Monday, April 4, 2011

Feminism and Sucker Punch

This was written pretty late at night. Or pretty early in the morning. I hope it makes sense.

Soooo.... I saw Sucker Punch.

I should preface this with the fact that I've been super excited for it for awhile. I was a huge fan of Watchmen and I really enjoyed 300. So I was thrilled when Zack Snyder decided to go all female ass-kicking for his next flick.

I saw the scathing reviews last week, interspersed with a few fan boy reviews that loved the action, so I tried to dial down my expectations. I figured it may not be great, like Watchmen, but it should be entertaining. It looks visually stunning. That's usually enough for me to enjoy a movie.

And then, throughout the last week, this entire, huge debate has sprung up around the film and whether it's portrayal of the heroines is empowering or objectifying. Frankly, I'm a little surprised that this is coming up now, not when the Sailor Moon-clad trailers first appeared. But I set these reviews aside until I could take a look and see for myself.

Now. I had already guessed that some of the disappointing reviews came from going into the film without giving the title a second thought. This was confirmed by the (not particularly well written) voice over in the first few minutes of the film.

So. If you haven't guessed what the film is getting at, and you want to go see it unspoiled - stop reading here.

I had guessed going in that the sucker punch is that Babydoll (the main girl) does not win her freedom, but gets lobotomized. I figured that she would go through all her fantasies and at the end we'd realize that she had been lobotomized early on and the whole thing had been a dream.

That isn't actually the way it eventually plays out, but I was close enough. And if there is anything that has taught us, it's that "it was all a dream" kinda sucks as a plot. Because there's no reason to be invested in the story (if you know it's a dream) or you're liable to be pissed off for getting involved for no reason (if you get sucker punched at the end).

Ok. So. Knowing that the fantasy sequences are going to be just that, without really advancing towards Babydoll saving herself and earning her freedom, did I enjoy the film?

Yes and no. Or, I enjoyed it in parts.

It's kind of a mess. And it is really frustrating because I feel that with just a few changes, it could have been awesome.

A quick synopsis of the film, for those who haven't seen it: Babydoll's mother dies, her step-father attacks her and her little sister, and as Babydoll tries to kill he step-father, her sister dies accidentally (it is a little unclear as to whether the step father had already killed the sister before Babydoll got there, or if the ricochet from Babydoll's bullet killed her). The step-father carts Babydoll off to an institution, where he bribes an orderly to forge the documents necessary for Babydoll's lobotomy in 5 days time.

At this point, the trauma becomes too much for Babydoll and she shifts into the first fantasy world, where the asylum becomes a brothel. She meets four of the other inmates; Blondie, Amber, Rocket - who becomes Babydoll's closest ally, and Rocket's sister Sweet Pea - the leader of the asylum girls who is reluctant to fight alongside Babydoll. In the brothel, the girls are required to dance for men. While she is dancing, Babydoll escapes to a series of fantasy worlds, where a wise man (Scott Glenn! Woot!) sets her on a quest that will earn Babydoll and the other girls their freedom from the brothel, and thus, their freedom from the asylum.

Let's start with the elephant in the room. I'd rather just go see a silly fun action flick for what it is, but seriously? The blogosphere has gone nuts over this shit. So - is it objectifying? Empowering? Demeaning? What? In looking at this issue, I think we'll also hit on the bits that were problematic in the film from a movie-making standpoint.

A bit of background:

Faux Feminism in Sucker Punch

Why Ass Kicking and Empowering aren't always the same thing.

Joe Wright (Dir: Atonement, Hanna) called Sucker Punch "Bullshit Feminism". indieWire's review of Hanna is titled: “Hanna” is the Ass-Kicker that “Sucker Punch” Wanted to Be.

And a contrarian view; In Defense of Sucker Punch

Now, coming out of the film, here were my initial impressions: I don't really care how stylized the action sequences were, they were pretty ass-kicking. Also, each of the fantasy sequences takes place while Babydoll is dancing. The audience never sees Babydoll dance, but it is described by one of the other girls as "all that gyrating and moaning." Honestly? It comes off as fairly masturbatory. So Babydoll is fantasizing about shooting nazi zombies or killing samurai robots whilst she is moaning and gyrating on stage. What I got from those juxtaposed sequences is that girls get off on the same fantasies boys do.

My biggest problem comes from what a passive narrator Babydoll is. As mentioned above, it made sense to me, since I figured she was either already lobotomized or about to be. But she barely has any lines in the film. It's hard to understand what keeps her going because we don't get much exposition from her character. Furthermore, we hardly get any background on the other girls. I have zero idea why Amber and Blondie were in a mental institution. It makes it hard to root for them as protagonists if you don't really know them as characters. I never felt particularly connected to Babydoll.

