I didn’t even begin to touch on the gender-related issues associated with Sucker Punch in the first part of my review, because I was saving them for their own very special post.
As I mentioned, I didn’t read any criticism of the film until after I’d seen it, and what surprised me, aside from the unwillingness of anyone to talk about what Sucker Punch was actually about, was the fact that people saw the film as sexist, misogynistic, or exploitative. Much has been made of Emily Browning’s complaints in the press of how a sex scene between her character, Babydoll, and the High Roller (Jon Hamm) was cut from the film. While I agree that showing a young woman being in charge of her own sexuality is important in film, I’m glad the scene was cut for two reasons. The second, I’ll discuss below, but the most important reason is that it ensured that this film would have a PG-13 rating, which is hugely important in making the film accessible to the very girls and young women who would benefit most from seeing it. As I said in part one, I wish this film had been around when I was a teenager, and I think that girls and young women today are lucky to have this film and films like it. Sucker Punch is part of a heartening trend: films in which young women and girls don’t have to look to men, or even older women, to find role models. They’ll find them in young women and girls very much like themselves.
(Again with the warning for possible spoilers. You know the drill.)
Why I Had a Problem With the Wise Man
My one complaint from a gender perspective is that the Wise Man guiding the young women on their missions was a man at all. Someone in the comments of part one of my review mentioned that Helen Mirren should’ve played that part. I suggested Cate Blanchett. In any case, this is where the film could’ve gone further with regard to female empowerment. Why does Buffy have a Giles and not a Gillian? Why does The Bride have a Bill and not a Barbara? Why do the young women of Sucker Punch have a Wise Man? The TV and Film industry seems to think that young women need older men to guide them toward empowerment. OR, just to give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps these stories are saying that there aren’t yet enough empowered women in place at the top to be those teachers. It’ll be up to these empowered young women to become those teachers for future generations of young girls.
Still, it would be nice if films and television shows entertained the notion that sometimes women have something to teach each other. That sometimes, they even want to and aren’t just cattily guarding their own positions against an All About Eve scenario. Oh wait, Sucker Punch does do that through the character of Doctor Gorski who, even as she works for The Man, does what she can to genuinely help the girls given her limited knowledge of the scope of their problems.
Why Cutting the Sex Scene Made a Better Film
Above, I mentioned that there’s a second reason why I was glad the Emily Browning/Jon Hamm sex scene was cut. Aside from not wanting to have it rubbed in my face that she could get that close to sex with Jon Hamm, I’m glad the scene was cut, because while young women taking ownership of their sexuality is an important message to send, those two characters having sex would not make sense in the context of this film. I think the reason why a scene like that was objected to originally was not that “They don’t think a girl should ever be in control of her own sexuality because they’re from the Stone Age” as Browning says, but rather, in the context of this film it might have been seen less like empowerment and more like Stockholm Syndrome.
I don’t know the context of the scene that was cut. Perhaps she has sex with him for a reason, like she tries to kill him, or perhaps there’s more with his character in the film that was also cut that makes him more sympathetic. Guess we’ll have to wait for the Director’s Cut on DVD to know for sure. What I do know is that I’m glad that none of the girls had sex with anyone, because they had bigger problems in this film than dealing with their sex lives! Female empowerment or awakening is always tied to sex in film in a way that it isn’t with men. Female Protagonist Finds Enlightenment by having an affair, or sleeping with a younger dude, or sleeping with an older dude, or sleeping with lots of dudes. Why does she have to sleep with anyone? Isn’t there anything else going on in her life? There is plenty going on in Sucker Punch without Babydoll also needing to assert her sexual confidence. In fact, one of the messages that I took away from the film is that there should be more to women than their existence as sexual creatures. The whole point is that they’re trying to get away from a place that trades on their sexuality.
Why Sucker Punch Isn’t Exploitative, Misogynistic, or Any Other Word Thrown Around Without Context In Feminist Discourse
Another criticism of Sucker Punch is that it is misogynistic and exploitative simply because it shows women being raped and objectified. I hate to break it to those critics, but…rape happen and women are objectified in real life. Be angry when it happens then. The objectification and sexual abuse in Sucker Punch need to be there, because these are the obstacles these young women are overcoming. What’s more, they aren’t shown outright, but through metaphors, which takes yet another step away from being exploitative and sensationalistic. By making sex “dancing” and a corrupt mental institution into a burlesque hall/brothel, Snyder is being the opposite of exploitative. He isn’t showing for the sake of showing, as many films do. Rather, he’s making a situation clear while attempting to not take advantage of his young actresses.
I offer you this thought regarding the visual metaphors: The burlesque is a metaphor for what is. The steampunk fantasy world is a metaphor for what should be.
Many critics find the skimpy outfits reason enough to complain about exploitation. Well, the outfits in the scenes at the asylum make sense, as this is where they are, um, exploited. Also, they’re dance outfits. That’s what dance outfits and performance outfits look like, and in the context of the basic burlesque hall motif, these outfits also make sense. As for the outfits in the secondary fantasy world during the missions, let’s have a look at the outfits above, shall we? How much skin is actually showing? A couple of inches of thigh, a couple of inches of midriff? I’ve seen mothers buy their daughters more revealing clothing at the mall. I realize that there are people out there who find the mere sight of ankle titillating, or of cleavage, like, at all. But I was surprised by how much was covered and how non-sexual the scenes were in which they were worn. Seriously, they’re each mostly covered from head to toe in something.
