Other Stuff

If you like what you see, click the buttons and let the world know!


« #37. The Queen - Review | Main | Trailer: Indie Game the Movie »

#36. Sucker Punch - Analysis

Sucker Punch banner



Feminist film theory has had an interesting, if not often polarizing, maturation since Laura Mulvey published her groundbreaking essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema in 1975. In it Mulvey investigates the gender-based patriarchal structure of Hollywood films, how Freud’s theory of scopophila relates to the male spectators pleasure of looking at women on screen, and how women are often reduced to objects to be gazed upon, what she called the “passive spectacle.” To understand Mulvey it is important to also understand the idea of feminism as both a movement and a social discipline. In her 2004 essay Brain Sex, Cyberpunk Cinema, Feminism, and the Dis/Location of Heterosexuality, author Michelle Chilcoat defines feminism as “the effect of the social, cultural, or psychological inscription of a subject whose biological sex (male and female) is already given.” (Chilcoat, 168) In this paper I will attempt an examination of the male-gaze, feminism, and the patriarchal affects of Zach Snyder’s 2011 film Sucker Punch. First I will offer a necessary explanation of the films somewhat complicated narrative, move on to the gaze theory and its relationship to shame and spectatorship, investigate the idea of castration in film, and end with an exploration of how Mulvey’s patriarchal theory influenced Sucker Punch.

Sucker Punch posterSucker Punch follows Baby Doll (Emily Browning) a young woman who is sent to an insane asylum by her evil child molesting stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) following the death of her mother and accidentally shooting her younger sister. The asylum is controlled by the ruthlessly conniving Blue (Oscar Isaac), and his somewhat reluctant abettor and resident psychiatrist Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino). The Stepfather (he is never given a name) pays Blue to forge all of the paperwork needed to have the asylum’s doctor (Jon Hamm) perform a lobotomy on his poor stepdaughter. As the doctor’s hammer falls in slow motion towards the chisel that rests atop her eye socket, Baby Doll successfully escapes inside her imagination, apparently avoiding the inevitable vegetification that awaits her in reality, and presents a chance for her to somehow form a plan.

There are three individual, albeit somehow connected dimensions of Baby Doll’s reality in which she must exist in Sucker Punch. The first is the actual real world that takes place in the asylum, where Baby Doll is joined by fellow inmates Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). The second world takes place inside Baby Doll’s head, where she transforms the insane asylum into a ritzy cathouse of sorts where the girls are forced to perform lurid strip teases for the club’s influential clientele. It is at this point the film’s somewhat forgivable, puerile set-up devolves into a vapid netherworld of shameless exploitation.

To escape the brothel Baby Doll eventually learns she must find certain objects throughout the club to aid in the dancers’ escape. A map, fire, a butcher’s knife; each item is controlled by a man at the brothel. To obtain each item Baby Doll must first lure them into a seductive trance with a striptease, hypnotizing them with her beauty and giving one of the other dancers an opportunity to steal the treasure. Her dancing must be pretty impressive, because her gyrations charm her mark every time. In a shallow attempt to eschew the male gaze Snyder refuses to allow the audience the pleasure of viewing one of these dances, purposefully cutting away as soon as Baby Doll begins to move her body, choosing instead to zoom in on Emily Browning’s vacant eyes.  Snyder’s perception of what is empowering and what is exploitive is immediate and apparent. In an interview promoting the film during its theatrical release Snyder defends this idea that by simply cutting away from what has obviously been setup as sexual exploitation, he avoids the trappings of the gaze, reaffirming his feminine liberating ideals. “You can say what you want about the movie, but I did not shoot the girls in an exploitative way. They might be dressed sexually, but I didn’t shoot the movie to exploit their sexuality. There’s no close-ups of cleavage, or stuff like that.” (ONTD,2011)

Sucker Punch Baby DollHowever, what implications arise when denying the audience this visual relief? Or more to the point, what exactly did Snyder feel he could avoid by showcasing five very beautiful, albeit very young looking women in revealing S & M and schoolgirl outfits, but then purposefully strive to not give into the male gaze? When defining scopophilia Freud said, “The force that which opposes scopophilia, but which may be overcome by it, is shame.” (Manlove, 88) Mulvey disagrees with Freud’s assertions, insisting that personal identification with the characters on screen is essential when influencing the spectator into feeling shame. The prostitution, stripteases, and risqué outfits would perhaps be more appropriate if it wasn’t for how young some of the girls are made to look. While actresses Abbie Cornish (28 years old) and Jena Malone (26 years old) look like adult women, Vanessa Hudgen’s (22 years old) Blondie, Jamie Chung’s (28 years old) Amber and especially Browning’s (22 years old) Baby Doll not only looks as if they were underage but that their childish appearance was deliberate. In a film about tough strippers some luridness is to be expected, but when you put a catholic schoolgirl outfit on a girl who looks about old enough to legitimately wear a catholic schoolgirl outfit then that is where lust can easily transition into shame.

