I’m about two years late to this party.
I watched Sucker Punch recently as part of a film club. I was a little hesitant – I didn’t enjoy Watchmen and…I’ve just realised that’s the only film of his I’ve seen. None of the others grabbed my attention or had pretty terrible reviews so didn’t seem worth the price of the cinema ticket.
Back in 2011 I remember reading a few articles about how Sucker Punch was sexist, and so I stayed away. But watching it, Sucker Punch was a whole other level of misogynist bullshit than I expected. I clenched my teeth at certain points, and was made so uncomfortable by various aspects. Combined with the fact that Snyder obviously patted himself on the back, thinking this was an empowering film because girls are fighting, and it left a very bad taste in my mouth.
Zack Snyder states that Sucker Punch mirrors The Wizard of Oz (he wishes) in that “the fantasy world serves as a metaphor for what’s going on in the real world” He goes into further detail on why he thinks it’s “more than just the girls looking sexy and kicking ass” (source for all quotes from this io9 article):
Everything in the movie is about a show within a show within a show. Someone asked me, “Why did you dress the girls like that, in those provocative costumes?” And I said, “Well, think about it for a second. I didn’t dress those girls in the costume. The audience dressed those girls.” And when I say the audience, I mean the audience that comes to the movies. Just like the men who visit a brothel, [they] dress the girls when they go to see these shows as however they want to see them.
But my hope was that they would take those things back, just like my girls hopefully get confidence, they get strength through each other, that those become power icons. They start out as cliches of feminine sexuality as made physical by what culture creates. I think that part of it was really specific, whether it’s French maid or nurse or Joan Arc to a lesser extent [laughs], or schoolgirl. Our hope is we were able to modify them and turn them into these power icons, where they can fight back at the actual cliches that they represent. So hopefully by the end the girls are empowered by their sexuality and not exploited. But certainly that’s where they come from, the journey is asking, “What do you want to see? Well, be careful what you want to see.
Let’s rip that to shreds, shall we?
So, Zack, pushing the responsibility away is bullshit. You put them in those costumes and wrote it in. Yeah, people filled the cinema tickets, but it was still yours and the costume designer’s choice. It is rare for a girl character in Sucker Punch to be fully clothed. In the first scene, the protagonist Baby Doll is wearing pyjamas, and then her clothes get smaller depending on how far down the rabbit hole we go.
They’re deliberately provocative costume choices: Baby Doll’s schoolgirl outfit is reminiscent of Sailor Moon and the standard “naughty schoolgirl” fantasy. They make sure to state that Baby Doll is 20 (she’s of age, people!) but she’s wearing blonde pigtails and a headband and looks much younger. In the brothel world, the girls are wearing lingerie, and then in the steampunk Nazi fantasy world they’re all wearing cutesy soldier outfits that are impractical for fighting. But their hats are jaunty!
Now, I’m not a prude by any means. Women can wear whatever they want, and objectively, a lot of those outfits are rather cute. I would wear some of them. What I have a problem with is that 100% of the men are sensibly clothed 100% of the time. Even zombie steampunk men may have limbs rotting away, but none are topless! The constant lingering camera angles on the girls’ asses and crotches is also wearying. Yes, it’s a fantasy and so theoretically they could wear whatever they want when killing dragons and mecha-Samurai and robots and what have you, but by the same token you can still have them wearing more practical clothing for fighting and still looking sexy, if that’s the aim. Kill Bill did a better job at that (even though that film was very much not my cup of tea, either).
Snyder states that “Our hope is we were able to modify them and turn them into these power icons, where they can fight back at the actual cliches that they represent. So hopefully by the end the girls are empowered by their sexuality and not exploited.” But the issue is, they’re not power icons. Over and over, the women are exposed to pervasive, sexualised violence: it begins with an implied, threatened rape against Baby Doll and her sister. It’s suggested that because what happens in the fantasy world happens in another way in the level before it, that a lot of the girls in the mental asylum might be sexually preyed upon. All of the girls in the brothel are sex workers against their will, plus Rocket is nearly raped by the chef. There’s not as much threatened sexual violence in the third fantasy world, but Baby Doll even straddles a baby dragon in a weirdly sexual way when she cuts open its throat. It’s as relentless as the rather boring action scenes (which are all filmed like video games, but since you’re not invested in the avatars fighting, it quickly becomes so much mediocre CGI).
I watched the extended version, which has the scene with Jon Hamm as the high roller who has purchased Baby Doll’s virginity but was cut from the cinematic release (so that it could remain 12A/PG-13). Emily Browning, who plays Baby Doll, was upset by it, stating: “I think that it’s great for this young girl to actually take control of her own sexuality. Well, the MPAA doesn’t like that. They don’t think a girl should ever be in control of her own sexuality because they’re from the Stone Age” (source). But the thing is, that whole scene has a long speech from the High Roller saying how he doesn’t just want her body, he wants to possess her mind too and wants a “true moment.” So he asks her to have consentual sex with him and then he’ll offer her freedom (though he never states how this will happen or what he means by freedom). She makes the best of a bad situation and goes with him willingly. But that is not complete free consent, in my opinion. She’s not free to say “no” and walk away – he won’t let her because he paid a small fortune for her virginity and he’s going to collect. Also, after that, she’s knocked back to the real world to be lobotomised.
For though Snyder might think it’s about female empowerment, the power only comes in dreams and nightmares, and that power is systematically taken away. The women in the film are imprisoned in a mental asylum and abused, locked in a brothel and abused, one by one Baby Doll’s comrades Blondie, Amber and Rocket are murdered for daring to fight back. Baby Doll is left comatose, and a very traumatised Sweet Pea is allowed to survive, but only if she’s wearing a sedate white, non-revealing dress and is at the last moment saved by a man again (the bus driver, who was also the mentor in the Nazi-dragon-robot world and gave the girls their orders). Sweet Pea survived because she transitioned from Whore to Madonna.
As a final point, while Sucker Punch is unfair to women, it’s also pretty unfair to men. All the men (except for maybe Wise Man Scott Glen) are despicable rapists, would-be rapists, murderers, and a fair amount also have poor hygiene. They can’t control themselves when Baby Doll does her sexy dance and stare vacantly. So, basically, Sucker Punch had no characters I liked or rooted for, with the possible exception of the poor baby dragon who had its throat slit and its mother, who was stabbed in the head.
This movie failed for me on every possible level.