I like David Edelstein’s film reviews so much that I read them even for movies I know I will never watch, which is why I ended up reading his review of Spring Breakers in the first place.
In the review, Edelstein bravely plunges into the shark-infested waters of feminist politics, by painting the movie Spring Breakers as a textbook example of pervy middle-aged men co-opting feminist liberation. The movie features “three starlets from the Disney entertainment megaverse” (Venessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Selena Gomez), and Edelstein says that all three “are obviously there as a gesture of defiance — an attempt to free themselves from their Mouse patriarch overlord and the shackles of corporate teen celebrity.”
So how does that jailbreak go? Well, here’s the second paragraph of the review:
It’s also among the perviest movies ever made — although by spelling out why, I fear I’ll only make some people want to see it more. Spring Breakers opens with a montage of bouncing bare boobs and buttocks barely squeezed into bikini bottoms, the camera gliding up the lengths of young girls’ thighs — see what I mean? That skeevy guy down the street just grabbed his raincoat and headed for the multiplex. The point is that Korine isn’t a passive voyeur. He moves in-in-in on those hot bods — up, down, all around the town. A friend whispered, “The camera is like a giant tongue.” You can almost hear the slurping.
As I said: these are treacherous waters. One of my favorite stories about the politics of porn (I’m going to use that term broadly in this piece, and Spring Breakers seems to have the spirit of porn confined to a “hard-R” rating) is from the Penny-Arcade Expo. One year, there were a bunch of booth babes (attractive women hired to staff convention booths) and the folks at Penny-Arcade didn’t kick them out. They got a torrent of angry mail accusing them of being sexist for allowing girls to be objectified. The next year they asked a particularly over-the-top booth babe to go inside a school bus (it was part of the display, you can imagine why) to keep the convention floor more family-friendly. They got another torrent of angry mail accusing them of being sexist for treating women’s bodies as something to be hidden. Penny-Arcade artist Mike Krahulik wrote a disgusted post asking feminists of the world to please decide what he’s supposed to do, because no matter what he does someone yells at him for being sexist.
So: does porn exploit women or empower them? I don’t know if it was Edelstein’s intent to make a statement on that general question, but he comes pretty close to it:
But wait: Korine is the festival darling who wrote Kids (they do drugs, they get AIDS) and directed Julien Donkey-Boy, featuring arthouse cinema’s answer to Jar Jar Binks. Is Spring Breakers deliberately stupid and asinine, a transgressive parody of Where the Boys Are that brazenly acknowledges what Korine’s admirers in the academy call the “commodification of the female body”? Does he mean to have his cheesecake and deconstruct it, too? Either way, I think the movie is swill — but I wouldn’t be shocked if a whole crop of cinema studies papers affirms the case for its genius.
Notice that he sets the sexualization-as-satire question up perfectly for a hard-hitting rebuke… but then demures. He weakly refuses to finish the argument. Instead, he drops the specific political question he just posed in favor of a strong but entirely vague rejection of the move as “swill”. Edelstein is a movie reviewer reviewing a movie, so I can’t be too frustrated that he fails to complete a political argument. I’m not even sure he would agree with where I’m going, but I think the logic he has laid down so far serves as an independent sign post of where to go next.
The first point is that nudity itself is not the problem. This means the female body (or the showing of it, in whole or in part) is not the problem. So, and I want to get this clear at the outset: if there is a problem with exploitation of women the biggest problem is on the demand side. I think the reason this usually gets downplayed is not that social conservatives privilege skeevy men, it’s that social conservative take their skeeviness to be self-evident. The trouble is that social liberals generally don’t automatically associate porn with immorality, and so they read the lack of censure as giving porn viewers a pass, even though it (almost) never is.
I think that explains some of the apparent disconnect, but I’ll go a step farther and highlight that Edelstein refers to the “middle-aged” men who are “drooling with anticipation” as “pervs”, and also describes the movie itself (emphasizing director Harmony Korine’s role) as “pervy” and “creepy”. That’s not the language of defenders of male privilege, and I’ll add my own take to it: I don’t watch porn and I think no one should. I think it’s sad that that is such a laughable suggestion, and I realize that I sound out-of-touch and maybe a little pompous for saying it. But you know what? I’m willing to risk sounding holier-than-thou if that’s a part of emphasizing that the fundamental problem with sexualization of women in society lies with men.
I’m annoyed that this disclaimer is required at this point in the post, but I also know that it is and so I will just state it: I’m not saying that someone should have stopped Korine from making the movie or prevented Hudgens, Benson, or Gomez from being in it, or that we should ban moviegoers from seeing it. I think porn is immoral, but I realize that trying to make it illegal carries its own set of problems. Just because I think a movie is wrong and definitively anti-feminist doesn’t mean that I’m advocating for censorhip.
So the problem is not the female body or nudity, but that doesn’t mean that all nudity or clothing is innocuous. Spring Breakers does not merely depict the naked female form, but rather obsesses on it. Remember Edelstein’s friend’s quote about the camera being a tongue? Gross, but vivid and accurate. Nudity is not intrinsically sexual (shouldn’t be, anyway), but Spring Breakers isn’t just nudity. The young stars are not merely being neutrally depicted, they are being packaged for sexualized consumption. That is the reason that no matter how much Korine (director) or his young stars might have been trying to strike a blow for liberation they have only succeeded in contributing to the objectification of women.
