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Of Fishnets and Fully Automatic Weapons

I saw Sucker Punch yesterday.

And I really liked it.

Which actually came as something of a surprise to me, since I generally tend to agree with the reviews over at io9 when it comes to saying mean things about movies, and Sucker Punch got a solid thumbs down there.

Now, part of it might be that I went into the movie with extremely low expectations. I'd already read a couple of reviews which, to summarize with nice words, characterized the movie as completely vacuous. And boring. I actually felt more than a little shocked that I found it neither boring, nor vacuous.

Now, to be clear, I am in no way claiming that Sucker Punch is a great movie. It's no Inception. But as Zack Snyder movies go, this one was - as expected - extremely pretty, and much, much better than, say, 300. If you like that sort of eye candy, I think it's worth spending the money to see it. If you don't like that kind of movie, don't waste your time.

Also, the soundtrack is excellent.

I've got a few thoughts about it, so there are going to be SPOILERS all over the place. You have been warned.

In General
I don't regret spending $8.50 or two hours of my afternoon to see this movie. In fact, I really enjoyed it, and found most of the action sequences quite exciting. A lot of the movie - and not just the action sequences - really did make me think of anime. While the action, especially the first sequence with the huge samurai robots, obviously owe a lot to the tropes of anime, a lot of the narrative logic put me in mind of anime as well. And since I have a record of really liking anime, I think I was a lot more willing to to just accept certain things about the story and the way it went. I also most definitely did not find the non-action sequences boring.

So, About That Whorehouse Thing
I've seen a lot of snippy commentary about Babydoll "escaping" into a bordello as her first layer of fantasy. I would agree that it doesn't make sense for that fantasy to be an escape. However, it also really didn't strike me as an actual mental escape for a character, but rather a fantasy in which she was attempting to make sense of the way she and the other women were being treated in the mental institution.

It's made very clear at the end of the movie that Blue Jones, the super creepy orderly that sports a sad little pornstache in Babydoll's bordello fantasy, has been sexually abusing Babydoll in the real world. Which I think also heavily implies that the other girls who are shown being abused or used by men in the bordello fantasy were also being abused by those same men in reality. I think that in light of the story, it's reasonable for Babydoll to make sense of that real-world sexual abuse by transforming the hospital into a bordello - because while the bordello is still a prison, it's at least a prison environment where it makes some kind of twisted sense for the men to be using the women in that way.

Blue Pornstache was incredibly creepy. Beyond his basic concept as an orderly that abuses powerless mental patients, he had some excellently evil dialog in his guise as the bordello's owner. In a scene near the end, he scares the hell out of the women (and then murders two of them) while going off on a classic abuser rant that left me squirming in my seat - not because it was badly done, but because the character was just such a horrific person. He verbally sets up a false situation where the women are somehow in a "partnership" with him (instead of being his victims) and not keeping up their end of the "bargain," which means they're forcing his hand and giving him no choice but to, you know, shoot them.

Ugh. The actor did a good job. It's a wonder he could stand to be in the same room as himself.

I also think it's interesting that we don't actually ever hear Babydoll speak outside of the fantasy bordello world. (At least not that I recall after a single viewing.) I think that's partially because in her own fantasy, she has more strength and control. While obviously she and the other girls are still very much abused prisoners within the pretend bordello, turning them from mental patients in to whores at least allows them to use their sexuality as a weapon. Because in most [patriarchy-owned] narratives, the only women who get to make use of their sexuality in any way are whores.

So with the bordello as the coping-fantasy, then the action sequences become the actual escape-fantasy. I suppose it's where Babydoll mentally runs off to when she's doing something so personally destructive that she can't even handle it in the context of bordello. And that's the place where the women are all a kick-ass, elite team that are accomplishing their goals in a way that they can perhaps feel some pride in.

Though I Will Say One Thing About the Sexy Costumes
In the action sequences, there were sexy costumes. But what struck me was how... unsexy everything but the sexy costumes were. Which I actually really, really appreciated. The sexy costumes just sort of became the idea of a uniform for each of the girls. I found that very interesting... because it made the thing feel stylized rather than titillating.

