Forget having the same rights as men, earning as much money as men, and having as much control over our bodies as men. Those were all boring feminist projects that we haven’t needed to worry about since that magical moment in the ‘70s when Gloria Steinem clicked her dowdily shod heels together three times and chanted, “There’s no political aim like equality.”
Once all that was solved, along came postfeminism to tell us what we wanted next. Since all gender-based inequality had been tidily eradicated, we could finally want the two things men so famously want: sex and success. In fact, as Sex and the City articulated, we were actually supposed to want to have sex like men: no expectations, no commitments, no emotions. Just pure physical pleasure. Get it, girl.
Of course, Carrie Bradshaw and her gal pals didn’t succeed at eliminating all emotion from their romantic lives; in the end (and, yes, the movies count), Sex and the City packed in just as many tears and wedding dresses and grand gestures as any of the Hollywood romantic comedies to which it was supposed to be an antidote. Conventional wisdom holds that it passed its torch on to Girls, an idea that makes perfect sense as long as you believe that any clique of four single white women in New York City is basically the same. But if you’re more interested in themes than casting practices, the ideological heir to SATC isn’t Lena Dunham’s show, with its neurotic, self-aware characters and painfully unfulfilling bedroom scenes; it’s Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, two films that take its postfeminist premise to a tantalizing extreme.
Spring Breakers, a neon-tinted tale of college girls who rob a diner to finance the Florida vacation of their MTV-molded dreams, takes enough time off from ogling its ex-Disney cast to make a subtle (and, I’ve argued, slyly conservative) argument that television and hip hop have turned millennials into a self-obsessed, amoral generation. Based on a true story, The Bling Ring dramatizes the downfall of a group of Southern California high schoolers who spent nearly a year breaking into and burglarizing celebrities’ homes. A perfect storm of boldface names – the thiefs’ targets included Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, and Lindsay Lohan, and Bling Ring member Alexis Neiers was filming the E! reality series Pretty Wild at the time of her arrest – and celebrity-culture hysteria, the saga dominated tabloid headlines for months in late 2009. The parallels between these two stories of teenage girls whose obsession with pop culture drives them to crime are obvious, but the films have more in common than shared subject matter: they identify a new archetype.
Despite major tonal differences — The Bling Ring attempts to understand young women and their relationship to celebrity culture, while Spring Breakers settles for exoticizing and drooling over them — both movies paint the teen girl of 2013 as a consummately liberated creature. A drastic departure from the insecure, anorexic mean girl and the secretly beautiful nerd in dire need of a makeover who we’ve seen over and over in film and on TV, she’s as arrogant as any guy on the football team. Sure, she has sex “like a man,” not only seeking pure physical gratification, but also living without fear of sexual violence. In one Spring Breakers scene, Rachel Korine’s Cotty flips the power balance on a potential aggressor, telling him, “You’re never going to get this… because you’re a little bitch.” Taissa Farmiga’s character in The Bling Ring appears at her boyfriend’s bedroom window one night brandishing a freshly stolen gun and ready for a romp. But for this mythical new-model teen girl, sexual agency isn’t even the point. It’s tangential to her lust for money, power, fame, and the elusive nexus of those desires, which Nick Prugo (the sole male member of the Bling Ring’s inner circle) identified to Vanity Fair writer Nancy Jo Sales as “the lifestyle that we all sort of want.”
In fact, The Bling Ring’s fictional version of Prugo, Israel Broussard’s Marc, is the only self-conscious character in the film, tormented by the fear that he’s not as attractive as his peers. Marc’s introspective nature and anxieties about his appearance make him a sharp contrast to Katie Chang’s fearlessly acquisitive Rebecca (based on real-life Bling ringleader Rachel Lee) and Neiers’ surrogate, Nicki (Emma Watson). “I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a country for all I know,” Watson’s blithely self-assured character tells the press at one point, repeating a Neiers quote from Sales’ 2010 article, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” on which The Bling Ring is primarily based.
Physically safe and autonomous in ways that teenage girls haven’t historically been, socially and financially secure to the point of boredom, and endowed with limitless self-esteem, Korine’s and Coppola’s heroines have vaulted all the way to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Actualization is what they’re after. It’s no coincidence that Nicki and her mom are practitioners of The Secret, or that the Spring Breakers crew approaches armed robbery like a video game to be won. These girls aren’t stealing celebrities’ red-carpet outfits and shooting up gangsters’ parties to fill some hole in their lives; they’re doing it to fulfill their destiny.
The question is, to what extent are these narcissistic postfeminist millennial supergirls an accurate reflection of a new breed of young women? Have we truly made so much progress that teenage girls no longer have to worry about the problems that plagued their mothers, and even older sisters – eating disorders, date rape, bullying, depression?
It’s easy to dismiss Korine’s characters as middle-aged male wish fulfillment, bikini-clad but so confident and in control that you don’t even have to feel guilty for objectifying them. At the very least, they were created by a filmmaker who’s out of touch enough with youth culture to comment on MTV Beach House in 2013.
Less sensational but more haunting are the girls of The Bling Ring, in that their story is based on real events, with much of Coppola’s dialogue pulled straight from Sales’ interviews. But what doesn’t make it into the movie is the block of terrifying statistics about girls in the Bling Ring’s cohort that Sales includes in her recently published, movie tie-in book. One in ten has an eating disorder, she informs us; teenage girls attempt suicide three times more often that teenage boys. And speaking of Sales, it shouldn’t escape notice that Nick Prugo and Alexis Neiers were the only two out of six Bling Ring defendants she was able to interview for her Vanity Fair piece. If Prugo benefitted from portraying himself as an insecure hanger-on, just following Rachel Lee’s lead, Neiers was building the ditzily hyper-ambitious brand that had already won her a reality show. In drawing heavily on Sales’ profile, Coppola is also reproducing the characters that Prugo and Neiers created for themselves and their friends. Like the Spring Breakers clique, they’re as much a fantasy as the idea that we live in a world that doesn’t need feminism anymore.
The fact these girls aren’t more representative of their peers should take nothing away from The Bling Ring’s nuanced examination of wealth, boredom, and celebrity culture – three topics on which Sofia Coppola has long been cinema’s most perceptive observer. To her credit, Coppola isn’t a moralist; some viewers swore off her forever when, in her 2004 biopic, she attempted to understand rather than condemn Marie Antoinette. It’s not the filmmaker I’m worried about – it’s the critics who will lazily use the recent explosion of “teen girls gone wild” films (there’s also Violet & Daisy, about a pair of adolescent female assassins) to convince us that the current generation represents some kind of postfeminist dream, or nightmare. Don’t believe them.