Genre Feminine Vol. 1: Sucker Punch (2011)

As a nerd, I have to say, there is an unfortunate amount of objectification and obsession with women. Men in the nerd community are pretty bad at knowing how to interact with women. While this is changing, it is still a problem that we all should strive to fix. For advice and guidance on how to improve the nerd community, we should look toward Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. By which I mean do the opposite. Despite what Snyder has said in interviews about it being a comment on female objectification in film, it’s a thoughtful critique in the same way The Birth of a Nation is a delicate discussion of race relations. Actually, I take that back. It is a comment on the issue. It’s just that the comment is “I would like more please.” (And yes, I know I’m a little late to discuss Sucker Punch, but the amount I care about timing is equal to the amount Zack Snyder respects women).

The movie opens with an overblown morality play disguised as a montage wherein we meet the main character whose name is, of course, Baby Doll. Well, inasmuch as one can meet a blank-faced, mute ‘character’ outside of an old-school RPG. In the process of meeting this sparkling gem of a lady, we are informed of her predicament: within 5 minutes her mother dies, her evil stepfather tries to rape her and her sister because he’s jealous that their mother left her money to them, and then the sister dies because Baby Doll accidentally shot her. Or something. Without any dialogue or emotive acting, it can be difficult to tell. But the important part is that she gets put in an insane asylum and her stepfather bribes a male orderly to forge documents to get her a lobotomy. Get it? Men are evil! Following this, there is another montage, the second in the first eleven minutes of the film, detailing some of Baby Doll’s stay at the asylum. As she’s on the surgery table for her lobotomy, we are thrust into the first level of Baby Doll’s hallucinations.

Faced with the horrible real world, Baby Doll mentally flees to… a seedy burlesque theatre where girls are held captive. I’m pretty sure Baby Doll doesn’t understand escapism. In this fantasy, she is brought to the theatre by a priest who is played by her stepfather. He hands her over to the orderly from the real-life asylum, who in the fantasy is Blue, the owner of the theatre. Unsurprisingly, he’s skeevy and leering and talks about making Baby Doll dance and sell her virginity. We’re then introduced to the four members of Baby Doll’s entourage: Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie, and Amber. Pro tip: if you want to make your characters strong, independent, realistic women, don’t give them names like Baby Doll and Sweet Pea. Though, to be fair, these women are barely characters. There’s little indication that these women exist in the real world, so it’s easy to believe they are just extensions of Baby Doll’s fantasy. Also, only two of them are developed at all. Amber and Blondie’s characters can be summed up as “Asian pilot” and “Slutty Vanessa Hudgens.”

Sweet Pea is the first one we meet and Zack Snyder tries to use her to lampshade the over-sexualization of the women in the film. By saying the point is to “turn people on.” It’s almost impossible to watch the scene without seeing Sweet Pea look at the camera and wink. Snyder seems to believe that by calling attention to it, he’s in on the joke, as it were, and so it’s really not sexist. Maybe it would have worked had there been any other indication like that in the film. Or if the women hadn’t been portrayed in such a sexist way. That probably would have helped.

And of course, after Baby Doll gets the tour around the theatre and meets all the girls (or the four who get names or lines, anyway), there is an attempted rape. Because this film is the quintessence of subtlety. Baby Doll’s new imaginary friend Rocket is working in the kitchen when the cook sees her sneak some chocolate and decides, hey, that’s plenty of reason to rape someone. Baby Doll overhears and rushes to Rockets rescue. Here, almost 20 minutes into the 110-minute movie, does our main character get her first line of dialogue. It’s not as though it was 20 minutes of minimal dialogue and silent scenes. Outside of the montages, which is admittedly a big portion, everyone else has been talking up a storm. I get it, she’s Doll because she doesn’t talk! Clever as always, Zack Snyder. Anyway, about a minute after that scene that, for a rape, has surprisingly little emotional fallout, it’s time for Baby Doll to dance. We’re told she’s an amazing dancer whose moves captivate anyone who is watching. However, we don’t actually get to see these moves, because whenever she dances, we follow her into yet another layer of fantasy.

An important thing to keep in mind is that Baby Doll does not actually have any mental disorder. The only reason she was put into an insane asylum in the real world was because of her stepfather. But here she is, having hallucinations within hallucinations like the sexploitation rip-off of Inception. Femmeception, if you will. In the end, though, I don’t much have a problem with this because the second level hallucinations are, far and away, the best parts of the film. Each time she dances, the film turns into a ridiculous, over the top, visually appealing action sequence. And, as a nerd, these action sequences appeal to me on a level I can barely explain. They cover everything from steampunk Nazis to attacking orcs with a biplane. Of course, another reason these are the highlight of the film is because, besides the fact that the women are dressed in impractical, revealing outfits and that there are more panty shots than any anime I’ve seen, these sequences are somehow less sexist than the rest of the film where Snyder desperately tries to pretend he’s saying something about sexism. I actually found myself enjoying the action sequences for the fun, mind-numbing action that they were.

And if they were only stand-alone action scenes, that enjoyment would not have been ruined. But of course, Zack Snyder had to make them mean something. Baby Doll’s dance-sequence hallucinations are the way in which she learns how to escape and is given the tools to do so. Which is where Snyder’s attempt to comment on how strong women can be or whatever he said it was falls apart. At the very heart of this film, where Baby Doll escapes into herself after escaping into herself, where she finds the inner wisdom and strength to survive in the cruel world she must live in, there is a man telling what to do, how to do it, and giving her the tools she needs. In her very first dance fantasy, she is given a gun, a sword, and a plan by a man. He then shows up in every subsequent fantasy, guiding the girls. He even appears at the end in the real world to save the real life version of Sweet Pea. That is why, issues of sexuality and objectification and scopophilia aside, Snyder ruins any chance Sucker Punch had at being an empowering, feminist film. He should probably just stick to working with CGI owls.

Genre Feminine is our new column concerning gender roles in cinema, written by author and filmmaker Michael Steeves.

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