Friday, April 04, 2014

Spring Break 4 Eva... Cultural Dysphoria Armed to the Teeth. And Bikinis to Boot.

"Just pretend it's a video game. Like you're in a fucking movie."

This is the immortal advice given by one of the young protagonists of SPRING BREAKERS to her three partners in (future) crime as they make their way towards their first armed robbery. This is not the rousing call to arms that one might expect from warriors on their way to find glory on the field of battle, unless, of course, those warriors were four, young college-aged women in the early twenty-first century on their way to commit a felony, and the field of battle was a crowded restaurant filled with unsuspecting part-time employees, slack-jawed customers, and enough MSG to satisfy a village in China for a month.

Video games are far more ubiquitous in our culture than most people realize - what with the mobile gaming offered platforms available on our smart (and not-so-smart) phones in addition to traditional video game consoles, computer games, and the classic arcade - but the basic concepts behind video games permeate even deeper to the Core of our Society. There is a concept floating around out there in various circles of academia known as "gamification" where tropes and elements traditionally associated with gaming are applied in other social contexts (e.g., marketing, education, bear-fucking, etc.). While it is not my intent to start an academic feud (although I could totally take on an entire horde of rampaging academics), the only problem with gamification is that it is entirely backwards. We don't try to apply the perceptual framework of games to our everyday lives: games are a natural extension of how we view the world. Video games are yet another embodiment of our current culture's analysis of any given situation that is inevitably guided by three basic evaluative criteria:

1. Competition
2. Achievement/Progression
3. User Feedback

I just simplified Life for you. You're welcome.

The first component, Competition, involves a subject/object against whom/which to test your abilities. Basically, you've got to find your Apollo Creed in a given situation, whether it be a co-worker, a spouse, a flat tire, a flash flood, a low sperm count, an unexpected pregnancy, an expected pregnancy, a cocaine addiction, bigfoot, a giant smoke monster, Dog the Bounty Hunter (the man or the show), an overdue bill, or a rotting corpse in the trunk of your car that you've been meaning to bury for the past couple days and the smell of which is getting harder and harder to conceal with Febreze. The Competition can also be yourself, as you try to beat an old benchmark or "high score." Whoever or whatever the Competition ends up being, the key is that he/she/it/they offer sufficient motivation to bother keeping track of one's achievement (or lack thereof).

Achievement/Progression is dependent upon the given parameters of any particular context, i.e., "da rules." All it boils down to is identifying and answering the following questions: What needs to be Accomplished?; What are the Given Parameters?; and What are the Win Conditions? The metrics by which your Achievement is measured will vary depending on the situation, of course, and are always completely arbitrary, though some are more socially enforced than others. Rules are necessary, though, because without them tasks become meaningless. And these rules must always make the task more complicated than it otherwise has to be. It would be a lot easier to murder somebody you owed money to, but it's a lot more difficult to work hard, save your money, and slowly whittle away your debts and fighting every day just to keep from putting that gun in your mouth. While sometimes these constraints are external and beyond our control, they could just as easily be internal like trying getting into the Century Club or getting to work early to get the best parking spot. Almost always, Progression is key. Typically, if there's no ability to advance, there's no real reason to keep playing.

User Feedback in real life is constant, though not nearly as pronounced as in video games. We're constantly getting social indicators as to our success or failure relative to a specific task. You get a raise at work, a slap in the face from that woman at the bar who (apparently) wasn't into anal, a new personal best in your bench press, or a speeding ticket from an unsuspecting cop who, luckily, didn't notice that smell coming from your trunk. It's all about stimulation. For any situation to continue to be engaging, the proportion of hits to your pleasure centres of your brain and the subsequent release of endorphins or serotonin or adrenaline or whatever bodily fluid and the accompanying positive feedback must be greater than any negative feedback. Or else why keep doing it?

