Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Army of Me; In Which we Find Sucker Punch Beyond Standard Film Criticism and Worthy of Real Talk

I am disturbed by Sucker Punch.  I am disturbed on a number of levels and, to clear things up right now, this is not the "fuck this misogynist crap" essay you've seen repeated almost everywhere else.  No, my feelings on the matter have gone way beyond the exhaustion I experienced directly after viewing the film.  We're over it.  Yes, my immediate reaction, the one that kicked up as soon as the credits started rolling, was one shared by most critics: what I’d just watched was a jumbled mess I didn't want to bother unpacking right away.  Sucker Punch is tremendously cluttered, its world unfolds like 2-hours of moving concept art for fanboys.  Everything (including kitchen sinks, it's true) has been stirred into our dud Molotov cocktail: dragons, samurai, zombie German soldiers, robots, outer space, zeppelins, implied dance sequences.  No exaggeration: the whole nerd culture she-bang including, yes, girls in fetishistic, skimpy clothing doing flips and high kicks like a pack of emotionally damaged, CGI-enhanced cheerleaders.  Of course, mess aside, it's that last one that appears to be the deal breaker.  Critic after critic (including countless women and feminist blog Jezebel) have passed judgement and branded the "girls in revealing clothing" bit as both purpose and problem in Sucker Punch.  They chant like a scolding Greek chorus: Oh, Zack Snyder, didn't you know?  A weak girl with a samurai sword does not a heroine make...

As someone who won't hesitate to self-describe as feminist, I did have some suspicion I would wind up agreeing with the central thesis of the aforementioned Greek chorus.  Now that I've seen it, I can't jump on that bandwagon (and it really is one).  After careful consideration, I now have to argue that the critics latching on to this viewpoint are  contributors to the exact problems they're attacking:  the fact they seem so content to rage without analysis makes their noise all the more reductionist and just plain ignorant.  

Wait - let's push pause- if all you care about is whether or not the film is 'decent,' I'll answer you now  (as this is about to become a hell of a lot more complicated) Sucker Punch is a flawed, truly unpleasant, jarring movie that just happens to feature impressively strong visuals.  Dazzle aside, the story is not fun and unless you're looking for a sharp slap, it’s probably not the action movie you’re looking for.  Yet, for all of the hype, pans, and slams, it seems to be quite possible that the film has been astoundingly misread and written off without tact.  Because of that, I must now take up this dead weight.  Ask any of my co-workers over the past few days and you'll know it's become virtually impossible for me to write a straight review on Sucker Punch.  As an entity, it is a question, not a film.  We should not be discussing it in terms of cohesion or entertainment, but instead in terms of reaction.  It's a positing and a presentation of uncomfortable material from  unlikely sources in a way that's aggressively, caustically confrontational.  Though we may be happier ignoring its messages, we should be paying attention to Sucker Punch.  This is a challenging film, an enigma that has the potential to work outside of Hollywood dollar signs and sneakily change, as powerful art does, a very slanted game.  Yes, to be sure, its trappings are not conventionally feminist.  No, the approach is not one of gung-ho empowerment, but it is one that opens up conversation.  The title is apt, and can refer to nothing within the film, but only to your experience watching it.  It's nothing short of a literal sucker punch; a surprise blow to geek culture and jaded audiences used to on-screen violence and ladies skintight and strapped in, a profoundly tragic plea disguised as silly, dolled-up action adventure.  The long and short?  It's not what you think and then some.  When I say I'm disturbed by Sucker Punch, I'm disturbed by its content, yes, who wouldn’t be?   But I'm even more disturbed by its reception.  

