One of the most woman-positive, she-mpowering portrayals of femininity to ever hit the silver screen
by Cadence Ohana
I have to admit that I didn’t have much hope for Sucker Punch when I first saw the previews. For starters, I heard that it was directed by Zack Snyder, who made those goddessawful movies 300 and Watchmen (considering Malin Akerman’s role in the latter, shouldn’t that be Watchpersons?). It’s fair to say I associated Snyder’s name with slow-motion violence and the kind of bare-chested testosterone-worship you usually have to tune into professional wrestling to see. But then I heard that this was the first movie he wrote from scratch instead of adapting from someone else’s misogynistic pre-existing property, so I was willing to give it a shot.
Am I ever glad I did. Sucker Punch is the breakout feminist action movie I’ve been waiting to see hit the theaters for years. It’s no wonder that so many other critics, sexist pigs all of them, have heaped such scorn on this wonderful film. This is a film that celebrates all that is woman, a story that not only takes an honest and unflinching look at gender relations in America but dares to suggest that the solution to the sexual imbalances in our society may just be castration by katana.
The story begins with the death and burial of Baby Doll’s mother, who is apparently rich and left everything to her daughters, a fact that drives her alcoholic, probably abusive husband wild (in fact I suspect that the husband is the one who killed her in the first place). This is immediately followed by an attempt of Baby Doll’s step-father to rape her, then failing in that, Baby Doll’s younger, prepubescent sister. Now if that isn’t gut-wrenchingly realistic filmmaking, I don’t know what is. I mean, I don’t know how many times I’ve thought that a man in my presence was, if not actively trying to rape me, at least obviously thinking about it really hard. Good on Zack Snyder for admitting to his gender’s obsession with forcing their disgusting attentions on women.
After this rare bit of honest storytelling to set the stage, Baby Doll’s step-father has her committed to an asylum for supposedly insane young women, with the understanding that a man will arrive in five days to give Baby Doll a lobotomy. Baby Doll overhears Madam Gorski, the resident psychiatrist, saying that one can always control one’s environment through the use of one’s imagination. From there, we enter a series of fantastic worlds full of vivid depictions of feminine empowerment and victory in the face of the brutal malecentric fascist agenda.
How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways.
1) The plot is straightforward and to the point without getting pretentious. At first I thought this movie was going to confuse me like Inception did with its bewildering layers of plots woven within plots, but I was quickly able to grasp the mechanism at work and the symbolism Snyder intended us to take away from the relationships between the different storytelling styles in each. The first storyline, which the film only touches on at the beginning and end, is of Baby Doll trapped in the asylum and trying to get out. In a brilliant stroke of filmmaking, Snyder has Baby Doll notice the objects she needs to escape—a map of the asylum, a lighter, a kitchen knife and the key hanging around the orderly Blue’s neck—as a bit of foreshadowing that ties into the other storylines.
The second storyline has Baby Doll imagining that the asylum is actually a brothel, and that the man coming in five days isn’t arriving to rob her of her frontal lobe’s functions but rather her virginity. You might argue this is demeaning to Baby Doll, but you have to look at the theme Snyder is working with to understand that it’s just the opposite: Baby Doll is taking a horrible situation (being locked away and counting down the hours until a man robs her of the ability to think for herself) and reimagining it as a barely less horrible situation (being locked away and counting down the hours until a man robs her of her virginity and the right to choose her own sexual destiny) so she can retain the ability to act in the face of creeping horror.
It’s true that Baby Doll and her allies are dressed in skimpy costumes and at first it seems that their captive sexuality is being fetishized in a lecherous fashion. That said, it’s obvious that Snyder chose this tact not to appeal to the audience through some misplaced sense that sex would sell the film but rather because he wanted us to feel disgust at the way women like Baby Doll are systematically reduced by a malecentric society into the marketable sum of their reproductive organs even within the confines of their own minds. In other words, when Baby Doll has the chance to escape the awfulness of the real world, the best she can do is imagine herself in a barely-better world where she is still reduced to the role of some anonymous man’s sexual fantasies, all because she’s a product of a society that teaches women they have no value outside their ability to titillate men. This theme is expertly subverted in Baby Doll’s ability to enrapture men with her dancing, which serves as the distraction that allows her compatriots to steal the items necessary for their escape and leads to the third storyline.
