Essays

Bad Girl Criminality and American Teen Dreams

by Alicia Eler and Megan Milks on August 16, 2013

The teen gang stars of Sofia Coppola's 2013 film "The Bling Ring" (all press images via PatheFilms.com)

Sam (Taissa Farmiga), Mark (Israel Broussard), Nicky (Emma Watson), Rebecca (Katie Chang), Chloe (Claire Julien) of Sofia Coppola’s 2013 film “The Bling Ring” (all “Bling Ring” images via PatheFilms.com)

News broke last month that celebrity Lindsay Lohan would soon be getting her own “docu-series,” aka reality TV show, on OWN, the Oprah Network. Now that she’s out of court-ordered rehab, she’ll sit down with Oprah for an exclusive interview about all things LiLo, airing August 18th; her reality TV show will begin in 2014. Lindsay is the American celebrity “bad girl,” and no matter how many times she fucks up, she always does it well.

M.I.A.’s hit song “Bad Girls” is playing moments before a car crash in Sofia Coppola’s film The Bling Ring, in which a gang of nobody teenagers robs the homes of celebrities, including Lohan’s. “Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well” blasts from the radio as they chant along, high on something, until a car slams into them and off to jail they go, DUIs and all. Meanwhile, a couple of Lindsay’s good girl Disney sisters go bad in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, the film released earlier this year about a group of girls so determined to “find themselves” on spring break in Miami, they rob a chicken shack with squirt guns.

In Bling Ring and Spring Breakers the adolescent characters form twinnages and girl gangs, acting as singular beings on a quest to “just be free and have fun,” to quote Selena Gomez’s character from the latter film. But what does it mean when “being free and having fun” means embodying the dangerously bored, brazenly entitled criminality of LiLo? In their quest to find themselves, these teen girls (and one boy) simultaneously accessorize and become accessories to (as well as agents of) crime — they become lethal bling. And in the case of Spring Breakers, they become a force of anarchist negativity that is both intoxicating and disturbing. In this America, the teen dream of finding yourself means losing yourself — and bad girls do it well.

*    *    *

Bling aesthetics rule the visual landscapes of both Spring Breakers and Bling Ring. Components include: gold chains, grills and skrillz, pistols and machine guns, Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, suitcases heavy with cash, stolen Rolexes, designer everything. “LOOKIT MY SHIT! Fucking bling yall!” creepy-cuddly white rapper/gangster Alien hoots maniacally as he shows his spread of bill rolls and guns to the girls in Spring Breakers. Bling is Alien’s poolside baby grand piano and Paris Hilton’s multiple throw pillows emblazoned with her own face. Bling is young money. It is fresh and over-the-top and carelessly flaunted in selfies that will be used as evidence for crimes committed. It is an accumulation of objects along with an escalation of intensity, a cocaine high.

The girl gang from Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" (2013) (all press images via VertigoFilms.com)

Brit (Ashley Benson), Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine) of Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” (2013) (all “Spring Breakers” images via VertigoFilms.com)

After the car crash in Bling Ring, the next scene cuts to the metallic snapping of mugshot cameras capturing pictures of the teenagers, who are high on manmade substances, adrenaline, and the liquid gold of which bling aesthetics are made. But this is a false ending to the fever dream: the car crash and trip to the police station barely slow them down. They’re back in the car, and in other people’s houses, shortly thereafter. The leader of the ring is Rebecca (Katie Chang), who shepherds the tangle of celebrity-obsessed teenagers into the homes of the rich and famous, and lost boy Mark (Israel Broussard) is her bestie accomplice. The others shift in and out of the gang, and include Nicky (Emma Watson), Nicky’s bestie Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien). They enter through open doors or with keys left under mats (in the case of Paris Hilton), shove glistening jewelry, Rolex watches, and designer shoes into stolen Birkins — they even swipe a painting from the wall of one home — then leave with their new bling in tow.

