Sometimes people write to get a point across, fiction being an excellent vessel for social commentary, or, a good way to say “See this? This is bad” in less literal and more exciting terms. It also opens important issues up for discussion, and gives the people watching and studying room to examine them in a slightly detached context leading to a better understanding. But, as previously discussed, this kind of storytelling is very, very easy to mishandle.
Like, say you think sensationalised violence in cartoons is awful. So you make an animated movie full of over-the-top violence, blood and gore and terror, designed to make the audience uncomfortable and thus show how bad the thing is in and of itself. However, if your audience doesn’t get the memo that it’s a “pointing out how bad this is” art piece either by missing your magazine interviews where you explain that or if you have to explain it in the first place, well, you’ve just made another sensationalised violent cartoon for the market, haven’t you?
Or say you make a movie that aims to point out how creepy and terrible the objectification of women is in the world of fantasy, action and other traditional comic book genres, by making a movie that provides good examples of how it’s done and showing how awful it is for the people involved. But also showing them fighting back against it all and taking agency and power for themselves and being the heroes of the story with the drooling audience clearly the villains. And to prove that it’s something intelligent that’s meant to make you think, you twist in some Inception level universe-travelling. Well, then you would have made Sucker Punch. And you may or may not have made your point.
Sucker Punch has been talked about a lot since it came out, and everyone seems to have decided whether they hate it or love it and sleeping dogs should be left to lie. I still don’t know how I feel about it—granted, I watched it a fair while ago, and wouldn’t have enjoyed it at all if I hadn’t had WB there filling me in on the themes and undercurrents. And well, that in itself says something. Was Sucker Punch a bad movie? Was it a good movie? I’m not talking about that. And I’m certainly not talking about whether or not it’s a feminist movie because that’s a whole other can of worms I dare not reopen. I’m talking about whether or not it succeeded in making its point if the point is so shrouded in the tangled layers of its own meta that casual viewers can’t even pick it up.
Sucker Punch is (supposedly) about empowerment, and how men take it away from women and girls. It happens all throughout the movie, landing the lead character “Babydoll” unjustly in a mental asylum where she’s pushed around further, only to transport us via her stress-induced mental escapism to the second dream ‘universe’, which is a burlesque/brothel kind of deal where she’s pushed around by skeezebags even more. When she dances, though, Babydoll is transported via imagination to the third matryoshka doll level of the movie where everything is straight out of a video game and she and her newfound friends take control of things and be total and utter badasses. They get cool weapons and hot outfits. They are empowered, breaking the chains of their hateful man-driven waking worlds. Or are they?
This is the problem stories like this run into—it comes down to visuals if nothing else. It’s all very well to say a female character is empowered because she’s kicking those who do her wrong in the face (be they skeezebag pimps or Nazi steampunk zombies) with boots she’s dreamed up herself. Well yes, in that context she sure is, but leaping out through the story layers, is she really if she’s just doing it for the entertainment of an audience? I’m not saying that all female characters that fight in small or clingy clothing are worth no more than eye candy, because that is not true. The point I’m trying to make is that even if a character chooses their scanty outfit in the story, in reality it was designed for her by art department overlords who quite possibly had fan service in mind.
Sure, clingy catsuits might make the lady spies and villains feel good about themselves (and maybe they are practical, I don’t know, but I’d imagine they’d be a bit squeezy), but that good feeling was dictated by their writers or artists, who are probably using it as an excuse to have them strapped into visually appealing sexy leather. As for the ass-kicking of her oppressors, well, to get any satisfaction from that the writers had to impose that oppression in the first place, didn’t they? There’s no sexism or awfulness in a story world that you don’t write in, even if it is to make a point about how bad the real version is.
Kill La Kill is a recent series that looks into the same sort of themes and suffers the same controversy: as well as being several kinds of ridiculous, supposedly (the head writers have stated they had a comment about the ‘culture of shame’ in mind, anyway) the superpower-inducing-but-barely-there battle gear the heroines are shoved into contains a metaphor for how teenaged girls are forcibly sexualised by the media and society. It’s making a point about body shame and industries driven by bloodlust and boob shots, which is quite an admirable goal, but the way it’s pulled off still creates a story that revolves around bloodlust and boob shots.
Not to say, of course, that the hardly-dressed and tossed-around characters within aren’t well-developed and the show itself isn’t good, but something such as this does bring up the question of whether they’ve really lost their metaphor within the devices of their metaphor. Living, bloodsucking uniforms that force themselves on teenaged girls provide excellent symbolism for predatory culture, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re still a huge mechanic of the show itself and that the entire business is creepy as hell. The girls strapped into these outfits battling it out may be perfectly empowered as characters, and that’s great, but on a meta level it all comes laden with blatant and rather uncomfortable fan service.
Basically, these kinds of things say “Look how terrible it is to shame and objectify young women for your own entertainment!” using… the objectification of young women within a piece of art meant for your entertainment as an example. Zack Snyder, the director of Sucker Punch, says:
I think on the other hand, because the movie is a slight indictment – it talks about geek culture and pop culture, it talks about the why of the action cinema and stuff of that nature…… When we see the action in the movie and the lights go down, the leering men sitting in a dark theatre find girls that dress sexy and gyrate, and in my case that are gyrating with machine guns, that’s us!
So, the aim of the movie was to point the finger at the geek boys in the audience, to ‘sucker punch’, if you will, the fellows who had gone into the cinema eager for a bit of a popcorn movie full of explosions, dragons, robots, and pretty girls in various combinations of fishnet and leather and cut-off school uniforms. And say “See these creeps taking advantage of these girls and making them suffer? That’s you!” Which is cool since it’s a big issue in pop culture and an important one to point out, but one has to wonder if the main portion of the audience got that, and didn’t just obliviously enjoy the movie that gave them exactly what it was trying to combat, along with some psychological drama that probably left most people going… well, like Snyder says:
I want you to be able to just go nuts and then also be able to sit with your friends afterwards and go, “No way, dude. You don’t get the socio-implications of this f*ckin’ movie.” And the other guy going, “I don’t know what the f*ck you’re talking about!”
I do believe he got what he wanted, then, because this was basically how the movie was received. It was a critical flop and went straight to cult classic territory. It does have some very interesting TV Tropes pages where the handful of people who analysed the movie for long enough kind of worked out what it was trying to say under its many layers of genre-blending, psychological horror and outright craziness. But for the average viewer and critic, I don’t think it hit its mark. Like I said, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it at all if I hadn’t had the metaphor of it all explained to me, but if that has to be done in the first place on some level you’ve failed. No, I don’t like to be beaten over the head with symbolism either, but, especially if you’re dealing with sensitive issues like sexism and consent, you have to find a middle ground among the dragons and machine guns or it just becomes scantily-clad hypocrisy.
This post ended up being more about Sucker Punch than I intended, but really it’s just such a great example of a silly film with something important to say, and how trying to say that important thing can get lost in loops of metaphor and symbolism and fan-service-meant-to-be-disservice until no one’s quite sure what’s going on and you have become, whether you intended it or not, an example of the very thing you’re trying to make a point about. And that my friends is all kinds of awkward.