We never see Baby Doll’s hypnotic dancing on the screen. Instead, each time Baby Doll dances, we enter a world where the heroines are members of an elite squadron that fights steampunk zombie Nazis (I swear I didn’t make that up), dragons and robot samurai. I have to say that I consider these the weakest parts of the movie, though they’re full of excellent pro-feminist imagery, as I’ll touch on later.
So how hard was that? Pretty straight forward storytelling, right? Christopher Nolan could learn a thing or two.
2) Everything bad that happens is caused by a man. This is so wonderful and so true to life that I never would have thought I’d see it happen in an action movie starring young women, especially not one written and directed by a man. Baby Doll’s step-father is the one who puts her in the asylum. Blue Jones, the man in charge of both asylum and brothel, threatens Baby Doll and her allies with violence both traditional and sexual and summons a doctor (“the High Roller,” another man) from out of town to perform Baby Doll’s lobotomy. A male chef tries to rape Rocket and ends up killing her in another scene. Even the orcs, robots and Nazis in the fantasy scenes are all male, with the exception of a mother dragon, and to be fair, I’ve been told by the angels I contact during my séances that all dragons are technically hermaphrodites anyway.
There is one woman who’s technically on the wrong side of things, Madam Vera Gorski, who serves as the girls’ dancing instructor. I got the impression that she was probably a late addition to the script made at the insistence of the studio so the movie wouldn’t give men a complete monopoly on the villainy in this flick. That said, Gorski comes across as a sympathetic figure who’s doing her best to protect the girls from the men who run the facility. It would be unfair to label Gorski as a villain when she’s really as much a victim of circumstance as every other woman in the film.
Likewise, there’s a male figure called The Wiseman that appears only within Baby Doll’s mind, and while I might have found his role as her advisor and, later, her commanding officer to be insulting in what’s otherwise clearly a feminist movie, I came to understand as the story progressed that his presence, like Baby Doll’s psychic transformation of the asylum into an imaginary brothel, is supposed to be ironic; again, we’re being reminded that Baby Doll comes from a misogynistic culture, and so she identifies the part of her mind that makes concrete her escape plan and directs the actions of her supercharged, independent troupe of modern Angels sans Charlie with an older white man. This isn’t subversion of the film’s feminist message, but rather acknowledgement of the ways in which the minds of our culture’s young women have been poisoned and programmed to associate power and authority with phallocentrism.
3) All the protagonists are women. I get tired of seeing women reduced to supporting roles in action movies. Even worse is when a woman is the star of an action movie, but all her allies are men, making her exceptional because she is a woman and not because she’s an action star. Sucker Punch avoids that trap by giving us a group of strong sisters to identify with, and other than The Wiseman (who, as I’ve already explained, is a symbolic reflection of Baby Doll’s internalization of the patriarchal values that assault her sense of self-worth plastered over the independent feminine streak that makes her escape possible), there’s not a man among the “good gals.”
While I’m on the subject, I’d like to address a couple of complaints that I see getting tossed around in other reviews with regards to how the film portrays women. The first complaint I keep hearing has to do with the names of the main characters, especially with the protagonist being named Baby Doll. Of course, this is simply the affectionate name given to our heroine by Madam Gorski, and the efforts of our malecentric media to paint this innocent comment from one woman to another is just more proof that most of the drama that happens between women is actually instigated by men. Myself, I only have a problem with one of the names: Amber. All the other girls get exciting names—Sweet Pea, Rocket, a brunette named Blondie—so why doesn’t the Korean girl get a neat moniker? It’s too bad that a hint of racism slipped into an otherwise perfect movie.
Second, and while I already touched on this I want to expand my comments, the costumes the girls are wearing during the brothel and action sequences have drawn some ire, and that ire is completely unjustified. We have to remember that everything that happens in these sequences is happening within Baby Doll’s mind—as such, anything that Baby Doll and her compatriots are wearing is something that Baby Doll has chosen for the women to wear, not something a man has chosen them to wear. If the costumes the girls are wearing tend to be flesh-baring and tight, that’s because Baby Doll wants to express herself through that sort of fashion. It may even be liberating for her to imagine a world where she and her fellow sisters can bare a little skin in public without having some lecherous potential rapist violating them with his eyes. I can’t accept the idea that Snyder put the girls in these costumes to appeal to a male audience because the movie is so obviously marketed toward feminists. In fact, it’s so blatantly obvious that if you disagree, you’re obviously brainwashed by the maletocracy.
