A young boy’s depraved journey into the heart of heterosexuality
In my freshman year at a small, centuries-old university on the East Coast, I had either the good fortune or the good sense to befriend a German pothead I’ll call Burke. Burke was a diligent student who later transferred to the London School of Economics, but that year, when out of class, he was all id. He smoked weed nearly constantly, and cheated on his girlfriend back in Hamburg only a little less. His laugh reached registers so high it resembled a pig’s squeal, and his English was imperfect, so sometimes he would say things like, “My favorite movie is The Mattress, with Keanu Reeves.”
Being around Burke was interesting and fun even within the confines of our college’s verdant, sleepy fastness, its population diverse with WASPs and lacrosse players from every state on the Eastern seaboard. So it took no thought whatsoever to reply in the affirmative when he invited me and several of our mutual friends to have spring break in Miami, where his parents owned a condo in South Beach. Though I’d never been to Florida, at the age of 19, sun and models and Cubans and nightclubs all seemed necessary antidotes to the doldrums I’d developed as a callow, spoiled kid who thought himself far above the commonness of college.
“What are we going to do down there?” I asked Burke a few nights before we left. My right knee bounced with anticipation. “Whatever we want,” he said, exhaling a gray ribbon of weed smoke. “You’ll see.”
The reality of Miami proved less neon, less sexy, less everything than our fantasies. Firstly, we didn’t do whatever we wanted. Several of us were underage and without fake IDs, making getting into the glamorous, grown-up clubs on the shoreline impossible. Secondly, it turned out that South Beach was not a very popular locale for college spring breakers. It was expensive, there were old people everywhere, and in most restaurants it was even verboten to come in shirtless.
Rather than the all-out, 24-hour hedonism we’d imagined, most of our days were spent drinking a poorly mixed concoction of vodka, Sprite, and orange juice on the beach before stumbling back to the condo to drink more and shoot fireworks off the balcony. We’d aim bottle rockets at the ocean, black and twinkling in the moonlight, and watch them fly for a few seconds before exploding with a tiny, insignificant pop.
I can’t remember whose idea it was, but it doesn’t matter for our purposes here anyway. It came to us while devouring boats of sashimi and nursing our sunburns with big glasses of cold Asahi: “Let’s, like, do a real spring break place tomorrow night.” Everyone nodded his head in agreement. After three full days of relative calm in South Beach, we decided that the next night, our final night in Miami, we’d drive to Fort Lauderdale and go to one of the all-ages clubs we’d been told were lousy with college kids who’d come to Florida not to sip pints of Japanese ale over sushi, but to drink blue shots out of plastic test tubes and kiss each other.
Since sitting down to write this, I’ve tried Googling to remember which club we ended up at that next night. Alas, I can’t recall. I can only remember three things: 1. It was huge, filled with so many people it seemed more like a sports stadium, and the dance floor its field. 2. During the rising action of particular songs, most of which were techno or some variation of techno, lights slowly lowered from the ceiling above the dance floor until they were dangling just overhead. At the songs’ crescendos, the lights would move rapidly on a motorized track from one side of the room to the other, swirling around in an epileptic frenzy and casting angular shards of red and purple light onto the faces and hips of the bodies below. And 3. It was the first time I’d ever seen men interacting with women in a way that made me feel nervous.
Ladies in lingerie, hanging from trapezes above a bar abutting the entrance, greeted me upside-down. They dangled by the backs of their knees looking bored while a club staffer shot toilet paper at them with a glorified leaf blower, the result of which was a sort of erratic mummification. Atop another bar that ran down the left wall of the cavernous space, a woman was on her hands and knees with her jeans around her ankles, exposing her thong. Her eyes were closed and she lurched slowly back and forth with the beat of the music, like a human rocking horse. Beneath her sat a man on a barstool who was slowly plucking ice cubes from his glass and rubbing them on her pussy and ass. He was nonchalant about it, bearing the expression of a man signing a rent check or deciding what he wanted for lunch, and in front of him a half moon of young guys had gathered to stare.
