Film

Where's the So-called 'Feminism' in  Zack Snyder's Violent 'Sucker Punch'?

Emily Browning and Jena Malone in Sucker Punch (2011) (Photo by Warner Bros. - © 2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures / IMDB)

Cinema's Russian doll of vacuous misogynist hyper-sexualised spectacle is a swing-and-a-miss.

Superficially, Sucker Punch (2011) is an easy film to hate. Between the maudlin histrionics of the plot, the stilted, tone deaf dialogue, and the glossy CGI pyrotechnics cluttering the screen while signifying little, it appears to be little more than a bombastic, exploitative spectacle. Loud, voyeuristic, and seemingly concerned with the systematised objectification and abuse of women, upon its release it was savaged by critics who labelled it juvenile, misogynistic, and even hysterically, garishly overwrought.

However, as almost a direct reaction to this overwhelming panning, over the years a select few critics have sought to vehemently defend the film, lamenting that no one, in their estimation, has taken the time to look beneath the surface of the work. No one, they declare, has appreciated the irony at the heart of its narrative, the sardonic statement its narrative was making about the exploitation and debasement of women.

One film critic in particular has gone so far as to declare the reaction to Sucker Punch a harbinger of our cultural ruin, a kneejerk PC overcorrection that revealed 'Why We Can't Have Nice Things...'. As a mass-market audience we were too ignorant to 'see past the surface' to the genius beneath. Indeed, in France, this critic argued, the film would have been hailed a masterpiece (although from what little I have gleaned it does not appear that it was beloved in Europe, either), but when a 'visionary' director such as Zack Snyder released this film in America, it was unjustly maligned and rejected as exploitative trash.

Another critic made the bold claim that no one but he had yet seen the true narrative of the film in a video essay literally titled 'You Don't Understand Sucker Punch'. Apparently, what the audience didn't understand (or to use his slightly hysterical phrasing, why 'prestigious journalists … don't know what the fuck they're talking about') was that viewers were meant to infer that the entire narrative was bookended by another layer of fantasy, a 'real' world in which secondary-character Sweet Pea was being lobotomised, and that everything depicted was all just her dream.

(Curiously, this critic never went on to explain why his entirely subjective hypothesis has any impact upon the themes of objectification and sexism at the film's heart, why layering another needless 'twist' upon the several that already go nowhere is impactful, or how one single, fleeting scene with Sweet Pea being threatened by a lobotomy was distinct enough from every other similar sequence that it could distinguish itself as the singular key that unlocks the film's puzzle.)

However, while it's often easy to attack the media for concentrating too much upon the salacious, and for failing to address the thematic meat beneath an artist's work – as such defenders of the film often do – in this case, I would argue that to actually take up their challenge, to bother to scratch the surface of Snyder's work and delve into its psychologically regressive meaning, rather than rescuing the film from condemnation, instead confirms its ugly pretence, and the exploitative sexism it mistakenly, clumsily believes it is debunking.

Before even leaping into the subtext, though, I should be honest and admit that even superficially the film does little to warm me to it. Personally, I find its hyper-stylised cartoon action so flashy and weightless that it loses all sense of substance, meaning that as a punctuation for character drama it becomes impossible to invest in (particularly in light of the ultimate revelation that it is all just layers of fantasy within fantasy). Likewise, the glossy sexualisation of the central female characters – reducing them to an amalgam of corsets, miniskirts and porcelain skin – was off-putting rather than enticing, sadly hollowing these women into figurines provocatively posed amongst a CGI cacophony.

But it is in the Russian Doll embedding of realities (with Babydoll descending into her mindscape to find herself, the namesake 'baby doll' in the stack) that the purportedly subversive message that the film's defenders have applauded is at its most invasive and corroding, where it becomes most evident that Snyder (I hope) did not actually understand how to articulate the themes that he was trying to explore, resulting in an offensively contradictory mess.

