Sunday, March 27, 2011

In Defense of Sucker Punch

Let’s be clear that this article is not about whether or not Sucker Punch was good. Good and bad are subjective values and -- except for something egregious like The Last Airbender, which failed at filmmaking -- there is no right or wrong answer when people’s opinions come into play.

However, there are more or less right answers when it comes to whether or not something has meaning, which is what this article will argue. And even something that has intended meaning can still fail to convey it to every member of the audience. But just because you glean no meaning from a piece of art doesn’t mean that there isn’t a message being conveyed and that other people aren’t appreciating it.

My problem with the less-than-loving reception of Sucker Punch is not that people don’t like it -- there are plenty of films, books, and pieces of art that I love and others hate that I don’t argue about -- but that the people who hate Sucker Punch are overwhelmingly dismissing other people’s readings and enjoyment of Sucker Punch and ripping the film’s message apart in three unforgivable ways, 1. they are making up info/depictions not in the film, 2. they are picking and choosing the evidence they want and ignoring the presence of contrary evidence, and 3. they are bringing their own expectations into why the film failed, e.g they think that a message can only be expressed in one certain way and so they ignore any other method or mode.

All right, you’ve read this far and I have to go make breafast, so let’s skip to the meat of the manner: the question of feminism in Sucker Punch.

Female Escapism vs. Male Fantasy, or, How I Learned to Fight the Patriarchy While Looking Good

Many arguments about Sucker Punch involve the statement that Sucker Punch and its two dream levels (the brothel to be known as Lvl 2 and the action sequences Lvl 3, henceforth) are the pure embodiment of male fantasy (e.g. hot girls being sex objects in Lvl 2 and hot girls fighting samurai in Lvl 3) and thus cannot be representations of female empowerment.

Let’s get one thing straight, if there is anything explicitly conveyed in Sucker Punch (and boy there is a lot, which rankles my movie-watching nerves at times) it’s that Lvl 2 and Lvl 3 are versions of Babydoll’s mental escape for her more-or-less reality on Lvl 1. (I say “more-or-less” because even Lvl 1 is framed by a curtain rising on the theater, suggesting it too is a metaphor.) So let’s all agree that Lvl 2 and 3 are in Babydoll’s mind as many reviewers have done so and the film even includes the narrator telling us that sometimes we need to retreat to our inner-selves/worlds to triumph. Now the argument brought up by many at this point, is that Babydoll’s fantasy worlds would never be a real girl’s fantasy worlds and that they are instead Zack Snyder’s (and most men’s) own masturbation fantasies come to life, thus invalidating any claims Sucker Punch might make to feminism.

The first problem: Babydoll’s fantasies have been and could be the fantasies of many women, especially given that Lvl 2 and Lvl 3 are fantasies doubling as coping mechanisms for the harsh realities of Lvl 1 that render Babydoll and her friends powerless. Babydoll doesn’t dream of a brothel in Lvl 2 because all girls want to be sexed up or fucked for money, but because it is a more manageable parallel for what is happening in Lvl 1. The girls are clearly being abused and taken advantage of in Lvl 1 (though nothing explicit happens on screen) and so Lvl 2 is the metaphorical level where we recognize that yes, these girls are being used for sex by the chief orderly Blue and many others with a key difference: the girls have more power on Lvl 2. They can walk around, be considered sane, and use their sexuality -- the only value given to them by the patriarchal confines of Lvl 1 and 2 -- to their advantage. In Lvl 1, they can’t even do that as their sexuality is completely out of their hands. But more on that in the next section. For now let’s skip to Lvl 3.

