Before he directed Man of Steel, and after his huge financial success with 300 and more modest success with Watchmen, Zack Snyder wrote, produced, and directed a film called Sucker Punch.
This film garnered poor reviews, performed modestly at the box office, and made little cultural impact except for the widespread anger it attracted from feminist critics (for a summary and links, see Anita Sarkeesian’s review on Feminist Frequency) for portraying its female action heroes as prostitutes dressed in fetish-fuel gear, an objectification epitomized by the fact that the protagonist’s name was, literally, ‘Babydoll’. The notion that the film offers a story of empowerment for young women facing sexist objectification, as Snyder himself has tried to argue, is ludicrous for all of the reasons that its critics have pointed out.
But I think that sometimes a story can say something interesting about its subject matter in a way that goes far beyond its own intentions or the intentions of its author. When read closely, Snyder’s Sucker Punch offers a radical-feminist deconstruction of female-protagonist action movies, and in the process it tells us something important about masculine wish-fulfillment fantasies and heroic mythology in general.
So let’s take a closer look.
The story of Sucker Punch goes like this: A twenty-year-old woman with a history of sexual abuse accidentally kills her younger sister while trying to protect that sister from being molested by their stepfather after the death of their mother. The stepfather admits the woman to a psychiatric asylum for female patients (run by men) and bribes an orderly to forge a psychiatrist’s signature to have the woman lobotomized. The same orderly is in the business of arranging for asylum inmates to be raped himself and the other male staff. As she is admitted, the woman formulates a plan of escape and notes four objects she will need to implement the plan. Then, her mind overwhelmed by trauma and terror, she descends into a fugue state in which she experiences the hospital as a bordello, her fellow inmates as prostitutes, the staff as customers, and rapes as dance routines. In this state, she conspires with four other inmates to obtain the items she needs and escape together.
During the rapes themselves, she enters a further dissociative state in which she and her fellow conspirators appear as super-soldiers fighting wars on fantastic battlefields. This double dissociative state enables her to pretend to be an enthusiastic participant in her rapes, thereby distracting the hospital staff enough to steal or copy the four necessary items. She attempts the escape, but the plan goes wrong and three of her fellow conspirators are caught and killed, one by the cook and two by the corrupt orderly; their deaths are covered up. To enable her fourth friend to escape she allows herself to be captured, and in due course she is lobotomized. However, her case attracts enough attention to enable the psychiatrist and the doctor performing the lobotomies to discover the orderly’s corrupt practices; attempting to bargain his way out of the situation, he implicates the stepfather. The inmate who escaped the asylum evades recapture through the chance intervention of a bus driver, who appears benevolent but whose motives remain uncertain by the end of the film.
Other reviews that I’ve read seem to miss the implication that when Babydoll starts to ‘dance’ she’s really being raped. This detail, which is only implied and not shown, but which I thought was implied pretty clearly, is crucial to making the story make sense and also to making the story work as a concretized metaphor for the radical-feminist view of women’s situation in society.
Radical feminism can be broadly defined by the claims that the oppression of women by men is (a) systematic and therefore pervasive throughout contemporary society, (b) based ultimately on men’s control of women’s sexuality, and (c) itself the basis of all other forms of oppression. In works like Towards A Feminist Theory of the State and Intercourse, American radical feminists Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin describe a world in which every aspect of women’s lives is constrained by the effects of men’s coercive, often violent attempts to reduce women to sexual objects. In effect, they describe women’s experience in male-dominated society as that of the dominated subjects of a totalitarian regime.
In his book Asylums, sociologist Erving Goffman proposed the concept of the “total institution”. A total institution is a place, like mental hospitals, prisons, and army barracks, where a group of people live together cut off from the outside world, while subject to the administration of every aspect of their lives by a central authority. A total institution is a totalitarian society in miniature.
So, from a radical feminist point of view, a corrupt mental hospital in which male staff sexually abuse female patients serves as a vivid metaphor for society as a whole and women’s situation in it. Babydoll’s extreme victimization, her desperate attempt to use her own sexual victimization to obtain some means of escape from the asylum, and her coping with that abjection by retreat into a dissociative fantasy work as metaphors for the situation of women who attempt to parlay their status as sexual objects into some kind of personal escape from patriarchal oppression, consoling themselves with the fantasy that they are exercising agency by doing so.
As an empowerment fantasy this fails utterly, of course. The protagonists in Sucker Punch do not achieve real selfhood or agency; they do not even attempt to change the institutional order that defines their unfreedom; they are limited to pursuing, mostly unsuccessfully, entirely private responses to systemic oppression. Not only that, but the characters themselves are portrayed without depth or complexity, as personified tropes bordering on stereotypes.
