Sexism in Sucker Punch

Spoiler Alert and Trigger Warning for sexual abuse. I saw Sucker Punch the other day. I have been putting it off since it received such bad reviews like this one:

The most widespread criticism was that the movie is sexist. It has pretty actresses kick butt in pretty elaborate nerdy fantasy scenarios while wearing lingerie. The problem here is that while kicking butt is usually “empowering”, the fact that the actresses wear sexy costumes objectifies them. This undermines the “empowering” part. They just fulfil male fantasies after all. Those fantasies just happen to involve them kicking butt.

Now I’m not really a Feminist. And that’s not because of idealistic reasons. On the contrary, I’m absolutely a supporter of gender equality. It’s just that as a heterosexual white male, I often find myself in a position where I am told to be responsible for gender inequality pretty much by sheer existence. I sometimes find myself reading feminist writing that fails to envision a male role which would be gender equal. So I’m unsure if I actually can ever clearly associate myself with that label.

But I find the problem fascinating and I’m eager to learn. So naturally, Sucker Punch made me think.

Sucker Punch Tri

Because as we know, lingerie is the best body armor.

Yes taken out of context, the above mentioned scenes are absolutely sexist. But what I rarely hear anybody do is to consider the context in which they appear. I’m not going to go too deep into the plot. The important part is that protagonist Babydoll is trapped in a Brothel and plans an escape. She has the special power of performing an incredibly seductive dance that puts everybody, especially men into a trance. This allows her and her friends to secretly prepare their escape numerous times. But the actual dance is never shown. Instead, the movie goes into the above mentioned fantasy action sequences.

The most common interpretation is that the sequences show fantasies that Babydoll escapes to while performing. And sure, that kinda doesn’t make sense. After all, why should Babydoll objectify herself in her very own fantasy? On the other hand, my friend Gabe Glick pointed me to this article discussing how such fantasies could actually be considered realistic.

But my interpretation was different all together. The fantasies involve every possible cliché a modern nerd would interested in: Zombies, Nazis, Mechs, Dragons, Steampunk, Robots, Samurai, Machine Guns, Magic, Nukes, Katanas.. you name it. But Babydoll never seems to be somebody who would be interested in that kind of stuff. It doesn’t even fit if you consider the era the movie is set it. So I don’t see the action sequences as Babydoll’s fantasies. They are the audience’s fantasies. They are a metaphor for how the men in the movie see the dance, translated into the language of male nerds in the actual movie audience. It’s a quite ingenious twist. It puts the male nerds at the same level as the creepy brothel visitors in the movie and exposes the depicted fantasies as what they are – hideous things men make women do for entertainment. From this perspective, it makes sense that the actual dance and actual escape attempt is never shown. The dance/fantasy covers up what is really happening for the creeps in the story and for the audience.

But even from this perspective, I still feel like Sucker Punch is somewhat a flawed movie. If the goal was to expose nerd fantasies as sexist, the ending kinda falls apart. What would be really necessary would be some kind of wake-up call, a distancing effect. Something that truly shatters the fantasy. But that call never comes. Until the last scene, Babydoll remains the wanking material she is initially introduced as. Instead there is a weird analogy with marriage being like lobotomy and men being victims themselves, just of a higher order. I don’t know what that was all about.

Also, nerd fantasies don’t have to objectify women and aren’t exclusively enjoyed by men, as Tom Bissell recently learned the hard way.

And finally the action scenes themselves are just not that good. They are way over the top and turn out quite bland as a result. Despite of the training, the actresses just aren’t martial arts experts and it shows. The blue-screen effects make everything feel fake and unconvincing. If they are the analogy to a seductive dance, the dance just fails to seduce.

In any case, the analogy never really hits home and the argument becomes a strawman argument either way. Too bad, because I think there is more to the movie than most critics seem to recognize.

EDIT: I found this interview with Zack Snyder, which confirms that the above interpretation was indeed the director’s intention.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

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The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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