Don't hate the slayer, hate the game
Harmony Korine's camera crooks one finger at your tongue, beckoning you to follow it along the bodies of its four stars. Its opening scenes feature both guys and girls dancing and drinking in pure abandon on a hyper saturated Florida beach, but linger on the (mostly white) girls. Their breasts, slick with Bud-spray, move in time to Skrillex. The flat planes of their bellies tan in the sun, while their mouths grip long popsicles (oral fixation is a recurring motif). Later, the camera closes in on its protagonists and the curves of their thighs, their bra cups.
The movie operates on a standard tenet of our culture: girl-flesh as measure of fun. The success of a party, whether Carnival in Brazil, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or Spring Break in Florida, is judged by how many pairs of tits are exposed. Nothing else adequately proves you’re having a good time than baring your chest in ecstatic investment in the moment. Female nudity is an accessory du fete. It signals celebration for no other sake than celebration: As holiday décor goes, boobs don’t signify anything beyond “wooo!” A bodily integrity compromised by the public’s sense of entitlement to it is one of the more notorious aspects of patriarchy. And the bodies of Brit, Candy, Cotty, and Faith—seen almost exclusively in bikinis—are also on display.
But as James Franco’s Alien observes, these girls are special. They’re powerful in spite of sex not because of it. In a rare departure from movie violence against women, the injury Cotty sustains is gender-neutral; Alien digs the bullet out of her arm as he would for a man. Faith, the religious ingénue of the four, bristles at Alien’s attention to her pretty face, then buses home solo rather than tolerate a minute more on his terms. When the girls ride through town on scooters in just bikinis, they are simply in spring break’s uniform. When they hang out in a gas station parking lot at night in bikinis, or when Cotty writhes and strips teasingly on the floor at a kegger, they are challenging space by denying its threat.
These girls not only demand public space while (almost) naked—they own it. In scenes that echo theaters of masculinity and its accompanying sexual violence, not a single allusion is made to the possibility of that violence. Ignoring rape culture could have been naïve, but in the Skittle-lit world of the movie it was a power move. By not acknowledging the threat of their surroundings, they situate themselves as the threat. Refreshingly, their bodies aren’t a vulnerability. The girls’ indifference to their nakedness, more than their consciousness of it, keeps the film from being merely pornographic.
They wear their sexuality like their candy necklaces and stuffed-animal backpacks, with a casual wryness. Even before spring break, sexuality is a grenade tossed blithely back and forth. Grinning to Brit, Candy pantomimes giving a blowjob in class. In the dorm hallways, the four sing “I am getting so hot I wanna take my clothes off ” in breathy staccato. They mime taking sloppy bites from between each other’s legs. They arch themselves upside down between the hallway walls—fully framed by their space, pushing against its boundaries. But within the film’s starkly black/white race politics, the four leads’ bodies are distinguished from the black female bodies that perform for men.
Black strippers decorate the background of Alien and Archie’s (Gucci Mane) confrontation. Thick black women undulate naked on top of Archie, representing his power—not the women’s. Their presence is at the behest of the men, and their silent acquiescence leaves them mute props. When Brit and Candy rush Archie’s mansion—massacring every black male in sight—those same women crouch fearfully in the shower where they had been rubbing each other as Archie directed from his bath. If Spring Breakers showcases the thrill of reclaiming patriarchy’s sexualization, then it’s an agency extended only to white girls. In contrast to Archie’s rule over the black women around them, Alien simply serves to reflect the four leads’ electric force.
He posts their bail but his paternalism dies in Candy and Brit’s orbit. Spring Breakers obsesses over juxtapositions, none more salient than the one between the girls’ bodies and the sound of guns cocking. A theme Candy especially relishes in. Her hand regularly poses as a gun, shooting at her friends, at herself. Candy, Brit, and Alien have a swimming pool threesome, but the two girls share an intimacy independent from him. They touch each other constantly, affectionately, and in one of the most satisfying scenes I have ever experienced in a theater, have their guns fellated in tandem.
The gender-flipped fellatio gratifies because it follows a first act dedicated to the male gazey ogling often found between a male filmmaker and beautiful, barely clothed, young actresses. The camera sticks to their bodies so unabashedly we notice not only smooth youth, but also ourselves staring at it. This double consciousness turns itself back onto us when Alien submits to Brit and Candy’s gun penises—when that gaze, the same lasciviousness Alien employed, is mocked for how blind it was to the girls’ true selves. As Britt and Candy’s giggling play turns into a steel-nerve demand that he get on his knees there is a moment when, with their guns in his mouth, Alien seems to see these girls for the first time. His fear and trepidation dissolve into enthusiasm. He sucks hard, inviting both their guns deeper into his mouth eager to please. Alien recognizes Britt and Candy’s authority without resenting it. Brit and Candy don’t just exercise power, they receive grateful subjects. All hail the new feminist world order—spring break forever y’all.
Whether walking around at night with skin exposed or demanding authority while in that same state of undress, the girls delegitimize patriarchal privilege. Korine’s band of heroines saunters in front of the camera but give its gaze as much control over them as they give Alien.
That is how a film starring four young women in bikinis subverts the trope of female bodies as sites of experience for others. Spring Breakers pumps you with a full erection only to laugh at your boner later.