In March of 2013, Britney Spears was laying low. The only smattering of press coverage she received was because she had found a rebound boyfriend after calling off her engagement to her agent Jason Trawick. Her only recent musical output had come four months earlier, a duet with will.i.am, “Scream & Shout,” that appeared on his album. She was in the studio at work on her next record, Britney Jean, but that wouldn’t drop until December, and she hadn’t yet started her Las Vegas residency.
The relatively calm moment in her career was well deserved. It had been nearly 15 years since her debut single, “… Baby One More Time,” had made her an instant phenomenon. In that tumultuous decade and a half, she had graduated to pop culture emeritus status. She didn’t have to do a thing to remain one of the most famous—and culturally significant—pop stars of our time.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Spring Breakers, a film which hit U.S. theaters (in limited release) on March 15, 2013. What looked and sounded, on the surface, like a typical hot-young-thing exploitation movie left a curious trail of Britney-related breadcrumbs during its most memorable moments, including a climax in which three beautiful young women — faces covered in hot pink ski masks and bodies bared in bathing suits — wield guns and wreak violent havoc as Spears’ 2003 ballad “Everytime” plays.
It’s a sequence made all the more disturbing by its resonance with America’s endless stream of mass shootings, which were at the forefront of public consciousness then—the Sandy Hook school shooting had killed 20 elementary school students just three months earlier—as they are now. In fact, its commentary is only heightened in its contrast to reality—almost none of America’s mass shootings have been perpetrated by women.
Written and directed by Harmony Korine (Gummo), Spring Breakers stars four carefully chosen young women—former Disney Channel starlets Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, Pretty Little Liars’ Ashley Benson, and Korine’s wife, Rachel—as the college girls who turn into a crime gang (led by James Franco as a drug dealer, at his skeeviest) on a trip to Florida. Five years after its release, the film remains largely misunderstood, but it’s clearly brilliant when seen for what it is: a 93-minute meditation on Britney Spears. And its theme of young women’s rage over objectification, played out as a revenge fantasy in Britney’s name, is more relevant than ever after the flood of sexual abuse stories unleashed by the #MeToo movement.
At the time of its release, Spring Breakers took plenty of understandable heat for its blatant sexualization of the young female stars; many assumed the leads took these roles mainly to rebel against their pristine images. Variety’s Guy Lodge wrote, “this attractively fizzy pic may be a shock to the system for fans of teen queens Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, but remains pretty toothless titillation by its writer-helmer’s standards.” The female stars were nominated for Actress Most in Need of a New Agent by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and won Trashiest Trailer from the Golden Trailer Awards.
But other critics saw both sides of the objectification. Jamie Dunn of The Skinny said, “If Michael Mann was to take a lot of hallucinogenics and shoot a Girls Gone Wild video, it might look something like this.” But he also called it “the smartest, most daring and aesthetically gorgeous deconstruction of narrative cinema you’ll see all year.” It appeared on several critics’ top-ten lists for 2013, including the Los Angeles Times, Indiewire, Cahiers du cinema, and The New York Times.
Of course, the exploitation criticism has some validity; Spring Breakers is a classic example of using objectification to comment on objectification, having one’s cheesecake and eating it. It’s the Britney lens that brings its commentary into sharper focus: It’s a film about how this kind of blatant and constant objectification of exactly this kind of young woman leads naturally to her own righteous rage. It’s a film about Britney Spears’ inevitable breakdown, brought on by the world’s callous treatment of her sexuality and its total lack of acknowledgement of her humanity. It’s a film about how we got off easy with a mere public head-shaving and umbrella-bashing.
Britney is there from the beginning: Three of the four main characters spend their time at college partying and acting out sexually, but the other one of them—Faith, played by Gomez—is involved in the campus Christian group. There’s no use in trying to make sense of why Faith would keep hanging out with the others; in this allegory, she’s just 25 percent of Britney, the part that wants to stay home and be good, while the others are the 75 percent of her that wants to be out in the world having fun and being admired.
The first blatant Britney moment comes well into the movie, when the girls have gone to Florida on Spring Break—using money they collected in an armed robbery—and they’re relaxing outside a convenience store, drinking. In a film driven by violence and sex, we suddenly linger for a luxurious 41 seconds (of a very short hour-and-a-half total) on the girls singing most of “… Baby One More Time” and dancing goofily, not sexily, to it. It’s a striking retreat to innocence, despite their bikini tops and short shorts.
In case there’s still any question that this is specifically a Spears allegory, we get the climactic “Everytime” scene. What begins as a dreamy ballet-with-guns sequence while Franco plays the song on piano and sings it poorly ends with violent revenge on all of the men who exploited the girls throughout the film—as the audio switches to the real version of the song as performed by Spears. The song also happens to be Spears’ most serious ballad. It’s ostensibly a plaintive tribute to lost love, but it played in public like the loss of her innocence and of her self, from the opening line (“Notice me”) to the video, in which she’s besieged by fans and paparazzi one minute and possibly committing suicide in a bathtub the next, eventually being reincarnated as a baby in the end. It was the furthest she could get from the frothy fun of her iconic “… Baby One More Time” video. Notably, public reaction to the video blamed Spears for glamorizing suicide instead of wondering what it might say about her own state of mind.
“Everytime” is also one of the few songs she’s spoken of like a songwriter, explaining its origins and playing the riff on the piano during an ABC special. “Every time I try to fly I fall,” she sings in one of the song’s saddest lyrics. The Spring Breakers girls didn’t want to fall. Britney Spears didn’t fall, but it wasn’t because the world didn’t try to make her.