The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Questioning 'Empowerment': The Reception and Feminism of Sucker Punch

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article 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

The key to understanding Sucker Punch lies in one very important aspect of the film that hardly any reviewers have lingered on, if they mention it at all. Perhaps the most radical feature of the film is a structural one. Each time Babydoll dances for the voyeuristic pleasure of the men in the brothel, we do not in fact see the dance; instead, we are transported into the world of action fantasy where the majority of the film’s big set-pieces take place. Thus, repeatedly, we see Babydoll preparing for her dance, closing her eyes, and then transitioning to the other realm; we finally return to ‘reality’ to see her sweating with effort, and the men lasciviously satisfied by what they have seen. It is a jarring narrative strategy and an extremely overt act of withholding - both of key chunks of story time, and of a particular kind of potential (sexual) visual pleasure.

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

Yet now, of course, we come to the rub: we don’t simply see nothing during these dances - cutting to black or dissolving to the next scene. While the viewer may not get a striptease, what they receive in its place has been considered by many critics to be just as bad: the action sequences in which the girls punch, kick, and shoot their way through a ridiculous assortment of faceless baddies from all walks of pop culture life.

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".

However, what makes the film so interesting and valuable is that it too is obsessed with this exact quandary. The thrust of my argument is that the film is not ‘empowering’, and that this - genuinely - is precisely its point. Instead, it is feminist in a different way - in something like the way that, for example, many classic melodramas (say, Max Opuls’ heartbreaking Letter From an Unknown Woman [1948]) are feminist, or indeed - dare I say it - classic pieces of feminist film theory like Laura Mulvey’s 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'. That is to say: it is a deeply pessimistic analysis of female oppression, primarily concerned not to find strong, positive role models, but rather to draw attention to what it sees as intractable problems within gender relations and gender representations. It is strange and infuriating - though perhaps not surprising - that critics haven’t been able to see that the very complaints they have made about the film are being made tenfold by the film itself, and that the core of the movie lies in those odd transitions from dancing to fighting. Let’s delve into this further.

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.

However, this doesn’t answer another question (posed here by Jess d'Arbonne): “why did they have to keep wearing stripper gear [sic] in the fantasy world? If these girls were imagining themselves as hardened warriors [...], wouldn't it make more sense for their mental image of themselves to look like hardened warriors, and not the sex workers of their perceived real life?” To address this we need to acknowledge the other most important aspect of the film: its central cinematic metaphor. Here lies the crux of Sucker Punch’s equal-parts confusing and daring approach to its subject.

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?!”)

There are also more obviously film-centric elements that should make it hard to miss the movie’s extreme self-consciousness. The walls of the girls’ dressing room are plastered with posters for various classical backstage musicals - a sub-genre which is always to some extent about itself: Golddiggers of 1933, My Dream is Yours (1949), Blues in the Night (1941), Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), and so on. The absurd and eclectic pop-culture bricolage of the action sequences also needs to be seen in this light - as mash-ups, pastiches and exaggerations of different kinds of action cinema: war movies (combined with steampunk), Lord of the Ringsesque fantasy (but with orcs and dragons pitted against fighter jets), Total Recall-style sci fi trains and cities (incidentally, another film that simultaneously explores dreams and cinema). It’s hardly an anachronistic mistake that the film inserts giant futuristic battle-bots into a WW1 context: it is designed to draw our attention the fact that, as Snyder has said, the movie views itself as being in part a deconstruction of action genres (or at least one idea of what action genres can constitute - a point I’ll return to). The film is certainly self-reflexive, then, but to what end?

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”.

A debate goes on between characters inside the film about the value of these dances. “The dance needs to be about more than just titillation,” Sweet Pea reprimands Babydoll, explaining that her own dance represents “escape”. The Madam of the ‘brothel’ (who also serves as a theatrical director), Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino), similarly sees the dance as essentially an escapist coping mechanism for the girls: “This little fantasy of freedom is all they have”, she says, also reassuring them that within the performance “it’s all safe... If you don’t want to be judged, you won’t be”. Yet she also sells it as a form of empowerment. “You control this world,” she tells Babydoll: “You have all the weapons you need; now fight.” Babydoll takes this advice literally. While we are seeing her actually fight in the fantasy sequences, in the world of the brothel she is at the same time using her seductive dances to entrance her captors so that the other girls can collect the items needed for them to flee their entrapment. “It’s the only way to get out of here,” counsels Rocket.

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.

