Empowerment and Exploitation of ‘Sucker Punch’ Are in the Gaze of the Beholder

By  · Published on March 27th, 2011

This piece contains spoilers for Sucker Punch. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go watch it before diving in.

Once the first images hit, or when the first synopsis hit, or maybe even when Zack Snyder dreamed up the concept for Sucker Punch ten years ago – a time bomb was set to explode twice, and it finally did this weekend. The first explosion was the basis for the existence of the movie, and it continued exploding many, many times during the runtime. The second was the question of feminism. Now that the movie is out, it has also exploded.

The reactions from before the film was released varied, and they still do. Some see it as feminism merged with geek culture (which assumes geek culture isn’t sexless to begin with). Some see it as an affront to the advancement of women parading in thigh high boots.

One who gives a strong argument for the latter is Angie Han of /film, who writes the hell out of an editorial called “On Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch: Why Ass-Kicking and Empowerment Aren’t Always the Same Thing.” You should absolutely go read it before reading this, although I’ll do my best to condense her arguments (in a fair way) in order to respectfully counter them.

The quick and dirty version of her detailed argument goes something like this (but, again, you should go read her piece first):

  1. If framed in the male gaze, the concept of ass-kicking women is negated as a figure of empowerment.
  2. The movie stars five women, but it’s still all about men. Men who act as catalysts, who are the target audience both in real-life theaters and in the theaters of the movie. Men who are villains and leaders. Men who define the universe and enjoy the sexuality of the young women living in it.
  3. The women only get to kick ass in a dream world, against men who already have power over them.
  4. Sex is used as a weapon with men enjoying it, and the women never enjoying their own femininity.
  5. Sucker Punch is misogynistic because it re-frames female empowerment in terms of male fantasy.

Han gives examples and does due diligence on each concept, but there are clear counter-arguments to her points.

As for the first, it’s unclear why a group of bad-guy-beating ladies loses its power if all of that action is framed within the confines of the male gaze (that elusive concept of men staring at women, and as a result, objectifying them). Why should the way in which the men view these women have anything to do with how they define themselves or each other? Is Baby Doll’s triumph over each mini-boss negated simply because a sleazy old man thinks she’s sexy?

There’s something truly subversive about dressing up the wolf of feminism and female strength in the sheep’s clothing of the male gaze. That clothing happens to be halter tops and bustiers, but it wouldn’t be subversive if it played the female empowerment angle straight. Luring men to the theater with the promise of attractive women, and then showing those women engaged in beautiful and brutal fight choreography is the height of subversion, and it’s not self-evident that this method undermines the empowerment endeavor.

Snyder gets men into seats to see women kicking ass, plain and simple. Now, does Sucker Punch actually deliver on that female empowerment angle? It’s unclear, and I’ll get to that more a bit later.

As to the second argument on the list, the suggestion is that none of the fighting matters anyway because the movie is all about men. However, the male characters are as flat as the women here, and if Sucker Punch is exploiting women, it’s also doing a damned fine job at painting men as rapists and power-abusers. It’s Stieg Larsson levels of anti-male. The lone testicle-owning figure of redemption is Jon Hamm’s The Doctor who appears just briefly enough to mutter something incoherent about how Baby Doll shouldn’t have had a procedure because of something or something else. He never quite spits it out. His counterpart is Carla Gugino’s Dr. Gorski who genuinely cares for the girls and fights for them (even if she waits too long to do so in a meaningful way). He’s an inconsequential figure. She’s a heroine.

Scott Glenn’s The Wise Man isn’t redemptive so much as he is completely neutral. He’s a living, breathing exposition delivery system. The role could have been played by a woman, a man or a robot, and it wouldn’t have changed anything. Han paints him as a leader, but The Wise Man merely explains the goal of each dream sequence. Baby Doll is the one taking the risks and leading her girls into battle. He’s passive, she’s active, and leaders aren’t passive. Thus, it’s only females that act in any sort of leadership role. The only counterpart to that is Oscar Isaac’s Blue Jones, the main villain, and he’s a leader by fear and default. He’s a pure representation of chauvinistic society, the very same structure that the women kick ass to escape from.

Every other male character, including Blue, is depicted in the worst way possible. Greedy, overbearing, rape-centric, domineering, sweaty, greasy, and vile. If the argument is that this movie is anti-feminist, it’s definitely not doing guys any favors either.

The third argument is the most intriguing because it deals with the notion that, since the beat downs are happening inside one girl’s mind, they don’t have any bearing on the thematic symbolism of the story. Women are only allowed to be strong in a fantasy world. There’s a deeper discussion to have here on whether that’s correct or not, but the movie certainly doesn’t warrant it because not all of the action happens in Baby Doll’s head.

The climactic violence of the movie happens when Baby Doll debilitates Blue. She’s being attacked, but she isn’t helpless. She’s tough, fights back, and stabs Blue in his very real-life clavicle.