We really do need more media that just cuts men out of the picture almost entirely. If I could suggest one way to improve the movie, it would probably be to make all of the heroines lesbians and so ensure that the audience understood that none of these strong women would again fall under the dominion of a male. Now I understand that sexual preference isn’t something one can simply choose because I’ve tried doing just that a few different times. It’s really kind of unjust that one can’t choose one’s sexuality and more evidence that the many dimensions we live within are just as out of harmony as the eleventh dimensional angels tell me it is. I just want so badly to be attracted to other women, especially young women in skimpy outfits like the ones in this movie. Is that so much to ask? There has to be a spell for this somewhere in the world.
4) The women turn the power of the phallus against their male oppressors in several scenes. The most obvious phallic symbols in the film are the sword and gun that Baby Doll receives during the first fantasy sequence. The sword is of course a phallic symbol because it’s long and thin like a penis and it attacks by penetrating things. The gun is another classic phallic symbol, not just a penis but also a pair of testes filled with “sperm” (bullets) that rip out of the barrel and ruin women’s’ lives. Baby Doll takes these weapons from The Wiseman, which is again a matter of the film turning patriarchy on its head; though Baby Doll cannot escape the presence of a male authority figure within her imagination, she immediately takes away his power and uses it for her own purposes, effectively neutering the white male dominator.
The same theme carries through the rest of the action sequences, but I’ll limit myself to three examples off the top of my head so I’m not sitting here gushing over the pro-feminist symbolism of this movie all night. The first obvious example of women turning phallic power against their male oppressors comes just after Baby Doll takes her weapons from The Wiseman and finds herself up against a trio of robotic samurai. There’s a quick moment in the scene where Baby Doll races up the giant foe’s body, and with the way the samurai’s back arches it looks alarmingly close to an erect penis. Baby Doll fires into the samurai-penis’ “eyes,” effectively circumcising it. This ties into my own argument that we should legally enforce male circumcision in the United States. Men are so proud of their penises; it’s only right that they’re brought down to size by having those penises permanently altered when they’re too young to resist the change, then reminded time and again of that involuntary surgery later in their lives as a warning that they’d better respect women’s rights.
Later, when the girls are fighting steampunk German zombies, the sky is full of penis-shaped airships that Amber is able to punch through using her giant robot (a symbol of how easily feminist thought disarms patriarchal attitudes), and Baby Doll shoots down a particularly large phallic ship with another stolen, phallic gun. The theme even carries into the brothel storyline, where the cook uses a knife to murder Rocket (an obvious callback to the way he earlier tried to forcibly penetrate her with his penis); later, Baby Doll subverts this trope by using a similar knife to prevent an attempted rape by Blue and so begins her escape from the institution. The future seems to be one of women who have taken the penis’ symbolic power for themselves, and it’s a trend I can really get behind as a feminist.
5) This is a feel-good movie. Granted, some awful things happen to the girls over the course of the story, but strength grows in the face of adversity, and you know that their efforts are going to be rewarded at the end when they win their freedom. I had to use the restroom near the end of the movie, so I left around the time Baby Doll rescues Sweet Pea from the closet and didn’t get back to the theater until the credits were running. That said, I’ve seen enough action movies that I can imagine how it ended: the girls escape together and go get revenge on Baby Doll’s stepfather, using the strength and independence they’ve garnered in the past five days to finally take control of their own lives and embrace a new, free existence outside the asylum’s walls. Even if Baby Doll’s sister is dead, Baby Doll is still the heir to her mother’s fortune, and she has a new sister in Sweet Pea who will share the rest of her life with her. It must have been fun to watch. I guess I’ll have to go back again and see the ending in full next time.
Final score: 5 out of 5 pentagrams
Go see this movie now. It should be required watching in high school civics classes. I’ll go see it at least three or four more times in the theater before it comes out on DVD, and I hope it isn’t robbed at the Oscars like I expect it will be, though when you consider that the Academy is run by misogynists, that’s a given.
Cadence Ohana is the author of several self-help books, including The Power of the Anima and the Myth of the Animus and The Thinking Witch’s Meal Planner: 365 Days of Low-Carb Meals For the Blessed Be. She is currently in Japan, where she is protesting the release of the Nintendo 3DS on the grounds that its name is a veiled reference to unrealistic and sexist expectations regarding female anatomy. She does not have a website as she believes the internet is a patriarchal conspiracy.