Sucker Punch to the Groin

From left to right: Babydoll, Blondie, Sweet Pea, Amber, and Rocket.

From left to right: Babydoll, Blondie, Sweet Pea, Amber, and Rocket.

Last week I discussed something a little less controversial to start us off. This week, I’m gonna dive right in and go for something much more controversial. Today, I’m gonna talk about a movie I love that is extremely divisive with people either loving it or hating it: 2011’s movie Sucker Punch. Spoilers will abound, but I’ll get into those later, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you might want to stop reading and first go look it up if you can find it. Sadly, Netlfix does not have it, but Amazon Instant Video does for about $3. It’s also on YouTube, but likely also for a charge (some channels require that now for some reason). I say this because much like Starship Troopers, this movie often gets confused and criticized for being the very thing that it is itself criticizing. A basic summary of the movie involves the main character, Babydoll, being sent to a mental institution by her stepfather for his own sinister purposes, and throughout the course of the movie, she escapes from the horrors of the asylum by existing in a dream world, where the events of the asylum are seen through the lens of living in a brothel. Her attempts to escape take the form of a further level of dream world in which she and the other girls take the role of a squad of bad-ass super-soldiers in a variety of fantasy, sci-fi, and steampunk environments.

Before I get into major story spoiler territory, I want to talk a bit about overarching themes within the movie, as well as some of the criticism it has received. However, I do want to give credit where credit is due and say that Bob Chipman, a.k.a. Movie Bob, over at the Escapist has already said some of what I’ll be saying here, so go ahead and give his trio of videos on the topic a look. This is a guy and a professional movie critic who loved the movie, not for the titillation, skimpy outfits, and so on that draws a lot of the criticism from others, but instead for the symbolism from both the criticized stuff and other aspects of the movie.

There are a lot of feminists who have torn into this movie. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency tore into the movie as a “steaming pile of sexist crap.” In short (and her review is very short, only two minutes in video where she says more than her article), she accuses the movie of being a “sexy girls in skimpy clothing masquerading as a female empowerment” style movie. She points out how the nicknames of the various girls do the job of infantilizing them. She also accuses the movie of having no plot. Monika Bartyzel, who writes a weekly review series called Girls on Film, discusses how the girls of the film use fantasy as a means of rebellion against the patriarchy they live within.

The movie is well named

The movie is well named

The funny thing is, this movie is well named, as it essentially sucker punches the viewer, by being the opposite of what it initially appears to be, and in fact criticizes/satirizes that exact thing. As Movie Bob points out, a sucker punch is defined as “an unexpected punch or blow” or a hit that comes out of nowhere. And the movie continues to sucker punch its viewers throughout the duration. For example, the characters aren’t really named “Babydoll,” “Sweet Pea,” etc. but instead those are nicknames. We never learn the proper real names of the characters, but in a blink and you’ll miss it moment, we see some of Babydoll’s real name on the intake form: M. Reeves/Reaves, and considering the time period, her first name is likely Mary, as that was one of the most popular names for girls in the 40s-50s. The names that we know for the girls are nicknames given to them by the male characters that they take up for themselves, kind of like a military callsign. We even see this happen early on, when Blue (the main antagonist) tells Sweet Pea to “take this baby doll here and show her around.”

Another criticism the movie receives, including from Sarkeesian, is that it has no coherent plot. However, this falls flat. The movie has a plot, essentially being a Great Escape story (yes, I just ruined the rest of your day with TV Tropes), where the girls are trying to escape from their oppression and abuse within the mental institution. Speaking of, one of the major critiques of the movie involves the girls escaping from one form of imprisonment (the asylum) by using a fantasy of being in another form of imprisonment (the brothel). Considering the time period the movie seems to take place in, both asylums and brothels were means of oppressing women and keeping them “in check” by the men around them. For example, the opening sequence shows the stepfather dropping Babydoll off at the asylum without evidence of her mental illness. This kind of thing did happen during the history of the feminist movement, such as the case of Alice Paul, who was imprisoned for protesting for women’s suffrage, and then put into the mental ward and force fed due to her beginning a hunger strike as protest for the conditions within the prison.

Babydoll meeting Blue in the asylum.

Babydoll meeting Blue in the asylum.

