In the entertainment industry, young female stars face a unique rite of passage: the performance for which they’ll bare it all.
It is ironic that for a young starlet to make the transformation to a “serious” performer, she is expected to show some skin. In any field other than showbiz, the habit of stripping down has traditionally done the opposite of enhancing a woman’s professional standing. The new movie Spring Breakers highlights this twisted expectation so well, as former Disney actresses and singers Selena Gomez, 20, and Vanessa Hudgens, 24, romp around in bikinis to show the world how they’re no longer part of the younger set.
Before Spring Breakers, the two young women were darlings of Disney’s strictly G-rated audience. Gomez rose to fame for playing a cute-as-a-button protagonist on Wizards of Waverly Place and Hudgens as the sweet-voiced female star of the High School Musical series. Both also dated teen celebrities—Gomez with singing superstar Justin Bieber, Hudgens with co-star Zac Efron. These highly publicized relationships reinforced their grounded reputations and boosted their public popularity.
Spring Breakers is their first adult project. The title says it all about the storyline: a group of college-aged girls go on a wild spring break trip replete with alcohol, sex, and a drug-dealing gangster named Alien played by the indefatigable James Franco.
Gomez and Hudgens’ starring roles in the film helped create a lot of hype around the film. In several scenes, the bikini-clad formerly clean-cut teen stars sing along to Britney Spears’s early works—the songs that came before her foray into motherhood and breakdowns. Freudian slip or intended message? Either way,t he prominent inclusion of Spears’s pre-meltdown songs is a subtle nod to the film’s stars heading down a similar path. Like Gomez and Hudgens, Spears started off as a Disney child star and became the pop music sensation that I admittedly adored as a little girl. To break away from that image of teen star cuteness, Spears filled her public wardrobe with sexy outfits and her music videos with scandalous dance moves.
Celebrity culture is full of this “good girl gone bad” trope. Spears, Gomez, and Hudgens are just three in a long line of women who make the transition from angel by jumping straight to seductress. Just look at 7th Heaven’s Jessica Biel, who was able to break free from her contract with the Christian-themed family show by posing topless. In order to be considered seriously for more mature projects, the only available option for young women at this point is to flaunt their boobs first and talent later.
Along with the male domination of the entertainment industry and the fact that sex sells, another significant issue behind the “good girls gone bad” trajectory is the dearth of roles available for young actresses to display their chops. Actresses like Jennifer Lawrence have to be both picky and lucky to land roles like she has, as complex neither-good-nor-bad characters in the Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook. Lawrence is a unicorn in the world of celebrity actresses: Someone who’s been able to grow up into a serious actress without having to take off her clothes.
Roles like the ones Lawrence seeks out aren’t widely available to young women. Perusing the top films of last year reveals few scripts that feature intelligent, empowered young women who use smarts and strength rather than sex.
Instead of believing that Gomez and Hudgens “found the right movie” in which to enact their good-girl-gone-bad rite of passage, perhaps we should be looking at the industry’s structural elements to question why such a movie was their apparently best choice.
Photo of Selena Gomez on the set of Spring Breakers via MTV.