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"Sucker Punch" Sexism: How Men are Co-Opting the Feminism Debate

By Christopher Campbell | Spout March 28, 2011 at 12:08PM

Never mind whether or not "Sucker Punch" exploits or empowers women. I think the end of that debate exists with Angie Han at /Film, who acknowledges that feminist cinema has room for the re-appropriation of sexuality as a weapon so long as the characters have "a distinct personality, a history, an inner life. These make her a character you care about, even while you're admiring how smoking hot she is" (she says this is not what "Sucker Punch" does). Besides, boys will be boys regardless, whether they're staring at Ripley's buttcrack just before she kicks ass in "Alien," or finding pleasure in even a non-erotic bath during "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles," or commenting on the ugli-fication of Charlize Theron for "Monster." If "Sucker Punch" had the girls all sporting the Ellen Page-inspired "asexual chic" look or wearing burlap sacks, it would still be filtered through the male gaze -- as well as the female gaze.
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Never mind whether or not "Sucker Punch" exploits or empowers women. I think the end of that debate exists with Angie Han at /Film, who acknowledges that feminist cinema has room for the re-appropriation of sexuality as a weapon so long as the characters have "a distinct personality, a history, an inner life. These make her a character you care about, even while you're admiring how smoking hot she is" (she says this is not what "Sucker Punch" does). Besides, boys will be boys regardless, whether they're staring at Ripley's buttcrack just before she kicks ass in "Alien," or finding pleasure in even a non-erotic bath during "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles," or commenting on the ugli-fication of Charlize Theron for "Monster." If "Sucker Punch" had the girls all sporting the Ellen Page-inspired "asexual chic" look or wearing burlap sacks, it would still be filtered through the male gaze -- as well as the female gaze.

But whatever, empowerment of the cinematic sort is in the eye and hands of the beholder, and if someone views the fantasy sequences in "Sucker Punch" as a violent equivalent of Maureen O'Hara's shaming monologue to her audience in "Dance, Girl, Dance," that's his or her prerogative. And if he or she wants to turn the discourse around and accept the film as more offensive to the male gender, that's apparently okay, too. A commenter on Dan Walber's take on the film noted that "men are also abused and more frequently than you might expect" (he goes on to have an interesting view on the misdirections of American feminism), while some male critics and bloggers have written somewhat defensively on the "Sucker Punch" debate as if they are either the true victims of the film or at least on equal footing with the female audience.

I half-jokingly took similar offense with the depiction of men in "Hall Pass" recently, but I think many of the remarks I read over the weekend -- and quote after the jump -- go a little overboard and miss much of the point of feminism and feminist film theory. But I do find them intriguing, and as someone who regularly defends Lars von Trier's films as being more misandric than misogynistic, I welcome the alternative points of view.

The Film Doctor:

Except for Scott Glenn, who wisely plays "Wise Man," there are only skeevy male characters in Sucker Punch. Be it an obese cook, a twisted evil stepfather, Jon Hamm as the lobotomizing doctor/high roller, Oscar Isaac as Blue Jones (the murderous pimp who runs the insane asylum), or the grotesque greasy-haired lecherous mayor, every male figure is an extreme obvious creep. As a guy watching Sucker Punch, I felt demeaned. Even in their scanty outfits, the female characters can at least kick butt.

Scott Mendelson at The Huffington Post:

Just as its difficult to make an anti-war film because war plays out as exciting onscreen, there is a level of titillation that comes from the very idea of watching attractive women taking up arms against various foes. One could argue that the same applies to any number of male action pictures, as I don't think too many heterosexual women or homosexual men minded watching Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, or Matt Damon kicking butt in their respective action franchises.

Cole Abaius at Film School Rejects:

Every other male character, including Blue, is depicted in the worst way possible. Greedy, overbearing, rape-centric, domineering, sweaty, greasy, and vile. If the argument is that this movie is anti-feminist, it’s definitely not doing guys any favors either. [...]

