briarwood: Supernatural: John Winchester (SPN John Waiting)
Morgan Briarwood ([personal profile] briarwood) wrote2011-04-04 04:19 pm
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Movie: Sucker Punch

Few people would accuse Zack Snyder of feminism, but it was his own claim in that direction that persuaded me to give his latest, Sucker Punch, a try. I just happened to catch his interview on BBC News, when he was promoting the film. One of the things he said was that the film was about female empowerment. This from the director of 300? I did not have much hope, but I had to check it out.

Unsusprisingly, Sucker Punch is essentially a sexist pig's vision of what "female empowerment" ought to be. In other words: females have power only through their sexuality, but females who assert that power in opposition to men must be punished for it. Yeah, really. It's not even subtle about it.

The movie may technically pass the Bechdel test (two women have a conversation that's not about men) but it fails the Mo Movie Measure (which adds to the Bechdel test that both women must have names). In fact, none of the females in the movie have names except perhaps the female psychiatrist (I don't recall if she's introduced in the beginning), because the names we're given for each of the female characters are not assigned in the "reality" segment of the movie.

The plot: A nameless young girl has come home from her mother's funeral. Her stepfather attempts to rape her little sister. In trying to rescue her sister, the elder girl accidently kills her. This gives the evil stepfather the excuse he needs to commit her to an asylum where she is destined for a lobotomy.

At this point, we enter a kind of fantasy allegory where the asylum becomes a brothel with the inmates in the role of whores and the staff in the roles of pimp, owner, madam etc. I assume this is supposed to be some kind of escape from reality via the girl's imagination, but it is never really made clear. Maybe she's hallucinating. Anyhow, in brothel-world, the nameless protagonist is dubbed "Babydoll" and instructed to dance. Reality shifts again and we're in a kind of videogame in which Babydoll fights some kind of Samuri monster in order to meet with the Wise Man, who sends her on a quest to find five items which she will need to escape: a map, fire, a knife, a key and a "mystery". We are then back in the brothel in time to see the reactions to Babydoll's dance, which though we see nothing of it, was evidently mesmerisingly sexy.

Babydoll enlists the aid of the other whores/inmates to help her collect her five items. The plan is really simple: each of the first four items is in the hands of a specific man. Babydoll will dance for each of them in turn and while he's distracted by her super-sex-powers, one of the other girls will grab the prize.

Do you see where this is going? Babydoll's only power is her sexuality, and even that isn't real: she has to be in this fantasy whorehouse to even have that much agency. The audience isn't given the opportunity to judge her power, because every time she "dances" we're transported into the videogame version of "reality". She doesn't even form her own plan of escape: it is given to her by the Magical Male Mentor who also directs the girls' steps in video-game-land. The other women are in a similar position. Each of them, in the brothel setting, is essentially a sex object. And it doesn't escape my notice that the other girls are the ones taking all the risks here: all Babydoll has to do is distract the mark with her super-sex-dance. (This is fudged somewhat by the transitions to videogame-world, because in each of those settings, it's Babydoll who leads the battle and retrieves the object in question. But the plan is pretty clear: Babydoll dances, the others risk their lives to find the objects. Very empowering, don't you think?)

The story proceeds as you'd expect: Each item on the list is collected. This involves huge battles in videogame world in which the girls wear skimpy outfits and show off their super-athleticism while battling monsters ranging from zombie-Nazis to LOTR-style-orcs. Back in brothel-world one of the girls keeps banging on about how dangerous this plan is and how they should quit; another refuses to listen and the rest just kinda follow along. Eventually reckless girl is killed during their attempt to steal the knife. The "brothel owner" aka sleazy orderly finally gets wise to what's going on and shoots a few more whores for good measure (it's never clear what happened to them in 'reality', only that they're gone). Babydoll and the sole survivor, who naturally is the one who sensibly objected to the plan in the first place, proceed with the escape attempt.

Here is where the myth that the movie is about female empowerment really explodes. See, they've collected their four items, but Babydoll has forgotten all about the fifth: the "mystery". Right as they reach the asylum gate she remembers it, and concludes that the message from the Magical Male Mentor means she is not, in fact, to escape: only her companion is. So she sacrifices herself, allowing the other girl to escape. And the anti-female-power point really drives home: The escapee is the closest thing the movie has to a virgin character - she's the good girl, the one who wants to obey the (male) rules. She's even in a lovely white dress, just in case you don't get it. She's also the mother character - the eldest of the women and cast in a protective role by having a sister to look after. And yet even she can't complete her escape without, ultimately, the aid of a Magical Male Mentor in the form of a bus driver (played by the same actor as Babydoll's MMM) who lies to the cops for her.

Meanwhile Babydoll is rewarded for her bravery with a lobotomy, following which she is subjected to sexual abuse and presumably gets to live out her life as a vegetable, the consequences of having dared to believe herself empowered. I wish I were kidding, but that's really how it ends. Oh, but the evil orderly does get punished in the end. Sort of. Just a little. And it's all wrapped up with a nice "it's only a story" bow for the finish. So that's alright then, isn't it?

No, Zack. It's not alright.

We need stories that truly are about female empowerment. For too long Hollywood has fed us this bullshit that a woman is nothing without a man, that our highest goal is motherhood and that we need men to support and rescue us. (And that it's not rape if she's been lobotomized first.)

If Sucker Punch is meant to be a story of female empowerment, we were better off with Disney Princesses. I sure hope Zack Snyder doesn't have daughters.

On the plus side: It's visually stunning as you'd expect from this director and the layers upon layers of reality are an interesting approach. It's begging for a comparion to Inception - you come out with the same sense of never knowing what's real - but unlike Inception, you don't come out really caring about any of the characters. And the film does seem at least minimally aware of the issues I've raised; at one point a character protests about the obviously sexual roles they are expected to play. I'll give a point for that.