Lvl 3, with its genre mash-ups and hot girls in hot outfits killing things, uh, hotly, is also criticized as being a male fantasy. Well, I hate to shatter your visions of femininity but many women, even as girls, have daydreamed about kicking ass and taking names, and many as they got older have added looking attractive to the mix -- this last bit is arguably a reaction to the pressures of societal norms of attractiveness that girls are subjected to growing up, but let’s be honest that even men have daydreams in which they are irresistible morsels of sexual delight. The point is that Lvl 3 could very well be the daydreams of a girl in a terrible situation. It’s an even more fantastical form of mental escapism where actual power, in the form of weapons and warfare, stand in place of the sexual power given to girls on Lvl 2. In Lvl 3, Babydoll and her crew are equals to any man, taking on faceless hordes and never having to flash so much as a little leg to catch the enemy off guard. Female sexuality is beside the point in Lvl 3.

If the girls look hot in Lvl 3 -- debatable really considering how much more clothed they are there than in Lvl 2 and even when compared to many other action films in which women have but an inch of clothing hiding their frame -- it can be argued that this is for one of two reasons: 1. that the girls in Lvl 3 are as sexual and attractive as they want to be but they control it and it’s only a side factor in their real fantasy of defeating the patriarchy, and/or 2. the sexual nature of their costumes is supposed to subverted by their actions portraying them as real action heroes not to be underestimated by the sexual fetishes (e.g. school girl, hot nurse, fantasy chick, etc.) that are placed upon them by the male gaze. In the case of item one, the explanation is in direct play with the plot and characterizations of the girls, while in item two this is a meta-commentary aimed at undermining expectations in the audience. (Again, I’d like to submit that Lvl 3’s costumes, especially compared to other films like Sucker Punch, are not as sexualized or hot as people are making them out to be.)

At any rate, this brings us to the second section that looks a little bit more at Lvl 2. A place, I admit, whose dialogue and acting pains me but whose importance I won’t dismiss.

Ownership of Sexuality vs. Objectification Thereof, or, Why Being Hot Isn’t a Crime But Being Raped Is

When last I mentioned Lvl 2, it was in setting it up as female escapism informed by the tethers of the male patriarchy found in Lvl 1 and that Lvl 3 is an “even more fantastical form of mental escapism where actual power, in the form of weapons and warfare, stand in place of the sexual power given to girls on Lvl 2.”

This is possibly the most important evidence in arguing that Lvl 2 is escapism from a terrible world, and neither male fantasy nor anti-feminist. Consider, for a moment, the fact that we are never shown the most titillating aspects of female sexuality in Lvl 2. Not only do we never see Babydoll’s purportedly sexually over-the-top dancing, but we never see any of the girls being used for sex, or being raped. Instead, any time Babydoll begins her dance, the movie jumps with Babydoll to Lvl 3, a place where the girls don’t have to use sexuality but instead can use real strength to overcome their enemies. Lvl 3 is not only a coping mechanism for the sexuality Babydoll and the girls have to use in Lvl 2, but it’s also a coping mechanism for the fact that in Lvl 1 it’s likely that the girls are mutely being raped with no way to fight back other than to bide their time while planning their escape and stealing the items they need while their rapists and abusers are occupied.

The latter statement, of course, is an informed opinion based on the metaphorical parallels established in the rulebook of the film, as we never explicitly see rape or abuse in Lvl 1. The point in outlining these differences is to establish that yes, Zack Snyder has created a world in which women are being victimized in Lvl 1 and 2 but that 1. they are being shown fighting back without losing their spirit and hope and 2. the absence of their sexuality being shown on the screen means that their victimization is not there to arouse the viewer but to serve as a narrative point.

The message of the film is not, then, to watch the sexual victimization of women and like it (goodness knows that plenty of other movies and TV shows do that) but to convey that even in a time in which a victim feels they have no agency, they can still overcome their abusers by retreating into the world of how things should be and gaining strength and action from there.

Sucker Punch is clearly a movie following the internal machinations of abused women who feel they have no agency. And contrary to what some say, Babydoll is not ultimately powerless in this equation. Her dreamworld is a metaphor for what Lvl 1 Babydoll is setting out to achieve but in a more candy-coated and manageable way. In Lvl 3, Babydoll learns what she needs to escape Lvl 1. In Lvl 2, Babydoll takes her sexuality away from her oppressors and uses it to ensnare them instead – a classic case of subverting the patriarchy and using the only tool you have left to your advantage. In Lvl 2, after all, none of the women are seen as people but as sex objects. And so Babydoll, the unobtainable sex object as she is being saved for the High Roller, can use the thing they can’t take from her to her advantage.

