Welcome to the first installment of Reel Women here at Very Aware! Reel Women is a new column where I discuss representations of women in film and the subjective perceptions that lead us to distinguish between what is empowering and what is offensive. I’ll have our own Courtney Howard popping in from time to time to weigh in, as well as some special guest writers and critics. Also, please feel free to suggest films and topics that you’d like to see us cover in the future in the comments section!
This week’s topic: SUCKER PUNCH. Note: There will be mild spoilers in this article, so avert thine eyes if you don’t wish to be spoiled.
Zack Snyder’s most recent effort tells the story of Baby Doll (Emily Browning), a girl sent to live in an asylum by her sinister stepfather after her mother dies and her sister is killed during a tragic altercation with their new guardian. Once committed, Baby Doll imagines the asylum is a brothel, where she and her fellow inmates are made to put on sexy burlesque shows and whore themselves out to “clients” to appease Blue, their pimp. Adding yet another layer of fantasy, every time Baby Doll begins to dance she enters a world where she and her friends are fighting steampunk Nazi zombies, robots and giant samurai in order to gain their freedom.
The film has earned a lot of backlash for Snyder, whose track record as a director was pretty solid until now. In SUCKER PUNCH Snyder pulls double duty as writer and director, and while the film often feels messy, Snyder does show a glimmer of hope as a writer if he continues to work hard to fine-tune this skill. SUCKER PUNCH is ambitious at the very least, and when it fails it does so spectacularly. But we’re here to talk about women in film, and SUCKER PUNCH has certainly drawn ire for its depiction of young girls using their bodies to triumph over men.
What girl imagines herself in a brothel when she’s committed to an insane asylum? Given the time period of the film (ballparked somewhere in the mid to late 60s) this fantasy isn’t all that shocking. In a time when women were beginning to emerge after decades of oppression but still finding themselves under foot of men, a young girl who is placed in an asylum by a man and left in the disturbing control of another man (not to mention the predominantly male orderlies), could easily imagine herself in a whore situation. We understand that Blue (who is both head orderly and pimp) is an abusive man, and it’s insinuated that he “pimps” out the girls to other staff members. Drawing the correlation between brothel and asylum is easy when you understand that in both scenarios there are women being exploited largely by and for men.
That said, I’m not sure that SUCKER PUNCH is that empowering in both its depiction and its message of and for women. Perhaps the most empowering aspect of the film is the sacrifices made by the women involved for each other. Several fall on their quest for freedom, and in the end it’s about the struggle and the fight – it becomes worth it even if only one of them makes it out alive. Of course there seems to be a lot of extraneous and indulgent dressing involved before we get to that point, and even then the message almost feels lost in the static interference of the overloaded plot. It’s not that the plot is hard to follow, it just feels so weighed down and near-gaudy in its presentation that it’s impossible for Snyder to say whatever it is he’s trying to say with eloquence.
Then there’s the dancing. I don’t think we’re meant to be titillated by the dances or what little we see of them, and I’m sure the lack of dancing we actually see is due to Snyder’s desire for a PG-13 rating from the MPAA. The women aren’t necessarily objectified by Snyder, but the characters do objectify themselves. It’s whore logic: I’m objectifying myself so I don’t feel exploited, and that makes it okay. I’m not saying anything negative about sex workers here, but this belief seems to exist that if a man is exploiting a woman and the woman takes control and objectifies herself instead to gain what she requires (money, or in this case, objects that will aid in the quest for freedom) that suddenly she is no longer being exploited. However, regardless of her complicity, objectification is still objectification and exploitation is still exploitation no matter who’s pulling the strings, and neither are necessarily evil.
And it’s here that I almost want to argue with myself. As a woman who appreciates pornography (yeah, I said it, and this is where the comment section will come in handy for many of you), I find that medium rarely exploitative. There is nothing wrong with consenting adults engaging in sexual acts in front of a camera for other consenting adults to enjoy in the privacy of their homes (at least I hope you aren’t watching porn at the library or in the middle of a crowded grocery store). No one is being exploited and both men and women are objectifying themselves for the pleasure of a faceless third party. It sounds like it should be seedy, but it’s not.
Then why do I feel like it’s not okay for Baby Doll and friends to objectify themselves for the sake of escaping their situation (to clarify: I’m not saying it’s a poor narrative choice, I’m reacting to how I feel about the characters’ decisions)? When you introduce the element of danger, and in this case an oppressive male atmosphere, consent becomes murky at best. Basically these women are to the point where they feel that it’ll just be easier if they go along with it, so I suppose the argument isn’t about whore logic – it’s about rape logic.