When it comes to porn and the exploit/empower question I think the answer (in theory if not in practice) can be “both”, but in the case of pornography voluntariness doesn’t neutralized exploitation. If you take my money, then it is either theft or a gift depending on whether or not its voluntary. The voluntariness defines the nature of the relationship between the giver and the taker. But that is not true in the case of porn, because the porn-consumer sees the woman (or man) as an object. There can be a relationship between the directors and distributors on the one hand and the consumers on the other hand, but the individuals actually depicted in the porn? They are just commodities. They are objects, not people. And that is why no matter how much they may participate voluntarily (and thus perhaps experience personal empowerment), the exploitative nature of porn on the receiving end is innate and intrinsic. Porn is always objectification and therefore porn is always exploitation.
And I don’t think that the empowerment can really make up for the exploitation. Hudgens, Benson, and Gomez may profit from the movie financially and in terms of their reputations and careers, and so it can in that sense empower them. They may also derive some individual sense of entitlement, and that’s their right as individuals. Go them. But that doesn’t nullify the fact that they’ve also contributed to the commodification of the female body and the continued hypersexualization of young girls in America. They may have every right to make that trade, but as a husband and father to a young girl I rather wish that they wouldn’t. Korine may genuinely think that he’s fighting this trend by mocking it, but if he does he is mistaken. (He also needs to brush up on his Nietzsche: He has a right to fight the monsters of sexualization, but he has no guarantee that he won’t become the monster he’s tryign to fight.
Another problem with the empowerment narrative is that you can’t control the images once they are out in the wild. You can’t control the context in which they will be viewed, the audience they will be associated with, or the means to which they will be put. Of course this is true of all artistic endeavors, but humans are right to be particularly guarded about naked pictures of themselves: nudity means something in our society. In addition to sexuality, it means vulnerability. That’s one reason why everyone hated Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs” song: it was a crass reminder that no matter what you believed about the artistic integrity of a nude scene, that won’t prevent the audience from seeing just a sex object. We talk a lot about empowering women and about them having ownership over their own bodies, and I believe in both of these principles passionately, but then encourage women–especially young girls–to prove their empowerment by sacrificing it.
Let me attempt to forestall the angriest responses to this post: the answer is not simply “cover up”. In the first place, I already said that the primary fault lies on the demand side of this equation, and I stand by that. I also said that the problem is not the female body or nudity, and I stand by that. What parts of your body we see is not the point. How they are portrayed and intepreted is. Spring Breakers is overtly and deliberately sexualizing nudity and that–the sexualization of nudity–is the problem. Not the nudity per se.
So here’s my attempt to articulate what I think is a sane, moderate position on this contentious issue.
First: lets accept that some degree of sexualization of the human body (male and female) is not only inevitable but good and desireable. I, for one, don’t want to live in a world where the human body is stripped of all of its powerful visual significance. Nudity can be sexual, and sex is good and beautiful.
Second: arguing about exactly how the human body is sexualized is like arguing about language: ultimately pointless. Being upset that short skirts are associated with sex is sort of like being upset that f, u, c, and k form a bad word while d, u, c, and k don’t. At a certain point it doesn’t matter what the vocabulary is, it just matters that you have one. The existence of vulgar words is convenient both for people who want to use them and for people who don’t. Simmilarly, the existence of social standards for moral dressing is empowering both for people who want to abide by social standards and for people who want to push the envelope. Raging against the fact that social standards exist at all isn’t going to end up empowering anyone, becuase while language (including the way we dress) is to some extent arbitrary it’s also useful. Maybe you just really like to wear fishnet shirts all the time, and you resent that they aren’t deemed to be appropriate (for men or women) in a professional setting. Well… maybe you just really like the sound f, u, c, and k make together. Deal with it.
Third: While there is no such thing as a perfect standard for how we ought to dress, there is an important idea of equality. In American culture all of the focus is on girls. None is on boys. That is a problem, and it creates an idea that girls have to dress nicely for the benefit of boys. That’s stupid. First: Girls can dress however they like, but I think it is usually in their best interest to dress modestly for their own empowerment. Second: if no movies like Spring Breakers were made because people refused to watch them, I think we would go a long way towards equalizing the way moral standards of modesty apply across genders. I don’t think movies like Spring Breakers are bad because women’s bodies are uniquely dangerous for men’s eyes, I think movies like Spring Break are bad in large part because they foster that disparity. This means, by the way, that “Deal with it” (which I said at the end of point 2) doesn’t apply to onerous modesty standards that apply to women but not men. There are also lots of modesty standards that aren’t just arbitrary, they are dehumanizing or impractical, and I oppose those too.
Fourth: When people violate social standards, don’t use that as an excuse to abuse them. I think this is too much of a no-brainer to explain in detail. (Which is another example of where social conservatives and social liberals clash. I thought it was so obvious I almost ddn’t think to add it all, but I’m sure some social liberals wil be convinced that if the paragraph is the shortest it means I care the least about it.)
I realize that none of my recommendations are earth-shattering. I think that’s kind of the point: they are moderate and I think they fit with the intuition most people already have. All I’m doing is trying to flesh out a rationale for those intutions while also interacting with some of the more extreme views that I know are out there. Hopefully, along the way, I’ll remind people who already care to avoid art that objectifies women and maybe even convince a few people to re-examine what it is they vote for with their time and dollars.
[Note: Why do I have three pics of men and none about women in a post about feminism? I didn’t have any images ready for this post and I had to grab a few during a break at work. I tried for about 2 seconds to find pics of Venessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Selena Gomez before I realized that trying to do that on my 21″ monitor at work this close to the release of Spring Breakers was a very, very bad idea.]