Film / Opinion

Dream On: How The Social Network and Spring Breakers Define Generation Y and the New American Dream

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I am going to make a pre-emptive statement, perhaps a pre-mature one at that: Spring Breakers is as “definitive” of “my generation” as The Social Network is. Both of them are keyed into a group of people defined so by their social context that you could not tell the exact same story with the same characters elsewhere. They are defined by the technology that surrounds them, the people that populate where they stay, and popular culture that proliferates before their eyes. And yet, while the films are specifically designed to apply to a certain time, the stories they tell are as universal and flexible as possible: the rise and fall of young people; more specifically young people whose economic and cultural stability is reliant on their success and failure. Though they are as contrasting as ever, their similarities are frighteningly apparent.

The objects and the culture surrounding these films are the things that separate these films from having been made at any other time. Neither film, not even The Social Network (which was released in 2010, and takes some time in the world of 2004), has to reach back all that far in the imagination of time to represent what our culture looks like now. When cultural critics argue that media is a reflection of ourselves, of what our own culture does and wants, The Social Network and Spring Breakers are the perfect examples. The former film is able to detail the proliferation and subsequent obsession with social media; the latter with the desire for instant gratification, pleasure, and a special kind of music.

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The Social Network is about The Facebook; that ubiquitous platform where you can rack up any number of friends, post about your life, etc. Mark Zuckerberg’s life, the world he inhabits, is a strange contrast between the digital and the analog. His forte and what he often relies on to keep him entertained or to make money, is in code, always on the computer, but his interactions with people are the battle between the two. He’s awkward and unsure of himself, and yet incredibly cocky. It’s a strange juxtaposition between how we interact with people online and on the internet. He feels more comfortable with a veil. His interactions are necessarily analog, but he wants them to be digital.

In the world of Spring Breakers, the music, by Skrillex, is distinctly a 21st Century thing. However, the girls of the film are able to consider the work of Britney Spears, a piece of nostalgia for Gen-Y. Is there anything more definitive about this “generation” than their constant need for nostalgia. On Facebook (and Tumblr) you always see posts headlined “If you’re a ‘90s kid, you’ll remember…” with some piece of fondly remembered nostalgia as the picture. Nostalgia in and of itself isn’t limited to Gen Y. But the ability to use social media in order to recall and relive that nostalgia, to bring it from the past and back into the present, definitely is. At the click of a button, you can watch old episodes of Wishbone! And Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. You can watch videos of other people playing 8-bit games or YouTube a music video you liked as a kid. These girls, though, deal with an interesting form of cognitive dissonance: they’re not stuck in the past, by any means, but they can recall it when they want to. It seems to be a good metaphor for the career limbo that the four actresses are in, the rough transition period going from Disney child actress to adult actress. They are learning their ability to channel either one at will.

The Social Network

But these two films are limited merely by the objects in terms of what makes them definitive for Gen-Y. It’s also the way they go about making, achieving, creating, etc. their New American Dream. The economic stability of the United States has changed drastically since films like American Beauty, so achieving that dream has changed its meaning and, even more, it has changed its methodology.

The protagonists of The Social Network and Spring Breakers do not attend the same college. They are divided by their economic circumstances and, thus, by their opportunities. Jesse Eisenberg’s acutely awkward and assholeish Mark Zuckerberg goes to an Ivy League school, Harvard, and his main goal is to become a member of a “finals club”, fraternities inhabited by well to do upper class: primarily white guys. He may not be as wealthy as the rest in the club, but he’s able to afford Harvard. His best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), made six figures the previous summer working for oil companies. He is, perhaps, wealthier than Mark, but neither are inherently limited in what they are able to do within the world of the film. (Though, Mark is perhaps limited in social stature more than Eduardo.) Mark also has the funds to have multiple monitors for his computer. One wonders, though, what Mark’s real desire is: the social status of being wealthy or to actually be in a Finals Club? Or are the two the same to him? Perhaps one is necessary for the other.

The girls of Spring Breakers are, however, people who wish they had the economic and financial stability of the men of The Social Network. While those boys are dorming it up in Harvard, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Faith (Selena Gomez), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) are stuck in their local state (possibly community) college, with the sterile, hospital like dormitories. They congregate in the bathroom, bored of their lives, after a day of hating their classes (on post-Civil War history, no less), and they come to the realization that they do not have sufficient funds for their Spring Break dream. Contrast that with the opening sequence of the film, with a plethora of writhing bodies filling the frame: this is their desire, fueled by lust and greed, and they will do anything to get to it. Not to mention the fact that Spring Break is fairly expensive: you need to pay for a bus ride, hotel rooms, the bathing suits, and, yes, the booze. In order to acquire that dream, the girls rob a restaurant.

