Sucker Punch is a film you will either love or hate. It has polarized viewers and started lengthy debates about the ways in which sex and sexiness are portrayed and, perhaps, manipulated. As far as I can tell, there are valid reasons to both laud and loathe the film, depending on one’s sexual politics. Below the cut, I will discuss how the film handles some very important sexual issuesâ€”but be warned, spoilers lie ahead!
The film’s plot operates on three narrative levels: in the first, a girl is committed to an insane asylum by her evil step-father; on the second, the girl experiences her time in the institution as time in a brothel; and on the third, the girl fantasizes that each time she dances, she is decimating opponents in video-game-style fight scenes. The girl is not named in the first frame, and is called Baby Doll in the second frame, so that’s what I’ll call her here.
When we first see Baby Doll, she is about to learn that her mother has died, leaving a fortune to her and her younger sister. Their step-father, in a rage, threatens first Baby Doll and then her younger sister. Resourcefully, Baby Doll finds a gun and prevents her father from molesting and/or killing the sister, but in an accident, the sister is killed. In the ensuing confusion, the police arrive, and Baby Doll is institutionalized. Overhearing her father speaking with a corrupt attendant, Baby Doll learns that she has five days before she is to be lobotomized.
The narrative frame shifts, and we see Baby Doll as an orphan brought into a brothel, to be kept safe for a high-roller who is to claim her in five days. The brothel is run by Blue, played by the same actor as the corrupt orderly, and he uses the dancing girls as a front for the brothel and other illicit operations. One of the other girls, Rocket, takes her under her wing, although the mistress of the brothel is also a sympathetic character, teaching the girls to dance so that they have a chance at self-expression and, it’s hinted, survival. The first time Baby Doll dances in the practice room, she visualizes an elaborate dojo setting, where a kindly older man gives her weapons, which she uses to fight machinated samurai.
As Baby Doll hatches a plan to escape the brothel with the help of four other girls, the girls appear in subsequent fight scenes, dressed in sexy battle gear and kicking the daylights out of steam-powered Nazi zombies, dragons and orcs in a medieval setting, and robots on a train carrying a bomb. When Rocket dies to save her sister, Sweet Pea, in one of the fight scenes, she also dies in the brothel world, and the escape plan is nearly aborted.
Eventually, only Sweet Pea escapes the brothel, as Baby Doll makes the final choice to sacrifice herself as a diversion. When the frame reverts to the institutional setting, we see that Baby Doll has been lobotomizedâ€”but not before helping the girl known as Sweet Pea in the brothel setting escape. The evil orderly is arrested, and we see Sweet Pea getting on a bus, which is driven by the kindly older man who has been their helper in the fight missions.
The film has clearly conflicting messages about sexuality and empowerment: on the one hand, the girls kick serious ass in the fight sequences, but Baby Doll could not save herself from being lobotomized in the “real world,” and some of the girls in the brothel were killed for trying to escape. While battling robots and zombies, the girls were clearly in charge and competent, yet they wore very sexy attire while doing so, as though they had to appear pleasing to (male) viewers at all times. For all her resourcefulness in helping Sweet Pea escape, Baby Doll at times seems like a flat character, speaking little, and looking blankly at the screen for much of the film. What’s going on here?
I agree with one blogger that Sucker Punch depicts the traumatic results of rape and sexual assault. Baby Doll has likely been abused by her step-father in the past, and by the time her sister is killed, she is almost beyond the point of being able to function, hence her dissociation with the real world. This interpretation also explains why, even though she overhears the plan to lobotomize her, she tries to escape instead of telling the sympathetic doctor/mistress what is going on: she feels guilt over her sister’s death, and is too traumatized to want to live. This projection plays out in the brothel narrative, where Sweet Pea’s sister Rocket dies, though at the institution we see no mention of Sweet Pea having a sister, so it’s entirely possible that this plot trajectory is Baby Doll’s way of working out her guilt over her sister’s death.
The film does depict lots of violence against women; we see girls being sexually harassed, and rape being barely averted multiple times, and girls being shot in the head for trying to escape from the brothel. The review at io9 trashes the film for these reasons. It is a disturbing film, in part because the scenes of violence against women are hardly shocking, being so commonplace in contemporary Western media. I believe that the framing of violence in multiple narrative modes helps viewers feel the impact of the violence more: when we see Baby Doll and her friends decimating zombie hordes, and we realize that this is what’s happening in her head as a coping mechanism, it is a sobering thought. What if all the empowered heroines of action movies past were similarly traumatized, and invented elaborate alternate personas in order to escape their pasts, or reclaim a sense of self?
