Written by James MacDowell.
Sucker Punch seems to me to be one of the most widely misunderstood films of recent years. By this I don’t just mean that it’s underrated - though in my opinion it is also that. I mean that an alarming number of commentators (i.e.: almost all) somehow seem to have failed to grasp its basic aims, and thus haven’t been able to assess it appropriately.
Other than the many complaints about the lack of narrative tension and rounded characters (neither of which, as I suggested in my short review, need necessarily be seen as de facto problems), the main objections to the film have, of course, tended to be made on the grounds of its sexual politics. I want to address this matter head-on, looking at some recurring complaints about the movie’s approach to gender, and argue that most of them stem from a fundamental misperception of what the film is trying to do. I should also say that I’m certainly not going to argue that the film is unimpeachable - only that it’s far more interesting than it has usually been given credit for. My point is essentially that, before we call a film a failure, we first need at least to be sure what exactly it is failing at.
The thing that seems to drive people crazy about Sucker Punch is that it appears to offer “faux feminism” but in fact constitutes a “fantasia of misogyny”. Yet I think that the film, far from offering something like lipstick feminism, does in fact genuinely strive to be a rather forceful and angry feminist film, and comes closer to earning the title than most have acknowledged. The thing is: its attempts at feminism aren’t to be found in the areas where people have generally been looking. As we will see, a couple of people (including director Zack Snyder) have pointed this out, but I want to give the matter more detailed attention than it has so far been granted. Stated briefly, this film is primarily about itself - that is, it’s about the problems involved in trying to find positive images for women within the kind of popular culture which it itself embodies. Of course, given that this strategy naturally involves irony and flirting with having-your-cake-and-eating-it, this is a difficult and dangerous game to play - and one that Sucker Punch is perhaps only half-successful in. But it is frankly bizarre that so few people seem to have noticed that such a game is even afoot - preferring to say that the movie’s problems stem from stupidity rather than over-cleverness (which would be closer to the mark). But this is to get ahead of ourselves...
The Missing Dance
On one level the significance of this bold move should be clear, and is gloriously subversive. The fairly obvious upshot of the technique is that the audience members for Sucker Punch are placed in the same position as the misogynist audience in the brothel - desiring to see a sexualised display for their pleasure. Unlike our onscreen counterparts, however, we are denied this dance - which has already been dismissed as mere “titillation” by one of the other female characters (as I will return to later). This withholding of the potential for one form of male gaze thus acts as a damning critique of an imagined type of audience member who desires a certain kind of payoff from a movie like Sucker Punch.
Clearly, there are many for whom the strategy had its desired effect. Responses from adolescent fanboys such as this one express precisely the sense of outraged sexist frustration that the film wants to create: “How are you going to put all these hot girls into one movie, aimed at a male fan-base, and not show a little bit of boob?!” is the petulant, and perfectly clueless, complaint. What is perhaps more surprising is the number of (male) professional critics who seemed similarly aggrieved by the denial of writhing female flesh. Some, such as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, were upfront about what they wanted from the film, lamenting that, “at the first sign of nudity, the censor-friendly camera cuts [away]... Talk about a pulled-punch movie.” Others were more coy, complaining that the film is “not the least bit [...] sexy”, or that it “doesn’t even have the decency to strive for the R-rating that would at least allow for the exploitative, gratuitous sex, nudity, and violence that Sucker Punch desperately needs”. The fundamental point of these objections is clear: these viewers feel cheated, and that is exactly one reaction that this strategy of the film seems interested in prompting. The movie’s commercial failure could perhaps testify to the difficulty of making a success out of dissatisfaction.
The Dance's Replacement
One fundamental issue we are forced to tackle, then, is whether we find the idea of young, beautiful girls kicking ass any better than young, beautiful girls dancing provocatively. This question lies at the very heart of the film, and for many critics it is answered - at least in the case of Sucker Punch - by the fact that, both in the fight sequences and throughout most of the film, the girls are dressed in such a way as to look sexually appealing and provocative: in the brothel fantasy they are decked out in Moulin Rouge-esque finery, while in the action portions they are clad in vaguely fetishistic fishnets, etc. This, in fact, has been by far the most repeated accusation leveled against the film’s gender politics - see: all these different pieces which argue that, above all else, it is ultimately costume that makes the film a “misogynistic wolf in sheep's clothing”.
