Much of the imagery in “Sucker Punch” could be taken directly from a high quality video game, and that not only includes the epic genre-inspired action sequences but also the cast of young, sultry stars. Babydoll (Emily Browning) and her cohort of teenage pin-up types fill the screen with the sort of sexualized violence one could expect from “Tomb Raider” or “Street Fighter” or really any other video game with women fighting. And as is often pointed out, simply giving female characters weapons and fishnets and then sending them on a mission to blow up some bad guys does not exactly create empowered and self-actualized female characters. Rather, this whole method of portraying women as strong, violent and badass superhero types is problematic at its core, and it completely trips up any positive representation “Sucker Punch” might have given us.
Yet it’s clear that Zack Snyder has not quite figured that out. The impression one gets watching this movie is that its writer/director thinks he’s done something positive in his portrayal of these women, and has given us some genuinely independent and self-actualized characters. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out that way. It’s also important to note that this is Snyder’s first original story after a career of adaptations, despite how much it seems to be based on a comic book or video game. This is his personal contribution to the representation of women in action movies, and it’s a bit iffy.
The video game angle has been covered extensively elsewhere, but it’ll help to just rehash it briefly here. “Sucker Punch” is structured like a video game, and it feels that way watching it. Babydoll is introduced to us in the beginning of the film (interestingly without actually speaking until about 20 minutes in) fighting off her abusive stepfather, who throws her into an asylum. If she doesn’t escape, she’s going to get a forced lobotomy in one week. To cope, she creates a dream world for herself that takes the form of a brothel/burlesque, where she meets her fellow prisoners. They need four items to arrange their escape, which they acquire by using distraction: Babydoll dances seductively and her friends snatch the objects. Of course we don’t see these dances, as to our protagonist they seem like richly designed action sequences, period-set battles in which she and the crew shoot their way to victory.
So there are three levels, which cast the women in three different roles: mental patients, dancers/prostitutes, and video-game-styled warriors. This gets problematic pretty quickly. The asylum, of course, brings up the classic issue of female hysteria. Babydoll may not be legitimately insane (though the entire movie is her hallucination, which can’t be a good sign), but her friends may very well be there for more concrete reasons. You’ve essentially got an entire cast of heroes that start out as implied hysterics.
And then they enter this odd realm of hyper-sexuality, in which they’re all expected to be burlesque performers and whores. One could wonder why this whole middle level is even necessary; couldn’t those fancy action sequences work fine from her imagination in the asylum, without the intervening brothel? Of course, that would have the cast running around in hospital garb instead of corsets, and that just wouldn’t do.
And more importantly, while I get that this added layer of awesome video game adventure is supposed to help the women fight back against oppressive male domination, the actual plot of their escape from the brothel is dependent on using sexuality as a distraction. Babydoll’s weapon isn’t her AK-47 or her ingenuity, it’s her hips, and her dance moves are portrayed as this extraordinarily impressive tool which is the best and only way to fight back against the men.
Also, in the brothel sequences the men have much more power and brutality than the women: not only is their boss/jailer, Blue (Oscar Isaac), much harsher than any of the beasts they fight in the action sequences, but Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) goes from being a doctor in the asylum to a powerless dance instructor who runs the cabaret. She feels week in response to Blue’s domineering manner, and at one point he even declares that he “owns” all of them, Dr. Gorski included. His violence can be hard to watch, yet for much of the film she persists in trusting and obeying him, until in the end he simply reduces her to tears.
Now, I believe that Zack Snyder is actively trying here to create a positive female protagonist with an empowering narrative. Clearly, with all of the above evidence, he’s failed. But I think more can be learned from this than just “Zack Snyder made a sexist movie, and thus you should not see it.” His effort here is to show a positive story of women trying to emancipate themselves from the violence of abusive men through classic video game badassery. This happens a lot in cinema, trying to create a positive female narrative by showing the growth of strength in women who begin the story under the thumb of particularly horrible male abusers.
And that focus on violence as a means of reversing a paradigm of abuse is the source of Snyder’s problem. Babydoll is completely silent at the beginning of the film and doesn’t even vocally protest being sent into the asylum against her will, because that’s not the story Snyder is telling. This isn’t about women who are already self-actualized and independent but is rather about the discovery of that potency. All of the other representational problems fall into place from there: the brothel and the asylum, the abusive Blue and submissive Dr. Gorski, the costumes and the lack of vocal resistance by the girls. There’s no effort to unpack these symbols of oppression, female hysteria, forced sexuality and fetishization. There’s only violence and the video game archetypes of dark superhero swagger, as the film tries to shoot its way out of the complexities of sexism and abuse.
In a way it’s almost a cautionary tale for those trying to write future super-heroines and female action heroes. Take notice, creators of upcoming action films; write something a bit more nuanced and conscious, and don’t let us down.