SPRING BREAKERS is so engaging because it really cuts to the core of the key metric we use in measuring our Achievement/Progression that also happens to be the key form of real-life user feedback: money. In so doing, it also establishes the generalized Competition for our culture, which is basically anything and everyone who is not Me. Now, I don't think that the movie is trying to say that money or the quest for money is necessarily a bad thing. However, what it does illustrate is a perversion of the Great Financial Game that our parents and grandparents used to play now that it has been bastardized through a hybrid game that a lot of people are enjoying called Cultural (Mis)Appropriation. And the particular culture, or, rather, sub-culture, being (mis)appropriated in SPRING BREAKERS is itself a perversion of the gangsta-cum-gangster lifestyle immortalized by so many movies and songs.

The problem comes when people start interpreting these tropes and narratives literally. Though there are, no doubt, some truly shitty people out there who actually intend to glorify the lifestyles of pimps, drug dealers, and murderers as something to aspire to, I believe that for the most part artists in various media use these tropes largely for symbolic or allegorical purposes. I think that, for example, a lot of rap songs employ these cultural markers as allegories of empowerment among an otherwise historically disenfranchised sub-culture. The degree of effectiveness with which they are employed, however, is a matter of debate. The point here is that A) these cultural markers are not intended to be - nor should they be - taken literally B) the (mis)appropriation and misinterpretation of one sub-culture by another is not only demeaning and disrespectful but also potential harmful to oneself or others and C) I think we can all agree that weed is fucking great.

The four young protagonists of SPRING BREAKERS (played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine) confuse their own cultural disenfranchisement that they were feeling vis-à-vis their current financial state with the disenfranchisement of an entirely different sub-culture. The problem is that each of the two levels of disenfranchisement of a completely different scope and scale. These four protagonists complain about not having enough money to participate in the sacred college rite of Spring Break, and, like most people in positions of privilege and power, take them completely for granted.

Yeah, but what a way to go...
To put it into context, the four protagonists are all white, upper-lower-middle class college students. They may not have extra money to go to Daytona Beach for all manner of drunken debauchery and drug-fueled hijinks, but they also had available to them the motive, means, and opportunity to attend a post-secondary institution and have cell phones, decent clothes, a roof over their heads, and a decent social support structure and not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. All of which is not true for a depressingly large segment of the population not just globally, but also in industrialized, affluent countries. I'm not saying their lives are perfect and that from the perspective of gender or socio-economic status they don't have their own very real issues to deal with in the larger cultural context. However, there is definitely a false equivalency when, in search of an answer to their woes, they turn to a literal interpretation of the gangsta sub-culture which was born out of a history of slavery and systematic oppression, marginalization, and ghettoization the depths about which these four yuppie kids have no idea. Nor do I, for that matter. No do the vast majority of white people living today or at most any point throughout history.

It's quite telling that these four, semi-privileged young white women seek to (mis)appropriate the cultural markers of what I think could be safely argued is a distinctly black sub-culture. The social commentary that SPRING BREAKERS is making really hinges on this misinterpretation and (mis)appropriation of a minority sub-culture by a majority sub-culture by the latter reducing the former to a set of idealized stereotypes. This gangsta subculture, which has been misrepresented and - even worse - mistakenly interpreted as indicative of Western black culture as a whole, has been commodified and is ready for easy consumption by subsets of Western white culture. The really chilling part is that, in the end, it's the white college girls who emerge victorious and, at least in their own minds, have validated that sense of entitlement to take whatever they wanted - money, culture, lives - which sent them off on their series of escapades to begin with.

That cultural commodification is also a large part of the Game that these four college girls embark upon, though there are even broader issues at play. To summarize, here is a breakdown of SPRING BREAKERS according to the


Everyone. Anyone who gets in between this (thankfully) bikini-loving foursome and their mission to do whatever the fuck they want to do is expendable both metaphorically and literally. Although two members of the group have far less qualms about perpetrating an increasingly depraved series of crimes than the others who pack it in before the climax of the story (or of James Franco), they're all guilty to some degree of everything from (un)armed robbery to out and out murder-death-killing.


