Welcome to Girls on Film -- a Monday-night Cinematical column full of female-centric musing, rants, love and aggravation.
Empowerment is the act of giving power and authority -- the right to control, command and determine. In the realm of women's issues, empowerment is the persuasive force reminding women of their strength and potential. Empowered women exercise authority, and when they face a troubling, misogynistic world, empowered women fight back.
The women of Zack Snyder's 'Sucker Punch' are not empowered.
Though they are given vicious snarls, swords and guns, the leading ladies of Snyder's latest are nothing more than cinematic figures of enslavement given only the most minimal fight. Their rebellion is one of imaginative whimsy in a heavily misogynistic world that is barely questioned or truly challenged. Instead of empowering their female brethren, the women of 'Sucker Punch' work as warriors protecting the male gaze and male authority.
'Sucker Punch' is the story of a twenty-year-old girl named Baby Doll (Emily Browning). Upon the death of her mother, her stepfather is infuriated that his wife has left her daughters everything. There is a face-off, Baby Doll's younger sister winds up dead and she is taken to an insane asylum. The evil stepfather knows the right corrupt orderly (Blue, Oscar Isaac) to pay off so that when the traveling doctor (Jon Hamm) stops by the asylum in five days, Baby Doll will be lobotomized to keep her quiet. The resident doctor, Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), is working nearby, but is oblivious to the shady dealings.
Soon, however, the asylum melts away into an alternate world -- a fantastical PG-13 brothel. The female inmates are now dancing prostitutes led by a matriarchal dance instructor (Gugino), all of them controlled by Isaac's slimy pimp. Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) is the strong but wary lead of the girls, followed by her antsy sister Rocket (Jena Malone) and two fairly inconsequential friends, Amber (Jamie Chung) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens). But yet another fantasy world descends where a "wise man" (Scott Glenn) tells Baby Doll how she can escape this hell and save herself -- she just needs to procure a few items and face one mystery.
Luckily for Baby Doll, she is some sort of Salome pro. Though her female counterparts see her dancing as nothing special, her hypnotic hip thrusts and gyrations put every man into a catatonic daze as she closes her eyes and jet sets off to yet another fantasy world where she isn't dancing. Now she joins her female partners in crime on random missions, fighting everything from zombie Nazis to robots. At the end of each dance, an object is procured and the girls move onto the next increasingly dangerous step towards freedom.
On paper, it seems like a potentially empowering story. Fantasy worlds are our young heroine's coping mechanism as she tries to find power and authority in a seemingly hopeless situation. (Snyder has said that it all came out of this idea of men forcing a woman to dance, and her going into a fantasy to cope.) As Baby Doll gives in to her captors, she finds a way to fight back. The film seems to speak to our troubled past when men would quell female power through disgustingly false medical conditions like "female hysteria," where women would be locked up for any perceived defiance. However, Baby Doll is not really fighting back, and every bit of so-called feminism or empowerment is nothing more than a misogynistic wolf in sheep's clothing.
From moment one, Baby Doll is a sexualized, Hollywood version of barely legal porn. She is supposed to be twenty, but looks twelve, wearing her hair in pigtails with pink cheeks, ruby lips and dense fake eyelashes. In the asylum and brothel Baby Doll wears a barely there dress and when it's time for fantasy fighting, the costume gets skimpier. Snyder has claimed that the provocative attire is the result of the male audience in the brothel and that we, the moviegoers, are that same audience -- wanting to see the girls in sexy costumes. It's a strange and flawed rationale because the men do not see Baby Doll as some tough guntoter. The real audience in the theater is privy to a meta-world inside her head, not the seduction the men are eating up.
The multi-tiered nature of Snyder's world doesn't help. The film isn't clear about what's fantasy and what's reality (rumor has it the 7 trips to the MPAA to get a PG-13 rating killed that clarity), but what is clear is that there is an 'Inception'-esque dreamworld in play, and Snyder has his heroine imagining herself as a scantily clad fighter right after she's essentially forced to become a dancing prostitute. (That's to say nothing of Baby Doll's chillingly happy smile and excitement every time she finishes dancing, coding each forced sexual display as fulfilling rather than troublesome.) Unlike 'Inception,' there's no idea to be planted, one that requires multiple levels of fantasy to influence reality. Furthermore, any notion of an actual reality in 'Sucker Punch' is suspect, which makes the futility of each woman's plight all the worse.
Some argue that the story is actually Sweet Pea's, but even then, this sexualization and fantasy is problematic as Sweet Pea's vague backstory paints her as the good girl from a happy home who unfortunately found herself in a bad place. It's ridiculous to think that either girl would fantasize herself as a sexpot asskicker once imprisoned and forced into prostitution. We should not project any personal desires of being an all-out sexy tough girl on these characters (like some commenters suggest in this piece), both because it's a problematic desire for sex trade victims and because it makes no sense for the environment of the film. This is a retro piece set in a mid-twentieth century environment where girls weren't inundated with sexualized heroines.