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Though these two examples seem incredibly different, they both represent the same New American Dream, although different facets of the same thing. One strives for status and power, the other for pleasure and instant gratification. Say what you will about Millennial think pieces, but these films are the same and diametrically opposed, depicting the journey to essentially the same ideological place: On the one hand, The Social Network depicts the ruthlessness of a “Millennial”, his methodology so consumptive of his personality that he becomes a different person; on the other hand, Spring Breakers depicts a slightly more self-entitled group of people, who think that, because they put up with the daily crap of living life and learning things they don’t want to learn, that they deserve time off to party. This is, though, incredibly simplistic. It’s the initial impression we get from the girls, but it changes and subverts itself when we get to Florida, where Alien (James Franco) then takes his turn in representing entitlement. Alien, however, is an interesting paradox. He, and Gucci Mane to boot, start off even poorer than the girls, and claw their way to the top, again, in a ruthless manner. It isn’t that they ascended to the top as murderously and sinfully as Richard III that makes them epitomize the so-called self-entitlement of the Millennials: it is how they present themselves. Alien says to the girls, “Some kids, some little kids, they wanna grow up to be president, some kids wanna grow up and be a doctor? I just wanted to be bad. When they kicked me outta school, I thought that was great! […] Some people? They wanna do the right thing? I like doing the wrong thing! […] Money. I’m about makin’ money! […] This a dream, y’all. This the American Dream… that’s it.” But the way he perpetuates this American Dream, the way he presents it and reaches it may be through the same greed drenched intentions as  Zuckerberg, but there’s a sense of “I deserve it and I’m doing the wrong thing because I can”. It’s an extreme portrayal of “Millennial Self-Entitlement”, but it is one nonetheless.

The Social Network, though, utilizes a dog eat dog, Richard III-esque methodology. Maybe Zuckerberg isn’t as intentionally malicious, but the way Aaron Sorkin writes it nevertheless presents itself like a Shakespearian tragedy. However, this is where the characters of one film, in their thirst for power, use their privilege and money to get where they need to. Zuckerberg is written as kind of an anti-hero, seriously flawed in his personality, colored by his self-indulgence. But though he fancies himself as incredibly smart (which he is), he is able to use his loner status to seek more power. His prowess at programming is his in for creating the Facebook, but it’s someone else who plays up the flashiness. Sean Parker struts in, a slick, suit wearing Mephistopheles (Justin Timberlake) and instantly has Zuckerberg under his spell. Making the impression, one that has now become an iconic line in and of itself, that the thing that’s cooler than a million dollars is a billion dollars, Parker is the Devil that whispers in Zuckerberg’s ear, tempting him and leading him the darkest path. Were it not for some financial means, though, via Eduardo and WInklevoss Twins, he would have never had the door opened to him. It’s that Sean Parker stretches this intention and methodology to its fullest, further isolating him from everyone else. By the end of the film, he has the power and the money. But what now?

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In the same way, Spring Breakers leaves the audience with an open ending. The girls are driving off into the sunset, with their nice new car, but, only now, they have agency. They can go back to their drab lives as if nothing happened. It is as if the New American Dream is disposable, a temporary thing that, once acquired, loses its charm. Though the two films’ open ending suggest different perspectives, they both prove that both the guys of The Social Network and the girls of Spring Breakers are as smart as one another. It’s a hard balance to achieve given how different the films are on a surface level and how the culture, even within Spring Breakers, would be inherently in favor of the men. Korine’s film certainly subverts that notion, especially regarding the dynamic between the girls and Alien.

The Social Network and Spring Breakers share a fascinating tie in how reflective they are of contemporary culture. Their design and characters don’t seem so much created to look like people that are part of Generation Y, but actually plucked out of the generation. One foretells the culture’s romance with digital media and social networking, the other describes the cognitive dissonance between nostalgia and realism. Both examine the way the American Dream has changed for this generation, both in what it means to people and how to get there. You can either proclaim that you’re CEO, bitch, or you can become a gangster, claw your way to the top, and scream “Look at all my s***!” Actually, the two aren’t that different. They’re really the same. They’re the same to us.

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3 thoughts on “Dream On: How The Social Network and Spring Breakers Define Generation Y and the New American Dream

  1. What a piece! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen The Social Network but I can agree with everything you said here – and it makes me want to rewatch it all the more. Spring Breakers is my favorite film of the year so far, one of the reasons for that being it’s spot-on portrayal of my generation’s dreams and aspirations. Oh, and the Britney Spears part as well.

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