Sucker Punch posterThis is where Mulvey is wrong. The shame awakened by Sucker Punch is inspired by the pleasure derived from the visual titillations, even without close-ups and T & A, and I would argue this guilty emotion is achieved without any personal identification with Baby Doll or her sisters-in-crime. Their plight is non-existent when you realize both the heightened fantasy worlds and the brothel do not actually exist. The majority of the film occurs within Baby Doll’s mind, complete figments intended as a metaphor for how women cope with sexual trauma. The only thing the audience literally knows about Baby Doll before the lobotomy and her ensuing trip into her dream-state is that she accidently shot her sister. By the time Baby Doll reaches the brothel the audience has more insight into Blue and the one-dimensional stepfather character than the film’s protagonist. Snyder has consciously manufactured a film in which the major events never actually take place, conversations and character development in reality never occurred. Any identification that a spectator may indeed associate with the characters on screen is quickly nullified as soon as Baby Doll escapes inside her own mind. And yet, shame is an understandable reaction when watching this film. As Baby Doll travels into her deeper dream worlds, the amount of clothing her and the other girls wear becomes less and less. Beginning with white patient outfits in the asylum, Snyder expects us to accept that Baby Doll would envision herself and the others wearing dominatrix style costumes in the brothel, and unbelievably even less clothing in the fantasy realm. Snyder may have been trying to portray a group of women fighting against sexual oppression, but by progressively removing their clothing and exploiting their bodies he only serves to subvert his initial goal. The danger is evident, the oppression is unfortunate, and the sexual mistreatment is disgusting, but this is made all the more worse when confronted with the thought that Baby Doll is manifesting it all. In her reality it can be assumed her and her sister are both sexually mistreated, in the brothel her and her friends are sexually mistreated, beaten, and often times killed. Should it be some sort of relief when in the fantasy world the girls are just attacked by zombie Germans and annihilated by bombs? The idea that the brothel serves as a visual metaphor for her reality is straightforward and clear, but what is incomprehensible is how any of the sexual abuse endured in the club or the physical harm of the fantasy world is in anyway a representation of that struggle. The entertainment and excitement felt by the viewer witnessing the mistreatment of the women in Sucker Punch can only lead to shame, even without the conscious decision by Snyder to capitulate the male gaze or allow the audience to identify with Baby Doll.

Sucker Punch German Steampunk ZombieMulvey believes films are socially constructed, engineered by a patriarchal system with a focal point on gender politics. She writes, “The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world.” (Mulvey, 715) Writer Clifford Manlove extrapolates further on this theory of woman’s struggle to compensate for their lack of a penis in his essay Visual “Drive” and Cinematic Narrative: Reading Gaze Theory in Lacan, Hitchcock, and Mulvey. “All (non-psychotic) subjects lack; lack and loss are functions of what Freud calls castration… the gaze, rather, and its effects, are not gender specific.” (Manlove, 90) Snyder’s film is an ideal illustration to both Freud’s theory of castration and Manlove’s interpretation. Within the reality of the film (the asylum) Baby Doll and the other girls have lost their freedom, their family, and the control over their bodies. Once in the fantasy world each girl is provided specific phallocentric weapons to battle the undead, dragons, and so on. Baby Doll wields a katana, while the other girls carry shotguns, machine guns, sniper rifles, and rocket launchers. By battling epic chimerical creatures while brandishing their brutal artillery, the girls effectively compensate for their castration, or lack of any agency to control their own existence within reality. It should be noted that within the fantasy world the girls kill automated-zombie Germans, nasty orcs, and even dragons, but never at any point do they kill a man, their physical oppressors. In fact, the only living species Baby Doll destroys is a female dragon and her baby. When the opportunity arises for one the girls to take back their loss of control in the brothel, using similarly phallocentric weapons like a knife, she never seizes the chance, instead deciding to purely threaten her male abuser or deliver a nonfatal wound. Even when given the chance to physically breakout of her despotic patriarchal existence, employing the male antagonist’s own phallic weapon against him, Snyder refuses to permit her escape. The director’s personal relationship with his protagonist, along with male audience expectation of the film, I believe, is analogous to Mulvey’s continuation of her theory when she wrote, “Women (then) stand in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic (and in this case visual) command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of the meaning.” (Mulvey, 716)

Sucker Punch artDirector Zach Snyder professes that he intended his film Sucker Punch to be a big budget spectacle to empower women, metaphorically showcasing the plight of sexually abused females all over the world. Sadly his film failed at this righteous goal, instead only succeeding at glorifying the exhibition of young women. Films like the Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999) prove that, “the action genre has given rise to female characters who challenge conventional femininity through their narrative and aesthetic roles.” (Geller, 8) Sucker Punch only serves to impede this evolution of the genre, believing instead superficial female characters fighting monsters in a make believe environment, wearing nothing but shortcut costumes will indeed challenge Hollywood conventions. While steampunk zombies, giant flying dragons, and runaway trains are captivating, Snyder’s inability to deny his own id is too distracting for the viewer to completely commit. This disassociation with the women on screen never-the-less provoke shame within the spectator, going against Mulvey’s belief that personal identification with the characters is essential to make the viewer feel anything like shame. Snyder’s presumption of what could be perceived as empowering for women is disturbing, only proving that the female voice is not only profoundly void in Hollywood at present time, but also completely misunderstood in today’s popular culture.


Chilcoat, Michelle. "Brain Sex, Cyberpunk Cinema, Feminism and the Dis/Location of Heterosexuality." NWSA Journal. 16. (2004): 156-176. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.

Geller, Theresa. "Queering Hollywood's Tough Chick." Frontiers. 25. (2004): 8-34. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.

Manlove, Clifford. "Visual 'Drive' and Cinematic Narrative: Reading Gaze Theory in Lacan, Hitchock, and Mulvey." Cinema Journal. 46. (2007): 83-108. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. Ed. Timothy Corrigan, Ed. Patricia White and Ed. Meta Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 714-725. Print.

Snyder, Zach, dir. Sucker Punch. Warner Brothers, 2011. Film.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.