Spring break? Sure, I know all about spring break. That's when college students flock to the coast of Florida or Texas or Mexico for a week of sun and fun and debauchery. They play games on the beach and hook up with beautiful people and drink 'til they pass out.
Oh, yeah. I know all about spring break.
How did I spend mine, you ask? Um. Er. Well, hanging out at my parents' house, mainly. Some friends and I would sometimes go hiking or play tennis when it was nice outside. And I watched a lot of TV when it wasn't. Oh, and there was that time I mowed the front lawn and this bird flew over and—
Now that you mention it, I guess none of my college spring breaks involved a beach. Or girls in bikinis. Or kegs of beer.
So how is it that I know all about this sun-and-sand-soaked "mandatory rite of passage?" I saw it on TV during spring break, of course.
School of Non-Thought
Few bits of Americana have been as immortalized in film and on television as the college spring break. Its traditional trappings are as well-known to us as most national holidays. What do you do on Christmas? You go to church, sing carols and open presents. Halloween? You dress up in scary costumes and beg for candy. Spring break? You go somewhere warm and par-taaaay!
Last year, ABC Family's college-centric Greek was just one of countless shows to trumpet the spring break mythos. One critical two-parter chronicled a spring break trip to Florida, painting the trek as a high-octane adventure loaded with binges and breasts. As underage Rusty Cartwright prepares to celebrate with his fraternity, his Christian roommate (Dale) wonders whether he should (morally speaking) be going at all.
"So what do you want to be?" Dale asks. "Satan or an angel of light?"
"Whatever gets me served in Myrtle Beach, Dale," Rusty answers.
"That'd be Satan," Dale says. "Satan lives in Myrtle Beach."
Spring break in the movies and on TV has nothing to do with being right or good or, really, even safe. It's all about living for the day, the hour, the minute. And those images we see so often do seem to reflect a certain reality: Go down to the Florida coast in March or April for real, and you'll find the beaches packed with tired, tipsy, scantily clad youth—trailed by Girls Gone Wild film crews.
Which begs the question: Does the debauchery of spring break inspire Hollywood? Or does Hollywood spur the mythos of spring break?
It's probably a little bit of both.
Were the Boys There Before?
According to springbreak.com, college students have been making a beeline for the beach since the 1800s—a trend augmented in the early 1900s with the popularization of the automobile and the creation of the "road trip." Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was the nation's first spring break hot spot—namely because topflight collegiate swimmers flocked there to swim in the state's first Olympic-size swimming pool.
"However," springbreak.com adds, "it was the movies that popularized the annual event."
Where the Boys Are, featuring Delores Hart, the already tanned George Hamilton and young songstress Connie Francis, really got the ball rolling in 1960. The plot was simple: Four girls head down to Fort Lauderdale to "come of age" and engage in some suggestive (but still approved by the Hays Code) hanky-panky with hunky college guys.
Ironically, the film was, in many respects, a cautionary tale. Where the Boys Are strongly insinuates that one of the girls is raped (she staggers out of a hotel room, her dress ripped) and later apparently tries to commit suicide. The other three realize that perhaps there's something to be said for sexual responsibility, after all.
That sobering message, though, seems to have been lost amid all the film's sunny, fun musicality, as it encouraged scads of students to descend on Fort Lauderdale in (as springbreak.com says) "droves, seeking to escape the challenges of their studies in a place where romance and good times were always close at hand."
Hollywood knew a good thing when it saw it. Since Where the Boys Are was released, scores of films and countless TV shows have featured the annual pilgrimage to Florida, ranging from 1984's Hardbodies (the movie poster alone is etched, permanently, in many a boy's brain) to 2004's Club Dread (which combines typical spring break shenanigans with a serial killer).
Wasting Time Getting Wasted
Spring breakers inspire movies. The movies inspire spring breakers. And on it spins in an inebriated cycle that invariably leads to someone—onscreen or in real life—throwing up on the sand.
The consequences can go downhill from there. Last year in Panama City, Fla., alone, the city's Beach Police Department arrested 170 people for underage drinking: Three-fourths of them were under 18. The Panama City Beach Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco reported making another 844 arrests—758 of which were alcohol-related offenses by minors.
A recent survey by the American Medical Association found that 83 percent of spring breakers admit that their trips involved more drinking than normal, and 74 percent said sexual activity also went up. Nearly 60 percent said they had friends who had unprotected sex during the trip, and 53 percent regretted that they drank so much they threw up—a stat that, apparently, doesn't account for those who were just fine with vomiting after a night of binging. About 21 percent said they blacked out at some point (and regretted it), and 12 percent said they were either forced or pressured into sex.
There are signs that college students are getting fed up with the spring break hype. That same poll found that 81 percent of respondents wished their colleges would sponsor spring break alternatives—ones that booted the booze and instead concentrated on community service, such as trips to hurricane-ravaged coastlines or poverty-stricken communities.
I hope that stat strikes fear into the hearts of Girls Gone Wild producers and beer manufacturers alike. And I hope colleges actually start acting on such advice. It's high time America latched onto a new rite of spring passage. It might help keep kids safer and more sober—and maybe even protect them from those messy birds when they're mowing the lawn.