The theme of escapism has been prominent for some time concerning female-centered media. Alice in Wonderland, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Disney fairytales are some of the most obvious and well-known examples. However, it is rare to see a depiction of escaping the confines of a male-dominated society as astutely and succinctly as in Zack Snyder’s recent Sucker Punch, while still drawing a male audience. Although Snyder has received a fair amount of criticism in regards to his approach to creating strong female characters, one must look with a more critical eye to expose what is perhaps pure subversive genius.
It is not a quiet topic within the feminist realm that sexual violence is a pervasive means of control in nearly every societal structure. However, it is shocking, yet welcome, that Sucker Punch intends to bring what has historically been silenced in mainstream media to the forefront with a masterfully crafted script. Snyder attempts what many groups have spent years trying to attain. Violence against women is often over-sexualized, and thus loses credibility, in mainstream media. It is not so in Sucker Punch, as there are no overt depictions of rape in the movie for the use of pointless exploitation. Rather, the scenes in which Baby Doll, the main character, must perform for a male audience morphs into battle scenes within her own psyche. The viewer never sees the sexualized performance the male audience in the movie is watching.
Snyder has created a depiction of the culture of violence against women from the perspective of the victim, on both the personal and political level. It is this dichotomy that creates a web of overlapping themes and imagery that are spot on. The viewer is drawn into the mind of the victim of sexual assault, and is with her through her attempts to rationalize and overcome the violence. At times, it is unclear which world is the real world, and in which Baby Doll will decide to stay. It becomes evident that maybe recovery is not always possible, but being able to live through the day is all one gets sometimes. This is a pessimistic, yet realistic view, with which the audience is left to deal.
The point that the main characters are referred to by such diminutive names as Baby Doll, Sweet Pea, Rocket, and Blondie is an important side note. We never do find out their real names, suggesting that with such anonymity one woman can be replaced with another for the purposes of the male gaze and domination with no real care or thought from the male abuser.
Upon entering an asylum by the decision of her abusive step-father, Baby Doll is immediately placed in her first role of the hysterical female. This is a very conscious depiction in which to place the lead character who tried to fight back against her abuser, as it is historically accurate that such acts have been attributed to female hysteria, thus establishing that if one is to speak out about sexual violence, she has already been labeled insane and should not be trusted. Baby Doll’s stepfather goes so far as to arrange a lobotomy with the corrupt ‘caretaker’ Blue Jones. This not only leaves no chance for anyone to believe Baby Doll, but sentences her to lifelong silence and complacency.
The only way Baby Doll can escape from her fate is to imagine herself out of her reality. The world into which she imagines herself is one in which she and other women from the asylum are dancers and whores in a burlesque. Snyder’s choice of imagining his characters into an overly-sexualized environment is a very bold move, as one might simply pass it off as simple titillation for the male viewers. However, his sharp choice of fantasy world is rather poignant, as one must note that we can only imagine within the confines of the tools we are given. Thus, Baby Doll explores an escape through the confines of misogynistic world in which she feels prisoner. At times, any escape is better than no escape at all.
It is in this realm of imagination that the women are pitted against one another, the hard-hitting dialog suggesting that it is best to be quiet and survive than to stand up and fight. Mr. Jones even points out that the “bond of fear” is how he is able to keep them complacent and submissive. The fear of not being believed, the fear of not being understood, and perhaps the fear of standing on their own is what the oppressors use against them.
However, Baby Doll manages to mobilize a group of the women to devise a plan to escape the brothel. When she is forced to dance in front of a male audience, thus being a literal subject of the male gaze, she escapes into a world of video game-inspired fight scenes. It is when she is dancing that the other girls take the opportunity to set their plans into action. It is through the act of dancing, which is an act of submission, that they are able to appropriate a role of strength and defiance against the men. Within the world of fighting giant robots and flying helicopters they are able to begin breaking free of the confines of a male-envisioned world.