Fundamentally, the plot concerns a young woman, nicknamed Babydoll, who is incarcerated in a mental institution after accidentally shooting and killing her younger sister. Babydoll had been attempting to fend off the physically abusive and sexually predatory advances of her stepfather but he, unpunished, watches on as she is arrested, and bribes an orderly to forge the signatures that will ensure she is given a lobotomy. Over the course of the following week, Babydoll finds herself and her fellow inmates taking refuge in the shared fantasy that they are actually trapped inside a bordello, where they must 'dance' for the entertainment of their clients. Guided by Babydoll, who receives instruction from a wizened old man, in this layer of fantasy, the women then regress into a further layer of communal dream whenever Babydoll 'dances' to distract the onlooking men, imagining themselves on a quest to gather together a series of totemic 'keys' that will 'free' them from their entrapment. These vignettes take the form of something akin to videogame levels – a world war one fight with robots; a samurai showdown; orcs and dragons – and when the item is retrieved the women return to the world of the bordello to continue their escape plan.

Advocates of the film suggest that it can be read as a postmodern feminist statement, because it is in these regressions into themselves that these women find a power that defies the dominance of the men who physically hold them down. In such a reading, these women are attempting to escape their exploitation at the hands of a corrupted social structure that allows men to dominate the sanctity of a woman's legal rights and autonomy (Babydoll was committed because she fought back against a brutal rapist, and is condemned to receive a lobotomy to shut her up), a gender politics that allows them to be sexually exploited at will (a kind reading of the narrative suggests that they must 'dance' for men's entertainment; a more accurate reading reveals that they are being repeatedly raped by the orderlies who are running a makeshift slave-brothel), and even a media that reduces them to pretty faces that can kick ass in tight leather and school-girl outfits for the entertainment of a movie-going audience (those in the audience who came to watch Snyder's film). They do this by looking deep within themselves for a space that these patriarchal systems cannot touch, and by using the power that they find in this private recess to their advantage.

Now, if the point of this fiction was to argue that there is, ultimately, no way out of this kind of sexist, abusive cycle, then the film would be making a horribly grim, but consistent message. It would be presenting a searing – if hackneyed – condemnation of a corrupt worldview that needs to change. But Snyder attempts to go further, suggesting that there is a way to reclaim individual dignity in the face of such cruelty by playing into its expectation. Sadly, Snyder's film ultimately posits that women caught in the web of this debasement need to embrace the 'power' afforded to them by their imposed sexualisation, thereby achieving 'freedom'. It effectively offers a rather nihilistic message about the need for women to utterly abdicate their sense of self in service of survival.

At every level of the descent down the reality/fantasy slide these women are being dominated and defined by men, and must use these fantasies as a refuge (effectively looking away as they are violated). In order to escape the horror of being raped in the institution, Babydoll descends into the fantasy of a bordello. When she is likewise sexually exploited there, compelled to dress provocatively and turn men on with her dancing, she escapes this debasement by withdrawing into a series of computer-generated boss-battles, imagining herself and her fellow captives in sexy costumes. So even here, in her most private depicted space – the landscape of her own mind and imagination – she and her fellow prisoners are shown to be viewed through a sexualised vision. Snyder yet again reduces them to objects performing aimless spectacle for the gratification of their viewer. Babydoll 'dances' for both the corrupted orderlies and bordello patrons, but also for the conventional movie-going audience who demand their empty, silky set-piece spectacle.

Snyder claims to take us on a journey into their mindscape to show their independence, the private space no man can enter to defile them, but in doing so he performs arguably the most grotesque violation of all: he distorts their inner imaginative space to be subsumed into yet another male-gaze. Socially, physically, and (thanks to the film's intrusion into their dreams) psychologically, they are being reprogrammed to believe that there is salvation and autonomy in such an ideological compromise of self. Sure, they can be 'heroes' – they can control their own destinies – if only they will agree to put on the skimpy schoolgirl outfits and pout in the flare of the explosions. In pigtails, short skirt, and high stockings, carrying glossy cold steel as she is bent into a sexual pretzel of poses, Babydoll becomes precisely what her nickname suggests: an objectified, sexualised infant being trained to behave.

