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

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.

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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