I thought it was Skrillex's drum machine, but that faint pitter-patter in the new film Spring Breakers was the sound of Disney princesses outrunning their pasts. Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens were teenage Disney superstars, the former the lead in the laugh-track-saturated family sitcom Wizards of Waverly Place and the latter the warbling ingenue of the High School Musical series.
But Gomez is now 20 and Hudgens 24, and Spring Breakers is their escape from the grinding gears of what Gomez has called the "Disney … machine." The art-house film from writer-director Harmony Korine is a hyper tale of four vacationing, bikini-clad college girls who get arrested and pulled into a druggy Florida demimonde only a little scarier than the collegiate bacchanalia that preceded it.
In going from The Archies to Chained Heat, Hudgens and Gomez (and lesser known co-star Ashley Benson, formerly of the ABC Family network) are catapulting from one impossible exemplar of femininity – the asexual, blemish-free sitcom sweetheart – to another: the bad girl. The image of the gyrating, bong-hitting, bikini babe became iconic in Girls Gone Wild, those videos of real life "co-eds" topless and groping each other to intoxicated cheers. So it was hard to shed a tear when the parent company recently declared bankruptcy.
For more than 15 years, the franchise sold the idea that it wasn't quite porn, but a turn-on featuring the spontaneous nudity of "real" women – college-loving chicks who got naked before returning to their good-girl lives (generally without compensation given or permission granted). Through its Disney leads, Spring Breakers may be satirizing the exact kind of titillating dichotomy that fuels Girls Gone Wild, but it's also engaged in it – and so, troublingly, are its stars. For a certain kind of young female idol, the path to adult stardom remains paved with limited options: Madonna or whore.
It's tough to transition from teen star to actor, a struggle familiar to both Judy Garland and Miley Cyrus. It's almost a rite of passage for the actress whose career is built on childhood virtue to project adult ruin, either on screen (Jodie Foster in The Accused) or off (Lindsay Lohan in prison). Male teen idols have their own issues. Zac Efron, Hudgens's ex, tried to break out of his pin-up past with a part in the film The Paperboy, where Nicole Kidman peed on him. Justin Bieber, who dated Gomez, is coming undone lately, reportedly hurling death threats at a neighbour and showing up late to concerts.
But for every Edward Furlong, there seem to be three Lindsey Lohans: It's harder for girls. Female sexuality has a different currency and invites a different level of scrutiny. Sexual identity shifts, bad wardrobe choices and substance issues are the kinds of fumblings most people experience on the edge of adulthood. For stars, these moments play out in public, amplified. With technology, not one sex tape, shaved head or ankle bracelet goes undocumented. The once beloved youngsters – Lohan, Amanda Bynes, even Taylor Swift, lately – segue into adulthood as punchlines, and the love is withdrawn.
Korine scripted the controversial Kids in 1995, and his subsequent films – Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy – relish the extreme and freakish. He knows that putting princesses in a room with James Franco as a leering, cornrowed rapping thug highlights the absurdity and transience of the actresses's real world celebrity. He called the casting "a conceptual stunt," and his stars are willfully trashing the fan-celebrity covenant, as women bred in the hothouse of fame may be wont to do. Spring Breakers is a film about the perils of performing.
The four leads play at girliness with stuffies dangling from their backpacks and neon nail polish, and they play at adult sexuality, too, grinding against kegs and forcing Franco to fellate a gun. But there's no actual sex in Spring Breakers; it's all simulated. At first, the violence is fake, too: The girls fund their trip with a water gun robbery – white chicks doing their impressions of black hip-hop gangsters. "Are you being serious right now?" Gomez's character asks Franco's cackling goon. His answer isn't one: "What do you think?"
For all the post-modern winking, Spring Breakers feels as dated as Girls Gone Wild. Almost a decade ago, Ariel Levy wrote the book Female Chauvinist Pigs, about the rise of raunch culture, trying to understand why a teenage girl would claim it's empowering to lift her shirt for a camera. "Raunch and liberation are not synonyms," wrote Levy.
Maybe that's what's so unsatisfying about Spring Breakers, with its dubious patina of cultural critique. This is an interesting moment in girl culture: Slut Walks; Tavi Gevinson; the bisexual cheerleaders on Glee. Two years older than Hudgens, Lena Dunham is broadcasting a complicated, funny world populated by young women. But the Disney princesses didn't choose those routes; they fell into the good girl-bad girl divide, still going wild, as if swapping cages is freeing.