Guest Writer Wednesday: Sucker Punch

Sucker punched by “Sucker Punch”– Girls and guns don’t equal female empowerment

This is a cross-post from What Tami Said.

This really is the best movie ever cuz its like hollywood finally said to me Fuk yeah you my man are all we care about heres some awesome shit for you to get off on and everyone else can just go fuk themselves and you get to watch. Read more…

I just “liked” Flick Filosopher Maryann Johanson on Facebook solely on the basis of her Sucker Punch review, written in what oddly sounds like the voice of the guy who sat behind me yesterday afternoon when I went to see the movie. Based on the predominately male and middle-aged audience in the theater, I am likely the only woman who fell for the previews and thought Sucker Punch might be some video game or graphic novel-based film about ass-kicking chicks who slay dragons and other cool shit. Well, actually, that stuff does happen, but it’s surrounded by too many other porny, fetishy, gender- and race-biased tropes to be any sort of empowerment tale. The characters were too cartoonish to be relatable. And the fight scenes and CGI weren’t exciting enough to allow me to forget the analysis and enjoy the fun. Sucker Punch comes off like a slightly twisted adolescent’s wet dream–if said wet dream had the benefit of a cool score and awesome computer-generated graphics.
Set some time in the late 50s/early 60s, Sucker Punch tells the story of 20-year-old Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who accidentally kills her little sister, while attempting to save the girl from being sexually assaulted by their stepfather. The act earns Baby Doll, whose mother dies in the film’s first frames, commitment to a Goreyesque Vermont mental facility, and, after her stepfather pays off a weasly orderly, a date with a lobotomist (Jon Hamm, who seriously must be saying “yes” to every acting job now), due at the hospital in five days. As Dr. Don Draper stands poised above a bound Baby Doll, wielding the long, sharp orbitoclast he will pound into her frontal lobe, Baby Doll (and the audience) escapes into the fantasy that is the rest of the movie, including a second world, where Baby Doll and her fellow inmates are enslaved at a “dance club,” where they are forced to offer sexual favors to keep the moneyed, male clients happy.
Let me concede that the dirty, gothic look of Sucker Punch was arresting. The soundtrack, with an ominous cover of the Eurythimics’ “Sweet Dreams,” was fantastic. I’ve already downloaded it. It’ll be great accompaniment when I haul my butt off the couch and start my spring running regimen. Also, I’m gonna need to explore more of actor Oscar Isaac’s oeuvre. The fight sequences in Sucker Punch were pleasingly flashy and loud with lots of leaping and flashing steel and steampunkery, but ultimately they were made hollow by repetition and uninspired choreography. We’re more than a decade on since The Matrix debuted. You gotta give me more than slow motion shots of a character leaping past bullets and dragon fire.
Since Sucker Punch couldn’t entertain me with its sound and fury, I couldn’t help but notice the larger problem in the movie: A disturbing and regressive treatment of women masquerading as “girl power.”
**Spoilers Ahead**Spoilers Ahead**Spoilers Ahead**Spoilers Ahead**Spoilers Ahead**
We can start with the infantilization of the lead character, Baby Doll, a 20-year-old rendered as woman child–tiny but big-headed, with large eyes and white blonde, pig-tailed hair, perpetually dressed in schoolgirl drag. She is mute and trembling through much of the first half of the film. The result is that Sucker Punch plays on “jail bait” fantasies using the cover that its heroine is truly an adult woman.
So too does the film leverage implied threats to women to titillate–particularly sexual threat. From the earliest scenes, when Baby Doll’s hulking stepfather eyes her lasciviously and tries to push his way into her bedroom, Sucker Punch highlights the protagonist’s sexual vulnerability–not to make a point about violence toward women, but to render her more fragile and endangered, and by extension, to underscore her femininity and desirability.
And it must be said here that the key to Baby Doll’s persona and her place in the film is her whiteness. Sucker Punch genuflects to the traditional views of womanhood that have historically been assigned exclusively to white women (to the detriment of ALL women). It is not a mistake that, of the gang of female characters, Baby Doll is the blondest and most alabaster of skin. She is the most innocent. It is she that is reserved for the most special of the fantasy club’s clients, the High Roller. It is her dancing that is so arousing that it hypnotizes the men who witness it. It is Baby Doll that the swarthy pimp/orderly (depending on the fantasy world) must have and who he intends to take by force. (A nasty nod to the white women in danger of rampaging dark men stereotype.) Conversely, it is the women of color in the film–Amber (Jamie Chung) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens)–who are drawn as the flattest of the flat characters, with no back stories or desires, but to serve Baby Doll. And it is those women whose lives are unwillingly sacrificed (literally) so that one pretty, blonde, white woman can live the life she deserves.
The most obvious sign that Sucker Punch is no female empowerment film–not even a Kill Bill (which I really liked and to which Sucker Punch plays homage)–is the plot itself. The idea that a young woman, who has recently lost her mother and sister; who is imprisoned for fighting against domestic violence; who may have endured rape at the hands of her stepfather or just narrowly escaped it; who is about to endure a forced medical procedure would, for relief from her trauma, retreat into a fantasy world where she is a sexual slave who must dance provocatively for strange men…absurd.

Sucker Punch is no female fantasy. Sucker Punch isn’t about women at all, despite the female leads. Josh Larsen of Larsen on Film describes exactly what Sucker Punch is:

…it’s the fantasy of a 14-year-old boy steeped in kung fu, “Call of Duty” and online porn. Read more…

And this is why I should start reading film reviews before I see films not after.
Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous ‘fro.