Similarly, by the midpoint of Spring Breakers, the fever dream seems like it’s reached its end — only in this case, another one begins. The movie’s first half is spring break excess, the camera lingering ecstatically on teenage flesh as the soundtrack pulses with blissed-out dubstep. Then a party gets busted by the cops, and our girl gang is sent to jail. But it “can’t end this way,” as Faith (Gomez) says in voiceover. “This can’t be the end of the dream.” It isn’t. They’re bailed out by Alien (James Franco), who enlists them in his thug entourage. Faith, the good girl of the group, leaves for home shortly after, uncomfortable with Alien and the grit and unfamiliarity of “real” Miami. Cotty (Rachel Korine) stays long enough to mug other spring breakers at gunpoint, then leaves after getting shot in the arm by Alien’s nemesis and former best friend, Archie, a more “baller” black man played by Gucci Mane. The remaining two girls, Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), earlier described by Faith’s Christian friend as having “demons in them,” stick with Alien in his battle to become top dawg. By the end of the film, Brit and Candy have become a singular twinned being that operates as one — referring to themselves as “we,” dressing alike, and essentially appearing as identical twins. Alien professes love for them both, but they’re emotionally impenetrable, almost extraterrestrial in their joint twin identity. They are a teen-girl version of the murderous twin girls from The Shining.

James Franco as cuddly/creepy gangster "Alien" in Spring Breakers

James Franco as cuddly/creepy gangster “Alien” in Spring Breakers

*    *    *

Part of the allure of both films is their subversion of celebrity, particularly their actors’ reputations. Korine drops good girl Disney princesses Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez into a mean fantasy of thug Miami, adding Ashley Benson of ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars and his own wife, Rachel, as a protector figure. We’re not watching four characters but the actors themselves, who never comfortably slide into their roles because there is nothing to slide into. The characters are emptied of any psychology, functioning as bare containers for Hollywood subversion; they are context and context only. Likewise, The Bling Ring relies on the thrill of seeing actual celeb homes like Hilton’s intruded upon (she allowed her home to be used in filming), as well as seeing Emma Watson (known as the wise, morally sound Hermione in the Harry Potter films) play Nicky, a shallow, immoral narcissist who does drugs, dresses immodestly, and disrespects her mother.

Tellingly, when Nicky’s mother attempts to provide her daughters with a positive role model by celebrating Angelina Jolie in a home-school lesson on character development, her pupils are uninspired. No one wants to emulate Angelina; they’d rather be Lindsay. And they get so close. When the Bling Ring gang robs Lohan’s home, the camera lingers on Rebecca in front of the vanity mirror. She stares at herself in the mirror in awe, as if seeing herself as Lindsay, and as Lindsay sees herself in the mirror. This is a doppelganger moment that only Rebecca can see, and it doesn’t last. She will soon become a shadow again. Yet Rebecca revels in it, delicately spraying herself with Lindsay’s fragrance and carefully applying her lipstick. These are worshipful gestures to Lohan, a modern-day goddess by pop culture standards.

Rebecca An sprays herself with Lindsay Lohan's perfume in "The Bling Ring" (2013)

Rebecca (Katie Chang) sprays herself with Lindsay Lohan’s perfume in “The Bling Ring” (2013).

Lohan embodies the celebrity construct that speaks to the erasure of privacy, the reality-TV-show lifestyle that’s reproduced through the Bling Ring’s audacious yet flat characters who breezily use Google to find their targets’ addresses and TMZ to learn when their homes will be vacant. All access, all the time. Coppola employs the visual language of the surveillance video, webcam, and reality TV, making a film that has the feel of a slickly produced documentary. And the story is based on real life. But she uses actors, so the original teens don’t get the reality show they so desperately want; in the end, only Lindsay can have that.

Meanwhile the Spring Breakers pretend to be in a video game: “Act like you’re in a video game or something … you can’t be scared of shit,” one of them says. There would be a transgressive Robin Hood quality to their methods, except they steal from the entitled only to … well, steal from the entitled. At first Brit, Candy, and Cotty are holding up the spring break tourists they used to be in their former, pre-Alien lives, the ones feeding off of Miami’s tourist economy and blissfully ignorant of its gangster underground side (which of course is fantasy, too). The Bling Ringers are at least taking maybe one percent of the wealth of the one percent and reselling it on the boardwalk. This can be seen as a form of retributive justice, and is perhaps worthy of the adoration they receive on Facebook fan pages and their personal profiles.