I’d already had enough by the time the wet t-shirt contest came about, the beginning of which was introduced by an emcee who enticed spectators to “come up front and smell the rot.” Everyone in the club was invited to watch, but those willing to plunk down $100 were given a spray bottle and a front-row seat from which to hose down the contestants, some of whom were drunk enough they were having a hard time standing. When the spray-streams of water failed to make the girls’ shirts translucent quickly enough, men threw beer and whole glasses of water. Some guys reached out to grab the women. When one girl slipped while trying to make way for another contestant, the emcee pointed at her and screamed, “Someone’s gonna be a sloppy fuck tonight!” The club broke out in peals of laughter.
I had seen some porn before that night, and I’d been to a strip club. But both of those experiences seemed contractual: Women were paid, handsomely in some instances, to perform in ways that highlighted their sexuality. What happened to girls in that club on spring break, however—the intentional degradation, the beer hurling—seemed far more sinister.
It’s been years since I last went on college spring break, and I’ve since seen far worse things, equally misogynistic things, other women doing strange things in nightclubs for money (at a burlesque show in New York once, I watched a lady squat under a spotlight, urinate into a cup, and then drink the piss). But nothing has filled me with same kind of pit-of-the-stomach angst as I had that night in Fort Lauderdale—until I saw Spring Breakers.
Like a woman taking her clothes off on a stage, which looks like exploitation to some and empowerment to others, Spring Breakers resembles different things depending on who’s watching, and many have hated what they saw. Some have deemed Harmony Korine’s Disneyfied pop poem a racist glorification of drugs and crime. But the preeminent critique seems to be that the film is sexist. BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur wrote, “I had a pit in my stomach as I watched Spring Breakers … I was afraid the entire time one of the girls would get raped.” In her Guardian review, Heather Long even posits that Spring Breakers contributes to America’s deep and intractable rape culture. “It’s a film that tells young women that the ‘time of their life’ is getting drunk and exposing themselves to guys,” Long writes. “And we wonder why we have problems with rape culture.”
I’m going to venture a guess that Heather Long has never been on spring break in Fort Lauderdale or Key West or Cancun or any of the other places American college students throng in mid-March in order to get debauched. If she had, perhaps she would know that to accuse Spring Breakers of propagating rape culture is tantamount to accusing Platoon of propagating war.
Indeed, the opening scene of the film depicts close-up, slow-motion shots of women in various states of undress, women arching their backs on the ground underneath men dumping beer on their faces, women getting groped, women getting the foam from beer bongs shot across their bare breasts. Later, amid numerous shots of women’s barely covered butts, James Franco’s character, Alien, shouts to a crowd of adoring fans that life is about just two things: bikinis and big booties. It’s grotesque, though not because of the nudity or innuendo. Rather, it’s grotesque because it’s so obviously a recreation of behavior that goes on at college spring breaks across America all the time (what I saw was arguably even worse). It’s not funny because it’s true; it’s horribly dark and difficult to watch because it’s true.
Spring Breakers puts on blast the bizarre and ugly rituals of college spring break, a frequently stupid event that outlets like MTV, which has covered spring breaks religiously since 1986, have diligently and gleefully attempted to make into a rite of passage for American children. If anyone is complicit in the rape culture of spring break, it’s not Harmony Korine; it’s the collection of corporate brands—along with MTV, there is Girls Gone Wild, Corona, Captain Morgan’s, Jose Cuervo, Señor Frog’s, etc.—making millions by convincing students that you’re not really a college kid until you’ve chugged a grain alcohol daiquiri out of a plastic novelty cup and screamed, “WHOOOOOOOOOOO!” at a drunk girl flashing her breasts.
I fell for that sham, and it ended up with me driving away from a shitty Fort Lauderdale nightclub feeling anxious and a bit sad. “I got the worst blowjob of my life in the bathroom at that place,” said Burke as we pulled off. Two months later we would leave school for the summer and I would never see him again.
If Spring Breakers scared you—if it offended you by exposing you to crass assholes, and if there were moments in it in which you were certain you were about to witness a sexual assault—then good. Spring break is an awful morass of young men chugging alcohol, plying young women with more alcohol, and then goading those women into doing reckless things. That should scare you.