To begin discussing Sucker Punch, we must first pound out the sketchy details offered us by the plot, since the trailers have done very little to outline what you'll be watching.  There are three levels of reality offered to us as our protagonist dissociates further and further from her "real life."  Loosely, in the first level:  the film follows a 20-year old young woman referred to as Babydoll (Emily Browning) as she is forced into an all female mental institution by her monstrous stepfather.  She does not belong there, but in the wake of an incident, has been drugged and driven there without comment.  Her stepfather has arranged with corrupt orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac) for her to be permanently quieted by a lobotomy she does not need in just a few days.  It’s important to note that the orderlies operate off the radar of Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino), who appears to only work with the girls through an experimental, theatrical group therapy.  Upon Babydoll’s arrival, the film enters a second level of reality to “cope” with life in the asylum.  In the second world, Babydoll imagines the asylum as a bordello run by a gangster (Blue again), her fellow patients here are dancing girls and prostitutes, she is the newest among them.  Babydoll  is being saved and kept chaste for the “High Roller” (Jon Hamm), a man who has paid top dollar for B.’s virginity (in level one, he has no such intentions, but is the lobotomist).  In this world,  Babydoll is a spectacularly skilled dancer.  We learn that when she dances she's capable of captivating her audience to full distraction.  We never see what her erotic dance looks like, however, because in these ‘musical numbers’ B. slips into the third world.  The third world is where the real action happens.  In this level B. is a girl warrior.  She dresses like an anime schoolgirl and she and her fellow patients are soldiers of fantasy.  The second and third worlds connect in that each time Babydoll dances, she is using herself as the distraction so that the other girls can retrieve the items and information they require to eventually make their escape plan a reality.  Confusing?  A little.
Of course, the transitions are jarring and it’s difficult to understand why we need this triple layering of realities to deal with the subject matter.   Here’s where the problems arise.  The sexual implications of what’s going on here are obvious, and the studio unfortunately ran with them in their marketing campaign.  It becomes very easy to view the escapism as male dominated, male informed, and designed, specifically, for male consumption.  Babydoll and her new found ‘friends’ are exploited at every level of this story.  In the third world: they are Charlie’s Angels, their leader is an old wise man and their costumes are tight leather, fishnets, high boots, and midriff tops.  They may be lethal, but they seem custom made for the male gaze, and for material to be later added to a fanboy's spank bank.  In the second world: the girls are sex workers.  Plain and simple.  They are exploited by Blue and their efforts to escape are physical exploitations of themselves.  They do not own their sexuality.  They are not empowered though they have learned how to use, occasionally, their supposed wiles to their advantage.  In the first world?  Well, I’d believe this is the missing link to unpacking the other levels.  
Critics and detractors thus far have consistently questioned the validity of Babydoll’s fantasies.  I would agree, it's certainly worth asking why a young girl would imagine herself trapped as a sex worker as a coping mechanism.  I mean, like, why no rainbows and butterflies? (Sarcasm)  Anyhow, we should follow that first question with a query as to why it is Babydoll seems so obviously sexualized from the very beginning of the film, or, why every female relationship in the film must be torn apart (mother/daughter, sister/sister, friend/friend, etc).   Let’s consider this:  at the film’s opening, B.’s mother has just died.  She and her much younger (read: little) sister are left everything, the stepfather inherits nothing.  B’s sister is not sexualized.  She is a child.  B. is pink and pigtailed with perpetually rouged cheeks and thick false eyelashes.  She is the prototypical picture of post-Nabokovian jailbait, a definite nymphette.  Cut to: the stepfather.  The first couple times we see him, he is caught mid-gaze at these girls.  In the first, he appears to be loosening his tie and smiling maliciously.  Hmm.  As the scene reaches its climactic moments and the stepfather flies into a rage, it becomes very clear that the action he is about to take (on the youngest daughter first) is at least partially sexual, perhaps wholly.  He goes free for his crimes while Babydoll is hospitalized and blamed for the death of her sister.  

This is the world that Babydoll comes  from.  Upon entry into the asylum, the omnipresence of male orderlies -who are (immediately) presented as entirely untrustworthy- indicates to the audience that this is not a safe haven.  The asylum will not be an escape from that lascivious male gaze.  B. is not safe here, with or without the lobotomy on the horizon.  A much later scene indicates that Blue takes advantage of the girls, that he frequently gets off on their complete lack of power.  There’s a very distinct rape subtext at work here.  Babydoll incorporates these going-ons into this other world, using fantasy to transform (partially) the grim asylum into a semi-luxurious brothel, where, though they are trapped, the girls possess a feigned amount of sexual agency.  She consciously understands that she is prisoner already, and via her disturbed outlook, she might as well imagine herself in a place where what's being taken from her is at least a prize of some value.

Another aspect to consider is that the film does not take place in the present time, and can instead be dated  in the 1940’s or early 50’s (though it’s loaded with anachronisms that call upon staunch Victorianism as well).  Babydoll’s cultural landscape is not one informed by practiced or militant feminism, but a feminism which has (in her lifetime) most likely been most readily informed by women’s involvements in the war effort, propaganda posters, and pin-ups.  As a too pretty 20-year old, we get the sense that she has --even in her childhood/domestic life-- been objectified.  Her stepfather has done so, the orderlies immediately do so.  For her, this objectification is unavoidable.  It’s fact, the way of her world, and something she has no power over as she has, at 20, thus far failed to achieve independence.  She is not worldly, but cobbles her visions from miscellaneous pieces: radio adventures, soldiers, Hollywood tropes (backstage musicals).  