It’s Baby Doll’s journey. At first she isn’t ready to fight back, but she’s determined to get out, and she learns how to fight back (and gains the will to) along the way. Yes, it’s true that Sweet Pea is the only one that gets out, that she’s sheepish and lame and has to be saved by The Wise Bus Driver (a man) at the end, but it’s also important to remember that she’s saved first by a woman.

Baby Doll strongly and defiantly sacrifices herself in order to get Sweet Pea out. This time, she doesn’t do it by dancing, but by kneeing a man right in the balls. What male’s fantasy is that? Only Craigslist knows. The point is that there are several occasions where the main woman of Sucker Punch gets to kick ass in real life, and that directly results in the real-world saving of a girl who manages to escape the oppressively male environment. Strong woman wins. Asshole man gets arrested.

The end is just the beginning for Sweet Pea, and she’s helped along by the Wise Old Bus Driver Who May or May Not Exist who, up until that point, hadn’t been a direct guide for her. Now, would it matter if The Wise Man were The Wise Woman? Maybe. Maybe not. The character is almost sexless to begin with, but perhaps changing it to an actress would have been a better message from the start.

As for the girls fighting back against men that hold power over them negating the feminist angle, I’m at a loss. If young women fighting against men that have power over them isn’t feminist, I’m not sure what alternative is. Had the movie been about women fighting back against women (like in, say, All I Wanna Do) would that have been fairly feminist? If so, why? It can’t be a matter of women fighting against men that don’t have power over them. All action heroes fight against an enemy that holds some sort of power, so it’s unclear why that same situation here weakens the idea of feminism and advances one of exploitation.

The fourth claim regarding sex being enjoyed by the men but not by the women is also an intriguing one because it gets down to the heart of the subjective question: can women be sexual objects and strong at the same time?

Just as men in action films are treated like sexual objects, the women of Sucker Punch are on display for gazing eyes and hormones. I don’t mean that flippantly. What woman or gay man doesn’t watch Jason Bourne in a soaked shirt, James Bond in his trunks, or Clive Owen’s stubble without getting the same effect? Sucker Punch takes things to fetishistic extremes, but pretending that Bond’s shirtlessness (or his tuxedo for that matter) isn’t the same thing is just being sexist. If James Bond can be a sex object and be strong at the same time, so can Baby Doll.

Do the men of this movie enjoy the sexuality? Yes. Of course. They enjoy it to their detriment. They enjoy it to the tune of a lost lighter, a lost knife, a lost key, a stab to the throat, and the general feeling of being a chump. It’s also, in the end, questionable as to whether Blue is enjoying his kiss-rape of Baby Doll as he cries and comes close to having a nervous breakdown – a scenario that proves to be his undoing at the hands of Dr. Gorski (a woman).

Do the women enjoy the sexuality? No, they don’t. Han is absolutely correct here. The women of this movie are fighting to leave a lot of unpleasantness behind. Sweet Pea seems to enjoy dancing because it gives her a sense of ego and expression that she otherwise can’t have. Baby Doll seems to enjoy the fantasy (at least) that dancing allows her. However, no, the women definitely don’t get to enjoy their sexuality in this movie, and that’s a shame.

The fifth claim is where the argument goes too far. Does Sucker Punch advance or regress the concept of woman empowerment? The answer is none of the above. It does neither. It does nothing.

It’s all action and no depth. As Han rightly points out, depth of character would have helped the feminism greatly. It would have helped a lot of things that were lacking in this movie. When a greased-up Arnold mumbles a line about blowing off some steam after killing the big bad at the end of Commando, it doesn’t speak to male advancement, and Sucker Punch is the equivalent. The visuals just happen to be a thousand times better than most action movies. The characters are meaningless place holders, just like any male-starring actioner, and that means it doesn’t advance an argument (not seriously anyway) of any kind (even though that’s what Snyder set out to do).

Chastising this film for hurting feminism gives it more credit than it earns.

Thus, while Han’s assessment of Sucker Punch being sexist is wrong, her points and characterizations are all correct. So are mine. Inasmuch as the movie is so empty-headed that it stands as a blank canvas for anyone’s opinion, all view points have equal weight. Is it a movie about women kicking ass and escaping a male-run society? Yes. Is it an exploitative flick that serves only to objectify the laced-up sexiness of young women as they get dominated by men? Sure. Is it a mindless action movie that exists solely to deliver explosions and jaw-dropping CGI? That too.

Han gives several examples of better ass-kicking women, ranging from Buffy to Faye Valentine on Cowboy Bebop. These women are strong, beat up baddies, and can still be sexy (and anime-based in one instance). However, they’re also strong-willed, sassy, sarcastic, and smart from the get-go. I assert that it would do more to advance the cause of ass-kicking, beautiful women to take a weak character and show her that she can be strong. Had Sucker Punch done that, it would have been the beacon of feminism some (including Snyder) wanted it to be. As it stands, though, it’s a beautiful, empty film that doesn’t do much of anything to truly speak for – or against – female empowerment.

What do you think?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.