Gender in Film: a Non-Review of Spring Breakers



This week saw the passing of legendary movie critic Roger Ebert, whose long-time movie review columns and prior TV show with Gene Siskel have undoubtedly influenced reactions to many of the country’s films over the past twenty-plus years. In tribute to this, we thought for this week’s blog post we’d take a look at the film industry.

The only problem is, as a busy students, we haven’t actually been to the movies in months. But we’re not going to let that stop us – there’s more than enough buzz and hype (positive, negative, and everything in between) swirling around out there on the recent release Spring Breakers to analyze the public’s reaction to the movie, and to certain interesting aspects of gender in film in general.

Post-feminist dream, feminist nightmare, or something in between?

A popular litmus test for judging the gender bias or gender-friendliness of a movie is the Bechdel test, named for comic strip artist Alison Bechdel. A film passes the Bechdel test if it meets one simple condition: it has at least two [named] women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man. Interestingly, more than half of a sample of 2,500 films did not pass the test, including some of the most popular movies of recent history. For example, the final in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, does not pass the test, as no two female characters ever exchange dialogue throughout the movie. Perhaps less surprisingly, the wildly popular trilogies Star Wars (the original trilogy) and Lord of the Rings do not pass the test – in the entire three films of the first Star Wars trilogy no female characters say a word to each other, nor do they in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as the main female characters never actually meet.

By this test, Spring Breakers, a recent release by famed “auteur” Harmony Korine vaguely “about” the debauchery of American college spring break, apparently passes with flying colors. The movie is about four female American college students who desperately want to go on spring break to Florida in order to escape the monotony of their daily lives. Given the hype surrounding the film – from its casting of ex-Disney Channel stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens to portray “girls gone wild,” to its gratuitous sexuality and violence  – the movie has generated enough hype to surely secure it a generous audience for a regularly small-budget movie.

Spring Breakers has received wildly varying reviews, with titles ranging from the positive – “Why Spring Breakers is the only American movie that matters right now”, “Spring Breakers doesn’t reinforce rape culture” – to the highly negative – “Spring Breakers isn’t just a terrible movie, it reinforces rape culture”, “ ‘Spring Breakers’ Review: This is not what a feminist looks like.” Many reviewers focused on the fact that the film’s subtext was clearly meant to be subversive. In the words of one reviewer, the film represents “the most thorough indictment of the American dream since The Great Gatsby.” For example, one of the lead characters played by James Franco, a self-described “gangster” of southern Florida, is apparently Gatsby-esque in his exultations over all of his ill-gotten gains, perhaps akin to the triumph expressed by the well-known literary figure (who himself engaged in shady business dealings). According to the reviewer, the film is clearly intended to portray all of its sexuality and violence in a negative light – “any time blaring dub step is playing in an art film, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that we are supposed to look askance at what is happening.” However, the reviewer fully expected that “a whole bunch of people weren’t going to get it.”

Other reviews were not as kind. Some reviewers saw and understood the attempt at subversive subtext, but felt that the film was still ultimately misogynistic. According to one reviewer, though the film seemingly attempts to be a denunciation of the type of culture it portrays, it “ultimately fails” because “it promotes the problematic notion that for young women, sex – particularly the kind that just so happens to fit the stereotyped predilections of the heterosexual male – is power.” The reviewer felt that the movie’s “posturing shouldn’t fool viewers into thinking it’s anything more than exploitation.” Another review went so far as to link the film to the type of “rape culture” currently in controversy in the US due to recent incidents such as the Steubenville rape case.

Is a film automatically misogynistic if it portrays women in a hyper-sexualized light? Is a film automatically “clever” or “subversive” if it portrays the same thing in an ambivalent matter? These are probably questions that some of you are asking in your media studies classes, so let us know what you think!