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.
10 responses to “Missing the Point in Making the Point”
I’d argue so far as to say both Sucker Punch and KLK are trying to fill this “void” that currently exists, and the extent of the popularity and efforts people made to justify it show how much the public needed it…but neither team seems to have had the skill to effectively construct their narrative so that a casual glance can demonstrate this to the person who really couldn’t care less. xD Well, maybe that’s harsh, the person without a pre-existing, vested interest, is perhaps nicer?
Of course in KLK’s case, I have always been of the opinion (confirmed for me once…well…Satsuki and Ragyo’s interactions came to screen) that Trigger is completely phoning in the battle fanservice. We’ve heard from Trigger that they intentionally left details vague and open-ended so if they thought of something cool at the last minute, they could put it in the story. KLK fell into this trap where the team said “Aw yeah, we’ll do it about female empowerment and stuff, you know, whatever.” But it’s such a charged topic that it really can’t be approached with a “whatever” attitude, it really needs to be a specific goal, and everything needs to fall around that frame. I can’t say if Sucker Punch fell into this trap either, though I have a feeling by some of the editing that it totally did, too xD
But that’s one crazy lady’s opinion xD
Well, the more I watch of Kill La Kill (as of this post being published I’ve actually caught up, as opposed to being up to episode 6 or 7 when I wrote it) the less I think the theme they’re going for is predatory culture and female empowerment. And I agree with you, it’s not the kind of thing you want to half-ass if you do examine it. I am convinced the series is trying to say SOMETHING to us, but it’s more likely about power or revenge. That’s going to be a seperate post though… once I’ve wrapped my brain around it of course, and KLK does not always make that easy!
Nn, at best KLK is probably a “if you’re strong enough it doesn’t matter what (they) say”, and while there are motiffs I do not believe they are as well thought out as people are giving them credit for xD
Though in fairness I’ll wait for the series to conclude before psycho-analyzing too much =P But I’m reminded of a thing I read about writers and studying books in English class. “What did the author mean by this?” and never is the idea floated “It’s from an earlier draft they forgot they remove” or “He needed to fill word count to get to the part he wanted to work on”
Yes, well 😛 Still, I think there’s definitely something they’re trying to get across with the whole ‘clothing is power’ thing, especially when the system gets flipped on its head and ‘the clothes wear us’ becomes more than a phrase. Maybe it’s just madcap action, because it CERTAINLY has that going for it, but I’d like to think there’s some kind of underlying theme. Every story is ‘about’ something after all.
I’d agree that, by and large, the point of Sucker Punch was missed by the average audience. Movie critics, film academics and the like may have been able to dissect it, but the problem with Sucker Punch (and other movies of its ilk) is that the majority of the audience aren’t critics/academics/whatever – they’re just people paying $10 to get some entertainment on the big screen. I’d argue that Kill la Kill, on the other hand, has a better chance of it’s audience inherently ‘getting it’ by very nature of the medium. Most people who go to the cinema to watch a movie aren’t necessarily big-time film fans, but dare I say it, people who watch anime on a regular basis are quite likely to be big-time anime fans; those living overseas usually have to make an effort to be able to watch teen or adult-orientated anime (even if that effort only means knowing a title by name and searching for a place to watch it online), and people who live in Japan need to stay up late to do the same. (Incidentally, I’m not making any statements here about Sucker Punch being a good film or not, or Kill la Kill being a good anime or not. As you’ve pointed out, that’s an entirely different conversation.)
That’s true… Movies, especially one-shot things like Sucker Punch was, don’t generate fandoms nearly as well as ongoing TV shows do, so the audience has less of a chance to talk about it and bounce ideas off each other and open up a wider pool of discussion. That can get the analytical juices flowing much more than something that is over in two hours, y’know?
Still, there’s still a fault in relying on people getting your message when it’s so deep and tangled
Oh, absolutely. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said – I just think that, by and large, Sucker Punch was advertised as an action movie with scantily-clad women. Unsurprisingly, most people therefore went in order to be entertained by an action movie with scantily clad women, as opposed to going in order to watch a movie that required any digging for a complex or thought-provoking point. (As you’ve pointed out however, that’s really only half the problem. The other half rests on the movie itself rather than being the audience’s fault.)
That’s true! It’s a tricky ground to tread, seeing as how you don’t want to discourage the audience you’re trying to reach by advertising too far outside the genre, but you also don’t want to perpetuate the problem you’re talking about IN the movie with your own advertising
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