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.
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.
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.