April 4, 2011

Girl Power, Empowerment… and Sucker Punch

I’ve been meaning to write this post since I saw the movie last Saturday.

First, I should say that I liked the movie. It wasn’t perfect, but honestly… I never bought that this was supposed to be a movie about female empowerment.

That said, though, shame on Zac Snyder for thinking that this was female empowerment. I don’t doubt that the actresses felt empowered, having gone through a rigorous boot camp to learn how to wield all their weapons believably (and they do- they were more believable than most male casts in war movies), but that doesn’t mean that the movie itself is empowering. He claims that because the film is about the girls fighting back to escape, it’s empowerment. Which doesn’t automatically make it about empowerment, it makes it an escape movie.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, it’s about a girl who we only know as Babydoll who is locked up in a mental hospital, accused of killing her sister (and sent to the hospital by her stepfather, the real villain). She finds that she has five days to escape before she’ll be lobotomized, and travels to several fantasy levels to do so. Four girls from the mental hospital accompany her, so that they too can escape. (If you’re unfamiliar though, you probably want to stop reading about the movie, because I will be spoiling events)

It takes place in three separate tiers. There’s the mental hospital, which is grimy and practically in black and white. The next is a brothel, and the last is a fantasy level in which the girls are soldiers, literally fighting for their survival.

I do understand the existence of the brothel. Because we all understand what goes on in a brothel, it easily allows the movie to explain that the girls are being abused in the mental hospital without having to show it. They simply mention that they girls are supposed to do what Blue says, and the mind fills in the rest. It’s even understandable to think that Babydoll would imagine this brothel scenario in order to make the day to day life at the mental hospital seem more tolerable. Since the movie spends the bulk of its time in the brothel, the girls all spend the bulk of their time in bustiers, fishnets and heels, with long false eyelashes.

The deeper level is the fantasy level, which play out like short video game like missions that the girls have to take part in to get the items they need to escape. And they carry them out in skimpy outfits. Kicking ass, but in skimpy outfits. Keep in mind, all these levels seem to be the creation of Babydoll’s mind. She could have easily given them actual clothes or uniforms (which actually would have been a bit empowering), but instead it continues to play out like a teen boy’s notion of empowerment.

Despite the dialogue that promises the girls escape and freedom and gives them the illusion of power, it’s all lip service. The girls band together, but the film still treats them all like objects not characters. The only girl we know anything about in the movie at all is Babydoll. The rest all exist solely to serve the plot and aren’t very well fleshed out. While Sweetpea and Rocket are sisters, and there are vague things referred to about how they came to be in their predicament, it still isn’t very much. Amber and Blondie? We barely learned their names before figuring out that they were the movie’s sacrificial lambs. Want me to think that this movie isn’t just fanservice wrapped in a few words of encouragement? Let me know who the girls are.

Snyder has said that the movie is empowering because the girls are using their sexuality to escape the hell they’re in. Right. If he’d wanted to make it empowering? He would have spent a little more time in the mental hospital, where the girls weren’t made up to perfection or running around in heels. He would have let us actually see the girls use their wits and minds (and even their bodies) to triumph, instead of giving us the never seen Babydoll dance of hypnotism. And he would have actually given us real names to know the girls by, rather than nicknames that seemed to have been given to them by Blue.

So to anyone who wants to write a movie about empowerment? Write a story about the characters, not the things they do. Empowerment comes from us seeing the growth in someone, so that they can rewrite the rules and succeed. Not from us being told that they’re powerful and can do it.


I have an ongoing love affair with movies that feel incomplete, or fall apart the moment you really start to think about them. Sucker Punch fell into that category for me. Definitely not in my “girl power” category. I still want to own Blondie’s goggles.

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