The sexualization of the girls is another problem in the film. I’m of two minds: on the one hand, it depresses me that nearly every mainstream film has to portray women as sexy in order for them to have any screen time at all. It’s as though unsexy women simply don’t exist in the modern media. On the other hand, I don’t believe that a film that deals so extensively with sexual assault could be palatable to a contemporary Western audience without having something sexy or fun to look at. In that sense, having the girls dressed in sexy outfits while fighting helped the film sneak in some of its underlying messages about the violence and degradation women face. Some of Zack Snyder’s comments implicate the audience in this sexualization of the female characters, blaming the culture for dressing the girls in the fantasy sequences in sexified attire.
Here I’m thinking of feminist Laura Mulvey’s work on the male gaze, or the idea that contemporary Western film and TV are made by men, for men: the camera makes it easy to identify with male characters and objectify female characters, which is great for male viewers, but it forces female viewers to either identify with the women who occupy sexualized roles, or try to identify with the male characters. The storytelling conventions of our culture have become so entrenched that it would be difficult to tell any kind of story at all without conforming to them at least to some degree.
And in this film, I might actually want to identify with the female characters over the male characters, as much as the women are abused. The only sympathetic male character is the kindly older man who helps the girls; the step-father and orderly/boss as well as the brothel’s clients are violent, dishonest, lecherous, and greedy. In contrast, all of the women in the film stand up and fight for something, and while they sometimes die, and frequently are assaulted, they are all depicted as characters with positive traits. Normally I dislike it when the men’s rights movement wails about how poorly men are being depicted in the media, because I still think women generally have it worse than men, in terms of media depictions, sexual assault rates, the pay gap, and so onâ€¦ but men really are portrayed in horrible roles in this film. Practically every man is a sexual predatorâ€”and this is one of the places where I think the film is most sex-negative, because we don’t see any positive or constructive depictions of sex.
But does it do any good to identify with characters who do not prevail, who fail in the end? Identification is a tricky issue, and I think that Mulvey’s simplistic gaze metaphor doesn’t fully work. I think that women can get something out of identifying with objectified and sexy characters, because women are taught to want to be sexy from such an early age that it’s a common desire. Women who play nice with the rules of patriarchy by investing in their own beauty aren’t stupidâ€”they’ve observed how the system works, and how little power they actually have, and they’re making rational choices for their survival. Here I’m thinking of Susan Bordo’s work on feminism and the body, Unbearable Weight, wherein she defends women’s everyday beauty choices as logical and inevitable. Perhaps the beautifully-attired girls in the fight scenes are there not only for the (presumedly heterosexual) men, but also for the women. Women are taught to identify and yearn for beauty, so why wouldn’t women enjoy seeing other women be beautiful and capable on film? One feminist blogger did remark that she enjoyed seeing the girls kicking ass in femme attire (though she also had some insightful remarks about how the film reflects the oppressive gender identities girls are socialized into).
The narrative is a little open-ended, but in my interpretation, Baby Doll is not the main character of the story: Sweet Pea is. Baby Doll is a helper figure, known in traditional folklore in the forms of fairy godmothers and wise old men in the woods. Most helper figures in folklore are mysterious, lacking a past and an identity, but in Sucker Punch we get to glimpse the background of a helper figureâ€”Baby Dollâ€”who from an unlikely position was able to help Sweet Pea escape. The voiceover at the start and end of the movie both support this interpretation, talking about guardian angels and giving people the weapons they need to fight. Baby Doll was, in my opinion, both guardian angel and weapon, and while it’s sad that her story had to end at the film’s conclusion, she put up a good fight and did better than many in her position would have. And, in the end, the world is a cruel and arbitrary place and sometimes your best fight isn’t enough to get you outâ€¦so why should a movie be attacked for telling that truth?
One of my complaints about the film was that we never get to see Baby Doll’s dance sequences, because the camera immediately flips over to the fight sequences. As a dancer, I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see dancing that was purportedly so enthralling that it captivated everyone in Baby Doll’s audience… but at the same time, I understand that to make a claim about a dance and then to visually represent that dance is complicated. By not depicting the dancing, the film allows the audience to imagine the most amazing dancing they could think up, which will also guarantee that the film doesn’t feel dated, for that reason at least, since popular dance styles change so much in different time periods.
As should be apparent from my review, I enjoyed the film’s narrative complexities, and I thought it told an important story. It was also very, very pretty, so if you’re going to see it, I recommend seeing it in theaters. I think that viewers applauding the film as “yay girl power!” missed a lot of the film’s depth, since it depicted violence against women in order to criticize it. But the film did also sensationalize that violenceâ€”as any film would have to, to appeal to mainstream audiences today. So while I’m torn on some of these basic feminist issues, and I can see where some feminists might not like the film, I imagine I’m not the only feminist who did like it. For a mainstream film, that is (I’ve gotta recoup some hipster points somehow!).
Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor. Follow Jeana, the author of this post, @foxyfolklorist.