Unsurprisingly, the debate about Sucker Punch’s sexual politics has been framed almost exclusively as matter of whether or not the film is ‘empowering’. We are told that the film “may look like empowerment on the surface”, or that it “pretends that [it] is really a feminist fable of empowerment”. And for almost all commentators the response has been largely the same: “Snyder’s efforts to have you believe this is some kind of empowering, riot-grrls-together redemption story would be more convincing if the cameras didn’t slather quite as droolingly whenever the women, clad in fishnets and schoolgirl outfits, come into view”, writes the The Telegraph; while according to Variety, the film is "misleadingly positioned as female empowerment despite clearly having been hatched as fantasy fodder for 13-year-old guys".
Firstly, we need to dismiss outright the argument that “for reasons that exist only as an excuse to costume the cast in lingerie, newly-arrived Babydoll [...] imagines that they're actually in a nightclub [sic]”. It is absurd to claim that this is the sole reason behind the brothel fantasy or the costumes it requires of the leads. For one thing, as the film’s star Emily Browning herself has pointed out, Sucker Punch is about a girl who (it is strongly suggested) has suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her monstrous stepfather. When she is locked away, the dystopic fantasy she imagines therefore reflects the victimisation she has experienced from this paternal figure, and now from the men running the asylum. On one level the whole of the brothel plot acts as a symbolic representation of the role she feels forced into by men - a role in which she is subjected to sexual violence against her will: that of a prostitute.
Sucker Punch as Film Theory
In interviews Snyder has been quite clear about his intentions with this film. The movie, he has said, is about “how women have been portrayed in action films - which is to say that they have been objectified by men. The arena that women have had to exist inside of in Hollywood is basically like a brothel.” I don’t think there’s any reason for us to doubt his sincerity here, but - authorial intention being what it is - we don’t just have to take Snyder’s word for it. We should have the sense that this is what the film is striving for long before hearing it from the horse’s mouth.
We’re given many reasons to assume that the film is intended as a self-reflexive commentary upon itself. Firstly, there is the theatre/cinema metaphor. The very first shot, which begins with theatre curtains opening onto Babydoll’s bedroom in her stepfather’s house, immediately draws attention to the constructed and artificial nature of all that is to follow (not just the fantasy realms which later develop). When we first enter the asylum we then see Sweet Pea performing a play with a set which looks almost identical to this bedroom scene. Later, after we are transported into the brothel fantasy, Sweet Pea is now seen onstage wearing a wig that makes her resemble Babydoll, and being subjected to a play-acted lobotomy - that is to say: she is performing a play of Sucker Punch. (A play which, incidentally, she describes in terms very similar to those used by critics of the film: “This is a joke, right? Don’t you get the point of this? It’s to turn people on. I get the sexy little school girl, I even get the helpless mental patient. But what is this? A lobotomized vegetable?!”)
It seems clear that, beyond its desire to think about generic representation generally, its more specific focus is the power dynamics of gender within these generic representations. The film creates two base-level worlds (that of the asylum, and that of the brothel) in which women are nothing except sexualised and victimised, and men are nothing except sexual predators and victimisers. Moreover, this victimisation - while it takes place in private too (the stepfather, the cook, etc.) - is primarily institutionalised and monetised as a form of visual entertainment: the dance, which we can take as a prelude to the commodified rape of the brothel’s services (Rocket: “The men watch us perform and if they like what they see, well... That’s why we dance”). This dance can in turn be fairly unproblematically seen as representing conventionally male gaze-focused cinematic depictions of women. “I’m in the business of pleasure”, the brothel’s owner says at one point, and, as Rocket (Jena Malone) points out at another, “we’re the main attraction”.
Against Post-Feminism: The Fight-as-Dance
Only at a surface level is this debate about a dance. In fact, it is again about cinema - specifically, the kind of cinema that the film lurches into at the moments of these dances: the cinematic spectacle of the kick-ass heroine. The question mark that hangs over whether or not the girls will be able to gyrate themselves out of the brothel/asylum is more importantly a question about whether the action heroine can serve a positive function. Can this kind of female archetype “control” the action fantasy and make it “safe”? Or does the genre guarantee that she will only ever be able to serve as “titillation” for a male audience? Is it possible to achieve one without the other? The film doesn’t inadvertently raise these questions by accident - it asks them aloud; in fact, these question are the film’s whole purpose for being.
