Thoughts on Spring Breakers, the Male Gaze, and the Objectification of Power

Michael Powell, in 1960, made a film that departed from his famous work of the 1940s and 1950s with Emeric Pressberger. It was a horror film called Peeping Tom. Similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s more popular Psycho, it depicted a man who murders women as he films them. A film of fantastic psychological complexity, one of its most daring aspects is the way it embodies the male gaze inherent in narrative cinema and brings it to the forefront, a full 15 years before Laura Mulvey would publish her famous essay on the subject, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

In Powell’s film, the pleasure Mark Lewis, the titular peeping tom, gets from the act of watching is taken to its logical, violent end point. The camera becomes a tool of destruction, a weapon that not only objectifies with its gaze, but literally kills. The camera is not only used to record; Lewis attaches a knife blade to one of his tripod legs. The violence of the male gaze in narrative cinema is made flesh.

Last night, I saw the nascent year’s most discussed film, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. I doubt there will be more written about another film in 2013, and for obvious reason. It stars three teen idols, playing against the (somewhat) clean image they have in the media, and James Franco, who seems to become, in the eyes of entertainment media, an iconoclast by pushing the limits of picking controversial projects in the age of picking controversial projects. Add to the casting decisions the fact that Korine himself is going against his own reputation, making a film about four college girls and an amateur drug dealer named Alien after films like Trash Humpers, Gummo and Julian Donkey Boy, and Spring Breakers is a TMZ wet dream.

Spring Breakers could have been successful just by performing some sort of fantastic prank on its audience of Disney Channel loyalists and Franco fans. The film is, in many ways, the exact opposite of what its marketing campaign and seedy plot description promises. While it delivers bikini-clad, sapphic college girls robbing drug dealers set to Britney Spears, the editing, structure and voice over reminded me more of Malick than Bound. Droves of unexpecting Selina Gomez fans would have shown up, and just as many would have walked out confused and disgusted (I’m sure the kids behind me in the theater were members of these droves). Korine has done something more than playing a joke on the biggest audience of his career, though. With Spring Breakers, Korine has made a film that embodies the male gaze and its effect better, perhaps, than any since Peeping Tom.

Korine starts Spring Breakers with a montage of the kind of images with which anyone who’s seen a Girls Gone Wild commercial is familiar. College girls take off their bikini tops, soaked in beer poured by drunken college boys, all bleached by the overwhelming Florida sun. Instead of letting his camera stay at a safe, concealing distance, he zooms in on the shaking, wrinkling flesh of the girls’ thighs and buttocks, marked by cellulite, which is natural to anyone with any kind of body fat. It’s exactly the kind of image that you’d never see in the pornographic images presented in normal spring break movies, but even in the first moments, Korine wants us to see the things that the fantasy of spring break tries to conceal.

That fantasy is where the idea of the male gaze comes in. Unlike Powell’s concept of the gaze, Korine’s is less actively violent and more enticing. The girls in the film react to something they’ve been exposed to in footage from spring break. The idea of spring break, to them, is some fantastic fantasy world where they escape from their college campus for a week and “let loose.” Letting loose, is, to each of the girls, something very different, but each of their concepts are based in the debauchery they’ve been exposed to over and over by television. Insidiously, the ever-present cameras in our culture draw them closer and closer to a fantasy world that doesn’t exist.

Even the way the girls get the money to get there is based in media saturation. The girls discover that they’re short on money despite saving all year. After a quick discussion, three of them decide to rob a local restaurant, stealing their professor’s car to use in the robbery. One of the girls tells the others to “just pretend like it’s a video game” or a movie, and as such, the scene is shot with a sense of distance. We watch from the passenger seat of the getaway car while the driver circles the restaurant, watching the chaos the other two girls cause inside through the windows. Much like Powell’s point of view footage of murders in Peeping Tom, Korine’s decision here, at the beginning of his film, makes us complicit in the robbery, and by extension, the corruption of these girls.

The question of whether it really is corruption is a good one. Two of the girls, Brit and Candy, the ones who drive the others toward more and more dangerous activities throughout the film, may not be corrupted, but instead corruptors. Their characters are the most interesting to me, in the sense that they embody the way the male gaze has transformed in the 53 years since Peeping Tom and the 38 since “Visual Pleasure in the Narrative Cinema”.

Formerly, the male gaze left women powerless. Under the camera eye, women frequently became sexual objects, victims, or both. Very rarely were they presented as powerful, and when they were, they were corrupting influences on the heroes of their stories, the classic example being the femme fatale in numerous films noir. In the past 20 years, images of powerful women have become more frequent. While the portrayal of powerful women is, on its surface, a positive change away from the male gaze, it often leads to a different kind of objectification. Instead of victimized objects, the camera frequently turns women into objects of power, associated more with how much violence they can unleash and sexual control over men rather than control over their own image.

This image, the powerful woman, an archetype more than a character, is what entices Brit and Candy. This becomes most evident in the “look at my shit” scene, in which Alien shows the two of them the things he’s gained through his horrible lifestyle. At the end of this scene, Brit and Candy pick up two loaded guns, and force Alien to perform fellatio on the silencers attached to their barrels. They tell him they could kill him easily, to which is response is “I think you’re my soul mates”. This is exactly what they think they want. To be as powerful as a man who gained power by selling drugs and murdering people. That Alien may be as much a pretender to that power as they are is irrelevant. The image is what matters to them. As long as they have Scarface on repeat and the piano by the sea, the image of power is maintained.

The concept of power as physical violence is followed through in the final scenes, where Brit and Candy invade a drug dealer’s compound. The action unfolds like the climax of a typical action film, with bodies falling into pools and faceless bikini-clad women running from the bullets aimed at the the men who were fondling them a minute beforehand. What differentiates the climax of Spring Breakers from that of a typical action movie is the way in ambiguous expressions the girls wear as they drive away in Archie’s Ferrari. The girls look bored as they speed down the highway, and it’s unclear whether they are merely disappointed that, after the rush of their life with Alien and its violent conclusion, they are returning to their dull lives in college, or if they are disappointed that for all their violence and wildness, they didn’t become something they were merely pretending to be.