Sex, Violence, and Spring Breakers

© A24

As the famous maxim from Oscar Wilde goes, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” And in an American context, any discussion of power usually means there’s some violence involved.

Harmony Korine’s 2013 feature Spring Breakers finds this correlation in America’s protruding phallus known as Florida. During spring break, the nexus of sexuality and violence becomes as clear as a handle of vodka, yet it’s far from the traditionally defined intersection where the two subjects overlap. Through Korine’s lens, these concepts meld into something like a cultural Purple Drank, a toxic cocktail that courses through the nervous system and spurs on a vicious codependent cycle.

We see the junction of sex and violence at various flashpoints, but narrative elements in Spring Breakers replicate the drug haze many of the characters experience, fading in and out, doubling back on itself. The film’s form most closely resembles trance music, key plot points functioning like a distorted recurring melody. What once might seem like a moment of pure sexuality repeats itself only to reveal its grim, ferocious underbelly.

*

From the start, Korine establishes a Girls Gone Wild-esque universe as pure bacchanalia. In this slow-motion beachside reverie, uninhibited and undressed college-aged girls undulate in libidinous bliss. And when they aren’t bouncing up and down, they’re deep throating red, white and blue bomb pops before they melt in the Florida sun. It’s a lustful, even pervy, gaze, but Korine invites his audience to share it before he deconstructs it. After all, what good is it to critique a generation’s empty pleasure without understanding why some find it so alluring?

Just as soon as the opening rhythm of the Skrillex banger “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” catches, it takes a bipolar turn with a woman on the track wailing “OH MY GOD” before a violent bass drop ushers in a much darker tone. The images begin to focus on a force that runs concurrent to females shedding their inhibition: male aggression. They’re grabbing their junk, shaking a champagne bottle to mimic masturbation, and lining up bikini-clad girls to lie prone and guzzle a stream of beer coming from between the guys’ legs. Even in this prologue, Korine quickly establishes a link between women’s sexual liberation and their objectification, a freedom defined by how well they service the assertive needs of the men around them. It’s also, with few exceptions, a lily-white fantasy.

Then, after a smash cut to black, the sound effect of a pistol being cocked introduces the grungy real world of the four main characters and their drab collegiate surroundings. Their milieu has the same sexual perversion of the beachgoers—a grimy house party boasts guests guzzling beer and inhaling marijuana smoke from the genitals of a baby doll—but none of the excitement. These girls are stuck at school rather than heading for the Florida shores, because they lack the financial means to go; they aren’t the kind of high-flying socialites that washed up in the Bahamas for the Fyre Festival. The only way they can participate in spring break culture is through violence—specifically, robbery.

Korine shows their armed theft of cash from a chicken shack on-camera, but it’s more instructive to think about the incident in terms they use later to describe the incident to Selena Gomez’s Faith. “GET ON YOUR FUCKING KNEES,” they scream in a convenient store parking lot. It’s telling that they don’t say “get on the floor,” instead employing a euphemism for providing oral sex.

The stolen money enables them to purchase passage to Florida, but their spring break dream quickly turns into a nightmare. Their hotel room, where raucous partiers snort cocaine off any surface they can find, is busted up by the cops. The only lifeline out of jail is a street hustler, James Franco’s Alien—who appeared earlier in the film, rapping on a beachside stage and espousing the mantra of vapid youth: “Bikinis and big booties, y’all! That’s what life is all about!”—graciously and insidiously bails them out.

But he knows there’s more to it than just the impeccably bronzed surfaces of the bopping participants. Spring break is not just a span of time on the calendar. It’s a marketing ploy where drug dealers and two-bit gangsters like Alien can break the bank by fueling the illicit revelry. Alien is a shaman of the St. Petersburg underworld, well-steeped in the connective tissue between sex, drugs, and violence.

From his initial sales pitch to the quartet, Alien establishes his casual attitude towards violence by brandishing his two guns while leaning against his flashy convertible, clanging them together. It’s his cheesy enactment of Scarface (which he claims to have on repeat—“constant, y’all!”), a fantasy of unchecked male belligerence whose excesses rival the hijinks of the Bud Light-chugging college students on the beach. But the gesture also carries some homoerotic undertones that go unconsummated, only to return in the film’s most explicit linkage between sex and violence.