Each of the songs used during these battle/dance scenes are female-driven as well. Starting out with Emily Browning (Baby Doll) singing a rendition of Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” the tone is set for the entire movie, immediately pointing out the topic of abuse. A remake of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” solidifies the connection to the literal ‘going down the rabbit hole’ of Baby Doll’s psyche. The showcase song, Bjork’s “Army of Me,” acting as the in-your-face call for battle that is the driving force of the entire picture.
Indeed, Baby Doll and the gang are still dressed in too-small, skimpy outfits even within the battle scenes. Perhaps it is to signify that they have appropriated such clothing, previously having been used to objectify them, as a sign of strength. Or perhaps it is to suggest how truly difficult it is to completely break free of the confines of a misogynistic world. Either way, it seems to be a very conscience move on Snyder’s part as writer.
It is refreshing to see a world of escape as not simply a flowery fantasy land that we are so often given in other movies. Although in Tim Burton’s hit Alice In Wonderland, Alice slays the powerful Jabberwacky in an impressive feat of strength, it still ended happily ever after (as in the original story). The audio and graphics-inspired world of Sucker Punch is much darker, but allows us to see what is so often in the male realm of fantasy as our own. It does not assume that all women are fragile and of sensitive sensibilities. It suggests strength, brute, cunning, and skill- and it does so with thrilling and entertaining visuals. Snyder nearly bridges the gap between Chick-Flick and Action Sci-Fi. A built-in audience of both comic-cons and young women should have been a no-brainer. In the end, even the fanboys shied away from the video game-inspired script, and women seemed to have dismissed the movie on face-value.
Sucker Punch may not have the ultimate empowering ending the viewer finds herself rooting for, but it exemplifies that we all find our own “key” to escape- the success of which is yet to be determined. We are taken on a journey through the psyche of a victim of violence, depicting the personal journey of not only how one views herself, but of how she is viewed by others- the hysteric, the whore, the submissive, and the fighter.
The lack of a definite time being established is another subtle yet poignant detail. At times futuristic, yet suggestive of early 20th-century, and sometimes grounded in modern-day, it suggests that this is not just an issue for right here, right now, but a pervasive problem that is going to take a long war to overcome. The women in Sucker Punch may have won the battle, but the movie acts as a battle-cry for us all to take note of the war. As the wise, guiding guru figure in the movie notes, there may have been personal victories, but politically “we still have so far to go.”
Sucker Punch is an entertaining journey into feminist theory through the use of the flashiness of mainstream media. It may not be the exact embodiment that was conceived by the likes of Audre Lorde or Gloria Steinem, but it uses what works in today’s somewhat apathetic view of the trials women face. By using stunning visuals and an engaging plot line, Sucker Punch succeeds in “using the master’s tools” to speak out about the realities of sexual violence still facing women today. It does seem to be a step in the right direction compared to the recent onslaught of female leads being powerless to the dark and mysterious wiles of whatever male vampire or superhero shows up in their life. Given the topic matter, it comes as no surprise that Sucker Punch did not receive the commercial success of other movies with a softer female-driven story line, or a tough male cast fighting fictional monstrous enemies.
However, it should still be questioned why in the U.S. Sucker Punch brought in barely over $36 million dollars in the box office (equalling less than half the production costs), while Alice in Wonderland and the past two Twilight sagas generated 10 times that amount domestically. Snyder’s previous films (both adaptations) 300 and Watchmen both enjoyed box-office and critical success in mainstream media. So, why is it that his self-penned screenplay showcasing the strength and trials of women in today’s society is so easily brushed aside as eye-candy and senseless fodder? Perhaps the masses are not yet ready to watch a movie that makes them really question how they view women. One only hopes that this is not Snyder’s last attempt to venture into such territories. Although not a perfect showcase of women’s struggle, the lack of box office success of Sucker Punch leaves us with the realization that sometimes we simply have to take what we can get when we can get it.