All that said, I think that anyone who claims that this movie is somehow about female empowerment needs to have their head examined. Or possibly needs to get sent to a remedial women's studies class. Or maybe both.

The basic argument seems to be that there is female empowerment in the movie because:
a) Women with guns
b) Women take control of their own sexuality by the end (NOTE: they don't.)
c) In the end, the women win because Sweet Pea escapes and survives.

This really, really makes me think of the feminist discussion around the Stieg Larsson novels. For a discussion about that, I recommend this review at the f-word. (In which I think she makes some very valid points, though I am not in 100% agreement - please see these comments for some clarification.)

While I'm sure lovers of Larsson's novels and I could go at it for days about me comparing his books to Sucker Punch, the angle that the claim of female empowerment comes from is the same for both book and movie. Which is basically that the backdrop is one where women are tortured/abused/murdered/etc, and female empowerment comes in the form of a woman surviving/escaping/taking revenge/taking control of her own sexuality. In the case of Sucker Punch, we have Sweet Pea escaping, triumphing over abuse by surviving, and Babydoll also gets her own sort of revenge by being released from the bonds of the real world via lobotomy and sets off a series of events that get her abuser brought to justice. Neither of these things ultimately help out the other women, who all get murdered.

I think that there is something very valid to the narrative of triumph over one's abusers by surviving them. I think there's also a lot to be said for revenge fantasies - the desire to take vengeance on one's abuser is a powerful one, whether the victim is male or female, and no matter what sort of abuse is occurring. But I also think that it's very sloppy to equate those things with empowerment because it still presupposes a world where abuse is the norm and the victims defenseless. Melanie Newman (who wrote the post I linked to previously on the f-word) makes the point so well, I'm just going to quote her:

Or they may reflect the authors’ belief that if only females would stop acting as ‘victims’ and discover their own capacity for violence, the aggression visited on them by men would disappear. Kotker concluded that the message of Patterson’s First to Die, was that “the abuse of women can be defeated by brave women acting in concert to do so.” The solution thus lies in women’s hands, relieving men of the responsibility.

I think that's a point that could be applied here.

So, what would the for reals female empowerment version of Sucker Punch look like? Honestly, I have not clue one. Considering the basic premise of the movie - women trapped in a mental institution where they are abused by their male caretakers - I don't know if it would be possible to write that into a narrative of true female empowerment. At the very least, I don't think you can call it empowerment if the woman who survives is the exception, rather than the rule.

But the thing is, I also think that's just fine... as long as it's actually understood that this isn't what empowerment looks like.

It's a pretty movie where women shoot and stab things. Occasionally at the same time. It's got an interesting concept and a great soundtrack. I specifically bought a small popcorn so I could munch along with the movie, because that's just the sort of film it is. There's really no need to make it out as more than that, is there?


Mar. 29th, 2011 03:35 am (UTC)
Sad, but true
Not having read the book I can't judge how key the scene was, but rape doesn't seem like a plot element one uses w/o intending to generate a visceral reaction. Unfortunately it has been decided that Americans can't handle unpleasantness in their entertainment. It's even rationed in our news since 9-11(likely before that was when I noticed it being excessive.). The strength of emotional reaction it would generate would make too many people uncomfortable, and we wouldn't want that.
My opinion is tell the story that was written and adjust the rating. Then again R movies make less money than PG13, because they exclude the teen audience.
Mar. 29th, 2011 03:55 am (UTC)
Re: Sad, but true
Rape is prevalent in the first Millennium book, once in the story of one of the main characters, and then mentioned several times in the case the two main characters investigate (since the cold case murders were committed by a sexual sadist), in the other two millennium books it doesn't play any role at all, which is something, Melanie Newman, bless her "feminist" heart fails to mention in her analysis.

I find several flaws in Larson's books, but misogyny is not one of them, but I think I'll devote a separate post about that in my own journal at some point, as to not litter Katsu's post here anymore.