The Bling Ring kids sell stolen bling on the boardwalk

The Bling Ring kids sell stolen bling on the boardwalk.

Whereas most cinematic bad girls are outfitted with a history of sexual violence or other forms of patriarchal abuse as an explanation for their hostility and weaponization (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Kill BillThelma and Louise, rape revenge films), this isn’t the case in either of these films. Though the threat of sexual violence looms over the girls of Spring Breakers, they prove to be impenetrable, in control of everyone around them. And while Brit and Candy’s double pistol–fellatio scene (Franco doing the fellating) can be interpreted as a modified castration scene, it also reads like another form of intensity, a mode of girl bonding and power sharing. No motivation is provided for their crimes other than the boredom and disenfranchisement of the American teen girl (and in Mark’s case, boy) who wants to “find” herself — how exactly, she is unsure, but getting some bling seems like a good start.

We might read these films as containing elements of the American road film: the teens go on journeys in cars (or buses), on quests to see something new, to discover who they really are. In the case of the Bling Ringers, they take heady, meandering joyrides through Los Angeles only to end up futilely back at their parents’ homes. In the case of the Spring Breakers, their journey to Miami might as well be the path to Apocalypse Now‘s heart of darkness, narrated by Britney Spears in Crossroads. At the film’s end, Alien and his two remaining girls get ready to kill Archie. After motoring over to the latter’s pier, which juts out somewhere in the Floridian waters, Alien and his twins hop off the boat. Alien is immediately shot dead by one of Archie’s henchmen. The twins pause only to kill the killer; then they march up the pier in sync to murder every single one of the black men hanging by the pool and in the yard. Gliding through completely unscathed, as if twin avatars in a shoot-em-up video game, the girls with matching pink balaclavas and day-glo bikinis fire one shot after another until blood is flowing like the Florida waves rolling up on the shore. After this epic kill scene, the girls are finally changed forever, as they so hoped would happen on spring break. They’ve finally “found themselves.”

The girls from Spring Breakers are on a quest to "find themselves"

The girls from Spring Breakers are on a quest to “find themselves.”

What’s so disconcerting about this finale is that it takes the structure of a triumphant shootout yet in content deflects the triumph. Despite the twins’ intoxicating militance, their balaclavas calling to mind feminist heroes Pussy Riot, there’s nothing heroic about their actions here: just pure negativity pushed to an appalling end point. Their bloodbath of black and brown bodies is not cause for celebration: it is rote, cold, programmatic, predetermined, senseless, without any kind of satisfaction that accompanies earlier scenes of the girls tying up and robbing contemptible tourists. Viewers who have been maybe shocked and titillated, but not entirely disturbed, by earlier gang activities cannot get behind this kill scene, not only because it involves cold murder but because it involves the cold murder of black and brown bodies at the hands of two bored white girls. (Vanessa Hudgens’ ethnic heritage is mixed, but her character is arguably identified with whiteness throughout the film.) The twins here are no longer Alien’s bling accessories but a force of lethal anarchism. Game over. Bad girls do it well?

The first scene of Bling Ring sees the teens pop up their hoods as they march defiantly past Orlando Bloom’s surveillance camera, and Harmony Korine has described the visual style of Spring Breakers as being “lit by Skittles.” It’s hard not to view these films in the cultural context of Trayvon Martin and heightened critical attention to the systemic criminalization of people of color. Part of the allure of Bling Ring is seeing not just celebrity houses vandalized, but also unlikely criminals punished: entitled white girl Nicky/Emma Watson screaming “Why me? Why me? Ow! Ow! Ow!” as the officer shoves her into the car. Part of the shock of Spring Breakers is how ambivalently it presents “transgressive” white girl criminality as reliant upon the brutal killing of brown people — and how vexing its refusal to help the viewer interpret this. Brit and Candy’s robotic racism may or may not be incisive social commentary, but it certainly precludes their becoming, despite last shots of them driving in a car to nowhere, the new Thelma and Louise — or, given how uncomfortably noncathartic this kill scene is, the new Bonnie and Clyde.

