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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 04:50 pm (UTC)
You know what this really does make me think of? The whole thing with Twilight and how much that barf-inducing series gets discussed. (Not that I'm claiming Larsson's books have anything in common with Twilight. I may not have liked Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but it did not actively erode my IQ while I was trying to read it.) Because Twilight was fricking awful and there were several other amazing (and popular) YA series that were coming out at the same time, but they kind of got ignored for the purposes of discussion because everyone was so busy having paroxysms about sparkly vampires and horrifying stalker relationships presented as romance. Maybe there's just a sort of critical combination of popularity, factors within the book that can be picked on, and people wanting to pick on them.

I've also noticed about myself that I have a tendency to talk/write way more about stuff I either disliked or liked but thought was very imperfect. Between this entry and the comments, I've probably now written ten times as much about Sucker Punch as I did about Inception. And while I may have liked Sucker Punch, it had some deep flaws - and even without them, I would never in a million years compare it to Inception, which is a movie I still adore.

Which makes me wonder if the other Scandanavian authors get ignored for discussions like this because they're just too good. (Not that I'd know, having never read any of them.) Once a book or movie hits a certain level of awesomeness, all you can really say about it is variations of, "Well, I thought that was pretty darn good."
Mar. 29th, 2011 04:57 pm (UTC)
You're definitely on to something there. I also think that Twilight taps into something that female teens feel really compelled by, just as Larsson's books taps into something which various adult readers are compelled by. In Larsson's case, what makes me forgive the books in certain areas (while still keeping me from truly liking them), is the societal context analysis. Maybe that's something which is lost a bit in the whole other mess when they are analyzed, but there is a lot of context not related to the violence or the main characters personas, which hold some value.

In any case, you are on to something, and I think that publicists and publishing houses are good at tapping into this "something" that is compelling to certain reader groups, while they are not necessarily always good at tapping into quality.

Edited at 2011-03-29 04:58 pm (UTC)
Mar. 29th, 2011 06:04 pm (UTC)
When I've chewed over the books with my mom (unlike me, she likes them) she's made some good points about a more sex-positive society being presented, which I think is true. There's also some interesting stuff about business corruption, I think, but it really gets buried.

And yes, totally agree. Popularity sells books. Quality doesn't necessarily.

Edited at 2011-03-29 06:05 pm (UTC)

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