Sunday, 29 May 2011

On the Feminism of Sucker Punch


I have a new article over at Alternate Takes about the much maligned and misunderstood Sucker Punch. I think that there have been few more fascinating Hollywood blockbusters, so I was very pleased to be able to delve into this movie - both its strategies, and its reception. An extract from the piece:


Sucker Punch seems to me to be one of the most widely misunderstood films of recent years. By this I don’t just mean that it’s underrated - though in my opinion it is also that. I mean that an alarming number of commentators (i.e.: almost all) somehow seem to have failed to grasp its basic aims, and thus haven’t been able to assess it appropriately.

Other than the many complaints about the lack of narrative tension and rounded characters (neither of which, as I suggested in my short review, need necessarily be seen as significant problems), the main objections to the film have, of course, tended to be made on the grounds of its sexual politics. I want to address this matter head-on, looking at some recurring complaints about the movie’s approach to gender, and argue that most of them stem from a fundamental misperception of what the film is trying to do. I should also say that I’m certainly not going to argue that the film is unimpeachable - only that it’s far more interesting than it has usually been given credit for. My point is essentially that, before we call a film a failure, we first need at least to be sure what exactly it is failing at.

The thing that seems to drive people crazy about Sucker Punch is that it appears to offer “faux feminism” but in fact constitutes a “fantasia of misogyny”. Yet I think that the film, far from offering something like lipstick feminism, does in fact genuinely strive to be a rather forceful and angry feminist film, and comes closer to earning the title than most have acknowledged. The thing is: its attempts at feminism aren’t to be found in the areas where people have generally been looking. Stated briefly, this film is primarily about itself - that is, it’s about the problems involved in trying to find positive images for women within the kind of popular culture which it itself embodies. Of course, given that this strategy naturally involves irony and flirting with having-your-cake-and-eating-it, this is a difficult and dangerous game to play - and one that Sucker Punch is perhaps only half-successful in. But it is frankly bizarre that so few people seem to have noticed that such a game is even afoot - preferring to say that the movie’s problems stem from stupidity rather than over-cleverness (which would be closer to the mark). But this is to get ahead of ourselves...

Read the rest of the article here. Hope you enjoy!


  1. 'But it is frankly bizarre that so few people seem to have noticed that such a game is even afoot'

    Agreed. The superficial negative criticism lobbed at this film was truly frightening. I long for the days never-to-come when we will all focus on film appreciation rather than film assignation-to-star-ratings-based-on-whatever-reading-struck-us-at-that-exact-moment. I'm working on it. Maybe you are, too. I have verified at least 3 other people in the world, as well, but I have forgotten their names. It's an uphill battle, but thanks for fighting it!

  2. Thanks! Yes, I agree, and I hope that this is what I/we manage to do at least semi-regularly over at Alternate Takes.

    For the record, the only other two pieces I could find on the whole internet which gave the film an adequate hearing were:


  3. I would offer a counterpoint to this idea of yours: 'Snyder has said that the girls try “to take back the power from men as best they can”, but that “in the end that’s an illusion created by Hollywood, and the best we can hope for is just to get lobotomized”. This, surely, is too pessimistic a view of what is possible within the action genre.'

    For the record, I agree with this inferred idea of Snyder's, but I think the idea is more of an attack on the idea of abstract mediums treated flippantly by the majority of their viewers to create dramatic social change. If Snyder said this explicitly he would join the company of many of the world's greatest political filmmakers (disillusioned, but probably rightfully so). Film is a great medium for reaching a receptive audience, but as the reviews of the film itself prove - there are few things that meet with a lower success rate, no matter how obvious you try to make it, to make someone notice, let alone change their mind about, an idea in a film that they have closed their mind to beforehand. I think the argument is less about any genre in particular and more about the failure of the application of gender-criticism in general as a means of turning a film's ideas (or lackthereof) into meaningful change. I read a thorough article detailing this failure with relation to The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, for instance - the net effect of one of cinema's greatest films was nullified by the inborn prejudices of each individual watching the film, and the reactions to the film tended to express more about the individual than the film. This tends to always be the case, I find. This says nothing good or bad about the action genre in particular or cinema in general, it's just an evaluation of human nature. The struggle within the context of 'female representation in the film' simply isn't one that creates social change, and I wouldn't blame that on 'misrepresentation'. If the film had such great power to affect change then you would be unable to resist, given that you interpreted it as such, no? But no, because it doesn't, and so you disagree even as you prove its point! The film's effectiveness is lobotomized in the end. You can still count the film as a personal victory, though, because abstract art is amazing for that sort of thing.

    I don't know what you mean by this, though: 'There can’t be another film like Sucker Punch, which analyses this problem in such depth.'

    The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant does just this! And it is, to me, amazing. To society - a forgotten relic. C'est la cinema.

  4. What I meant by saying that there can't be another film like Sucker Punch is that it's probably a one-time deal in terms of the action heroine genre. It's a treatise on the nature of the genre more than it is an instance of the genre itself. This certainly makes it interesting and valuable, but I was basically wondering what genre itself would do next, since it seems unlikely that Sucker Punch offers a template that other films could or would want to follow.

    Regarding your broader points, you are of course right that it's foolish to suggest that films have the power to make serious impact on the social world - or, at least, not ones we can measure easily or accurately. I do think that (particularly) popular film does constitute an intervention into a culture, though, and that it can have some kind of influence - however diffuse and ungainly. Obviously films don't exact a direct influence or hold the power to flip switches in the brains of all who see them - this was an illusion of film theory that we've by now hopefully left behind. But I don't think we should conclude that they can or do have no social significance either - that seems equally naive.

    But, yes, I broadly agree - and Sucker Punch certainly does too! While I do think that the film is primarily about the genre archetypes I discuss, it's a very good point that the film is also concerned with the fantasy/escapist (as opposed to realistically/politically practicable) nature of cinema in general. That could be another whole essay in itself.

  5. 'But I don't think we should conclude that they can or do have no social significance either - that seems equally naive.'

    Significance is a prickly term. A film can have a lot of effect without much significance - if we learn anything from Shakespeare it should be that. Seeing as most people tend to react very adversely when they even find a film with the potential to affect them in a way beyond entertainment (and even the potential of these effects is limited due to their existing aversion and complementary lack of practice in engaging with material on anything but a superficial level) I don't see how an aversion, a lack of practice, a marketing machine which secludes such films to dark corners, and an imposing mass of films released each year which diminishes by contrast the effect of any individual one (as opposed to when theater would run the same two or three films for months at a time in years past) hints at anything significant. Now, 'social' on the level of two or three people who make up a society, yes, a film can affect those people, but media is so either decentralized or diluted at this point that there's really nowhere for such an effect to concentrate or spread even if all of the other factors aligned. I don't know what this 'social significance' you speak of is supposed to be, but if it's so intangible that you can't point it out then I'll comfortably hold to my 'naivety'. As far as dueling naiveties are concerned I feel like my naivety is at least grounded in a solid foundation.