Dec 032011

This is a joke, right?

Don’t you get the point of this? It’s to turn people on. I get the sexy little schoolgirl. I even get the helpless mental patient, right? That can be hot.

But what is this? Lobotomized vegetable?

How about something a little more commercial, for God’s sake?

Sweet Pea, Sucker Punch, 2011, w./d. Zack Snyder

Searching “‘sucker punch’ snyder misogyny” on Google returns about 225,000 hits. I don’t think any film has been judged so harshly by being misunderstood.

Sucker Punch does present a confusing and at times incoherent story, but I don’t think it is operating on fundamentally bad faith with the audience. (The previously discussed Goodbye Uncle Tom, which likewise mixes exploitation imagery with pro-social messages, is a counter-example of a film in bad faith.)

Sucker Punch starts out in the familiar Gothic/”virtue in distress” territory of broken families, corrupt authority, confinement, entropy and decay, exploitation and deviant sexuality. Baby Doll and her unnamed younger sister lose their mother and end up with a standard wicked stepfather. When the stepfather tries to rape the sister, Baby Doll grabs a gun and shoots the man, misses and accidentally kills her sister. For this, she gets sent to an asylum for young women. The stepfather bribes the chief warder, Blue, to have Baby Doll lobotomized. The doctor who will perform the procedure will arrive in five days, all the time Baby Doll has to engineer her escape.

The narrative of Sucker Punch requires a bit of explanation. It takes place over three (possibly four) levels of reality:

1. Asylum, the baseline. This is where Baby Doll is imprisoned and meets the other girls. This is the most overtly Gothic of the layers, with a dingy, crumbling institution.

2. Brothel. This reality closely parallels Asylum, but things are less grubby or more attractive, where the girls are sex workers. In this reality, the lobotomizing doctor is reflected by a client known as “the high roller”, who will arrive in five days, and Baby Doll’s virginity is to be preserved for him. (Strong penetration motif, here.)

3. Action. A set of four realities that are action set pieces, in which Baby Doll and the other girls are heroic soldiers who fight zombies, orcs and robots. These sequences represent and parallel the video-game-mission-like attempts of Baby Doll and the others to gather the items they need for their escape from the Asylum/Brothel, though only loosely. The emphasis in these sequences is on raw spectacle.

These sequences are perhaps the biggest flaw of the film, as they go on too long, and it is hard to get emotionally engaged in them due to their hyper-stylized nature and also because the audience knows that they aren’t “real”, but fantasies within the film. Stories within stories can be done (e.g. The Princess Bride) but it’s tricky.

It’s implied that these different layers of reality are what Baby Doll imagines in order to better cope with her environment, but this is debatable. More on this later.

Sucker Punch is related to two classic stories of ambivalent female empowerment. Both Salome and Scheherazade are deeply ambivalent stories and can easily be read as expressions of misogyny, suggesting that if women ever wield power, they will use it in ways that create social chaos.

The first is the story of Salome and the dance of the seven veils. In the Brothel reality, Baby Doll’s dancing is said to be extraordinary, so much so that she diverts the attention of Blue and other warders so that the other girls can get the items. In the myth, Salome’s beauty when dancing is said to be so great that Herod delivers to her the head of John the Baptist, bringing down the wrath of God.

It isn’t clear what Baby Doll’s dancing represents in the Asylum reality. The Asylum inmates are supposed to participate in drama therapy under the care of Dr. Gorski (cf. the Marquis de Sade and the themes of drama and incarceration in his life), but it’s suggested that they just end up reproducing the situations that put them there. It’s implied that she’s being molested by Blue and the other warders.

Note that we don’t actually see Baby Doll dance, just begin to sway, and then the film transition to one of the Action realities. Linda Williams in Hard Core commented on the parallels of between the feature-length porn film of the post-stag, pre-Internet era and the classic Hollywood musical feature, both built around set piece “numbers”, whether of sex or of singing and dancing, and these numbers may be only loosely, or not at all, tied into a narrative. In the case of action movies, set piece action scenes may be compared to the “numbers” of the other film genres. (The extended version includes a cabaret song-and-dance number between Blue and Dr./Madame Gorski.)

Sucker Punch literalizes this concept, showing that action scenes directly correspond to, and importantly conceal, the dancing in the Brothel reality and what is implied to be Baby Doll masturbating in the Asylum reality.

The second is the story of Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights, who tells tales night after night to keep from being executed. This has more to do with Sweet Pea, who provides the film’s opening and closing narration and the only one to escape the asylum. This links back to the idea of stories that are being told and retold and altered along the way. In Sucker Punch, the stories are built on top of each other, concealing yet suggesting their antecedents while evolving to survive and be heard.

