Afterword to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Wednesday, September 4th, Trent University

[I wasn’t able to formally share these thoughts on the night of the 4th. I provide them here.]

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My claim is that there is no better contemporary film which so explicitly deals with the topic of rape culture than Spring Breakers, or at least, for those who despise the feature, Korine’s film gives us the tools to think critically about it. Korine accomplishes this by refusing to critique or give this culture a direct address. Instead of the obvious critique of someone like Catherine Breillat or other directors associated with New French Extremism or New Extremism more broadly, Spring Breakers presents the setting and conditions under which rape culture exists.

The first half of the film, up to the moment Faith (Selena Gomez) goes back home, underscores my point. We have images of the diegetic characters and the extras engaging in common spring break activities. As Francey Russell notes in her review we can find any of these images on the internet: partying, asses shaking, alcohol and drug use, young women exposing their breasts, young men gawking and groping young women, and everyone there, as Faith relates in a voicemail to her grandmother, having the time of their lives. The shot Korine returns to repeatedly, therefore calling our attention to it, is the topless girls beckoning the alcohol phalluses of young men followed by the spraying of liquids over their breasts. With this shot Korine shows us the importance of the beach and party scenes; these individuals appear as faceless extras, the normal crowd already there on spring break – in a sense this is the authenticity or truthfulness of what Korine presents, blurring the division between a documentary picture or series, e.g., Girls Gone Wild, and the story of Faith, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine). The fictional narrative, as the excessive account of an otherwise banal spring break shot through a point-of-view with the same tone and color as the partying extras, therefore depicts a realistic or true account of the events that take occur in St. Petersburg.

In addition to the authenticity this pseudo-documentary footage provides it also highlights the consensual nature of the acts and events. This is reinforced in the scene in which Cotty is intoxicated and a young man pours alcohol over her; he commands her to “Take it like a stripper,” and mentions how he wants “that pussy,” the one that is (perhaps unfortunately) attached to the rest of her. She playfully sings to him, “Never gonna get this pussy,” and exposes her breasts. She eventually consents to kissing and, we should expect, further sexual activity. In both beach/party scenes and in this diegetic scene Korine stresses a completely fabricated or false consent, and a commenter on Russell’s review observes much the same, i.e., Spring Breakers does not contain even the slightest hint of rape or sexual aggression (except briefly between Alien and Faith) and is, against Russell’s argument that the film is about rape culture, simply a testament to a group of consenting youths which we can then read into as similar to real youths on a real spring break. This commentator, whether he agrees with Russell or not, suggests that the film is the truth of students on spring break – is it not much of a leap then to claim it is also the truth of sexual violence?

This ambiguity or lack of clarity is what I find so appealing about New Extreme cinema. With the inclusion of violence and sexuality to a narrative picture the critique is often lost on spectators. For the most part, when sex and violence appears in a Hollywood narrative feature, the director and film crew are complicit in that sex and violence, showing images of sexuality to titillate, arouse, and excite, and scenes of violence to show off their skills at choreography, special effects, or CGI. New Extreme cinema disturbs this habitual response to sex and violence; viewers don’t know whether directors are providing a spectacle, enjoying the filming of sex and violence, or critiquing some aspect of sex and violence in contemporary Western culture. Korine has a history of not saying anything specific about his films and I think this is his brilliance. For Spring Breakers I believe he tries to make a play or make fools of the viewers by stating that his images and sounds are nothing but “candy,” but this I don’t fully accept, or I’ve been giving the director too much credit. I agree with Russell that there is a right way to view this picture, regardless of Korine’s seemingly irresponsible statement that “there’s no right or wrong way of viewing the film.” Russell states, “if someone could watch Spring Breakers and not experience a moment of fighting rage or bleak sadness, I would say they haven’t seen it rightly.” The question is what we should be getting out of these first 45 minutes, and later the irreal second half of the film, which I’ll leave open for discussion.

*

Now I can provide a provisional answer to some of the film’s more confusing elements and how it more definitely relates to rape culture. Quoting from Russell’s review, we have in Spring Breakers the beginning of an analysis of rape culture, irreducible to any one of these singular items: “gun culture, consumerism, wealth inequality, college culture, American Christianity, racism, our global obsession with underdressed young girls,… and Britney Spears.” Yes, Korine gives us Spears twice in the film. A young girl dressed in an outfit which reveals much of her skin, telling the viewers of her music video, Hit me baby one more time. But the public discussion about clothing, namely the consensus that a woman’s attire does not give a man the right to sex, does absolutely nothing to answer the question of where this right came from and why a man is still able to pose the question today of whether or not to assault a woman who is dressed in such a manner that causes him sexual excitement and the will for violence.

All these factors, and likely much more, contribute to the posing of the question to rape or to not rape. It is not enough to claim the solitary male who stumbles upon an unconscious woman will rape if he hasn’t been sufficiently reminded not to – and this is why I find the “Don’t be that guy” advertisements ineffective. Where is this man, what music has been playing, has he been drinking, is there binge drinking, what has he been drinking, which drinks are more likely to confront a man with the question of rape, are there friends nearby to make suggestions for sexual assault, are they drinking, what have they been drinking, and so on. It is naïve – but nevertheless satisfying for the legal system – to do an analysis of an occurrence of rape based on the responsibility or irresponsibility of an individual.[1] It is a simple answer for conservatives to go the responsibility route. The conservative position – opposed to a radical or revolutionary position, one which would actually want to change the structures of oppression, etc. – would believe that through an individual’s will and intelligence he is author of his own destiny, so to speak. Complete freedom of choice is the philosophical position conservatives begin from. This would be what the reminder ads reinforce: from nothing, or out of nothing, you can decide not to rape. There is no empty and valueless space or process of decision-making however – each space brings its own history and challenges, or in different words, before we can talk about some essence in Man, i.e., the desire to rape which needs to be quelled by posters, commercials, and even scholarly articles, we must begin anew with the problem of rape and ask in each of the instances in which it occurs or we think it likely to occur: how does this environment facilitate the posing of the question of whether one should rape or not. In other words, study the environment and the objects in it; from there we can perhaps determine why individuals still pose the (absurd) question of whether it is permissible to be a rapist or not.

This is what Spring Breakers shows to us. We are all complicit in this culture of violence against women when we are participants and consumers of spaces, objects, and things which contribute to it.


[1] Of course I hold rapists responsible for their actions. My discussion here is hopefully providing provisional hints towards an analysis of the phenomenon, not individual cases after the fact.

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