A sucker punch is a blow made without warning, allowing no time for preparation or defense on the part of the recipient. – From Wikipedia
The surface nature of Zack Snyder’s 2011 film Sucker Punch evokes images of a middle school locker room’s storyboarding session for Inception. Arguably it panders to an adolescent demographic; gratuitous, explosive violence, nubile female flesh, titillatingly exposed by revealing, highly accident-prone clothing, and darkly beautiful mise-en-scènes depicting post-apocalyptic lawlessness all speak to the preconceived cultural expectations associated with male desire and sexual maturity. But the underlying mechanisms of the story, its metaphors of mental illness, glamour, and escapism, its ironically presented themes, and tropes of war, self-realization, redemption and independence support feminine empowerment through subversion and intra-gender cooperation.
The film centers on a female protagonist known only to the audience as “Baby Doll” – a crudely sexualized play on her youth and innocent, childlike appearance that becomes her irony-singed nom-de-guerre. The heir apparent to her mother’s estate, shortly after her mother’s death she finds herself defending her virtue and that of her younger sister from her enraged stepfather upon his discovery that their mother’s will does not include him. In a scene that underscores the stepfather’s struggle for material dominance of his family unit, he is unable to overpower his daughters sexually or through martial violence (as Baby Doll quickly gains possession of his pistol, accidentally killing her sister in the struggle). His recourse, therefore, is to exercise the available trappings of his white male privilege (which appear to be copious, given the nebulous 1950’s era in which the scene appears to be set), and Baby Doll soon finds herself being processed into a dismal mental hospital evocative of the Willowbrook State School as her stepfather and a corrupt orderly known as Blue negotiate her fate, literally speaking over her head as they financially transact her entrapment and lobotomy. Aware of her impending fate, Baby Doll resourcefully makes note of the amenities of her surroundings as she is oriented to the asylum, and, before her mind gives way to fantasy to cope with the stress, she takes inventory.
Sexual Economics – The Hostile Marketplace
“Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels.” – Faith Whittlesey
The composition of Baby Doll’s metaphoric fantasy realm makes it clear to the audience that, despite her physical innocence, she understands the social nuances of the court she now attends. As the “theater” of the dismal asylum becomes a seedy, if darkly glamorous gentleman’s club, evocative of a 1930’s mob controlled speakeasy, Baby Doll relives her commitment; her father, now a corrupt priest, has sold her to Blue, now a mob boss and thinly veiled pimp. Her fellow patients are now dancers, Blue’s captive prostitutes who must dance to entertain his clients. Throughout our introduction to the theater and its inner workings, the enslavement and commodification of the girls is all but written out for the audience. Though constantly dressed to dance, they all clearly engage in menial labor, from kitchen duties to janitorial work. At every level, no matter how menial the task, they must accept male oversight and the accompanying leers and sexual objectification. Their only form of self-expression is the dance. This ersatz marketing pitch ultimately plays into the economic-value paradigm that guides their behavior. Even their names have been replaced by sexualized, ill-fitting pseudonyms, which strip them of personal identity and label them as infantile, subjected playthings (no better example of this exists than “Blondie,” played by dusky brunette Vanessa Hudgens)
This market value paradigm appears to serve as an effective method of gendered social control. Blue enforces the girl’s position as commodities through fear and sexual terrorism, and sews seeds of intra-gender conflict by assigning relative market value to the girls, attaching stigma through lookism or ageism (as Madame Gorski, the dance captain/treating psychiatrist is derided by Blue as an “old whore”), and recognizing youth, beauty, and the “prize” of virginity as relative amenities which increase their perceived value and desirability. Blue recognizes the potential power accompanying Baby Doll’s perceived market value, and reminds her repeatedly that it is the only reason she is being “reserved”. Able to avoid internalizing this rhetoric, Baby Doll instead realizes the notion that a game is being played around her, and graduates from pawn to Knight as she embraces her sexual value as strength and, ultimately, a weapon.
Perchance to Dream – Fantasy and Metaphor
“Analysis of childrens play has shown our women analysts that the aggressive impulses of little girls leave nothing to be desired in the way of abundance and violence” – Sigmund Freud, Femininity
As each girl is required to dance (a metaphor for the unseen sexual hoops the patients must jump through to remain within the good graces of their corrupt male captors), Baby Doll comes into her own on the dance floor by retreating into yet another fantasy escape. Her dance is a battlefield upon which she conquers internal demons, vanquishing her self-doubts as she gains the resources necessary to escape her captors. She is her own guide on this journey, though her inner self manifests in the form of a wise old man who reminds her of the resources she has already inventoried and quotes the playbook and delivers mission briefings as she and, eventually, her fellow captives, do battle against their insecurities to regain their personal sovereignty. Perhaps the male avatar of her psyche is a metaphor of reassurance; offering moral validation to her mission while serving as a reminder that she is not only the equal of the men with whom she does battle, but possibly their superior in many ways.
Her apparel on the battlefield, and that of her fellow captives, fluidly continues the metaphor of sexual awakening that pervades Baby Doll’s fantasy. The sexually provocative nature of their garments shifts in substance; dance gear which served to highlight fragile grace and accentuate a form of innocent, helpless femininity, is replaced by sexualized battle gear; strategically draped artillery, heavy metals, spiked boots and military inspired armor-chic. The embrace of their sexuality is accompanied by self-righteous aggression, and the girls do battle with gusto, each transforming the men’s dependence on their market value into a weapon with which to do battle against them. It is in this self righteous but martially offensive capacity that the metaphor ultimately defines the concept of sexual assault: sexual acts performed as a means of gaining social power and/or control.
Redemption, Salvation, and a Brighter Tomorrow
“Excuse me, ladies. You’re scantily clad and have nothing to do with the narrative. Therefore, it’s sexist. Sorry.” – Bruce McCulloch, The Kids In The Hall, Terriers
Baby Doll’s story doesn’t have the happiest of endings, but she does find what she needs by the time the credits roll. Her efforts in seeking her redemption have far reaching ramifications, and the message of her ordeal is well internalized by the upper echelons of the patriarchy from which she longed to break free. Rather than flee the castle, the princess destroys it, offering the chance of escape and a better life to all enslaved within. Her efforts, and her bold example, ultimately dismantle Blue’s corrupted power structure, his own assistants turning against him before the authorities have a chance to give him comeuppance.
It would be a fool’s errand to attempt to discount the compelling nature of female nubility. Arguably, the admiration of and desire for such have been major catalysts for our species survival. Therefore it is not in the interest of the feminist to remove herself completely from these paradigms of feminine beauty, though she must definitely avoid unrealistic or harmful models of female attractiveness. Instead, it is in her interest to examine the roots of feminine beauty, and the power it affords all women as possessors of such. As the market-value approach can only lead to intra-gender conflict at best, it is in the interest of all women instead to embrace beauty, not as a variable commodity, but as an inherent and indelible quality of femininity.
Dines, Gail, and Jean McMahon Humez. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: a Text-reader. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003. Print.
Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. “Femininity.” New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton, 1965. Print.
Kimmel, Michael S., and Rebecca F. Plante. Sexualities: Identities, Behaviors, and Society. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. Print.
Schwartz, Pepper, and Virginia Rutter. The Gender of Sexuality. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge, 1998. Print.