Yes, the action world has always relied on some level of objectification, both for women and men. However, these heroines are incomparable. In male action films, the muscled male body is a symbol of defiance. Though it works to excite viewers, either invoking lust or jealousy, its also a symbol of the strength that will lead the men to success. The men aren't puppets whose actions are directly linked to fiendish oppressors, they are figures who ooze authority, and their sexualization is directly linked to the display of their prowess. For the girls of 'Sucker Punch,' however, their attire serves nothing but the hungry, sexual gaze, and their skills are imagined rather than real and honed. Sweet Pea is the only one with any physically imposing and capable presence, yet even that physicality isn't rewarded.
These so-called heroines are inherently weak characters who fail themselves and each other as sisters, friends and confidants. Even in their fantasies of revolt they bow down to the male gaze, stripped of both agency and voice. Any power or reason for their existence is offered up by men, whether we're talking the stepfather planning Baby Doll's lobotomy, the pimp lording over his captive women, the "wise man" relaying orders to his girl fighters or even Madame Gorski fooling herself into thinking that she has any power or authority in the brothel. Their only real "strength" is being sexy and showing off their sexuality.
Every fight or moment of female strength leads to some semblance of failure, thereby coding each moment of defiance as futile and almost whimsical. Every "real world" or fantasy fight is tainted triumph -- from Baby Doll's fight against her stepfather inspiring him to turn on her sister, to finding a way out that requires her to seduce her captors, to self sacrifice for a ending that heavily suggests even more fantasy.
With no definitively clear triumph, when the audience is greeted with missives like "You have all the weapons you need; now fight," it seems like nothing more than a request to be sexual, and to mentally tap out when things get tough. We are told that this dangerous journey will set them free, but as Snyder twists and turns his way through the worlds, this freedom is problematic at best. For EFilmCritic, Erik Childress boiled it down to: "As it stands now, the film's idea of treatment is telling rape victims in the moment to go to their happy place and all will be fine. If nothing else, 'Sucker Punch' brings a whole new perspective to what is actually going on inside the head of lapdancers."
At no point are we treated with a heroine that has a definitive sense of agency. Even in the "real" asylum world, the female doctor is so incompetent that she has no idea that her orderly is making shady dealings right under her nose. Snyder doesn't allow his heroines to have names at any point, not even allowing them that mirror moment where they form a self -- a being. (Which makes the menace of a lobotomy even more problematic since Snyder's heroine doesn't even get much of a self to begin with -- to the point that the impending danger almost seems like a reprieve.)
Snyder doesn't only keep the story from ever definitively offering freedom, he also goes so far as to tear apart every female connection -- mother to daughter, sister to sister, doctor to patients, madam to mistresses and even dragon mother to dragon child. At every level, interpersonal female contact must be destroyed.
Snyder seems to think that throwing guns in the girls' hands, magically giving them impressive fighting moves and mixing in a few powerful female musical voices (star Emily Browning, Grace Slick, Emiliana Torrini, Bjork and to a lesser extent, The Runaways, if you include the name of the plane -- "Cherry Bomb") is enough to signify empowerment. Laremy Legel at Film.com rightly noted: "they're victims, caricatures of what a confident woman might sound like to the tin ear of a Troglodyte."
Yet some are arguing claims of misandry. The men of 'Sucker Punch' embody a number of traits, from heroic gurus to all-out-villains, from slightly lazy good guys to men who do bad, but also have some sense of conscience. Like the women, their characterizations lack all complexity, but they are still rewarded different, distinct facets and, most importantly, they all have agency.
And what of the agency 'Sucker Punch' is supposed to give the viewer? Zack Snyder has stated that he hopes the film is empowering, but what is empowering? Seeing a woman forced into a sex trade who degrades herself to try and get free? Watching a wise man guide her fantasies? The clues that suggest that there is no happy ending, and it's all just fantasy created as a coping mechanism? Women whose defiance and strength are never framed outside of their sexuality? Women who don't really think much for themselves and need a wise man to guide them through everything?
Snyder has said that he hopes "the girls are empowered by their sexuality and not exploited" by the end, but the entire film has been marketed as sexy female guntoters who like to show off breasts and crotches. The characters' sexuality has been used for promotional profit by the studios -- the exact meaning of exploitation. We must call a spade a spade. And it doesn't help when Lords of Acid's song about getting crabs -- "Crablouse" -- was used to promote the film last year:
Usually, these films lead to a great divide as fans forgive any questionable aspects for the larger story. But this isn't sex workers fighting for their turf in 'Sin City.' Across the board, women and men have been critically ripping apart the film and criticizing its plagued, so-called feminism. When the response is almost uniformly critical, the problem doesn't lie with the viewer.
This isn't a lay person reading 'A Modest Proposal' and being scandalized by the satire. It's a large audience speaking out against a very flawed message that speaks more for oppression than against it.
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