Instead, however, the film sees a major problem with this formulation, and it is precisely the same problem that feminist critics - and, ironically, critics of this film - have regularly diagnosed. As Zeller-Jacques writes of the contemporary action heroine, while she may be powerful, “more than any other trait, her sexiness defines her. It is the symbol of her transgression of two sets of taboos, allowing her to be both object and subject, to thumb her nose both at the condescension of traditional masculinity and the constriction of a second-wave feminism suspicious of sexual display.” Sucker Punch is acutely aware of this fact, and views the lingering sense of the heroine being an “object” as a major stumbling block to her transgression as a “subject”. In just the same manner as most of its critics, the film rejects the post-feminist notion that the sexy action hero can bring about empowerment, escape from oppression - or rather, it views any “escape” made possible by this new archetype only as the kind of escape endorsed by Sweet Pea and Madam Gorski: escapism, a daydream, rather than true emancipation.
Within the traditionally male realm of the action blockbuster, the film argues, the brothel and the action fantasy landscape, the dance and the fighting, are ultimately one and the same thing: one only appears to offer something better than the other. Far from suggesting that it is ‘empowering’, the film is instead about the impossibility of this post-feminist ideal. This is what makes it so frustrating to read a condescending criticism like “this whole method of portraying women as strong, violent and badass superhero types is problematic at its core, [...] yet it’s clear that Zack Snyder has not quite figured that out”. That seems to be all he is thinking about! As one of the few commentators to give the film a fair hearing, Adam Quigley, puts it: “If it seems like the picture’s depiction of empowered females is too heavily skewed by a male gaze, it is. That’s the point. The film is very much about the male gaze.” Or, to quote Snyder: “The girls are in a brothel performing for men because men are the audience, so when they go into the action sequences, that’s us - we, the viewer in the theater. We are the people in the brothel who want the girls to perform for us.” Thus: at the same time as the men in the brothel get the titillating dance, the men in the audience get the titillating fights.
Towards a re-evaluation
If so, why might this be? There is an obvious strain running through the criticism of Sucker Punch which seems to assume that the film must be stupid - partly because it’s directed by the supposedly meatheaded Snyder, but also because of the assumed audience for action blockbusters. See, for instance, this review written parodically in the voice of a moronic male teenage fan, or The Independent's Anthony Quinn, who writes that “the point seems to be that this is the girls' revenge on leering male tormentors, though once you see the leather-minis-and-eyeliner look of Babydoll and her pals, you begin to wonder on which side of the gender divide its target audience really belongs.” Even though this objection misrepresents “the point”, is there in fact some validity to the idea that the film fails because so few people seem to have grasped its meaning? Perhaps, though I would caution against damning a film based on the fact that it has been misinterpreted. Moreover, we should be wary of presuming the stupidity - and, indeed, maleness and straightness - of this film’s audience just because of the putative target market of its genre.
While the convention of the kick-ass action female is certainly a very difficult one to navigate successfully, that doesn’t mean that the task is necessarily hopeless. The Western action hero is still generally considered to be an overwhelmingly masculine figure, and the attempt to claim this significant archetype from the patriarchal division of male = active / female = passive is, in spite of everything, something that can be cautiously cheered. It is sometimes argued that for women to simply adopt some of the most straightforwardly ‘masculine’ characteristics of a male-dominated culture of violence is not a step forward (here is one such argument in relation to Sucker Punch). In principle, however, I would still argue for the defence. It seems to me that the feminist fight is one that needs to be conducted on all fronts, and that it must change its tactics and terms depending on the field of battle. Essentially, it is less a matter of ‘positive images’ than a matter of access. The goal of feminism is sexual equality, and this must mean equal rights to all things - including things about which we might be suspicious. It is quite possible that the figure of the action hero may not be anything positive in and of itself, but the bottom line is: if it is available to men, it should also be available to women.
Yet the very fact that this movie is so unique - that it dedicates itself so completely to raising and interrogating important questions which its post-feminist counterparts prefer simply to brush away - is also what makes it so worthwhile. The very least we can say, I would suggest, is that this film is fascinating. The very most we can say is that it is quite possibly the most consciously feminist action movie Hollywood has ever produced.
This article was published on May 26, 2011.
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