And since Babydoll doesn't talk much, I think that is where a lot of people see a lack of agency in her character. She isn't giving rousing battle speeches to the other girls or explaining to the audience the motivation for her fights. Therefore, it is easy to think that she is doing these things simply because Zack Snyder thought they would look cool rather than because she is a quiet character, going about fighting on her own inner strength. Particularly because she doesn't look strong. It's one thing to see Angelina Jolie in Salt and not be given a lot of explanation as to her motivations, because she radiates tough and inner strength. Babydoll looks like her name. I think the expectation going into the film was that she would look sweet, but curse and rage like a (typical action film) badass. Instead, she stays sweet and quiet and pretty unassuming, and then kills a lot of orcs. It's weird. It's certainly not a character we are used to seeing. And I think a lot of women crave more badass action stars to look up to, and were disappointed to see the main character of the film be sort of passive and quiet.

I think another reason why people were upset with the film is that they were surprised by the brothel world, which was only hinted at in the trailer. I had no idea that a most of the film would be set there and that hardly any scenes would be set in the real-life institution. It becomes a problem because the film doesn't clearly delineate what is fantasy and what is reality. In theory, only about 10 minutes of the film take place in reality. The shifts into the fantasy worlds are abrupt and never explained well. Or, really, at all. It's unfair, but of course there are going to be comparisons to Inception at this point, what with the jumping between fantasy layers. But while the rules of the fantasy layers were spelled out in Inception, they never are here, so the audience never really knows where they stand; or, rather, how much importance to attach to the actions occurring in the different worlds. My other large problem with the film was that these jumps between fantasy layers were often accompanied by strange tonal shifts and weird pacing. It made it difficult for the film to gain momentum and it took me out of the story a bit.

Per Cinematical; "rumor has it the 7 trips to the MPAA to get a PG-13 rating killed that clarity." Well, there's a big problem, right there. It might explain a lot about why I couldn't figure out how things were translating from brothel-world to real-world, or fantasy-world to brothel-world. (Did the other girls understand Babydoll's fantasies? Did she just imagine them or were they there, too?)

Now, getting back into the problems people had with the brothel world. There has been a lot of debate as to whether the girls are using their sexuality and objectification to their own strategic advantage, or whether they are simply playing into being exploited further. I feel like this hits on the entire debate in our culture over whether sex workers who choose sex work willingly are being degraded or empowered. That, though, is a long and lengthy other discussion that I'm not going to get into right now, but I'm pretty sure Violet Blue has written about it.

Staying on whether the Sucker Punch girls are objectified: Well, pretty much all action stars are. The $335 million Prince of Persia made was due in large part to people willing to shell out to stare at Jake Gyllenhaal's abs. Ditto the $456 million for 300 (to stick with stylized Zack Snyder films. (Is that repetitively redundant?))

I feel like there has been far more hue and cry over the girls' costumes in Sucker Punch than for other action heroines, which I find odd. Angelina Jolie certainly wasn't wearing a ton of clothing for Lara Croft. Ditto tons of Bond girls. I haven't seen Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, but doesn't she run around in a slinky cocktail dress? It didn't bare much skin, but Trinity's matrix outfits were pretty fetishized. And I'm pretty certain Milla Jovovich tends to run around in sexy fighting outfits for most of her films.

Was Hit Girl's schoolgirl outfit okay because she didn't have tits? Do we prefer Ripley because she dresses like a man, therefore her strength is easily categorized? Is it the sense that the girls don't choose their outfits in the brothel world which makes it objectifying and derogatory? Do those same slinky outfits become empowering in the fantasy worlds since the girls choose those clothes for themselves? (Since it's on my mind, are the girls who dress up for Wondercon feeling less powerful for being in skintight, short or skimpy outfits? It also makes me think of derby girls. Their outfits might be revealing or fetishized, but they are certainly empowering for the women picking them out and wearing them (and no, they don't look like the costumes in Whip It, but you can't say there isn't some overlap with a Suicide Girls page there)).

[And speaking of women dressing how they want to dress, I present; The Great Toronto Slutwalk.]

Furthermore, while we're talking about women living within sexualized fantasies, there wasn't exactly a huge uproar over Black Swan, which also depicts a mentally unstable, fetishized woman wearing revealing outfits. (How many times can I use the word fetishized in one post? Let's find out!) Now, this was very possibly due to the fact that Black Swan is a better made film. But there are a lot of similarities. Nina is objectified by her choreographer, who also demeans her sexually, which is pretty similar to the Sucker Punch girls in the brothel.

