Last fall, I got around to watching Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. A friend recommended it based on my interests in female pop musicians and music video. Well, he didn’t recommend it. He predicted (correctly) that I would hate it. But he thought I might be able to make use out of it. For a little while, I thought about writing a term paper on it for my film score class. But then I watched the thing and decided that expanding my existent work on Kelly Reichardt’s use of sound and music would be the kinder, gentler option. I’m all about self-care. Final papers, grading, season affective disorder, and multiple Sucker Punch screenings would take their toll on even the steeliest individuals.
Is Sucker Punch that bad? Yes, particularly because it fails to live up to its potential. Snyder intended for his cinematic period comic about 60s-era female mental asylum patients to be a self-reflexive critique against fanboy culture’s leering, dehumanizing sexism. That may be true, but the critique gets lost in the execution. Babydoll (Emily Browning) is a survivor of family abuse who is put in an institution by her own stepfather after she accidentally kills her sister. To escape her present living condition, an impending lobotomy, and basically everything that’s ever happened to her, she uses fantasy as a retreat.
Unfortunately, Babydoll can only imagine herself as a sex slave, showgirl, or video game avatar. This is evidence of a damaged mind and the handiwork of self-reflexive fanboy screenwriters. Granted, all of Babydoll’s fantasies are about escape and vengeance, with a brothel pimp (Oscar Isaac) and madam (Carla Gugino) standing in for her stepfather, an orderly (Issac), and her psychiatrist (Gugino). Furthermore, Babydoll assembles a team of showgirls/patients (played by Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung) in order to enact collective revenge against their captors. This could be an attempt at female solidarity, though its potential is undercut by the presence of double agents within the ranks. The film does acknowledge that many survivors blame themselves and protect their abusers, as represented by the storyline for sisters Sweet Pea (Cornish) and Rocket (Malone). I suppose it would be disingenuous of the film to have Babydoll escape a lobotomy that assuredly would be performed on her in a mid-century mental institution. But even Babydoll’s fantasies seem constrictive, particularly because Babydoll and her co-hort’s bodies are diminished by music video objectification and CGI wizardry.
Where I find Sucker Punch especially hard to take is its use of pop music. Reflecting the (barely drawn) ensemble of female archetypes in the film’s main cast, the soundtrack is mainly comprised of well-known anthems and classic tracks by “empowered” female artists. Suspending any critique of historical accuracy—an argument I have little interest in with regard to period films if the music works—what troubles me is how the music is clearly supposed to aurally represent some notion of girl power. Björk, Annie Lennox, and Alison Mosshart are tough, resilient, iconic women who represent freedom, escape, and strength to many of their fans. But the film’s use of their music is as confusing as it is calculated. Having Browning cover “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” is one thing. Having it play over the film’s opening montage of Babydoll’s institutionalization following her sister’s death is awful. Using Björk’s “Army of Me” in a scene where Babydoll kills a supernatural foe is meant to be empowering but feels hollow. The same could be said of the girls’ final showdown to Mosshart’s cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Nothing about Sucker Punch feels victorious, no matter how many girls you put on screen or in the soundtrack. For one, I can’t imagine girls kicking that much ass while wearing stilettos and skimpy leotards (live-action Aeon Flux couldn’t do it). For another, I hate that actresses are required to look normatively sexy while kicking ass (at least Michelle Rodriguez didn’t wear heels in Machete). In her mind, Babydoll is a post-classic Hollywood Salome. But we never see Babydoll perform. Assuredly this is intentional. I seem to remember hearing that an alternate version of the film features Browning’s dancing, which left little to the imagination. Maybe this prevents us from objectifying her further. But I’d still like to see her claim ownership of her voice and body in those scenes. Unfortunately Babydoll and her girls are never people; this undercuts the film’s supposedly feminist intentions.
Snyder’s invocation of riot grrrl/girl power feminism resembles producer Max Martin’s deployment of feminist girl punk. Ann Powers observes that Martin harnesses the subgenre’s rebellious energy for anthems by artists like Avril Lavigne, P!nk, Britney Spears, and Taylor Swift. Linking Martin’s collaborations to the recent political mistreatment of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, Powers concludes:
The complex and still unfolding story of the Russian collective can’t be summarized in a short essay, much less a paragraph. But it’s worth contemplating Swift’s latest move, not only because it’s so powerful, but because it demonstrates how consequential a serious act of talking back can be. Punk is a great flavor enhancer, and in small doses, it adds a kick to pop. Take it straight, however, and you could be utterly changed.
I recognize all of this results from (and predates) riot grrrl’s mainstream co-optation. Such appropriation is bound up in the politics of power and consent. These issues are Sucker Punch’s (disjointed, unformed) thematic center. And the stakes are high, both on- and off-screen. The politics of power and consent shape science and the prison industrial complex, both of which are regulated by government and corporate interests. When confronted with difference, these institutions often take power away from patients and prisoners. How else can we explain the mistreatment of people like Sara Kruzan and CeCe McDonald, since it can’t be justified? How else do elected officials like Todd Akin and Jan Brewer get to subjugate women and girls’ bodies with their hate speech and dangerously applied legislative authority?
Powers notes that punk is about community rather than the individualist bent of many of Martin’s confections. Totally. For me, punk is all about struggle and resistance outside of and within those communities. It’s about the transformative potential of making do and speaking to (and spitting at) power. It’s about rebelling against society’s imposition on its own citizenry. It’s also about rebelling against three-chord song structure and mosh pit misogyny.
I also recognize that when it comes to popular culture and art, feminist critics should be cautious about being proscriptive. Perhaps Sucker Punch and texts like it are empowering to people. Jessica Hopper advises against dismissing Taylor Swift’s radical potential for young girls, something I’ve always tried to do as a Girls Rock Camp instructor despite my well-documented, self-reflexive antipathy toward her. So I don’t want to take that potential away from anyone. But I personally can’t abide what I perceive to be the film’s disempowering political message. The stakes are too high.