Eye of the Audience vs. Aim of the Actor, or, Zack Knew Some (Not You) Might Interpret It This Way

For all those watching Sucker Punch and thinking that it’s anti-feminist because attractive girls are fighting things, I submit to you that your reading is entirely too simplistic based on the above evidence and that you are actually having the reading that Zack Snyder thought you might have as conveyed through none other than Blue.

When we first really see the mental asylum in Lvl 1, our introduction is via “The Theater,” a place where the girls go to act out their victimization and cope with it by letting others know about it and showing their pain. Whether or not this is a valid form of therapy is beside the point, as what’s important is what Blue says to Babydoll’s stepfather. He too doesn’t know whether the therapy works but he thinks it’s something damn fun and salacious to watch, even mocking it. Blue’s perception here doubles as the worst reading of Sucker Punch, e.g. “Hot girls trying to fight being raped? That’s kinda hot. More tits!” And it seems that people dismissing Sucker Punch as meaningless and anti-feminist think that Snyder’s point was to garner a reaction like Blue’s. But having such a statement made by Blue himself within the context of the film shows that Snyder anticipated that a small amount of people would feel that way about the movie, and that, as a result, another segment of the audience might accuse Snyder of intending this reaction from the repugnant first group.

Thus, with Blue’s comment, Snyder seems to say, “If you think this movie is here to turn you on, you’re wrong. It’s here to help out girls in situations like this and give them hope. Maybe it won’t work and maybe some people will just see boobs and bangs and go home to wank, but that doesn’t mean it’s not meant to have more meaning than that. And that for the characters in this film and for some of the audience, it does.”

And that’s all I have to say about Sucker Punch here. If you want to read more of my opinions/defenses, you can head to my twitter at

Sidenote: Let me reiterate that I don’t think Sucker Punch is a perfect movie. (It has plenty of problems.) I just think that the movie has more meaning than people give it credit for and I am completely enamored of its storytelling technique.


Amy-Elizabeth said...

Thanks for this post! I'm glad that I wasn't the only person watching the movie who saw it as something that could be liberating for women. I'll be sharing this link!


Brian State of Mind said...

You make some very valid points, but you also completely ignore the ending. Can the movie still be viewed as empowering when there's an oh-so-subtle message of "You're going to fail anyway"

\S/ said...

Fantastic review/collection of observations!

And @Brian State of Mind - Failure is subjective in a story like this. It's a salvation story at its core, and while Babydoll is lobotomized/killed in the end, her sacrifice saves Sweet Pea. It's hard to call what she did a failure just because she didn't get out.

OrigamiGirl said...

Every blog I read is reviewing this film. I really want to see it! Living in the UK it isn't coming here for a while so I just seem to be absorbing lots of opinions before I have a chance to make up my mind. However I know that if it is causing this much debate I need to see it.

Plus the aesthetics look pretty good.

khashon said...

An intelligent review of Sucker Punch not comparing it to any and every other fantasy movie in existence. Thank you.

2medicure said...

I will start by saying HERE THAR BE SPOILERS so if you haven't seen Sucker Punch

Huck Finn said...

Eloquently and insightfully stated. It is great to know others felt the this way about the movie. Sure, it is easy to notice the physical and behavioral beauty of the actresses along with the intentional and diligent ways in which this was displayed. It is also easy to criticize. But once the actual narrative begins to sink in, any interest in visual beauty should be humbled and redirected to a deeper and more engaging interest in the plight of the characters. And in response to "Brian State of Mind"'s comment: "You" (or more accurately "Me", "I") does not matter. "We" is what matters most and "We" succeeded in the film, thanks overwhelmingly to the fearless hope and diligent efforts of the main character. I only wish I could die so well :)