Beware of spoilers if you haven’t seen this yet. Also beware of anger. Lots of anger.
Sucker Punch came out in 2011 and I saw it a couple of years after. I’ve been thinking about it recently and I’ve only just been able to put into words quite what I think about it.
The plot is slightly convoluted but definitely interesting: Baby doll is committed to an asylum by her evil stepfather who pays off a corrupt official to have her lobotomized. In her head Babydoll creates a fantasy world where she envisions the asylum as a strip club/brothel where she teams up with four other girls to escape before she has to meet the High Roller, a wealthy man who has ‘bought’ her. Every girl has to dance, and it turns out that Babydoll’s dancing is hypnotising to men. The girls use this as a distraction while they steal the items they need to escape. We never see Babydoll dance; instead we see a post-apocalyptic fantasy/sci-fi world where the girls fight through armies of robots and literal dragons to get the fantasy representation of the items they need to escape the brothel. The film switches frequently between layers of the story, and each version of events parallels the other two.
There’s a lot about the film that I really like. The action sequences are great, and I like the multi-levelled plot even if it is a little up itself. The general idea of girls working together and empowerment is great. If this film had played itself straight then I could even have accepted the skimpy outfits (I would have rolled my eyes a lot, but it’s hardly anything new and the film’s based on video games, so what do you want?) and I would have probably enjoyed it. The problem is that the director, Zach Snyder, claims that this is the ultimate feminist film.
When faced with accusations of sexism in the way he dressed his female characters Snyder threw back this:
Someone asked me, “Why did you dress the girls like that, in those provocative costumes?” And I said, “Well, think about it for a second. I didn’t dress those girls in the costume. The audience dressed those girls.” And when I say the audience, I mean the audience that comes to the movies. Just like the men who visit a brothel, [they] dress the girls when they go to see these shows as however they want to see them.
I’m not entirely sure what he’s trying to say here, but it seems to be his slightly pretentious way of saying that the characters are only dressed like they are because that’s what the audience wants to see, and it’s the audience projecting the sexuality they want to see on to the girls. I remember reading an interview (although I can’t find it now) where Snyder claimed that the people who thought the film was overtly sexual were of the same ilk as the men who frequent the brothels in the film. Basically, if you interpret the women as sexual, you’re projecting your own debauched sexual perceptions onto them and don’t you feel stupid and dirty now you disgusting pervert.
This argument is bullshit. No Snyder, the audience didn’t “dress the girls”, you did (or at least the wardrobe department under your direction). The film purposely uses traditionally sexualised imagery – girls in short skirts and tight crop tops, pigtails, the name ‘Babydoll’ – in a sexual context – a brothel/strip club – with camera angles designed specifically for the male gaze – hello panty flashes and between-leg shots – and then tries to turn around and tell the audience off for interpreting these things as sexual. Don’t get me wrong, I get what Snyder thinks he’s trying to say: that these things shouldn’t be inherently ‘immoral’ and that not everything that women do or wear should be sexualised. I’m totally all for this message! It’s just that there’s a huge difference between subverting a trope to a get a point across and just doing the thing and claiming that it’s a critique. Someone filmed all those upskirt shots, Snyder, and it wasn’t me.
It’s not the point he’s trying to make that I don’t like; I’m all for women in both film and real life wearing whatever they want as they kick robot butt. What really rubs me up the wrong way is Snyder’s attitude. When people said that they thought the film was sexualised, he threw his head back dramatically and cried that ‘People just don’t understand my art!’, and even went as far as to suggest that the people who didn’t like the film were perverted idiots. It didn’t seem to occur to him that if people weren’t ‘getting it’ then he probably communicated his message badly – really badly.
However, the outfits aren’t even the thing that made me really angry. There’s so much more.
Not on the ‘unnecessary sexualisation’ track but definitely on the topic of ‘Zach Snyder doesn’t know how to tell a story’, it also pulls a ‘twist’ ending where the film tries to claim that the protagonist is actually Sweet Pea because she survives to carry on the story, suggesting that Snyder doesn’t understand basic narrative concepts; the protagonist is the main character, the one that drives the story i.e. Babydoll. Sweet Pea survives, sure, but only because of Babydoll’s actions and sacrifice that form the entirety of the plot. Sweet Pea has barely any screen time and does very little other than argue with Babydoll. Survival does not a protagonist make. This is a very mild complaint compared to the others, but it still irritated me a lot.
On a more severe note: obviously the women are constantly under threat of sexual violence with several attempted rapes for multiple characters (but they’re definitely not sexual beings guys), which is an unfortunately common thing in fictional media. It’s a disgusting and unnecessary shorthand for disempowering a female character that shows up in stories that really don’t need it, and this film is particularly guilty of fetishising it; a lot of the dramatic tension comes from the fact that the girls are under constant threat of assault, and you almost anticipate the moment when it will happen. A large part of the plot is the build up to the unwanted encounter between Babydoll and the High Roller who she has been ‘sold’ to, and this is literally what Babydoll is fighting to avoid.
This leads me on to the thing that angered me the most: the High Roller. In the theatrical cut he’s curiously omitted, and the film ends up making very little sense. What happens to Fantasy!Babydoll after Real!Babydoll’s lobotomy? How does her meeting with the High Roller turn out? What’s up with that doctor? Despite the fact that the film is practically incoherent without it, however, I think I’d really rather watch that version than the extended cut which includes a proper meeting scene between Babydoll and the High Roller. The reason? It’s disgusting.
Babydoll is captured, accepts her fate and goes to meet the High Roller who has ‘bought’ her. She expects a rape; however, he’s gentle with her and talks to her like a human being. He has no intention of raping her, but instead he’ll wait until she comes to him willingly. The scene is painted both by the film itself and the actors and directors as a love scene and as Babydoll finally owning her sexuality. Babydoll has found a man who doesn’t seem to want to hurt her. Awww, how sweet.
But we seem to be forgetting the tiny fact that this man has literally bought her virginity. He basically says to her “You’re going to sleep with me, but you’re going to enjoy it. Also, I totally own you.” Does Snyder just completely not understand what rape is? Just because it’s not violent doesn’t mean it’s consensual! He may not be going to take her by force, but other than when it happens Babydoll has absolutely no choice in the matter: she will sleep with him. How is it possible for Babydoll to consent to a man who literally bought her? WHY DID YOU DO THIS SNYDER?
So please, if you’re going to watch this film, do so with a critical eye. Enjoy the baddass action scenes. Enjoy the multi-layered plot and the connections between the worlds. Enjoy Oscar Isaac’s face with his stupid moustache. Hell, even enjoy the skimpy costumes; that’s what they’re there for after all. Just please, never call this film feminist.
And Zach? If we ever meet in real life, we’re going to have words.