Some thoughts on Spring Breakers, Beyonce, Resilience, and Race

Some thoughts on Spring Breakers, Beyonce, Resilience, and Race

I just watched Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers last night (I know, I know, so so so late to this party). There’s already been a ton of great criticism written about the film, but here I want to think about it in relation to Beyonce & Lady Gaga’s pair of “Phone” videos–“Video Phone” & “Telephone”–and, sort of obliquely, my TNI article on Rihanna, resilience, & race.

Like these videos, the film climaxes, both sonically/musically and narratively, when nearly-naked young cis-women execute a stereotypically thuggish black man. In “Telephone,” Bey and Gaga’s cross-racial feminist alliance is cemented when they kill Bey’s abusive, misogynist ex-boyfriend. In “Video Phone,” Bey and Gaga execute the male gaze, here represented as a chorus of dark-skinned male bodies with cameras for heads. In the film, the two most hardcore white protagonists execute the gangsta boss played by Gucci Mane–notably, while he is wearing bling in a hottub, watching two black women (perhaps in his employ as strippers?) perform for him across the room. They also execute all of his henchmen.

In all three music videos (because that’s more or less what Spring Breakers is, right, VJ mix for a DJ mix, or a VJ mix held together by the underlying sounds), women overcome the damage of “the male gaze” by killing the men who are deemed most responsible/culpable for it–non-bourgeois black men. Rappers have long been white supremacist patriarchy’s scapegoats; concerns about the excessive misogyny in rap are often racist ploys to scapegoat black men, making them seem responsible for the misogyny that is actually a central feature of white supremacy, too. These videos update this trope. Non-bourgeois black men must be eliminated by female characters so that dominant society can prove it is both post-racial (they’re bad because they’re misogynist, not because they’re black) and post-feminist (look at these women conquer misogyny (which is limited only to this “primitive,” backwards subgroup)! patriarchy is over). White and non-white women saving themselves from black men. But notice what drops out of this remix of Spivak’s famous formulation, “white men saving brown women from brown men”: white men, white patriarchy. It doesn’t have to be an explicit term of control because neoliberal white patriarchy works as a deregulatory mechanism, controlling the background conditions, not the foreground action. Also, WOC-as-victim falls out of this remixed formulation. In multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy, all women are resilient. Resilient women is what distinguishes normal, post-feminist societies from “backwards” ones in need of rescue by “white saviors.”

Just think about the (miniscule) presence of black women in Spring Breakers. As Ayesha Siddiqi argues in her fabulous Bikini, Kill”: If Spring Breakers showcases the thrill of reclaiming patriarchy’s sexualization, then it’s an agency extended only to white girls. In contrast to [black man] Archie’s rule over the black women around them, [white man] Alien simply serves to reflect the four leads’ electric force.” The film presents phenotypically and culturally “white” women’s bodies in the same manner that black women’s bodies are commonly featured in hip hop videos: jiggly jelly, lots of ass shots, bikini-clad dancing, partying, and so on. There are a few black women presented among the spring-breaking throngs of college students (i.e., as members of MRWaSP cultural whiteness), but mainly black women appear as sex workers. So, they’re shot in similar ways to the white women, in similar states of undress and sexualization, but unlike the white women, who are commonly read as in control of their sexuality, the black women’s sexualized bodies are presented as alienated labor. Thus, unlike the resilient white women, these black women are victims in need of saving–by resilient white women. And that’s exactly what happens in the bathroom scene when the two white female protagonists kill Archie; they save two black women from his male gaze.

This scene isn’t that different than “Video Phone.” Here, Beyonce, in various states of swimwear-undress, demonstrates her overcoming of traditional male-gaze style objectification by executing a stereotypically thuggish black man.

I’ve already discussed how the video visually presents the male gazer as a man of color. The lyrics reaffirm this, and, with references both to his verbal dialect and his sartorial style, specify him as a member of working-class, urban black culture. The song begins with Beyonce saying “Shawty, whatchyo name is.” Here, she’s momentarily performing a bit of vocal drag, adopting the persona of the male gazer. This phrase is his hail or catcall to Beyonce’s character, his attempt to fix her as the object of his gaze. (She responds by undermining this hail: you can’t look at me, but you can put me on your video phone. This demand to move from traditional gazing, with its clear subject/object dichotomy, to video-phone style prosumer consumption/production, is how Beyonce both overcomes “the male gaze” and asserts her resilience–she’s no mere object, but a prosuming entrepreneur.) Then, later, Beyonce’s narrator describes her male audience as wearing “fresh white [tshirt] witchyo pants hanging room and low”; she uses this same vocal dialect to describe a similarly working-class black male outfit: baggy white ts and jeans. By executing this representative of “the male gaze,” Beyonce affirms her inclusion within multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy: unlike victimized WOC, Beyonce is resilient, capable of overcoming objectification and exploitation.

Gaga’s “Telephone” performs more or less the same thing. The collective overcoming of stereotypically misogynist black men is what cements the cross-racial bond between Gaga and Bey’s characters, and thus affirms the “multi-raciality” of multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy.

So, in the context of these two music videos, released a year or more than Spring Breakers was, the film’s consistent representation of sexualized feminine bodies with, around, and through guns shouldn’t be seen as a “juxtaposition,” as Saddiqi puts it, but as a common, even banal association. Resilience discourse rewards otherwise privileged women for using their sexuality as a weapon, just as the women in all these videos do. MRWaSP weaponizes women’s sexuality, using it as an instrument in its various racist projects (against poor urban black men, against “terrorists,” etc…this is obviously not new–white women’s sexuality was a weapon in 20th century lynching practices, too). In our prosumer economy, women have to be both the instrument and the player (or, erm, playa).

Some further questions:

1. What’s the relationship between teen pop and formerly-hardcore-now-appropriated hip hop (gangsta rap, dubstep, etc)? The quartet embodies both teen-girl sensibility AND “hard” gangsta masculinity. If “a Diva is the female version of a Hustla,” these women aren’t quite “divas” in Beyonce’s sense. So what’s the function of Britney, boy bands, etc? Is part of what’s threatening/dangerous about these women their white teenage-girl-ness?

2. What’s Selena Gomez’s function as the only non-black woman of color (or even person of color) in the film? She exist relatively early on–is that because the film really requires a black/white binary to work? She’s also somewhat of a “moral center” for the film–the “magical Latina” rather than the “magical Negro” trope?