Though 1980s bikini films seem objectifying and antifeminist, they offer a utopian space where class and gender hierarchies begin to dissolve.
A group of young women dressed in homemade army-print bikinis are stretching in the shallow water on the beach, preparing for a running race.
Todd [through megaphone]: Okay! It’s time to get wet! Are you ready?
[Alan rushes up to Todd, distressed]
Alan: Todd! I just read the invoice from that surgical supply house…
Todd [through megaphone]: On your marks! [Turns to Alan] So?
Alan: The thread… the surgical thread we used to sew the bikinis!
Todd [through megaphone]: Get set! [Turns to Alan] What about it?
Alan: It’s full of dissolving stitches, Todd!
Todd: I know!
Todd fires his gun to start the race, and the film cuts to a slow-motion shot of the girls running through the water as their bikinis gradually fall off. Then we see onlookers -- boys, men, women, and one police officer, who all laugh at the spectacle, and a close-up of Todd and Alan, smiling.
No, the above scene is not from a porn movie. It's from the The Bikini Shop (released as The Malibu Bikini Shop in the US), directed by David Wechter, one of a number of low-budget Hollywood beach movies that had a brief resurgence during the 1980s. You may have come across such films as Summer Job, Spring Break, Sizzle Beach USA and Private Resort in a dark corner of your local video store -- not naughty enough to be behind the curtain, but titillating enough to provide pubescent boys with their first taste of adult entertainment. The movies belong to the broader genre of the teen movie, and they necessarily include gratuitous female nudity, as in the scene detailed above.
The movies are, at first glance, basically tit-and-ass comedies that take place on the beach. There is no doubt that the novelty of seeing daggy '80s fashions can make these films fun to watch now, but they have more than mere nostalgia value. The films capture the transition from adolescence to adulthood. But whereas we must reluctantly accept adult responsibilities, '80s bikini movies allow us to indulge the fantasy of rejecting them and return to a world where fun rules.
The basic premise in all these films is the same: a group of young, attractive characters spend their spring break or summer vacation on the beach getting naked (girls) or trying to get laid (guys). This gives ample opportunity for gratuitous nudity and close-up bikini montages, but these same ingredients -- the beach, a vacation and sex -- bestow the movies with unlikely substance.
The Bikini Shop follows college graduate Alan (Michael David Wright) on a trip to California, where he intends to settle his deceased aunt’s estate and return to Chicago to be married into high society. But the aunt left half of her estate to Alan’s rowdy brother Todd (Bruce Greenwood), who doesn’t want to sell her beach house -- he wants to run his aunt's bikini shop with Alan.
So begins Alan’s journey. His transformation from an upper-middle-class tire sales executive to a laid back Californian can be understood as a liminal journey. Film theorist Adrian Martin observes that liminality -- an anthropological term that refers to the transitional period between major life events -- is, more than any other aspect of teen movies, the thread that connects them all. For Martin, liminality manifests in teen movies as “that intense, suspended moment between yesterday and tomorrow, between childhood and adulthood, between being a nobody and a somebody, when everything is in question, and everything is possible.” This brief but often life-changing detour between life stages figures in The Bikini Shop: By the end of the film, Alan has dumped his snobby fiancée, fought to keep the modest shop, and shacked up with the shop's salesgirls in the beach house. As Alan goes from wearing full suits to shorts and Hawaiian shirts, his core concerns have gone from money and status to family loyalty and hedonism.
You’d be hard pressed to think of any teen film from any era that doesn’t explore liminality. American Pie focuses on a group of boys determined to lose their virginity before they finish high school; the quest to "become a man" by having sex is as explicitly liminal as the classic teen transition between high school and college. Dazed and Confused limits its focus to the last few days of middle school and the rites of initiation teens experience in order to enter senior high’s social circle.
At a basic level, liminal journeys can be understood as various rites of passage. But the implications of liminality are more complex than this. Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, author of The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, explains that the liminal operates in opposition to structured society, and “secular distinctions of rank and status disappear or are homogenized”. '80s bikini movies explicitly explore this aspect of liminality within the space of the beach, separating the subgenre from other teen movies.
As the strip between the ocean and the land, the beach is itself liminal -- neither land nor sea, but with the characteristics of both, as John Fiske, Bob Hodge, and Graeme Turner observe in Myths of Oz: Reading Australian Culture. And according to Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker, authors of The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth, the space of the beach "sizzles with the erotic voltage of bare-breasted, bare-buttocked beauties and virile stalwarts," providing an escape from "the nagging sense of fealty to cash, work, and responsibility."
At the beach house in The Bikini Shop, there are no limitations: alcohol flows freely, flirting is par for the course and everyone -- even Alan, enjoying a spa with beautiful salesgirl Ronnie (Barbara Horan) -- is shown having a good time. It no longer matters that Alan belongs to a higher class than his fellow partygoers, or that he has a fiancée: as a liminal space, the beach in The Bikini Shop facilitates the breakdown of sexual and class boundaries.
The similarly stereotyped affluent snob Barbara (Chantal) in Summer Job also relaxes her prejudices during her time working at a beach resort. At the beginning of the film, she sourly explains that her "daddy" made her apply for the menial resort job to build her character. Barbara arrives at the resort with a personal assistant and treats all her fellow employees like crap. But by the end of the movie, Barbara has befriended many of the other employees and has even taken to dating the equally stereotypical geek Herman (George O).
Class is not the only social category dissolved at the beach. In Spring Break, Nelson (David Knell) gradually gains the courage to defy his overbearing stepfather during his college vacation, turning the familial hierarchy on its head. Sandra lets her own inhibitions collapse in Where the Boys Are '84 when she allows herself to get drunk and perform a table-top striptease in a bar, literally stripping off her self-imposed restrictions.
The characters in '80s bikini movies often face a significant life change: Alan’s impending marriage and career, Sandra’s college graduation and entry into upper-class society. Their deviation to the beach is often portrayed as a last escape, the last chance to enjoy the frivolity of youth before entering the real world. Hovering between life stages, the liminal break offers a chance for necessary personal growth.
Typically, the characters return to society having absorbed the necessary lessons, but sometimes, they don’t. In The Bikini Shop, Alan chooses to remain in the liminal space of the beach rather than return to his responsibility-filled life with his fiancée. Alan simply refuses to grow up. Here, the beach film positions liminality as a utopia, where one can permanently escape the pressing obligations of adult society. Such a resolution perhaps explains the modest popularity of '80s bikini movies during their heyday. What teenager wouldn’t fantasize about never growing up, about spending their life surrounded by near-naked specimens, enjoying endless parties and no-strings-attached sex? Who wouldn't at least dream of rejecting the often-terrifying prospect of maturity and responsibility?
Of course, one could argue that '80s bikini movies are nothing more than sexist drivel. The endless stream of impossibly beautiful women that litter the mise en scéne of these films provide eye candy and little else. In The Bikini Shop there are several overtly sexist set pieces -- the most offensive involving the installation of one-way mirrors in the bikini shop's changing rooms. But to attack the films for negative attitudes toward women would be to take them far more seriously than they ever took themselves. Like the beach in these films, ‘80s bikini movies themselves are a liminal space inviting us to suspend such judgments and providing us with a foray into irresponsibility, careless fun and good times. In this world, the abundance of naked women is not sexist; it’s just refreshingly free of political correctness. The free exchange of sex is not irresponsible ; it’s just fun. And the idea that we, like Alan, can live out our days on the beach? Well, that’s just great.
Greta Parry completed her honours in Cinema Studies at the University of Melbourne and currently works as a subeditor for Metro magazine in Australia.