Friday, September 23, 2011

Sexual Sucker Punch: A Review

Wow, it's been awhile. Anyway, I'm back for today with an analysis of the film Sucker Punch! (Hella spoilers.)

Sucker Punch is a 2011 film from director Zack Snyder. The film’s pitch line was “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns”, and it certainly delivers. It’s a movie about sanity and sexuality in which five institutionalized girls, in an unspecified but decidedly vintage time period, battle against their oppressors in a fantasy world. Their victories and failures in the imagined world translate to the real world; and so the film is less an actual supernatural action movie and more a movie about image and interpretation, where real-world monsters are explicitly framed as combat enemies.

The film has three clear layers: first, the actual mental asylum, where the girls wear dirty smocks and where the color scheme is grey and washed out. The second layer is the club/brothel: high contrast and glittering. The third layer is the combative fantasy world in which the girls fight their battles.

Each reveals something about the previous. The club imagining of the asylum reveals Blue’s sexualization of the patients; it’s implied at the end of the movie that he’s been molesting the girls. The scene where Rocket is assaulted by the cook also shows that the patients are subject to abuse from the asylum staff. The club also shows the business-like nature of the asylum. In the first layer, Blue accepts bribe money from Babydoll’s stepfather to forge Dr. Gorski’s signature and get Babydoll a lobotomy so that she can’t rat her stepfather out to the police.

The fantasy battleground maintains the sexualization of the girls via their skimpy costumes, but it also is a world in which they are powerful. The fantasy world is also on the verge of steampunk, combining old-fashioned settings such as the WWII trenches and medieval castles with high-tech weaponry. In this way, the girls take down vintage ideas of femininity and sexuality with their futuristic technology. They access this world through Babydoll’s dance sequences, which are all “gyrating, moaning and titillation” in the second layer, the club layer. The peep show exhibitionist dancing puts women in control in the hyper-sexualized club world (and, I think, the real world outside the film). In the fantasy world, that control translates to weapons and strength. They are physically invincible. They are never wounded or hurt, and rarely cornered. Even when one girl is, the other girls are there to assist. In the fantasy world, they have the bonds they are discouraged from forming in the previous two layers; bonds with each other, and with the Wise Man.

There are three main male figures in Sucker Punch: the stepfather, Blue, and the Wise Man. The film gets into some quintessential “Daddy issues.” The girls in the asylum/club have all been orphaned, abandoned, or ran away from parental figures. The three male characters represent three archetypal parent molds: the imagist, the realist, and the guide.

The Imagist
Babydoll’s stepfather is the innocent, “I did my best” parent, who claims to have been a good and nurturing father while secretly being neglectful at best and actively abusive at worst. For the stepfather, image is everything, because if Babydoll reveals that he was anything other than the image he’s put forth, he goes to jail. His re-imagining as a priest in the club layer reinforces this idea—he is pure, clean, and blameless. Except, we know he isn’t.

The Realist
Blue takes the stance of the realist, the man who knows what the big, bad world is really like. He tries to position himself as a guardian, a protector, and convinces the girls that however bad life is with him, it’s infinitely worse without him: “I try to give you all a good life. I try. I do. And all I ask for in return is just for respect.” This is of course not actual realism, but is very successfully defined that way thanks to just how bad it is in the club and how bad the girls’ experiences were before being institutionalized. What’s interesting is that Sweet Pea, the one who “never really had a problem with Mom and Dad” and who knows that Blue is a liar, is the one who is reluctant to escape. This is mostly for the safety of her sister Rocket, but perhaps she’s adapted a little too well to her new life, being the only one who really has the necessary mental ability to adapt to change.

The Guide
The Wise Man represents the good, real father figure the girls never had. He is an older man who keeps his distance and never sexualizes them, unlike the men of comparable ages who frequent the club (such as the Mayor with his stogies). He doesn’t act as a guardian or claim to be a protector, like Blue does. The girls are beyond the age where that’s what the father should be—Babydoll’s age is said to be 20 at the beginning. What girls this age need is a guide, someone who gives them direction and then gets out of the way. The Wise Man is with them at the beginning of each of their missions to offer them advice, like “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” and even distinctly parental bits like, “Try and work together.” His frequent “Oh yeah, one more thing”s are also reminiscent of a dad who is constantly thinking of more things to impart.

