments of any type will never be published. The blog author reserves the right to publish/delete any comments for any reason, at her sole discretion. 


  1. I really appreciate this post, and I am surprised, especially considering Harmony Korine's reputation, that this movie hasn't been held under the microscope further. You helped me to clarify my feelings on the issues pertaining to this movie, not only locally but also in the larger context of Hollywood culture. Thanks!

  2. I saw the film and it is exploitation - basically some tiny skinny girls who allow themselves to be used as sex toys by a thug walk about in very brief swimsuits waving guns around, and so because they have guns its supposed to be "empowering". Lots of focus on their backsides and often in slow-mo so we can really get the full benefit of those firm young cheeks a wobbling! What a load of crap.

    Very similar in may ways to Sucker punch - another group of skinny young women in their knickers, waving huge guns about that in reality most of them couldn't even lift.

    Its all about pretty girls in minimal clothing being portrayed as biddable sex toys.

    Don't kid yourselves that it is anything else.

  3. I’ve recently watched this movie several times for an assay I wrote on Korine. And though I did not analyzed from a feminist perspective in the assay I could not have avoided giving a lot of thought to this issue in the movie.
    The first thing I want to say is that what I’m saying is not that this is a “feminist” movie, in the sense that it is not about women and men. It’s about the cultural depiction of sex and violence.

    I don’t want to get too much in to what Korine was trying, in my opinion, to say, since writing in English is not that easy for me. But I will point out some of the ways he undermine the exploitative visual tone to create a subversive cultural saying -
    First of all I cannot agree that the heroines are not the story tellers, apart from the fact that there is no scene without one of them, they are given voiceovers rolls, which is the must blunt way in film to say – this is the person telling the story. We are always aware of their motivations and always have their perspective on events -and not anyone else’s.
    Second - the movie does actually pass the Bachdel test - and more than once – at first it seems like a stupid point to make, but considering that there are not a lot of movies that do it’s a point worth making.
    Third – though they are depicted in a sexual way by their costumes and by the way they are shot, they do not have sex unless it’s by their choice in a relationship where they are at least equal. They are never victims of their own sexuality. In a culture where sexual assault victims are often accused of “asking for it” by being “too sexy”, that is an empowering statement.

    Number four – they have a lot of control over their actions, and more over they back each other up in their choices. That is most apparent in the l scene where Selena Gomez’s character chooses to leave – she is able to stand her ground to Alien without helped and is completely backed up on her choice by the other women and does not criticize them for choosing differently – and that is an amazing display of solidarity – feminine or otherwise.

    Fifth- this is a personal opinion – I don’t think that this movie is sexually arousing- its depiction of sexual imagery, except for the sex scene at the end (which in my opinion is justified for symbolizing the bond between them), is always deliberately excessive and repulsive, and is parodying and criticizing sexuality in pop culture.

    by now I think I’ve made enough points to say that this movie is not as exploitative as many regard it – like most of Korines work its ambiguous in its saying and, once given thought, rises more questions then it answers which is by my standards the sign of good art .


This blog has strict comment moderation intended to preserve a safe space. Moderation is managed solely by the blog author. As such, even comments made in good faith will be on a short delay, so please do not attempt to resubmit your comment if it does not immediately appear. Discussion and thoughtful participation are encouraged, but abusive comments of any type will never be published. The blog author reserves the right to publish/delete any comments for any reason, at her sole discretion.

TL;DR Troll comments are never published, so don't waste your time.