Please calm down before you assume I’m accusing Snyder and his wife of rape empathy – what I’m supposing here is that there’s a solid correlation between a 60s era asylum (I’m still not quite sure this is the correct time period) and an abusive brothel as perceived by a teenage girl and specifically (only) as it pertains to the plot of this film: in both there are oppressive male forces exploiting women until they relent and realize that if they just lay back and cooperate, it will be easier. In an asylum, your only safe passage is confessional. Become vulnerable and open up to the people in charge and you will begin to purchase your freedom. If you remain closed off and uncooperative, you will remain captive and then you are truly the only one to blame for your captivity; you have become your own oppressor. In the abusive brothel you survive the same way: by opening up and becoming vulnerable. If you refuse to cooperate, things will be much worse for you and you’ll never survive.
This also makes for a nice connection between the High Roller (Jon Hamm) in both realities. In the asylum he’s a specialist coming in to lobotomize Baby Doll because her stepfather has paid off Blue to forge the proper documents to ensure his secrets never surface. Not that anyone would ever believe a teenage girl, or especially a feisty young woman such as Baby Doll, which is why I suspect the film may even take place earlier than the 60s because institutionalizing outspoken and feisty women was a common practice only a couple of decades prior. In the brothel reality the High Roller is an important man who has paid big money to take Baby Doll’s virginity. In both realities his function is to be the ultimate exploiter of something sacred. In one, he’s driving a sharp object deep inside the girl to take away the one thing she feels she has left – the essence of who she is as a human being; in the other, he’s driving his penis into her to take away the one thing she feels she has left that gives her an advantage – her purity.
In the end, Baby Doll accepts her fate and sacrifices herself for a friend, and the message read to me at first as, “Oh, well it’s not a rape/lobotomy if you agree to it!” But I realize now this was incredibly impetuous thinking. The message isn’t to lay down and take what the man gives you – the message is about sticking together and personal sacrifice for the greater good. If only one girl gets out, they’ve still won the war.
Some might read misandry in the film’s plot, but just as I defend the misogynistic actions of characters in films as long as they support an interesting narrative, I defend any perceived misandry in SUCKER PUNCH. The men are painted as villains, sure, but it’s because this is the story of Baby Doll and her friends during a time when women were oppressed. In no way do I feel that SUCKER PUNCH is condoning misandry, just like I don’t feel that it’s misogynistic or exploitative. A film is not indicative of a filmmaker’s personal feelings or opinions (mostly), and we shouldn’t gauge our moral compass with movies. If I have to explain this to you, you’re doing it wrong.
An argument can be made that the film is all a fantasy, starting with the moment Baby Doll is undergoing therapy on stage with Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino) and turns into Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish). Baby Doll could very well be a construct of Sweet Pea’s mind, someone she has conjured up to help her discover the strength within herself and escape the asylum. Baby Doll’s opening credits montage of the tragedies she endured before getting sent to the asylum could be Sweet Pea’s own heartaches. Her sister Rocket (Jena Malone) could be another construct, created to deal with the death of her sister and make peace. Sweet Pea’s mother is brought up a few times, and at the end of the film Baby Doll tells her to go home to her mother. The Wise Man (Scott Glenn) appears again at the end in what we perceive as the “reality” in the film, but why is he there if he existed in the action-fantasy world? This reading of the film, in my opinion, makes it infinitely more compelling and maybe even kind of empowering. It’s not a completely fleshed-out theory, but I think it makes for interesting discussion. Some have said that SUCKER PUNCH is a dumbed down INCEPTION, but I’d only make that comparison if you believe the film does take place in Sweet Pea’s mind, just as some believe INCEPTION takes place entirely in the mind of Cobb.
Unfortunately all of this is almost lost with the fantastical action sequences which are created in the mind of Baby Doll (or Sweet Pea, depending on your view) as a way to illustrate how she is using her body to distract the men in the brothel/asylum to get the objects (a key, a map, fire) needed to escape. There doesn’t seem to be much tying the asylum world to the action fantasy, which is where the film becomes near-disastrous. As engaging as the imagery and the action is in this third layer, it ceases to be effective when it has no tether to Baby Doll and the “real” world. I’d almost rather watch a film with only the first two layers more fully realized and the emotional connections more completely developed because the action sequences start to become a distraction. A beautiful distraction, but a distraction no less.
What do you guys think? Is SUCKER PUNCH a poor representation of women or an empowering one? Why?
Don’t forget to give us feedback, including any films or topics you’d like us to discuss in future installments of Reel Women!