While the golden age of valorized war may have been about to expire, at this point in history utmost respect went to male soldiers and those who had seen action battling the krauts, the Japanese, etc.  Soldiers were true heroes.  Meanwhile, women who were free in both spirit and body lived outside of the ‘pleasantville’ of societal expectations.  Some were brash pin-ups, some were characters in radio plays set in jungles or distant planets,  others were Katharine Hepburn.  Still, they (like Wonder Woman) had control over their bodies, dressed the way they wanted, and were generally not considered ‘good’ girls.  We must remember that there was a period where bikinis and miniskirts were seen as rebellious, body embracing, and envelope pushing by girls and not simply something mentioned in the same sentence as a Sports Illustrated special issue.   

So, ask again: why would Babydoll, an objectified girl from a very male dominated period of time fantasize herself into these situations? Quite simply: that’s what she has to work with. For her there is, however slight, still a glamour in visualizing herself in a Cyd Charisse leotard. For her, a very short skirt is a taboo because it pushes her to the societal fringe. She has her right to wear it.  For her, when strong women take up arms, they look like the girls on pin-up calendars and painted onto the sides of atom bombs. Remember, too, that the asylum setting is a place that would be rife with sexual politics.  Institutionalized girls were more likely to be suffering from “sexual issues” than legitimately insane. You will note that no one questions Babydoll’s insanity.  She has no advocates. This is tragic, but historically accurate.

Women in this time were frequently diagnosed hysterical, nymphomaniacal, or 'damaged' due to lesbian tendencies - all considered serious "disabilities" for a respectible girl- and hidden away where they would be unable to burden or embarrass their families. Female sexual agency was symptomatic of a ‘problem’ and women were given shock therapies and lobotomies to rid them of their demons. Babydoll knows this, Sylvia Plath knew this, Zack Snyder knows this. 

So, the real question I’d put forth would be closer to: why wouldn’t there be obviously sexualized imagery in this girl's tainted fantasy?  

B. is sexualized, not lightly, not clumsily, but in a very particular, pointed way that has worked to make viewers (critics included) uncomfortable.  She has been formed by our collective past culture and she is not educated enough to not buy into it to some extent. There’s no opportunity, no reason to transform her reality into a more noble calling.  Because she is already a victim, she can't be Katharine Hepburn, can't be Coco Chanel or Eleanor Roosevelt, but can be a pin-up doll.  B. and the other girls are trapped with no other means.  In this position, they are forced to use their sexuality.  It is their only weapon in this world.  Snyder does not let us take that from them.  He has done what he can to tone down their sexuality so we don't misread it. When they dance, we do not see what the men in the dark see. We see the third world, the place in which B. is in possession of a power that does not stem from the misuse of her body because, obviously, that misuse is one she is very clearly uncomfortable with herself.

What I'm arguing is that this is not a film about short skirts, despite what you've read.  It’s a film about the struggle of these women.  If all you can see are the short skirts, congratulations: you’re a guilty party.  You’ve just managed to objectify these women as much as the villains have.  Just as the girls perform on screen for men in the dark, you have become the man in the dark and the reason the film needs to exist. 

What Sucker Punch is about in actuality is not explicitly written into a skimming of its surface.  It’s instead co-opting a male dominated genre and using it as a forum to address very serious, very dire societal issues.  The film is, in many ways, dealing with the struggles of women over centuries.  

In fact, this film is about the realities of being a woman right now.  It’s a reflection of our own society, the very place in which what we’re watching is indeed correctly interpreted as misogyny, but incorrectly assumed to be accidental misogyny instead of that purposely depicted.   We can’t blame Snyder for his.  Appearances suggest that Snyder is indeed aware that his film is tragic.  He does not take the story (or the fates of these characters) lightly.  With Sucker Punch he is showing us ourselves and we don't like what we see.  The harsh reality of this film is that: 1. There is no happy ending.  2. Most of the characters die, cruelly.  3. Women must help other women if they hope to enact any change at all.  4. You (as a woman) will be objectified.  Doesn’t sound like a fun day at the movies, does it?  Nope. Didn’t think so.  Audiences have recoiled after seeing Sucker Punch, and rightfully so.  We’re used to watching faceless characters die by the dozens and we love ourselves a machine gun (I’m no exception, dammit), but Sucker Punch subverts and perverts that love.  What’s surprising is that the film, from scene one, takes absolutely no glee in its violence.  The acts in the first and second worlds are not cathartic vacuums, they're real and dramatically heavy.  The only senseless acts are performed by the girls themselves, over glossed, and deliberately dreamlike; otherwise the focus never flinches from addressing issues of victimization.  As the characters are killed off, each instance is delivered as a shock for the audience and the other players.  