But as a comment on the uses and limitations of empowerment fantasies the film has something to say, or at least prompts an interesting insight. The protagonists, women psychiatric patients, are entirely socially disenfranchised, denied almost any opportunity for selfhood or agency. They use empowerment fantasies to allow themselves to preserve a fictive sense of self and agency in order to improvise a desperate and unlikely escape to freedom out of the few and very thin opportunities available to them under the circumstances. This gambit succeeds only in a very limited way. The best that the central protagonist can do is retreat into a purely subjective, solipsistic freedom by entering her lobotomized coma in a blissful state enabled by the knowledge that she has secured at least a chance at freedom for one other person. So Babydoll’s empowerment fantasy has enabled her to affect only a marginal change in the situation.
Read in these terms, the film shows us that empowerment fantasies are not worth much in the end, except as a last resort of the desperately oppressed. This is an interesting thing for a spectacle-driven, highly intertextual genre film to say. Most ‘action’ films, tv shows, and video games are empowerment fantasies and most are aimed at male viewers. Men have enjoyed the privilege of empowerment fantasies since at least as far back as the Iliad. A significant slice of feminist cultural politics since at least the 90s rise of Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer has affirmed that for women to gain action heroes and violent empowerment fantasies of their own is a positive gain, even one worth struggling for. How wise has this been?
One view is that the presence of female action heroes, all on its own, offers little realistic encouragement to girls or young women in the audience. Sady Doyle has made this point about Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
I, unlike a lot of feminist ladies, get annoyed with Strong Female Characters Who Kick Ass, because it seems to me that making your heroine actually magical and skilled in various made-up martial arts is a really silly way to go about delivering Female Empowerment to your viewers, who will have to be strong on a day-to-day basis without access to superpowers or magic.
Doyle’s point has a more general implication. If female action heroes don’t really empower women because the forms of empowerment they model are unavailable to most women in the real world, can the same be said for the effects of male action heroes on men? Are the empowerment fantasies that the culture industry routinely offers up to men and boys actually empowering for their intended audiences?
I think it’s complicated. On the one hand, the hero with superhuman abilities who represents some idealized good in combat with an idealized evil is a highly valued figure in our culture. Whenever an individual from one or another subject position is shown as a hero, they are thereby shown as being socially esteemed, and this esteem translates out to the group as a whole to some extent. Conversely, when particular types of people are systematically excluded from the role of hero then, this expresses and reinforces a broader social exclusion. So from this point of view it’s positive to have female action heroes because that shows women in a socially valued role, just as for men the innumerable representations of white cisgendered heteronormative male heroes reinforce the social valuation of white cisgendered heteronormative male subjects.
At the same time, in all of these stories the means by which the hero achieves social esteem are means that most people do not have available to them.
To put it simply: in real life I cannot slay my foes. I have to go on living with them, working with them, very often working under them. I have to negotiate with people opposed to my actions, try to understand their motives and get them to understand mine. Very often one can turn an enemy into a not-enemy through negotiation; binary logics of good vs evil are a positive liability in these situations.
Even in the cases of true oppression, very rarely can the real evils of this world be fought with direct physical confrontation. Most often, fighting evil requires collective action, which in turn requires negotiation, the building of networks of alliances, the mobilization and encouragement of the discouraged. Once again, binary logics of good vs evil are a liability: if I see good vs evil every time I encounter someone who disagrees with me about ideology or strategy, I will quickly alienate a lot of potential allies. If I see every discussion as an arena of battle whose outcome must be a decisive victory for one and defeat for the other, I will not contribute to a collective democratic movement.
In One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse argues that Hollywood movies systematically dis-empower their mass audiences by inflaming the subconscious, antisocial forces of the id and weakening the conscious, rational ego.
Using a less Freudian scheme, I suggest that action movies provide us with a subliminal, intuitive template for how one resolves conflict and achieves social esteem, a template that is counterproductive for most people most of the time. This template becomes part of our habitus, informing our intuitive expectations of how the world should work and how we should act in it for success.
How does the action hero, male or female, make their way in the world? Through a decisive confrontation the hero achieves personal dominance over their enemy, by force, in a way that is sanctioned by prevalent social norms.
In other words, the action hero is an idealization of social dominance. And when we idealize heroes we idealize the means of our own oppression.
This is why Sucker Punch, for all its faults and despite the misguided intentions of its author, says something interesting. It shows us that a feminist action hero is a contradiction in terms.