But with Sucker Punch and the like, I find it grossly disingenuous to commit rape in the story, but prettify all the aesthetics around it, so that the viewer gets sedated by the nice music and nice guns/legs/hair etc.
That's not the way I want a story told. I want the gritty and dirty, not necessarily shown in painful detail, but at least realistically glimpsed, and I don't think it is misandry or misogyny when a man or a woman protagonist gets hit by it by a male or a female writer/director.
Mar. 29th, 2011 06:05 am (UTC)
Re: Sad, but true
Dude, are we having our first fight over a Zack Snyder movie? :D

Also, I double checked the rating on the movie, and Rich is right, it's a PG-13, so they definitely couldn't have gotten more graphic than they did and still maintained the rating. It's kind of a sad fact that we're way more comfortable with heaping violence into a movie accessible to teenagers than we are with any sort of sexuality, consensual or not. Yay, America.

Thinking about it, the only rape-ish thing that happens is when the cook corners Rocket. Which is then interrupted. But considering most of the movie takes place in Babydoll's coping fantasy, I also think it makes sense that the character would be glossing over the really horrible details, and the one almost-rape that happens in her mind gets stopped - by her. Probably to go the direction you'd want, there would have needed to be a lot more "real world" stuff. Which might've worked out, might not have, no idea.

Which then also gets in to over-analyzing a movie that probably can't take a whole lot of analyzing.

Edited at 2011-03-29 06:08 am (UTC)
Mar. 29th, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC)
Re: Sad, but true
Noooo! I'm actually a little embarrassed that I might sound butthurt or something. I think what made me a little irritated about the rape thing (and I certainly don't think it needs to be graphic, but it could be implied at least in a coherent sense) is when the movie moves out of Babydoll's head and shows mustache tyrant guy as an orderly at the sanatorium, and it finally dawned on me that he had taken girls out to that room to use them. I don't even think it dawns on large parts of the viewers at all. There are also other huge gaps in the story which I find majorly problematic.

While I didn't hate the movie (and don't love the books), it was still an odd comparison to me, with the girl with the dragon tattoo, where the movie came out as superior. I could probably still make a case where the movie is argued to be supremely more disingenuous. I can't however argue with you liking the movie and not the book.

I like you a lot, even when you are wrong! And in art, as you know, there is a wrong and a right side, and nothing in between!

Edited at 2011-03-29 03:56 pm (UTC)
Mar. 29th, 2011 04:41 pm (UTC)
Re: Sad, but true

I think part of it could be an expectation gap. I went in to Sucker Punch expecting it to be total shit, and came out pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, I read Girl With the Dragon Tattoo after it had been seriously built up to me by a lot of people, and... well, you know how I felt about it in the end.

I also would never set myself up as some sort of person with high movie standards. If nothing else, I tend to not enjoy deep, thinky movies (the sort that win Academy Awards), and what's my favorite "I'm depressed and need a pick-me-up" movie? Scary Movie. That alone probably disqualifies me from ever having an opinion worth listening to about movies. XD I also tend to be way harder on books than on movies, I think. Probably because I put a lot more time in to reading a book than I do watching a movie. Who knows.
Mar. 29th, 2011 04:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Sad, but true
Well, I seem to remember agreeing with many things you wrote in a review of the book once, but as a feminist, I wince in embarrassment when I read Newman's article. She is what we in my old feminist group used to call "bad cliche rabies feminist" and we devoted ourselves to clear the name of feminism in public media, from those.
In logical facts, I also find a lot of huge problems with Newman's article, but I think Mosby covers the gist of that in his review.
Mar. 29th, 2011 05:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Sad, but true
Really, my main point of agreement with Newman is her pointing out that the presentation of a female victim revenge fantasy as "empowering" or "feminist" is problematic and BS-y; she states that particular point a lot more coherently than any other posts I've read about it. (Not that I'm Little Ms. Widely Read these days.)

Where that comes back to Sucker Punch is that Zack Snyder himself has been claiming the movie is about empowerment, along with something to the effect of the ladies taking control of their sexuality at the end. (THEY DON'T.) Which sure makes me wonder about him.

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