The Curious Feminist Subtext of ‘Sucker Punch’

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.

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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.

8 thoughts on “The Curious Feminist Subtext of ‘Sucker Punch’

  1. Yeah, I’m late. So what. “So Babydoll’s empowerment fantasy has enabled her to affect only a marginal change in the situation.” Babydoll does several things in the outer layer of the plot that have the potential for change: a) opposing the abusive stepfather (it backfires, but right in the beginning of the film she shows an enormous amount of initiative), b) successfully saving Rocket from the cook by putting a knife to his throat, c) convincing the girl to team up to beat the system (fails because Blondie succumbs to the pressure and betrays the team), d) helping Sweat Pea escape, and even e) making such an impression on the doctor that it heralds the downfall of the system as a whole. Yes, it’s done action hero style, but it’s really not just marginal. The innermost action fantasy layer has them much more in control of the situations, except for the “wise man” who is their boss, but he acts as an advisor since the ends they’re fighting for – map, fire, knife – are the metaphoric means to their own escape that they’ve chosen themselves.
    So, sure, we’d like to see a strong femme not be such a comic book hero/ine, but guess what? Zack Snyder loves comic books, so that’s where the overdone aesthetics come from (women in comic book aestetics have certainly been bashed enough, e.g. by the “Escher grils” blog). But you’ve got to tip the hat to his style of spending months on training the actresses to do most of their stunt scenes on their own (there’s some real-world empowerment right there), and while placing the women in situations dominated by men (and let’s face, those men don’t come off well) goes against what we’d like to see, these nightmarish situations are there for a purpose. If Snyder had lost the exploitative clothing, we’d not be arguing about this at all.

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    • That’s quite interesting; you make a good argument. At the end of the film the corrupt orderly is arrested and the implication is that the regime of sexual abuse and unnecessary lobotomies is overthrown; if memory serves he also implicates the stepfather, which could have further consequences. So the analogy to radical feminism breaks down because whereas in radical feminist theory (and in historical experience at least up to a certain point) the sexual abuse of women is supported by the very highest authorities in society, in the narrative of this film sexual violence is a product of corruption and is addressed once it becomes apparent to the authorities. So, hm, maybe my whole reading breaks down.

      I must say that I found the scene where the characters played by Carla Gugino and Jon Hamm suddenly discover that Blue has been forging lobotomy authorizations and decide to take action about it really unconvincing. Maybe this is why I mentally erased that scene and its consequences from my reading of the film. Causally it seems flimsy: the surgeon sees a funny look on Babydoll’s face and idly asks the psychiatrist why she ordered the lobotomy, and only then does she become aware that she had not ordered a lobotomy which presumably could not have happened without her authorization. Up to that point the movie had seemed to imply that Dr. Gorski was turning a blind eye to Blue’s racket; in her role as Madam Gorski within Babydoll’s dissociative fantasy she appeared directly complicit. Maybe this is an interesting comments about the phenomenology of oppression, whereby oppressed subjects conflate consequence with intention in their perceptions of privileged subjects.

      Hm, maybe I’ll have to take another look at the movie!

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      • You’re blog is on a rather dusty part of my reading list, though happily you don’t write all that much, so I’m content to pick a post now and then and respond to it (you may have noticed I just did elsewhere). I was a bit disturbed by your reply here because I didn’t feel the small point I made would merit “another look at the movie”. I think your analysis that empowerment fantasies shouldn’t be substitutes for real empowerment stands, and that the movie lends itself to a reading that endorses this substitution. (One might argue that by juxtaposing oppression and fantasy so blatantly, Snyder made the opposite point, and the uncomfortable feeling I took away from the movie seems to prove him right.)

        My issue was simply with the “oh, but she has no real agency” dismissal, which I’ve first seen applied to Katniss of Hunger Games. If we have a movie (or a book?) with an action figure heroine, why would anyone dismiss them as unempowered? They obviously aren’t, compare them to “damsels in distress”, who really are. Why doesn’t this happen to action heroes? I have no explanation, and I can but guess that action heroine power is not the kind of power these critics strive for themselves. In short, I suspect that because the heroines aren’t embodying the critic’s goals and dreams, the power they do have somehow doesn’t count. (And that’s how the movement cut itself to pieces. Film at eleven.) Or am I missing something?

