Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Spitting in the Male Eyeball

Although MovieBob, the reviewer for The Escapist, and I do not always see eye to eye, I started taking him seriously when he released a review for Sucker Punch back in spring 2011. Not unconditionally, but strongly, I loved that movie. I was able to nail down most of why in a review I wrote at the time, and MovieBob helped me to see the rest.

For some reason, Bob has decided the time is right to re-defend Sucker Punch, and he's doing so in two separate episodes of The Big Picture (a feature that digs beyond review to analysis, and is often not to my taste). The second one was released today. Here are parts one and two, and because I realized I had a lot more to say than Facebook comments would permit, here is my original review/defense of Sucker Punch, tarted up a bit for its grand re-release.

Spoilers below.

I am saddened by the crummy reviews this film has been getting. I know it’s very egotistical of me, but I think this is a case where the critics are largely just wrong. I think they have missed the point. I think, to be perfectly honest, that they are too old to see what’s really going on in this movie.

The word floating in my mind through a great deal of the movie was “post-fetishist”. Although putting women in thigh-highs and heels and enormous fake eyelashes for the entirety of a movie about a mental asylum-cum-brothel-cum-various war scenarios would seem to be a sexist move, designed to assert that women are submissive to men, there’s something newer going on. If I'm not mistaken, the intention is to convey empowerment.

It’s a dangerous thing to say that sexy scanty outfits are empowering, because then you unintentionally draw in the idea that being a ho is empowering. I do not believe that skankiness is in any way empowering, but I do believe that feeling like a strong and sexy woman is. And sometimes, feeling that way can derive from a certain type of outfit. I feel happy and confident when I wear thigh-highs and heels (even if the thigh-highs just look like pantyhose to everyone else). Why do you think women do sexy cosplay* at conventions? I seriously doubt it's only for the benefit of the men looking at them.

Matt pointed out that putting women in such sexy costumes in fact gives them power over men, making men vulnerable to their feminine wiles; I think this is a good point, too. I can’t deny that heels have the whiff of foot-binding and encumberment about them as regards women, and that tiny outfits expose women in a very obvious way that men are not subject to. But I think that what’s happening here is that the women in this movie (girls, really) are choosing sexy outfits, choosing them because they make them feel like a million bucks, not because they want to be weaker or lesser but because they want to be stronger and more.

A troubling sidebar here, added since I originally wrote this: In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein makes a short but powerful foray into noting that girls of younger generations are unable to differentiate between how they feel and how they look. When asked why they felt sexy, they answer that they felt like they looked sexy. This is so problematic that it makes me shiver. I am willing to concede that some of my empowerment-through-looking-awesome sensation might be due to this extremely upsetting confusion among women born after the 1980s. Yet I find this information a more-complex-than-just-refutation sociological addition to this topic, because I can't believe there's something inherently wrong with feeling great due to a cool outfit. There's a problem when the looking-good part of your feelings subsumes your identity, or when you don't feel good any other way than by looking good, but I just don't believe that's what's happening when a geek girl puts on a cool cosplay outfit and gives a genuinely happy and confident smile. End sidebar.

So that’s what the costumes are about, in my opinion. And that attitude of empowerment despite appearances extends to the rest of the movie; Snyder is simply not playing by the same patriarchal rules that all prior generations of male film directors have. It seems to me that for him, women are people, and the ultimate point of this movie (in my opinion; there are other, grander interpretations out there) is not that women are doomed to be lobotomized and lost, killed, ruined, but that life sometimes sucks. Sometimes you’re a decent person and still, your mom dies, you get stuffed into a mental institution by your murdering stepfather, you try your damndest and do everything Scott Glenn says, and still, you are granted freedom by way of an icepick jammed into your frontal lobe. That’s human life, not just the hard luck of the second-class gender.

MovieBob pointed out (in his original review, and for some reason didn't take the opportunity to repeat this key point in his later explications) that the "male gaze", a staple of cinematic interpretation for half a century, is simply not at work in this movie. I agree. I pointed out to Matt that, as belied by the costume thing, women are the subjects rather than the objects in this film. I wanted to be up there kicking ass on clockwork Nazis in my schoolgirl outfit and high-heeled Mary Janes along with the rest of them. I did not see as how I was supposed to be identifying with the male characters; I think that even men viewers of this movie would be identifying with the female characters, instead of the male ones as the way has always been.