Emily Browning and Oscar Isaac in Sucker Punch (2011)Photo by Clay Enos - © 2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures (IMDB)

And this, sadly, is evident in the rather vile ending that results. Not only is there the clumsy patriarchal reinforcement of having these women delivered their 'salvation' by a fatherly figure who tells them what to do in each videogame mission (and who eventually appears as a bus driver in the 'real world' to carry the one survivor to freedom), but it is revealed that it is only through embracing these multiple exploitations, giving over bodily and psychologically to the hungry leering of both their narrative and metatextual captors, that these women can see their mission 'succeed'.

Babydoll's 'reward' for acquiescing to the objectification of her captors is to lose her metaphorical virginity in the dream of the bordello, to have her physical sanctity violated by being repeatedly raped and savaged in the asylum, and then to be robbed literally of her mind – firstly embracing the lecherous fantasy of crass commercial culture by playing a sexy ninjette, and then having that private space decimated anyway by being casually lobotomised. (In the extended cut apparently she also gets to 'empower' herself by choosing to sexually gratify the doctor who then goes on to literally cut the last vestiges of her independent personality away.) But apparently all this sacrifice is a 'win' because she managed to help one other woman thread this vile gauntlet to be 'freed'.

Yes, the film posits that men are weak, exploitative, institutionally-cowardly scum, but where its criticism fails is in the suggestion that the only way women can overcome their enslavement is to actually embrace this grotesque misogynist vision of the world wholly, to become (both body and mind) the object that this debased social structure demands they be in the first place. If they do so, it says, then maybe – just maybe – by being willing to literally sacrifice themself to this self-immolating pageantry, they can thread the leering gauntlet that would punish their autonomy, and a couple of them might find a nice asexual old bus-driver/spiritual-advisor man who can carry them off to safety.

These victims are shown needing to embrace their infantilisation and sexualisation at every level of their being – and, again, were the movie legitimately about showing how barren and wasteful such vile compromise is, it would have fulfilled its rather nihilistic purpose. Instead, it chooses to reinforce the 'merit' in embracing this kind of exploitation. Sure, the majority of these women will be emotionally and psychologically indoctrinated to view themselves through the lens of their oppressors, put on display like dolls, raped, killed and lobotomised like so much cattle, but at least one of them might make it through this nightmare ...only to spend the rest of her life traumatised and alone in a world still engineered to reward such ritual cruelty.

By making every male in the film a hysterically overinflated uber-villain, and by reducing the women to sexualised beings that must sell themselves physically and psychologically, Snyder might be deriding the whole process of reducing women to objects, but instead of condemning it outright, he (I hope unknowingly) actually reinforces it. After all, as the narrative progresses, it is only by having these women embrace the fetishisation of mass market culture that the film disingenuously purports to critique that they are even offered an illusion of autonomy. It is in that contradiction – positing that there is independence and supremacy in the act of utterly divesting oneself of selfhood – that the film egregiously falls down, creating an equally damaging illusion of 'feminist' power by ironically strengthening all of the hateful misogyny that it claims to deride.

To be completely honest, if, as some supporters of the film claim, Sucker Punch's aesthetic titillation and reprehensible message are the 'nice things' audiences have denied themselves in future because they were unwilling to celebrate Snyder's misogynistic snuff film as 'feminism', I struggle to feel the loss. Hopefully, in the wake of film's like Wonder Woman more films will arise that show women embracing their strength, independence and sexuality – not because they have been infantilised or patronisingly danced about like action figures, but because they are being rightly depicted as having every reserve of strength and autonomy that any man has – making the 'novelty' of a misguided film such as this a thing of the past.

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