He’s even re-garbed as a bus driver, a guide, at the end. But when it comes down to it, he still knows his fatherly duty to protect his daughter from predators: like at the very end, when he saves Sweet Pea from the troopers. To reinforce the fact that he does not sexualize them, he doesn’t even touch Sweet Pea when she gets on the bus and he comfortingly tells her to take a seat near the back and try to get some sleep.

Therapy is the treatment of a disorder. In the first layer, the asylum, Dr. Gorski uses music to help the girls evoke the memories of their abuse so that they can discuss the damage, get it out. In the second layer, that therapy becomes each girl’s dance, where Madame Gorski again provides the music. Their therapy then becomes their peep-show performances.

A frequent post-feminist claim is that women hold power through their sexuality. In the club layer, this is true. Men are transfixed by Babydoll’s “titillating” dances, which Sweet Pea calls impersonal. As I said earlier, the dance sequences become the fantasy world in which the girls hold actual, qualitative power: they are skilled with weapons and physically invincible. Even Rocket’s death takes place outside the fantasy world. The fantasy world is a place where there is no male supremacy. Babydoll is even able to cut an enemy’s sword in half in her first battle, symbolically severing the phallic weapon being used against her.

In the club layer, Gorski says to Blue, “I teach [the girls] to survive YOU.” She’s referring to the dances she teaches them and the show that she directs. She teaches them to use their sexuality, to own it, because it gives them some small vestige of control when they otherwise would have simply been the victims of the men who abuse them. In a very, very twisted way, being in touch with themselves as sexual beings allows the girls to participate in the club and keep a measure of themselves intact. Not recommended, but in certain situations I suppose you have to work with what you’ve got.

In addition to the dance/therapy issue, there’s the framing of lobotomy as paradise. A lobotomy is a procedure that consists of “cutting the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex” of the brain and was used as treatment in the first half of the 20th century for the violently or untreatably insane. In Sucker Punch, the lobotomy turns Babydoll into a vegetable, rendering her unresponsive and placid. Blue refers to that state as “paradise.” Babydoll no longer feels pain or indeed, experiences anything, This is a throwback to the idea that women are happiest when their lives are simple, when they are sheltered and restricted to the home and don’t participate in any grand or complex ideologies. It’s a farce, clearly; Babydoll’s lobotomy has rendered her effectively dead, and so are similarly sheltered women. Even in the club layer, with that weird measure of sexual ownership, Rocket says “We’re already dead,” as in dead inside and dead to the world.

Sweet Pea narrates the end with the following monologue (emphasis added by me):

“And finally. This question. The mystery of whose story it will be, of who draws the curtain. Who is it that chooses our steps in a dance? Who drives us mad, flashes us with whips, crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible? Who is it that tells all these things? Who honors those we love with the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time sings that we'll never die? Who teaches us what's real, and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live, and what we'll die to defend? Who chains us, and who holds the key to set us free? It's you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight.

There are lots of things to talk about in this, but I’m focusing on the two bolded lines. The obvious reading is that humans can put themselves through ridiculous and contradictory psychological torment. This makes sense with the final line, where Sweet Pea says that “you” are wholly responsible for your experience of the world.

However, it is also possible to read these lines in terms of the contradictory male reactions to femininity. I wish I still had the library’s copy of The Rise of Enlightened Sexism to quote (thanks Chels :P), but this kind of thing is easy to see in real life and extrapolate. Men seem to worship the female: her body, her charms, her love. Like Sting says, “Every little thing she does is magic.” Yet politically, female empowerment is a terrifying thing to some male leaders. Look at the recent political attacks on Planned Parenthood, the persistently lower wage earned by women for the same jobs as men, and the attempts in the media to strip female political figures of their legitimacy, either by de-feminizing them (as with Janet Reno) or by hyper-feminizing them (as with Sarah Palin). In the former case, for example, Janet Reno was allowed to be a capable political figure because she was seen as mannish. In the latter case, Sarah Palin was NOT allowed to be a capable political figure because she was seen as simultaneously sexy and motherly, not to mention her airheadedness.

So clearly, based on these and countless other examples I’m sure you can pull from your own lives, men love women but are also scared of women. So the lines, “Who drives us mad, flashes us with whips, crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time sings that we'll never die?” can take on a new meaning. Think about it. 

1 comment:

  1. You should really check out "I'm a Cyborg, and That's Okay" directed Park Chan Wook.

    Serious. Go watch it.

    What are you waiting for?