Zack Snyder theoretically could have made a movie of a Gothic tale about a group of women planning and executing their escape from an asylum, with the action consisting in sneaking around, distracting guards, and collecting the needed items. It could have provided the moments of tension, loyalty, ingenuity and sacrifice that would have made for a good story. Indeed, there have been movies like that. However, such a film would have been sombre and dark and low key, and not “commercial”, or not as commercial as a quintet of beautiful women in commando/dominatrix costumes blasting the hell out of zombies, orcs and robots. The replacement/concealment of exploitative sex with hyperbolic violence also moves the movie down the rating hierarchy and again makes it more commercial. Sucker Punch is an X-rated Gothic (toxic to Hollywood) wrapped in a M-rated musical (a “chick flick” and therefore less “commercial”) disguised as a PG-13 rated fantasy/scifi/action movie (young-male-oriented and highly “commercial”).

This bears an interesting parallel to Clarissa and its influence on the later Gothic genre. Clarissa is set in contemporary England and it’s story, while improbable, is not fantastic. Later Gothic stories work off the same ideas, but are set in the medieval past or distant or fantastic locales, and may include the supernatural. This development represents a sugar-coating of the relatively realistic sexual violence of Clarissa, making it more commercial to the readers, but with a dilution/concealment of the message.

The other parallel between Sucker Punch and Clarissa is the resolution of the narrative. Clarissa and Baby Doll don’t escape from the system of control built around them; by passively resisting, they prompt their enemies to overreach and collapse. Clarissa and Baby Doll are both martyrs to their conflicts. Clarissa’s rape at the hand of Lovelace renders her permanently ruined and apart from society, much like Baby Doll’s lobotomy.

The idea here is that Baby Doll’s willing (or at least necessary) sacrifice is the first domino in a series that changes the corrupt society that put her in that situation. The doctor has second thoughts about his procedures, Blue’s control over the institution is weakened and he is arrested for molesting a girl, and he in turn will likely rat out the stepfather. A willing sacrifice that changes the world. (The doctor even says “Jesus…” the moment after he lobotomizes her, making Sucker Punch a kind of Passion play.) (There is the additional aspect of Baby Doll’s grief and guilt over accidentally killing her sister.)

A pessimistic reading would be there will always be other doctors willing to perform questionable medical procedures, other medical staff willing to exploit underprivileged women or be complicit in it, other step-fathers eager to sexually abuse their charges, and other disadvantaged girls ready to be consigned to the asylum; that the social machinery of the Asylum/Brothel will keep operating regardless of Baby Doll’s actions, and Baby Doll herself is not a hero, or even a martyr, but just another victim.

Giving an ambivalent resolution is actually a smart move for this movie, calling into question the idea of women’s expected roles of sacrifice and martyrdom as valuable.

The extended version scene between Baby Doll and the High Roller illustrates a lot of this.

Perhaps the biggest puzzle is the character identified only as the Wise Man. He appears in the Action sequences, gives Baby Doll her weapons and giving her team their mission goals and encouragement. His role is actually somewhat redundant, as in Brothel, Baby Doll is the one who lays out the plan for the others, and it is Gorski who acts as guide/mentor (albeit compromised). He has no analog in the other realities, until the very end, when he, as a bus driver, helps Sweet Pea avoid the police who are looking for her and then takes her on the bus which drives away.

One theory I’ve read (and can’t recall where) is that the movie as a whole is the story that Sweet Pea is telling the bus driver in return for his help, and she (Scheherazade-like) is altering the story to make it more appealing to him (i.e. “more commercial”) and even including him in the story as the Wise Man. Again, we circle back to performance, and tales that change in the telling as negotiated between performer and audience.

The argument of Snyder’s film seems to be “I want to make, and people should be watching, dramatic movies about women being exploited in real life situations, but people don’t want to watch those, and Hollywood won’t let me make those, so I have to make a big, dumb, flashy spectacle instead and sneak in a message as best I can.” I’ll concede that’s more than a little disingenuous, but I don’t think the driving sentiment of this movie is misogyny, as so many other critics say.

I think what it is an interesting exploration of the storytelling process, particularly about the issue of violence against women, and what we think and feel about it, and how our stories about it keep changing. It encapsulates 300 years of story evolution in one feature film. This is how our stories and fantasies evolve.

Addendum: Alternate Takes’ essay on the pessimistic feminism of Sucker Punch was an inspiration.

  One Response to ““Sucker Punch”, misogyny and Gothic archaeology”

  1. […] even a sub-sub-genre of Nazi-zombie films, creating a truly vile yet compelling antagonist. (In Sucker Punch, one of the fantasy sequences involves reanimated corpses in vaguely Prussian/Nazi uniforms, and a […]

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