Harmony Korine’s audacious provocation Spring Breakers and Zack Snyder’s widely reviled fantasy action-adventure Sucker Punch occupy opposite ends of the pop-culture spectrum. Sucker Punch is a trippy epic about a traumatized young woman known as Babydoll (Emily Browning), who escapes her grim reality in a mental hospital by projecting herself into fantasy worlds where she’s an exotic dancer in a sinister brothel and a warrior battling monsters. Spring Breakers chronicles the blood-soaked misadventures of four partiers—good girl Faith (Selena Gomez), conflicted Cotty (Rachel Korine), and bad girls Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Brittany (Ashley Benson)—on a pleasure trip gone horribly awry.
Yet as different as they are, the films pursue strangely similar agendas to very different ends. Sucker Punch promises a steamy lapdance to patrons dazzled by its parade of scantily clad beauties, only to deliver a quick shiv in the spine. It’s a film intent on punishing rather than rewarding audiences, in part by pushing the fetishization of fanboy culture and its own exhibitionism to such extremes that they stop being fun and become grueling. Spring Breakers pursues a similar strategy using different elements. They’re the cinematic equivalent of parents who make their impressionable children smoke cigarettes until they’re sick in order to put them off the habit forever.
In an interview with Film School Rejects, Snyder refutes allegations of sexism and pandering to the lurid desires of stunted fanboys by positing Sucker Punch as a critique on sexist geek culture, disguised as the ultimate manifestation of sexist geek culture. In Snyder’s view, Sucker Punch righteously confronts the audience to which it’s accused of pandering. Snyder answers questions about why he dolled up his cast in naughty schoolgirl costumes and other fetish-friendly garb by asking, “Do you not get the metaphor there? The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me: dorky sci-fi kids.”
Snyder undercuts his own message when the interviewer asks if it’s wrong to enjoy seeing the character of Babydoll in a schoolgirl outfit and he replies, “I have no problem with this dichotomy as to why she is in the outfit. You can say what you want about the movie, but I did not shoot the girls in an exploitative way.” Snyder backtracks even further when the interviewer asks if audiences can see sexy schoolgirl outfits as a “guilty pleasure” and Snyder once again replies, “100 percent. As long as you’re self-aware about it, then you’re okay.”
This speaks to the strange, unsuccessful have-it-both-ways game Sucker Punch is playing: If viewers want to perceive Sucker Punch as a secretly empowering, girl-powered critique of sexist fanboy culture Trojan-horsed as seemingly irresistible fanboy-bait, then great. But if viewers also want to perceive Sucker Punch as a sexy adventure epic with awesome battles against monsters and smoking-hot girls in sexy costumes, then Snyder is perfectly okay with that as well, as long as they’re “self-aware” about the nature of their enjoyment.
The problem is that there’s no pleasure to be found in Sucker Punch, guilty or otherwise, and its critique on fanboy sexism is so muddled that it was understandably perceived as a wholesale endorsement of geek misogyny. Spring Breakers is similarly characterized by strange contradictions, but it succeeds by granting its gun-toting, bikini-clad anti-heroines some degree of agency and giving its audience pleasure, albeit in unexpected forms. These films traffic in ambiguity to the point where they can easily be mistaken for what they’re critiquing. They comment on how pop culture reduces women to a series of sexed-up, reductive archetypes… by featuring female characters that are intentionally sexed-up, reductive archetypes.
Snyder’s interpretation makes the unseen audience watching the film a character in the narrative. Behind the sexy outfits and eye-popping spectacle lies an accusatory stare that implicitly says, “This turns you on, does it? Seeing desperate, powerless women forced to dance and fight in a gothic realm heavy with the threat of sexual violence?” A close look at Sucker Punch supports Snyder’s admirable intentions, if not his questionable achievement. Its women aren’t really women at all: They’re action figures. They’re plastic, artificial, impossibly perfect, built for combat (and modeling different outfits), and wholly inhuman. They’re characters that belong as much to videogames as to movies. They’re pastiches stitched together from sexual fantasies and fetishes from across the spectrum of geek culture. They exist to perform for us, their audience and oppressors.
If the women of Sucker Punch are the product of generations of fanboy sexual fantasies, the women of Spring Breakers have seemingly been ripped whole-cloth from the sordid worlds of homemade pornography and sexually explicit rap videos. And like Sucker Punch, Spring Breakers blurs the line between film and videogames. More than once, the gun-toting sexpots of Spring Breakers try to psych themselves up for the robbery that funds their trip by admonishing each other to pretend that the crime is a “fucking videogame.” This impression is affirmed by the final shootout, where the two remaining Spring Breakers travel via speedboat with AK-47s to a heavily armed fortress, where they quickly, easily dispatch a horde of henchmen before eliminating the game, er, movie’s big boss (“Big Arch,” played by rapper Gucci Mane) and tearing away in a fancy sports car. To draw the meta-textual elements of the film out even further, the suggestion to “just fucking pretend like it’s a videogame” is followed by, “act like you’re in a movie or something.”