Part of the reason for this is that apart from Scott Glenn’s sensei, the male characters, to a man, are awful; only the lobotomy doctor shows the glimpse of a soul. The rest of them are active destroyers. To me, this adds to the sense of this movie as a feminist piece. The dudes who objectify and harm the women are evil; hence, objectifying and harming women is evil too. (Also of note: the first man listed in the cast is seventh-billed.)

The critics who’ve called this a big dumb action flick aren’t exactly wrong. It’s not brilliantly characterized, it’s got just a smidge too much action and noise, and visually it’s so grand and exciting as to be a bit overblown. But they are entirely wrong about the pedigree of this big dumb action flick, and about the stuff that’s at work underneath it. I think what you’ve got here is a classic male ensemble piece, like The Wild Bunch or The Great Escape, only the ensemble’s made of girls. I think seeing women act like Stallone and Diesel is pretty damned awesome. I think watching two hours of such a complex tangle of influences and time periods is sort of magical, and I think Sucker Punch has a lot of the distilled essence of what movies are all about.

*In fact, there are only two costumes I've seriously considered for conventions I want to attend in the future: steampunk Jedi (when I'm a millionaire) and Babydoll. 


Bad Pants said...

I think a line from the second Big Picture sums up how I felt about this: It had great artistic ideas, it just didn't quite stick the landing.

I saw this as both an icon of 3rd Wave Feminism and a monster critique of 3rd Wave Feminism at the same time, and that's where it got a little lost for me. It's very hard for satire to illustrate the failings of abstract things without delving too deep in those things.

I'm not sure if it just wasn't quite satirical enough, or if the flash-boom sort of overwhelmed the message, or if it's just the numbing effects of skimpy clothes becoming an invisible uniform over time...but some of the impact felt muted.

I think one of the reasons I don't care much for Suckerpunch is the feeling in the back of my head that it doesn't quite stick the landing. I want to like it, but I have this weird feeling that I'm missing some critical deleted scene that keeps it from all coming together.

This was a great review though, and I really appreciate your pointing out the Big Idea videos in the first place. Both have really helped me think through the movie more completely.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I agree it's a flawed film, but one of Peter Travers's great lessons to me is to value a film that tries big, even if it doesn't succeed.

Denise said...

I agree that the MovieBob review was helpful. It's been a while since I saw this and my memory is kind of terrible, but I remember being fairly excited about seeing it because I had gotten a very cool Suckerpunch t-shirt at Comic Con and then heard it talked up by some biker dudes (don't ask). Dave and I went to see it and we were both disappointed, mainly because, as has been pointed out, it just wasn't that well done. But what I think is interesting, especially after hearing the MovieBob review, is the review that it got on the How Did This Get Made? podcast. One of the things that jumps out at me now about it is that the men on the show basically trashed it and the women were trying not to show that they kind of liked it. So perhaps the movie was somewhat successful to an extent in making the men feel ashamed and the women feel empowered. I'd still rather see a film like this than anything with Ben Stiller in it...except maybe Reality Bites, but he plays a douche in that so it's ok.

Katharine Coldiron said...

That's really cool about the male/female split on the movie. I can see how it would make men mad to not have anyone to identify with, after every other movie they've ever seen contains someone (everyone) to identify with.

It's funny you should mention Ben Stiller, because I've been reevaluating him lately in light of Tropic Thunder. I used to think he was just a clown, but I'm not so sure anymore; right now I think he's a smart guy who knows where his talents lie, works hard, and bides his time. (I didn't think he was funny until I saw Anchorman, and his tiny part in that somehow threw perspective onto all his other parts and made him as absurd as I think he means to be.)

Denise said...

I don't know that it's Ben Stiller's acting that bothers me so much as just him. Just one of those personal things, but I mostly meant the "type" of films he does usually. I am sort of picky about dumb comedies, although Anchorman was pretty fun.