LIM COLLEGE FACULTY BLOG
Hollywood Fantasies about Students: The Bling Ring
posted by Robert Clark
Suppose you went to see The Bling Ring because the idea of teenagers ripping off designer goodies from celebrities promised the satisfaction of seeing your private fantasies fulfilled in glorious color on the big screen. There were grounds for that hope. Sophia Coppola’s earlier Marie Antoinette featured brilliant costume design by Milena Canonero. Manolo Blahnik and Pompei created spectacular shoes specifically for that film, and the pastry and hair-styling of the movie have also gone down in legend. The cinematographer for The Bling Ring, Harry Savides, normally gives his movies a rich mood and memorable imagery. The visual tone, attire and accessories alone in The Bling Ring might be worth the price of a ticket.
Yet The Bling Ring may not satisfy those who want to see it for the quality of the imagery and apparel. Much more disturbing, however, is that Coppola’s movie has been taken by members of the general public, as well as observers of the media’s influence on American culture, as an accurate portrait of what young American girls are like today. Coppola’s film has been compared often to the much more melodramatic, violent and sexually-oriented film Spring Breakers. The two movies are taken for a trend, and evidence that young American girls have gone completely wild.
Sophia Coppola, in many interviews, has consistently expressed that concern, and said that she wrote and directed The Bling Ring in part to point out the dangers of celebrity culture. She told a reporter at The Daily Beast that “…I just think reality TV has become such a big thing and this idea that anyone can be famous and tabloid culture is growing and growing. Our culture has a big appetite for it. It think it’s fun and pleasurable once in a while, but the fact that it’s so dominant and growing...I think we need to look at where it is going.”
No one can deny that there are troubled, adrift and not-very-talented teens who are unhealthily obsessed with the lowest rung of celebrity life, especially since, as the publicity and title-sequence for The Bling Ring trumpets, the film was based on “actual events.” More accurately, the film was inspired by a Vanity Fair article about a group of teenagers who broke into and robbed the houses of Paris Hilton, Audrina Partridge, Orlando Bloom and other well-publicized persons. The teens then posted pictures of themselves with the goods they stole on Facebook.
Two movies, however, do not make a trend, and pop culture is not a mirror of reality or a representation of how the world has changed. As one of the founders of the field of media analysis, Raymond Williams noted, pop culture often depicts exactly the opposite of what is happening in the world. So, let’s go back to the opening paragraph of this post. The Bling Ring is about wish fulfillment and fantasy, but it never manages realism or accuracy about young people’s dreams or ideas of fulfillment—at least not the deeper aspirations of young women who live some distance from Hollywood.
Instead of the disaffected and drug-addled consumer-culture brainwashed characters in both films, without morals or intelligence, young people today may be more concerned with their spiritual lives than they have been for decades. Researchers at UCLA in 2003 found that among first year students, nearly 80% “believe in God.” As for their respect for moral rules, nearly 70% said that religious beliefs “provide strength, support and guidance.” A follow-up study in 2007 with the same students suggests that their faith and adherence to religious values wanes to an extent, but remains powerful throughout college. About ten percent of American college students describe themselves as “born again.”
The relationship of college students to religion in the films, on the other hand, is comical or nerdy. One of the Disney Princesses of Spring Breakers, Selena Gomez, is on the periphery of a not very appealing circle of evangelical Christians. The film is packed with sleazy as well as orthodox religious imagery of baptism, spiritual renewals sacred and profane at the poolside, and even ritual dance to the music of the “angel” Britney Spears. The overall plot depicts young women empowered by violence, but it is also clear that the young girls wish to return to the well-behaved world of their parents, bound by traditional religious ideals about being good and working hard to save their souls.
In The Bling Ring, the burglaries are really worship-rituals at the pharaonic temples of conspicuous consumption owned by celebrities. The holy of holies is the dozen-tier racks of the imaginary Paris Hilton house shoe-closet, or the supposed reliquary in which Orlando Bloom stores his innumerable Rolex watches. One droll part of The Bling Ring is to see Leslie Mann play a well-meaning but ditzy mother who homeschools her daughters in what she thinks is the profound religion of the motivational clichés of the book The Secret.
Have American teenage girls really gone wild? Perhaps instead, Hollywood has always been bad at depicting any religion but its own media-driven cults of consumerism and celebrity. Yet Hollywood has done a much better job of depicting celebrity culture in the many versions of A Star is Born than in Spring Breakers or The Bling Ring. Even so, films of this year and the recent past, such as The East or Mary Martha May Marlene, or the star-writer-director Vera Farmiga's Higher Ground, have done a good job of exploring the dynamics, demons and moral zeal of religion, and the desire for values, community and justice (The East) as those impulses play out for young people right now.
Secular and persuasive social analysis of the moral, spiritual and cognitive development of college-age students is also easy to find. Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist and expert on education, who has performed large studies of young Americans and their ambitions, is one source. See his Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the 21st Century. Gardner has conducted well-documented discussions and large surveys of high-achieving U.S. youth that do reveal a worrisome preoccupation in young people with fame and getting rich. But his work, unlike that of movies, does not chase fame or money itself. He takes no advantage of young people and pokes no fun at them. Gardner also offers impressive accounts of young people who have values and get things done to combat poverty, reduce environmental threats, nurture corporate responsibility and waste little time on gossip sites.
That Seventies Show is not a documentary about my own generation. (Hollywood film neglected us, fortunately) Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and The Breakfast Club do not truly illuminate the life of 1980s teenagers. Slacker, Dazed and Confused and other artifacts tell me little more about high school students in the 1990s than would a parody TV show. Instead of wild, could it be that real-world teens have gone conservative?
That bears exploration. The constant contact that college students today have with their parents, the much more strict rules we have today at colleges than in the past in dorms, classrooms, and exam rooms for that matter, and the harmony about morals and spirituality that often holds between parents and teens are much more revealing than films that capitalize on the thrills and dangers of fame, drugs and violence. Those movies are really about an understandable quest for fame on the part of the filmmakers themselves. The movies offer good old unclean fun, and thank goodness for that. We need those fanatasies as escapes, but not for insight.