The moments in which these characters are murdered are somber, dwelled upon, sickening and delivered very gravely, without any of the humor or distraction that might otherwise mark an on-screen killshot within the genre.  This is why I’m so alarmed by the reactionary statements I’ve heard and read.  No, I didn’t enjoy Sucker Punch. I couldn’t.  Yet, I understood that it wasn't asking me to.  My guess is that no matter the age of the audience member, we know, instinctively, that what we’re seeing is not right.  That's why this movie is currently flopping so hard: nobody wants to recommend it to a friend and those who have seen it have a bad case of the creeps.  Of course, instead of confronting this head on, it seems that some of us are happy to play like Babydoll and pretend these issues don’t exist, that the movie is just a movie and that victimization and objectification aren’t issues we ourselves have to deal with unless we “put ourselves in these situations.”  Instead, we're alright sitting back and blaming Snyder for not distracting us.  We’re uncomfortable with having to deal with the film’s too real heaviness, so we fault the man in charge: this is Snyder’s misogyny.  He has killed his characters because he’s a sadist, because he wants to see these women destroyed.  He made us- the zombie audience-feel uncomfortable.  Obviously, I call horseshit.

Conventional society is used to ‘girl power’ feminism.  We think it’s a step in the right direction if a violent film has a female president or a female team member capable of kicking the boys’ asses or playing right alongside them.  We don’t think that the death of a woman can be a feminist statement unless that woman is representative of some larger evil.  Um, ok, but then what?  The irony is that as our lady action heroes (still fetishized/heavily objectified in cosplay and fan art) become more numerous, our society remains just as dangerous, violent, and quick to blame the female victim for her mode of dress or ‘sending out signals’ that ‘ask for it.’  Our strong women are still objectified, we have whole networks of procedural shows devoted to a deep rooted fascination with so-called "special victims" of sex crimes, and violence (literal or figurative) between women has been escalated and showcased across the media.   We’re used to it, we’re comfortable with it, and no one pauses to consider just how disturbing that level of comfort actually is. So, as we watch Sucker Punch, we focus on the fantasy elements just as Babydoll does.  We try to make sense of that fantasy.  Why are there dragons?  Geez, that was stupid.  What’s going on?  Meh.  It’s far easier to say “I didn’t get it” and remark on how ‘hot’ Emily Browning is than to actually think through her character’s reality or try to tap into that empathy.  

Of course, Sucker Punch’s level of complication is all illusion.  The third world is just made of the smoke and mirrors Snyder lets us use the same way Babydoll does.  We've got our buffers in place, but when the actual sucker punches fly, they knock out your teeth and leave no room for misinterpretation.  When the girls die, they die at the hands of reckless men who do not value them as human beings, but who see them as disposable objects.  At least two of the girls are murdered as punctuation marks to a declarative male sentence in one particularly jarring scene.  

This logic winds its way through all other aspects of them film:  the women are assigned no value in the eyes of the men, but instead must find value in each other.  The lobotomy is a symbolic occurrence, a stripping away of Babydoll’s voice and mind to create a passive, quiet woman who is incapable of fighting back, or creating her own destiny.  It’s important, too, that all relationships between women are thwarted.  Contact and commiseration must be eliminated, according to these men.  B.’s sister is killed.  B.’s friends are ripped from her, Dr. Gorski’s interaction with her patients is partially blocked by Blue’s interference, Rocket and her sister Sweet Pea are robbed of each other. Babydoll is ultimately a self-sacrificing, tragic hero.  In the beginning, and throughout, she fights physically against her literal/figurative captors.  At the film’s conclusion, she has found partial victory at the cost of her own person.  She has enacted change in some way, and forced the oppression and victimization of these girls to light.  
What she has succeeded in most of all, and what Zack Snyder has also succeeded in (and you can read this interview to gauge for yourself just how aware of the irony he is) is opening up a mainstream forum for this conversation to take place.  You will probably not enjoy Sucker Punch, but it is, regardless, a powerful piece of art with a practical usage.  That the film managed to receive a PG-13, an outrageous budget, major studio backing, and a wide IMAX release feels like a coup as well as the mass market proof that society needs to have this discussion.  After all…Warner Brothers saw saleable objects where there perhaps were none. 


  1. wow. just wow. do you still stand by this article? i'm merely curious if time has changed your feelings not criticising the article in any way.

  2. You know, I haven't watched the film again, but I think for the most part I do stand by it. Granted, I think it's pretty clear I didn't really enjoy the movie as a movie. It turned into more of a case study. As far as pure entertainment value goes, it's rather shit and definitely flawed. This is a response to the rampant misogyny claims more than anything else (obviously).

    I'm afraid to really read this again. The academic in me is resisting the urge to go back through and actually grab some sources to support my argument. Meh...


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