In the little-read supplement to the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx elaborated his understanding that visual culture worked according to a less bathetic logic than political society: 'all great popular visual representational events appear, so to speak, twice: the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy'. And so, here we are. Sucker Punch is entirely shaped by a conceptual muddle that was once the occasion for laughter but which has now assumed a depressingly serious-minded cultural ubiquity.
In 1984's This Is Spinal Tap, Bobbi Fleckmann (played by Fran Drescher) deplores the original cover art of Tap's Smell the Glove album: 'a greased, naked woman on all fours with a dawg collar around her neck and a leash, and a man's arm extended out holding on to the leash and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it...' This, she says, quite rightly, is sexist. Nigel Tufnel's retort is: 'what's wrong with being sexy?'
Once played for laughs, the elision of these two terms is now a simple fact of cultural life. Perhaps we are all, secretly, too afraid of being labelled prudes to challenge it. Certainly, 'sexy' has become so widely accepted as a nexus of worth and value in itself that it has all but crowded out 'sexist' as a conceptual category, shoving it off to a metaphorical Hyperborea where joyless puritanical feminists of both genders tut and cross their arms. It is not good that this has happened. More, in fact: we ought to consider it a necessary and vital discursive undertaking to prise apart the po-faced blurring of 'sexy' and 'sexist', and to remind ourselves how corrosive and destructive the latter attitude is. Sucker Punch thinks it is being anti-sexist precisely by being 'sexy'. In fact, of course, it is neither. The film is both miserably reactionary and limiting in terms of its representation of womanhood; and it is about as sexy as a sheaf of brown manilla envelopes. If only we could go back to a time where confusing sexy and sexist was supposed to be funny.