As with My Little Pony, the only really fleshed out characters in Sucker Punch are the women, whereas the men are relegated to the roles of support or antagonist characters. In fact, only one male character is truly decent, and his only name in the credits is Wise Man (this is typical of the characters in this movie, where none of them really have real names, but instead nicknames given to them). All of the others are antagonists of some sort, either directly so, or as good-intentioned individuals who do bad things. Every male character in the film, no matter how small their part, represents some aspect of MRAs, sexist attitudes, etc. with the exception again of Wise Man. For example, Blue represents the attitudes that women are property, sexual playthings for men, and are responsible for their own suffering. For example, when Rocket gets stabbed and dies, Blue blames Sweet Pea, saying that she’s responsible for it. Among the lesser characters, we have the cook (men who view women as a piece of meat), the stepfather (women as a means to an end), and the mayor (the “classy” man who has it all). Among the well-intentioned bad action male characters, we have Blue’s lackeys, who are named CJ and “maintenance guy” in the credits, are the guys who are weak-willed and only show a token resistance to societal peer pressure in the subjugation of women. Additionally, there is the lobotomist, known throughout the movie as the High Roller, who in the theatrical release only shows a brief bit of remorse at lobotomizing Babydoll which leads to Blue being caught. In the extended edition, however, we get an actual scene with him as the High Roller, in which his character voices the reasons why Babydoll inevitably wants the lobotomy, as a means to escape. Finally, the one decent male character in the movie, played by Scott Glenn, is the Wise Man, who represents male feminists – helping the cause of women resisting patriarchy without trying to do it all for them in some demeaning way. However, this leaves him also being the ineffectual guy who wants to help, but really only spouts platitudes and cliches.

The female characters likewise are symbolic. Babydoll and Sweet Pea are the primary characters of the movie, and each represents a different philosophy of going about feminism. As Bob pointed out, Babydoll can be seen as sex positive or “third wave” feminism, whereas Sweet Pea can be seen as a nascent “fourth wave” that does not approve of the “sexy empowerment” philosophy that Babydoll represents. Additionally, Sweet Pea can be seen as the movie’s voice, both for self criticism and for even criticism of the audience. More on this later. Finally, Sweet Pea is the real main character of the movie, despite the fact that we see the movie through the perspective of Babydoll. Sweet Pea’s little sister, Rocket, represents in many ways Alice Paul and her era of the feminist movement, where women often sacrificed a great deal in the fight for rights. The remaining two girls of the main five are much lesser, and represent aspects of the feminist movement that have by-and-large managed to hurt the movement. The first, Amber, represent the man-hating elements of the movement, those who give us the stereotypical image. Additionally, she seems to represent the lesbian segment of the population, at least as seen through the marketing for her and her attitudes (as seen below). Finally, Blondie represents the women of the feminist movement who have only fought for themselves, throwing other women under the bus. This can be seen historically by white women of the feminist movement not allowing women of color to participate, instead telling them to “go find their own places.” The one major support character on the female side of things is Vera Gorski, who is a Polish psychiatrist in the asylum, and the madame of the brothel, looking after the girls and helping them survive. She can be seen as either an early form of feminism that teaches women that they have all the power they need within themselves without actually fighting, or she could instead be seen more as the more recent movement as a woman who says the all too common “I’m not a feminist, but…” phrase. She does, inevitably, step up for the girls, both within the brothel and in the asylum universe, but only when things have gone too far.

Promotional poster for the character of Amber

Promotional poster for the character of Amber

Sweet Pea as the voice of the movie does say quite a few things, about the audience and the movie, many of which Bob pointed out. The very first is among her first actual lines, at least with her on screen (she narrates the story, talking about Guardian Angels at the beginning). This is the scene where Bob points out that she’s calling out the audience for thinking a movie about girls being abused is hot. He also points out that she is opposed to Babydoll’s plan because it will get Rocket and the others killed (spoiler alert: it does). Finally, he points out that her “dancing” (the thing that the action sequences are supposed to be a metaphor for her doing in the brothel) is just raw, primal, and says really nothing about her character. On the one hand, as Bob points out, this can be seen as her criticism for the action sequences being all flash with no real substance, something that many critics have stated. However, Babydoll’s dancing in the brothel is itself a metaphor for her being sexually assaulted by the various orderlies in the asylum. As such, Sweet Pea’s comment that her dance should say something about herself, that it should mean something, again seems to be a subtle way of her commenting that the whole titillation aspect isn’t empowering, and that sex should mean something.

