Sucker Punch tells the story of a young woman nicknamed Babydoll (Emily Browning) who is committed to an insane asylum after the death of her mother and sister. The asylum is run by an absolute dirtbag who operates the facility as a brothel and strip club. Wealthy clients come in, the inmates (who all happen to be nubile hotties) dance and (we assume) sleep with the clients, the clients pay the warden. The first time Babydoll dances she discovers an unexplained power that allows her to shift herself and her surroundings into a violent dream world. In this other dimension she and the other girls learn to fight back against their captors by battling representative monsters and bad guys. In the real world their opponents are unaware of what’s happening, which allows the girls to carry out various tasks to prepare for escaping the asylum. Babydoll dances periodically, the girls execute a plan in the dream world, they get one step closer to a jail break, and when she’s done everything goes back to normal.
All of director Zach Snyder’s trademarks are on display here: brilliant art design, choreographed fight scenes, heavily stylized violence, great soundtrack, and an imaginative but ultimately porous plot contrived to show off the earlier items in this list. Snyder (300, Watchmen) is a master of visuals and settings, but a poor storyteller. Babydoll’s spontaneous interdimensional excursions are never explained, and while I’m not a fan of dialogue that exists only for the sake of delineating plot points for the audience, it often feels in this movie like story cohesion was sacrificed for the sake of packing in a few more epic fight scenes in a dimension in which the apple never hit Newton on the head and teen girls can survive getting dropped-kicked by robots into stone walls with little more consequence than messing up their hair.
Which brings me to the crux of this review: hot chicks and violence. And more specifically: why the hell we as a culture love it so much when these two things mix on screen. Ostensibly Sucker Punch is about women fighting back against abuse and exploitation and learning to use the weapons at their disposal to gain their freedom. On this front the movie is praiseworthy. A little while into our viewing Lyndie referenced an abusive character and said, “People like that make it really hard to endorse non-violent resistence.” And indeed, once our protagonists are placed in this situation, protecting themselves is a must. But I have a couple hangups with wholeheartedly cheering Snyder’s creation on the grounds of female empowerment, because it seems at least possible the film is guilty of a few of its own rebukes.
First of all, there’s the issue of these girls learning the empowering, freeing message that sex is a woman’s only weapon. This is a recurring theme for Snyder. One of my biggest complaints about 300 (and there were quite a few) was a plot point involving the wife of Leonidas, the Spartan king. She agrees to sleep with her husband’s rival so she can use the incident against this political enemy later on. This choice goes directly against what makes the 300 Spartans so admirable in the first place - they refuse to compromise character and principle for safety and survival. They would rather die than sleep with the enemy, literally or figuratively. So Leonidas and his small army fight to the death to defend a way of life, while his wife uses sex to gain political leverage. The implication from the screenplay is subtle but not hard to pick out: Men have valor; women, it turns out, have vaginas.
This incident in 300 is nowhere to be found in the source material (Frank Miller’s graphic novel), which leads one to ask why it was included in the movie. The answer seems clear enough, even if we don’t want to face it - without Leonidas’ wife the entire movie is an unappealing sausage party, but add hot a woman being taken advantage of, regardless of whether or not it is consensual, and suddenly you have a bachelor party instead. Violence + women = young men spending money.
Whether sex is being used as a weapon against the girls or as a weapon by them, it still sends the message that women are nothing more than sexual objects.
To be fair, I don’t think Snyder sees it that way. I think he believes he is sending an empowering message, and I admire that. Unfortunately, I think he’s missing the message behind his message. We have a movie about young women being sexually and violently exploited and objectified and wanting to fight back. Okay, I’m with you. In the process, however, we get the voyeuristic pleasure of exploiting and objectifying them ourselves. This isn’t a serious look at sex trafficing or rescuing young girls from brothels in India or low income women in America being abused by their alcoholic husbands and learning how to get back on their own two feet and stand up for themselves. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if that were the case they wouldn’t all be this smoking hot, they wouldn’t be wearing bustiers and hot pants in their down time, and Jamie Chung wouldn’t be suggestively sucking on lollipops while she pilots an attack helicopter.
I’m not going to lie to you, Emily Browning in a sexy school girl costume is an absolute vision. But why is she wearing it in the alternate dimension while fighting a giant? This is supposed to be her private world where she has the power, right? And why do I get that feeling in my chest when she gets punted across a temple yard and looks for all the world like she’s about to die a bloody, beautiful death? You know, that shocked but thrilled and titillated feeling that I imagine is not unlike the feeling actual exploitative men get when they commit violence against women? I don’t think I’m over sharing here. This is exactly what the movie wants me to feel. That’s the allure of stylized violence against women; it allows us the thrill of sexual violence while massaging our consciences into believing we’re actually fighting the good fight against such violence. The movie crosses over from admiring these girls as they endure and fight back against abuse into the territory of leering at them in the midst of it.
So we have a movie built on the party platform of fighting against exploitation and objectification against women…that hooks its viewers by exploiting and objectifying women. This is apparently how closeted mysogynists do meta-humor.
Sucker Punch is nothing if not entertaining, and I get what Snyder was trying to do with his story and I admire it. There are plenty of cheer-inducing moments when these girls win victories against their oppressors, and I wholeheartedly endorse the intended moral of victimized women finding the strength to break free. I love the idea of the self-rescuing princess, a theme Lyndie and I have looked for in children’s literature for Yosi. I don’t want my daughter buying into the myth that girls in difficult situations are in exclusive, urgent need of male heroes on horses. However, I also don’t want her buying into Snyder’s ongoing myth that her best weapon for getting out of these difficult situation is between her legs. Aspects of Sucker Punch are admirable. But the overarching implications are troubling.
Have you seen Sucker Punch or 300? Do you think the message is empowering or further objectifying?