Just as men in action films are treated like sexual objects, the women of Sucker Punch are on display for gazing eyes and hormones. I don’t mean that flippantly. What woman or gay man doesn’t watch Jason Bourne in a soaked shirt, James Bond in his trunks, or Clive Owen’s stubble without getting the same effect? Sucker Punch takes things to fetishistic extremes, but pretending that Bond’s shirtlessness (or his tuxedo for that matter) isn’t the same thing is just being sexist. If James Bond can be a sex object and be strong at the same time, so can Baby Doll. [...]

When a greased-up Arnold mumbles a line about blowing off some steam after killing the big bad at the end of Commando, it doesn’t speak to male advancement, and Sucker Punch is the equivalent.

Robbie Collin at News of the World:

But in fairness, the skimpy costumes are no different from the Muscle Mary get-ups the Spartan blokes wore in 300.

Plus, none of the girls are given love interests to take the edge off and make them more relatable to drooling losers like me.

Adam Quigley at /Film:

Yes, the girls in Sucker Punch are sexy, and that has its merits — I seriously doubt Zack Snyder would deny that, since he takes as much pleasure showing off sexy school girl imagery as he did greasing up bulging abs and biceps in the beefcake-heavy 300 [...] Nobody complained when 300 similarly objectified the male form for the purposes of substance-free, popcorn entertainment. Why? Because men don’t live in fear of being objectified. And if Zack Snyder had his way, the same would be true of women. But it’s not. So, through Sucker Punch, Snyder has drawn the line as he sees fit, fighting for a world where take-charge female badasses are allowed to be empowered by their sexuality without running the risk of being seen exclusively as fuck objects for men.

Andrew Walsh at Entertainment News & Reviews (I guess that's the site's title):

Think about what it means to be a strong male character: a man who stands up to his oppressors, a man of action who is always able to fight back, a man who stands up for his ideals. What do you think of when you hear strong female character? Personally, I don’t see many heroines in films that are actually strong female characters. Most of them essentially become roles that would be interchangeable with another male role (think Alice in the Resident Evil movies). The only one I can think of in recent memory is The Bride in Kill Bill, a role of action hero that could only be portrayed as a woman.
All of the heroines of the film are essentially all fighting back against heroic male iconography: battles with large samurai, battlefields of both World Wars, a Lord of the Rings styled castle (complete with orcs), and a runaway train with a bomb onboard. The fantasies all take place in the mind of Baby Doll when she is forced to dance for the entertainment of her male oppressors, yet these dream sequences are filled with Freudian male imagery (swords, guns, trains, etc) which the heroines interchangeably use and destroy. [...]

Also of note is the aesthetic portrayal of the film’s male and female characters. All of the male characters are portrayed as being sleazy, conniving, or downright ugly with the exclusion of John Hamm who plays the one sympathetic male character (within the real world). In contrast, the women are breathtakingly beautiful, particularly within the dream sequences where they are often wearing sexy lingerie. They appear almost as works of art to be appreciated in and of themselves (objectification) yet consistently fight back and overpower their adversaries.

And the female writers acknowledge the problem, too:

Staci Layne Wilson at Horror.com:

While some may say it's misogynistic (good girls are killed, raped, belittled, and exploited), I found it equally an exercise in misandry (wicked men are the killers and violators).

Meredith Whitmore at Plugged In Online:

Other Negative Elements:
Most of the film's focus is on the females. But it's worth noting that the male characters—apart from the nameless wise man who helps the girls in each battle—are portrayed as louts who use and abuse women for their personal pleasure. Blue lies, forges signatures and blackmails Baby Doll's stepfather.

Jess d'Arbonne at Examiner.com:

Almost every male character is evil, with one exception. [...] He is the only positive male character in the movie, and it's very easy to fall in love with him... until you realize that he is almost completely a figment of their imaginations. He has no real world parallel inside the bordello, and so he is entirely what Baby Doll needs him to be: A father figure with the goal of empowering her. It made me a little sad that (until the very end of the film), the women of Sucker Punch lacked positive male counterparts, something I believe is important in a feminist narrative.


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