Do I feel lucky?  Pretty fucking lucky, yeah.
This one's pretty straight-forward as it's built right into the premise of the movie as the four protagonists are on a quest to fuel their spring break shenanigans (I swear, the next person to say shenanigans…) with ill-gotten financial gains. I believe it's summed up nicely by Alien (played by James Franco who also delivers an award-worthy gun fellacio scene):

"This is the fuckin' American dream. This is my fuckin' dream, y'all! All this sheeyit! Look at my sheeyit! I got... I got SHORTS! Every fuckin' color. I got designer T-shirts! I got gold bullets. Motherfuckin' VAM-pires. I got Scarface. On repeat. SCARFACE ON REPEAT. Constant, y'all! I got Escape! Calvin Klein Escape! Mix it up with Calvin Klein Be. Smell nice? I SMELL NICE! That ain't a fuckin' bed; that's a fuckin' art piece. My fuckin' spaceship! U.S.S. Enterprise on this shit. I go to different planets on this motherfucker! Me and my fuckin' Franklins here, we take off. TAKE OFF! Look at my shit. Look at my shit! I got my blue Kool-Aid. I got my fuckin' NUN-CHUCKS. I got shurikens; I got different flavors. I got them sais. Look at that shit, I got sais. I got blades! Look at my sheeyit! This ain't nuttin', I got ROOMS of this shit! I got my dark tannin' oil... lay out by the pool, put on my dark tanning oil... I got machine guns... Look at this, look at this motherfucker here! Look at this motherfucker! Huh? A fucking army up in this shit!"

It's no coincidence that Alien is also the living embodiment of cultural (mis)appropriation as a white kid permeated to his very core with every stereotypical cultural sign of black gangsta culture that one could think of. He even invokes Brian DePalma's movie SCARFACE, which itself has been misinterpreted and (mis)appropriated as a twisted ideal to aspire to instead of the cautionary tale/empirical allegory that it is. Everything is there for the taking. Money? Fuck you it's mine. Drugs? Fuck you it's mine. Culture? Fuck you it's mine.

This benchmark for measuring achievement in this particular game is also indicative of a sort of mutated hyper-capitalism where the accumulation of stuff just for the sake of having stuff is a means unto itself. I can understand wanting to own more stuff to a certain degree. I want to have a bigger, better house. I want to drive a better car. As collector specifically of DVDs/Blu-Ray, I can appreciate the drive to want more. The difference is that I any pleasure I derive from my house, car, or movies is related to those specific objects. There's some kind of emotional/intellectual engagement with the items themselves. There's a specific meaning attributed (yes, even to you, SHOWGIRLS). For Alien and the girls, the individual objects themselves are not attributed with meaning. They care only about owning more stuff, but they don't really particularly care about what that stuff is. It's that emotional detachment that allows sociopathic geniuses to rise in the ranks of both the drug underworld and the Wall Street overworld.

And the win condition? Again, it is summed up nicely by Alien: "Spring break forever, bitches." The win condition for this particular Game is by avoiding any and all responsibility or negative consequences for their actions. The fact that the two young girls who make it through the final boss battle actually meet these conditions is (or should be) all the more disturbing.           

User Feedback

Here we come full circle to the character's invocation of video games to bolster their resolve for an upcoming stressful situation. The trope of the video game is especially appropriate in SPRING BREAKERS because of the nexus between another characteristic of this particular medium and an overarching modern cultural theme: instant gratification. Sometimes it's OK to want and receive instant gratification. The real problem comes from reverting to instant gratification as a default mode of being.

The simple fact of the matter is that whether you're a hobo living life one abandoned railcar at a time or the CEO of a multi-national corporation with more money than you could ever spend, not one of us can have everything we want at the very moment we want it. But when we actually believe that we’re entitled to that impossibility, it influences our decision-making process in terrible ways. As depicted in SPRING BREAKERS, this can lead to dangerous levels of excess, whether it be teenagers engaging in destructive and self-destructive behaviour during spring break or other agents engaging in robbery, murder, and the cultural raping and exploitation of entire cross-sections of our society.

But who's keeping score?


The Ruling: SPRING BREAKERS is a surprisingly evocative social commentary wrapped up in a shiny package (with a lot more tits than I was initially expecting) and an easy 9/10 = Four Scantily-Clad, Well-Endowed Heads With Tendencies Towards Wanton Destruction


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