However, her status as main character also leaves many questions about the actual essence of what is real and what isn’t within the movie. As Bob pointed out, it’s quite possible that the entire movie up until the final scene at the bus depot is just Sweet Pea telling a story of her escape, colored through her own lens of Babydoll’s sacrifice. Another interpretation, however, is that none of the movie is real, and that it’s all just the results of Sweet Pea receiving a lobotomy. According to Adam Quigley of Antisocial Commentary, Babydoll isn’t a real character, but is instead Sweet Pea imagining herself or her guardian angel, recreating the events that led her to the asylum and the lobotomy. He argues that it is instead a way of her mind escaping from reality and recreating the events that happened to her to make sense of them and give them meaning, hence Rocket sacrificing herself to protect her rather than the scene we see at the beginning where Babydoll accidentally kills her sister while trying to protect her from their stepfather. He also points out that the movie can be seen as a telling of the events of the feminist movement throughout the 20th century, with each layer of reality representing some era. To him, the asylum represents the 50s and 60s, while the brothel is even earlier and the action sequences represent the modern “pop culture movement.”

Gorski trying to help Blondie, but inevitably being part of Blondie's betrayal of the others

Gorski trying to help Blondie, but inevitably being part of Blondie’s betrayal of the others

You’ll notice I’ve listed a lot of men supporting the movie and women opposing it. However, I’m not the only female or even female who admits to being a feminist who liked the movie and saw it for the symbolism behind it. Luna Lindsey, an independent author and feminist, also took a feminist perspective in reviewing the movie, and she also recognized the story of the feminist movement within it. Additionally, there are a great deal of feminist images and symbols throughout the movie. As Bob pointed out, the scene with the dragons has Babydoll killing the mother and baby dragons with her sword, which can be seen as destroying the stereotypical role of women as mothers and caregivers. However, each of the other action sequences can be seen to have its own imagery as well. The very first one, where Babydoll is alone fighting the mechanized samurai/oni creations, we see her cutting the massive naginta (a special kind of Japanese longarm that is basically a sword attached to a staff) in two, through the blade. In showing her essentially destroying a large phallic object, we see her taking the first steps and decision to fight back against her rapists and oppressors, even if it means doing so in a stereotypically phallic/masculine way herself, such as wielding a katana.

In the next sequence, we see the girls fighting steampunk Nazi zombies. Here is where both of the Wise Man’s platitudes hold up for once, and prove somewhat helpful. The first is him saying that “those who don’t stand for something will fall for anything,” saying that if one doesn’t stand up to her oppression, then she will accept and support it. The other points out the symbolism of this section: the steampunk Nazi zombies are essentially embodiments of anti-feminist and especially MRA thoughts. “Don’t feel bad killing them, they’re already dead.” Relics of a bygone era that refuse to die despite having been shot down time and again. The last two bits of symbolism are essentially the same, attacks on the existing notion of machoness and manhood, by directly attacking manhood. In the final action sequence, we see Babydoll cut one of the androids in two downwards through the middle, cleaving through the groin and genital region had it been a living man rather than an android. The last one takes place not in an action sequence but in the brothel world, where Babydoll sacrifices herself to let Sweet Pea escape by walking up to one of the big, tough guards and kneeing him right in the balls.

On top of this all, the way that the four girls who die in the course of the movie is itself symbolic. Rocket and Babydoll, the two who represent earlier but relatively successful in their own right eras of the feminist movement, both sacrifice themselves so that Sweet Pea can survive and escape. In other words, the modern or future feminist movement (Sweet Pea) could not exist without the successful actions of earlier movements. On the other hand, Blondie and Amber, who represent negative aspects of our past and present, are instead killed by Blue, our representative of the worst aspects of the patriarchy. As such, we can see how Amber’s man-hating has hurt the movement and drawn the ire of men in power, while Blondie’s betrayal of the others shows the racism, homophoia, transphobia, etc. that continue to plague the movement. In other words, they both represent ways that the patriarchy has led to women harming the feminist movement through hatred or carelessness: Amber through her hatred of men discrediting us, and Blondie through her caring only for herself, preventing the movement from continuing forward.

It’s definitely a better movie than it was given credit for. Not quite as good as Starship Troopers, which I compared it to earlier, but it has its charm. It also has its flaws. One of the biggest being the sheer level of symbolism involved left many completely clueless as to what was going on or even what the purpose of the film was. Likewise, it left the film’s satirical elements far too subtle, resulting in it being mistaken for the very thing it was criticizing. Finally, with a male writer/director in charge of this piece rather than a woman, it lost all credibility it should have among critics and feminists alike, who again mistake it as nothing more than a teenage boy’s wet dream. But if you think Sucker Punch is too symbolic and tries to turn too many things on its head, wait until I get around to next week’s topic, which will leave your head hurting with all the symbolism and trope warping aspects of it.

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One response to “Sucker Punch to the Groin

  1. Pingback: Feminism and Psychoanalysis in Sucker Punch | Fatal Feminism

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