And yes, the women look attractive in the outfits! What is wrong with that? Why is the very sight of them exploitative? When I was younger a friend of mine developed really early, and would complain to me that people assumed things about her simply because she had a large chest, but it was difficult for her to find shirts that covered her chest completely and also fit right, so most of her shirts were cleavage-bearing shirts. She was often called a slut behind her back. People assumed she was stupid. Not just boys and men, but everyone. By virtue of the existence of her visible cleavage, assumptions were made before she opened her mouth.
I am so tired of what a woman wears being an issue, and it’s often people trying to be “good feminists” and helpful who make the most noise about it. Sucker Punch shows women fighting, being intelligent, and helping each other. If all a person sees is the fact that there’s cleavage, or a bit of midriff, that says more about the person than it does about the film.
Why Institutions Are Bad For Women (and Why It’s Important For Us to See That)
Corruption and patient abuse in mental institutions and nursing homes isn’t new and it isn’t news. Sadly, there have been too many instances of the most vulnerable among us, once they are put in a place where they are supposed to be getting help, being ignored, abused, or violated. In situations like that, it is often women who suffer the most.
What’s weird is that, as I watched Sucker Punch, I thought of the film Blindness, which is a great film (based on a novel by Jose Saramago), if excruciating to watch. In that, an entire city goes blind at once, and the film focuses on the blind who are surviving in an abandoned mental hospital. Even as everyone is blind, and the strong generally prey on the weak, it is the women who are preyed upon the most. They must deal not only with being denied food rations and other supplies, but also with excessive violence, rape, and with the humiliation of having to offer sexual favors in exchange for food for their families. In Sucker Punch, we see that this particular asylum is all-female, making the fact that it is being used as a place where powerful men can come to “relieve themselves” sadly not surprising. I don’t think the film was commenting on the plight of mentally ill women specifically, but it is interesting that an asylum was chosen as the setting of this story. Both films are frightening depictions of how women have it worse in institutionalized situations, forced to deal with things that men simply don’t have to worry about. In the case of Blindness, the depiction is all-too-real. In Sucker Punch, the depiction is couched in metaphor and fantasy, but just as troubling and just as important to witness, if only to encourage people to stop it from happening in real life.
Why Sucker Punch is Empowering: A War Film Starring Women
Critics seem troubled by Babydoll’s sacrifice at the end of the film, and cite her lobotomy as an example of how the movie isn’t empowering. This makes sense if you see self-sacrifice as weakness. However, I think there’s something hugely empowering about being strong enough to do for someone else rather than save yourself. For Babydoll to accept that it was her job to help Sweet Pea to freedom is a big deal. The film isn’t saying that lobotomy is her way to freedom. The lobotomy is the only way she can deal with her lack of freedom. She’s stopped being concerned about her own freedom, because she has willingly given it up to help someone else. That’s huge. Rocket dies trying to protect her sister from The Cook, the very man who attacked her earlier in the film. It’s as if, by Babydoll saving her from him, she was able to “pay it forward” to Sweet Pea. Both Rocket and Babydoll made the conscious decision to sacrifice themselves for the sake of someone they cared about. That’s powerful.
The deaths of Amber and Blondie are less powerful. However, the only truly tragic one is Amber’s. Blondie brought her death on herself, but Amber was the only true victim, having been smart, resourceful, and brave throughout, and dying anyway. But something like that had to happen. Because sometimes, the system is such that even smart, resourceful, and brave women get thrown under the bus, and you need to show that in anything to do with female empowerment. That this is what needs overcoming.
We see self-sacrifice in war movies all the time—male soldiers saying “Save yourself! Get out of here!” And this was, essentially, a war movie featuring women. They are in the trenches, not all of them make it out alive, and in the end one soldier is left to tell the story of her squad. It’s interesting to me that when a man does it it’s brave, but when a woman does it, it’s a sign of weakness. When self-sacrifice for another is a conscious choice, it isn’t weakness. And isn’t conscious, informed, non-coerced decision-making the very nature of this “agency” we keep wanting women to have?
Why Seeing Images Of Women Fighting Things Is Important
I remember when I went to see the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age (another film featuring Abbie Cornish!), I was so struck by one scene at the end in which Elizabeth I, on horseback and wearing armor, gives a speech to rally the troops. I was amazed, because Cate Blanchett got to do a Braveheart speech. It is so rare that female actresses get to do that. I’m sure she was thrilled by the chance, and I was thrilled to watch it.
Lastly, I’ll say that Sucker Punch is an important film simply because it gives a quintet of young actresses the opportunity to don armor, fight viciously, and have lead roles in a sci-fi/fantasy film; and it gives young women everywhere the opportunity to watch them do it. This type of story—a war film starring women; a war film in which women actually fight and fight brutally—is an opportunity afforded so rarely that when it happens, we damn well better embrace it, if only for its sheer novelty.
If only in the hope that one day it won’t be so novel anymore.
Teresa Jusino would be Sweet Pea if life were Sucker Punch. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, and PopMatters.com. Her fiction has appeared in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres; she is the editor of Beginning of Line, the Caprica fan fiction site; and her essay “Why Joss is More Important Than His ‘Verse” is included in Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon By the Women Who Love Them, which is on sale now wherever books are sold! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.