The young women of Spring Breakers follow the dictum to “act like you’re in a movie,” even when they aren’t robbing fast-food joints. They pose as if they’re perpetually getting ready for an Instagram photo, as if their every moment will be visually chronicled in some form. It’s fitting that these young exhibitionists eventually hook up with Alien (James Franco), a man who lives every moment as if he’s being taped for a low-rent, bootleg version of MTV Cribs.
There’s a key difference: Sucker Punch denies its desperate heroines agency. They roar in the film’s fantasy action sequences, but in their real lives, they’re powerless and asexual. The same cannot be said of the women of Spring Breakers. Candy and Brittany are predators parading as beach bunnies. When shit goes down at Big Arch’s compound, Alien leaves his bikini-clad “soulmates” to eliminate his enemies with the efficiency and ease of Lara Croft. To what extent does Candy and Brittany’s sexuality belong to them and to what extent does it represent a performance gleaned from watching and internalizing Britney Spears videos and Girls Gone Wild commercials? To what extent are they performing for the unseen audience, and to what extent are they performing for themselves and each other? That ambiguity helps make Spring Breakers a complicated and intriguing proposition, albeit an occasionally frustrating one.
Like Sucker Punch, Spring Breakers is intent on punishing audiences for their pleasure, in making them pay a psychological cost for wanting to see sexy, desperate young women in dangerous scenarios. But there’s another key difference: Spring Breakers is actually entertaining, full of obscene, lurid delights that have less to do with the interchangeable parade of female (and male) flesh on display, and everything to do with the pulsating rhythms of Skrillex and Cliff Martinez’s music, Benoit Debie’s electric cinematography, and Franco’s flamboyantly theatrical performance. Spring Breakers’ seedy pleasures are stylistic and cinematic rather than sexual. It’s a huge turn-on cinematically, not erotically. The film is a profoundly tactile, sensual experience that depicts the pleasures of the flesh as the death of the spirit. It makes being part of a writhing, drunken, drugged-up mass of young, taut, toned flesh seem nightmarish rather than ecstatic.
In that Film School Rejects interview, Snyder says he took pride in not shooting his cast in an overtly sexual way, despite the sexuality of their costumes. In Spring Breakers, Korine travels brazenly in the opposite direction. He takes perverse pride in ogling his cast, in shooting slow-motion shots of asses jiggling and men pouring beer on naked breasts, yet the effect is the same as Sucker Punch. A film overflowing with sexual imagery isn’t just unsexy—it’s positively anti-erotic. Spring Breakers makes glistening cleavage spilling out of tiny tops and bikini-clad asses shaking rhythmically to hypnotic dance music seem as despair-inducing as images of starving animals in those commercials narrated by Sarah McLachlan.
“They’re the cinematic equivalent of parents who make their impressionable children smoke cigarettes until they’re sick in order to put them off the habit forever.”
In an Interview magazine profile, Korine says, “I grew up in Nashville, but I was a skater, so I was skateboarding during spring break. Everyone I knew would go to Daytona Beach and the Redneck Riviera and just fuck and get drunk—you know, as a rite of passage. I never went. I guess this is my way of going.” That comment suggests Spring Breakers represents wish-fulfillment on Korine’s part as well as the audience’s—the film is clearly as personal to him as Sucker Punch is to Snyder, and just as fascinatingly incriminating. But it also seems possible that Korine is punishing himself as well as his audience because he’s a middle-aged man who still thinks about drunken, anonymous sex on the Redneck Riviera with college girls. He depicts those fantasies as joylessly as possible, giving audiences what he imagines they desire (like a threesome involving Franco, Benson, and Hudgens) in a way that makes them feel guilty for wanting it in the first place.
Spring Breakers and Sucker Punch are, on some level, about how our relentless need to sexualize, commodify, and fetishize the bodies of young women often dehumanizes and objectifies them, transforming them from flesh-and-blood human beings into the embodiment of sexual fantasies. Yet only the vulgar, gloriously alive Spring Breakers is empowered by the contradictions at its core, where the lifeless Sucker Punch is hamstrung and defeated by them. Spring Breakers and Sucker Punch both punish audiences for their pleasure and voyeurism, but only Spring Breakers offers something substantial in the exchange: a dark, sexually charged, sometimes-funny satire of narcissistic contemporary youth culture as the most agonizing circle of hell, albeit one with a sick Skrillex beat and all the eye-candy even the most jaded hedonistic audience could desire. Or only think they desire. As Snyder and Korine can attest, audiences should be very careful about what they wish for.