Nicky of The Bling Ring is off to her big day in court!

Nicky of the Bling Ring is off to her big day in court!

“America has this sick fascination,” explains Mark to a reporter at the end of The Bling Ring, “for a Bonnie and Clyde thing.” Mark and Rebecca, the main culprits of the robberies, take the brunt of the sentencing and are charged with first-degree burglary. Yet ringleader Rebecca is mysteriously absent from the closing scenes. Last shots show her looking as glamorous as her idol Lindsay Lohan. Though we assume she is residing in a SoCal prison, we never see her clothed in her fashionable new prison get-up. Instead we see Mark, the lost boy narrator and the only character who has something of a moral conscience in the film, wearing an all-orange prison outfit (the new black, as Netflix tells us) and facing the reality of being Rebecca’s bestie and confidant throughout the string of burglaries. No longer swept up in the girl gang mentality, Mark has to reckon with the consequences alone.

In each of these films, criminality is bling, a shallow tool for white teen self-discovery with soft consequences. The films reinforce American culture’s notions of the adolescent as lazy, selfish, and indulgent, embodying a refusal of accountability, a disregard for morality, and an obsession with status and empty signifiers. The films also explore the teens’ will to power through their own realized powerlessness, in this way presenting their criminality as not simply shallow but justified, a legitimate response to a disempowered existence and as such transgressive and glamorous, like LiLo. (Free Mark and Rebecca!) Far from the Mean Girls formula, wherein LiLo learns her lesson about narcissism and power and becomes a better person, these characters don’t reform — though they do rehearse the obligatory promises. “I’m going to be better at school, at life; I just want to be a good girl — I think that’s what the secret to life is, being a good person. I feel changed,” say the two girls from Spring Breakers at the end of the film, their lines echoing back and forth over sunset-colored screens. We’re unsure of who is saying what, but it doesn’t matter because the two have become one. And their words ring as false as Nicky’s in Bling Ring, when she declares, in an interview with a reporter, that she wants to “push for peace and the health of the planet,” finally emulating bad girl turned good Angelina despite her earlier disdain. “I want to be a leader.”

This is lip service, and in this moment she is very close to pitiable. She will never be a leader, or Angelina, or LiLo. But she did, as she tells audiences during her appearance on TV at the end of her jail time, get to share a cellblock with Lindsay Lohan for 30 days. Spring Break Forever — or maybe Cell Block Forever, a new reality TV show, coming soon.

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  • Sam Jew

    Girls get away with murder all the damn time for no other reason than that they’re girls.

    • Celeste

      You have got to be kidding me. This is sexist bullshit.

      • Sam Jew

        You’re right. I should have said pretty girls get away with murder all the damn time.

        • Celeste

          Don’t see how that’s any less sexist. And also, facts? Where did you get this information, or is it just…a stereotype?

          • Sam Jew

            That is a fact. Open your damn eyes.

          • Celeste

            Riiiiight. Can’t back your specious observation with any sort of reality, so you resort to “open your damn eyes.” Hallmark of a troll.

          • Sam Jew

            Reality? What man earns $10,000 a day for being pretty?

          • Celeste

            Male models. And of course, they get away with murder all the time because they are so damn pretty.

          • Sam Jew

            Male models don’t earn that much, except as rentboys maybe. And those aren’t men.

  • Chris Topher Chivington

    This is a really great article! Thanks for writing it. Being a youngin’ myself I totally appreciate the analysis of this culture and your take on these movies.

  • megan milks

    Hi Anuradha,

    Sorry for the tardy reply, I’m just seeing your comment now. Thanks for this thoughtful and important response to our essay. You’re absolutely right, of course, about these films’ appropriations of black and brown culture. We certainly don’t laud the racial politics of the films, particularly Spring Breakers. SB seems defiantly anti-critique and while (speaking for myself) such a stance is always interesting to me on an aesthetic level, it’s absolutely upsetting – and deplorable – that Korine delivers it through such emotionally and culturally exploitative means.

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