In fact, there have been a lot of comparisons in attempt to rank just where Sucker Punch falls on the empowerment-objectification scale. "But this isn't sex workers fighting for their turf in 'Sin City.'"(Cinematical) I'm sorry, what? We're using Sin City as an example of empowered women? Because did you see Jessica Alba in that? [For the record, I enjoy many parts of Sin City, but Frank Miller is practically misogyny defined.]

I want to address one criticism in particular I find confusing (from Cinematical); "It's ridiculous to think that either girl would fantasize herself as a sexpot asskicker once imprisoned and forced into prostitution. We should not project any personal desires of being an all-out sexy tough girl on these characters,... both because it's a problematic desire for sex trade victims and because it makes no sense for the environment of the film."

What? First of all, it's clearly a fantasy film. This is not a historical depiction of the 1950s. And just because these girls didn't have Wonder Woman on tv doesn't mean that they couldn't fantasize being sexy ass-kickers. They're fantasizing about alternate planets and orcs and nazi zombies. I think sexy matrix ninja falls well within the scope of their imaginations. As for the desires of sex trade victims... I don't think this is a documentary about what women forced into prostitution think about while turning tricks. Or (as io9 puts it); "Action movies spring from the imaginations of enslaved, mentally unstable prostitutes." The fact is, the girls aren't dancing. They aren't actually prostitutes. They're in a mental institution. It just feels as degrading and imprisoning as sex work, which Babydoll imagines her incarceration to be.

Now, we can say that it is problematic that Zack Snyder decided to go with a brothel setting for most of the film rather than an institution because it looked prettier/sexier on film. (It certainly didn't help the clarity of the story.) Because Snyder spends the majority of the film using the brothel as the "real" world Babydoll returns to from her fantasies, I think a lot of reviewers became confused and reviewed it as if Babydoll actually were forced into prostitution.

But I think that denigrating the outfits the girls imagine themselves in their fantasy worlds is also problematic. It smacks of women who dismiss other women for having what they consider to be degrading sexual fantasies (usually any sort of fantasy that involves submission). The conceit of the story is this; Babydoll feels powerless and victimized. Her way of fighting back is to imagine herself as an epic heroine. If dressing herself, in her fantasy, in a schoolgirl outfit helps her feel empowered, who are we to knock it?

A final problem I have with some of the criticisms being lobbed at the film (and here in lies more spoilers). A lot of the critics have been saying that Babydoll doesn't actually do anything - she has exercises no authority over her own destiny since she is only fighting back in her imagination. As one reviewer so crudely put it; "the film's idea of treatment is telling rape victims in the moment to go to their happy place and all will be fine." But we learn in the end of the film that Babydoll was not merely fighting in her imagination. She was acting out in the institution; stealing objects, setting fires, stabbing orderlies and distracting guards. She absolutely was acting bravely and fighting for her freedom and that of the other girls.

Now, from a movie-making perspective, could the impact of Babydoll's actions have had more impact had we returned to the real-world asylum to see some of this playing out? Absolutely. C'est la vie.

A few other small notes on the film:

-The narration at the end of the film is terrible. Just completely god-awful.

-The soundtrack, however, is awesome. Really, completely fabulous.

-The visuals are great, but there is nothing particularly jaw-dropping or staggeringly new. (However, I do recommend checking out the short animations that accompany the film. They are a collaboration between Snyder and Ben Hibon, who was responsible for the Three Brothers animation in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 1.)

-Overall, the action scenes are fun, but dragged a little. The pacing was a little strange at times. This hearkens back to my earlier critique of the strange tonal shifts and weird jumps into and out of the various fantasy levels. This may all be due to kowtowing to the MPAA board.

I get where Zack Snyder was trying to go with all this. If the narrative had been more coherent, and if the heroines had been given more characterization, maybe his vision could have been realized. (Or, I should say, maybe his story could have been realized. I'm pretty sure his visuals were realized.) He's still a pretty new feature film director. As one review pointed out, do you remember what Steven Spielberg's 4th film was? 1941. Euch.

In sum, the movie would have worked with a more defined protagonist, less time in the brothel/more time in the actual asylum, and more understandable shifts between the fantasy worlds. And cutting out at least half of the final voice over.

On the other hand, how often is it that you hear college girls leaving a movie discussing the definition of post-feminism; so... well done Zack Snyder?

Or... to put it all another way:

(TGS Hates Women)

I'm tired. I'm going to bed.

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