        Would I want to take another look at this movie, i.e. watch it again? Sweet music video action, linked by an asylum/bordello narrative, but the well-styled girl-group characters weren’t really memorable, so I’ll pass. Give me a Miyazaki rerun any day, though.

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  2. Dear Christopher,

    It is bold for a man to take such an opinion supposing a feminist perspective, and we feminists need more men thinking through the angles. Thank you.

    As to the film…perhaps nothing short of a lobotomy will help any of us understand how this movie could be both feminist subtext and support so many stereotypes including the male myth of the happy hooker: but it is both radical feminist in its truest sense and supports all sorts of nasty anti-feminine stereotypes. I think Luce Irigaray, the Belgium philosopher, and her concept of the contiguous ‘other’ applies well here – true equality would require a female creation outside the male subtexts: a purely feminine perspective without reference to a male reality…now that would be worth watching – and would not require a lobotomy. (I am making fun here…)

    There you go. Now, for the answer to your search for an all-inclusive social theory to infuse knowledge into praxis that will result in an egalitarian society, I suggest nothing short of sociological superstring theory that incorporates the quarks of inter-personal relationships and the macro-social relativity of political and cultural processes. Transdisciplinarity at its very best…

    Athena

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    • Thinking it over some more: do you really think the film supports the happy hooker stereotype? The hooker setting is within Babydoll’s dissociative fantasy, and even then the “girls” seem anything but happy; Babydoll in particular is visibly miserable.

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      • I must admit, I entirely missed the subtext of the dance scenes, which makes the film all the more horrific. Normally I agree with Feminist Frequency, Anita’s deconstructions are usually spot on, and yet there’s something almost intangible about this film which has stuck with me for years, and it was only on another viewing that it started to sink in.

        I couldn’t shake the resemblance of the film to Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’, specifically the scenes in the Yoshiwara nightclub. In that film, a male-dominated society creates a robotic image of a woman specifically for their own pleasure, and the film lingers on both the overclocked sexuality of the moment, and the male gaze. Both that film and this one linger on not only the sexualisation of women, but on the male response to it. In Metropolis the adoring crowds are whipped up into a frenzy by what they see and lose their restraint. Given Metropolis’ focus, not on feminism, but on technology, it’s easy to see the metaphor. Men are seduced by technology, they are infatuated by the selfish desires it affords them and seek to justify their use of it through any means, all in the name of power (religion as a cause of madness is dwelt on heavily too).

        So how does this tie back in my mind? Lang used the very technology he was warning about to make his film, just as Snyder uses exploitative sexuality to warn about sexuality. Both place the audience within the film and turn the focus back on the person watching, i.e. the male gaze. It’s a trick that’s not possible without appropriating the very tactics it decries. From one vantage point it’s hypocritical, but that nagging feeling I couldn’t shake from this film were those lingering shots of the enraptured men, lusting after the females, a true image of disgust. It was as if the film was targeting every item on the male demographic fantasy checklist, then forcing us to look at ourselves as we ‘enjoy’ them.

        I found it telling that none of the prisoners are given names, they are virtually anonymous, marked only by derisive nicknames (Babydoll, Sweetpea, Amber etc.) which appear connected with lecherous clubs where men ogle the waitresses. Browning’s character doesn’t even speak for twenty minutes. So if the asylum is an analogy for the patriarchal system, then this film’s warning is that it’s coming down, and it’s the cooperation of men and women together that will bring that about. The orderly is clinging to his own male power fantasy. He wants things to go back to the way they were, he believes that the women should be grateful because he ‘looks after them’, and when that position is threatened, he uses violence. Perhaps the significance of that final ‘look’ between Babydoll and the lobotomist was one of mutual understanding, one of respect, and it’s that which ultimately brings about the end of the institution, not violence. Babydoll’s attack on the orderly solves nothing, yet when that understanding is reached, it shines a light on the rotten abuses of the patriarchal institution and the pungent motives of those involved. As the bus driver says at the end, we’ve got a long way to go, but as long as we look after each other, and respect both genders right to freedom, we’ll get there one day.

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  3. Pingback: Análise: Sucker Punch | Horny Pony

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