In the fantasy sequences the film presents fighting as a potentially more liberating act than dancing. It is easy to see why this might have an appeal. I mentioned in the short review that the fight sequences, as excessive aesthetic narrative breaks, can be seen as similar to the narratively-redundant over-the-top musical numbers of Busby Berkley. As incredible as they are, Berkley’s famous sequences are also iconic examples of dance-as-female-objectification. This is extremely well-trod terrain for the image of women in film. By contrast, the action portions seem to show the girls reclaiming the cinematic traditions of the action film that I highlighted above: effectively occupying something like the role of the heroes in a war movie, or Arnie in Total Recall, or the ‘Fellowship’ in Lord of the Rings, and so on. As Alternate Takes writer Martin Zeller-Jacques has has pointed out, the contemporary action heroine is a phenomenon that needs to be seen in relation to post-feminism - that is: the belief that feminism’s objectives have largely been achieved. If Sucker Punch were to sing the praises of its female characters’ reappropriation of action fantasy, it would be aligning itself with the view that they do in fact have “all the weapons they need”. It would be suggesting that women can indeed unproblematically share equally in these traditions, and that to do so constitutes a step forward - essentially: it would be a post-feminist film.

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.

This is why the film is so preoccupied with failure - both the failure of the girls’ plan, and the failure of the cinematic codes that the movie nominally embodies. The girls’ idea of using Babydoll’s dance to distract the men so that they can escape leads to three of them being killed, and Babydoll herself being lobotomized (the ultimate loss of subjectivity). The film also sees the same fate in store for the dance’s metaphorical counterpart: the action sequences. This is the reason that the girls have demeaning stereotypes for names - Blondie, Sweet Pea, Babydoll: they can’t rise above the status of “object”. It is also the reason that the whole film is about fantasies-within-fantasies and the action sequences are so absurd and unbelievable: their triumphs are illusory. And, finally, it is the reason that the girls are dressed the way they are: even the action sequences are governed by the same (male, sexualised) logic as the brothel. Another reviewer to have overlooked the film’s basic premise says of the action scenes that “this doesn't sound like the dream world into which the troubled Babydoll would choose to escape. Could it have been selected for her by, say, a bunch of guys?” Again, we are forced to say: precisely. Just as men organise the dances, so do they control the terms of the fight scenes; in neither do the women have true agency, only an illusion of it.

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

The critical defence of “Ahhh, but that’s the point” may seem like a stretch in some cases, but it seems unavoidable to conclude that this is the level on which Sucker Punch is asking us to view it. If we want to criticise the film for its politics, then, this must be our baseline. We might argue for instance that, because it is barely interested in creating ‘real characters’, but rather exaggerated archetypes and metaphors, it unavoidably feels like something of an unhelpful caricature: men are entirely victimisers, women entirely victims. Yet this isn’t necessarily something we would object to in all films concerned with similar themes. Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Innocence, for example - which, as Andrew O’Hehir has noted, has a strikingly similar plot and probably served as an inspiration - offers no more nuanced a vision of gender relations, constituting just as black-and-white a lament of female disempowerment. Indeed, an upcoming arthouse film starring Sucker Punch’s own Emily Browning, called Sleeping Beauty, also seems to rely on a similar set-up - with sexualised display to boot (watch the intriguing trailer here ). Will this film be attacked for its cartoonish view of female victimisation and be accused of parading young female flesh, or will it be recognised as the critique it seems so likely to be? Are we perhaps simply more willing to accept this kind of approach (show-it-in-order-to-critique-it) from an art film than a popular genre movie?

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.

If I were to argue that the film had a main flaw, it would in fact be that - rather like most of its critics - it in a sense underestimates the potential of its genre. Snyder has said that the girls try “to take back the power from men as best they can”, but that “in the end that’s an illusion created by Hollywood, and the best we can hope for is just to get lobotomized”. This, surely, is too pessimistic a view of what is possible within the action genre. In a way, we might say that the film’s attitude to the figure of the action heroine is too generalized, too abstract - indeed too critical - and that this leads to the unproductive sense that there is no way out of the situation it diagnoses (while the film does give us Sweet Pea’s final escape, this is represented in such an artificial way as to seem a rather false ‘happy ending’, and may even just be one more fantasy of Babydoll’s). Though she again overlooks the film’s main aim, Angie Han is nevertheless surely right when she argues that, “if Snyder really wanted to make a film that was more than pure exploitative fantasy, he could’ve easily done so. There is a way to show beautiful ladies fighting in a way that’s not exploitative”. She offers Buffy Summers as one example, and Zeller-Jacques has recently suggested Adèle Blanc-Sec as another.

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.

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While Sucker Punch might agree with this in theory, it ultimately seems to discount its possibility in practice. It is this lack of faith in the possibility of resistance - and lack of imagination as to how it could come about - that finally makes the film feminist, yes, but feminist in a quite possibly unproductive way. Which, I suppose, is just one more way of saying that it isn’t ‘empowering’. As Scott Mendelson put it in his good piece on the film, the movie’s “tragic underpinning is how not empowering [it] really is, as it presents a rather pessimistic view of young girls trying to overcome or take advantage of the ‘male gaze’ in order to win their freedom”. It offers critique, but no plan of action. There can’t be another film like Sucker Punch, which analyses this problem in such depth; what, then, comes afterwards?

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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