Alien convinces the eager Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Brit (Ashley Benson) to stay at his house, an almost pornographic monument of commodity fetishism where firearms hang on the wall, a signal of his robust masculinity. He presents them with a stack of cash in the same way a gentleman caller might offer a bouquet of roses—an image that Korine briefly interjects with a repeated shot from earlier where all four girls luxuriate in their stolen bounty. Combined with the same gun-cocking sound effect to trigger the memory, it’s easy to see the straight line drawn between the two instances.

After some slobbery smooching, Brit and Candy begin toying with some of Alien’s guns, stroking them like the phallic symbols they are. Their playfulness starts out like a silly joke, although Alien urges caution since he knows the firearms are loaded. The longer the horseplay goes on, the more the girls appear deadly serious. “Get down on your motherf—ing knees,” they instruct him, a refrain of their earlier threat. It’s another robbery.

As Alien drops to a submissive position on his own mattress, Brit and Candy begin shoving the guns in his mouth, telling him how they don’t need him. Genuine terror creeps across his face until a revelation hits—to defuse the situation, he begins to suck on the guns. As he fellates the long silencers, Brit and Candy immediately recognize his display of deference, supplying orgasmic moans and positioning the guns between their legs. “I just sucked both y’all’s dicks,” Alien smirks, admiring both the moxie of their sexual role reversal and their understanding of the intertwined relationship between violence and sex. “You’re my motherf—ing soulmates.”

From this moment on, Alien elevates the status of the remaining girls (the aptly named Faith jumps ship at the first sign of the seedy settings) from sidekicks to partners in crime. Sporting bathing suits and balaclavas, they join Alien on robbing sprees to expand his criminal presence in a montage set to Britney Spears’ lullaby-like “Everytime.” It’s not the first instance Spring Breakers summons the spirit of the pop princess. Earlier, the girls prance around a parking lot harmonizing to “Baby, One More Time,” a song whose iconic video pairs another popular fantasy (naughty schoolgirl) with lyrics that border on sadomasochism (“Hit me, baby…”). Even in its most innocuous, consumer-friendly forms, mythologized female sexual independence carries with it the potential for violence.

After a stray bullet from Alien’s nemesis and competitor Big Arch (Gucci Mane) sends Cotty (Rachel Korine) fleeing for the comforts of home, Alien plots retribution with Brit and Candy in a late-night poolside threesome. “So we gonna do this or what?” The question seems sensual in nature when first posed, but as the film chugs forward, the “this” they reference is their armed invasion of Big Arch’s compound. The elliptical nature of this double entendre mirrors the self-perpetuating loop of carnality and carnage that engulfs the entire film. Like so much else in Spring Breakers, what starts off in the realm of the sexual enters the realm of the violent with the proper contextualization.

Violence provides Brit and Candy’s escape from the grip of spring break culture. Just as they flipped the script on Alien by brandishing guns, they weaponize their sexuality by making themselves the subject, not the object, of the lifestyle’s brutality. In nothing but pink ski masks and neon bikinis, they decide who gets to define the spring break experience…by going on a trigger-happy murder spree through Big Arch’s mansion. (It’s either that or a deeply racist rampage, but Alien’s repetition of the line “seems like a dream” as they approach seems to relegate the scene to a more symbolic space.) As Brit and Candy ride away from St. Petersburg in a fancy whip stolen from Archie, it’s a reminder that white sexuality, from Elvis Presley to Miley Cyrus, is often the result of theft from and violent erasure of the contributions of black Americans.

The final shot of Spring Breakers returns to the scene of the crime, where the camera flips 180 degrees to show the girls running to their getaway boat—the world literally turned upside down from their learning to wield the tools that lock them into dangerous fantasies against their captors. They manage to preserve the spring break fantasy of conspicuous consumption and white sexuality by expunging the squalid dark side that quietly enables the trip of a lifetime. Brit and Candy suck on those same American flag-colored bomb pops, only this time, the act occurs in a decidedly unsexy dimly lit store stoop in the dead of night. It harkens back to the image from the opening montage; only this time, it’s informed by the grim, unseen realities shaping the shared dream.

*

If Korine’s commentary on the home video release is true, then two of the film’s key moments—the singalong to “Baby, One More Time” and the gun-barrel fellatio—were on-set inventions born out of improvisations. Spring Breakers is not merely themes in search of a plot. Instead, every scene effortlessly speaks to a truth lurking underneath the MTV-manufactured image of spring break. There is something very violent about the way we enact sex in America, just as there is something fetishistically sexual bout the way we enact violence. These threads are interwoven and, ultimately, impossible to consider individually.