Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Zack Synder (dir) Sucker Punch (2011)

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.

10 comments:

Camberwell K said...

There was an article on this film in the Guardian the other day, where a writer set out this exact problem. The comments were especially depressing, particularly because the most common defence of 'Sucker Punch' appeared to be arguing that Batman's costume is equally fetishistic and impractical as the outfits in SP; I think for this to be true, Batman would have to fight crime dressed as a sexy fireman or a Chippendale, or would have a batsuit that exposed his chest for no reason.

The sexy / sexist comparison is a good one. I'd say it almost doesn't quite go far enough, in that a lot of men (based on a sampling of internet forums and comments pages, admittedly) seem to think that a woman fighting while dressed as a schoolgirl or a kind of fetish version of a soldier is not only sexy, but is an empowering fantasy for women, in the same way that Batman twatting criminals is an empowering fantasy for men.

Mark Chadbourn said...

I saw it differently, I admit. Not sexist or sexy certainly, but a comment on cultural tropes that afflict the genres Snyder throws on screen - horror, fantasy, SF. The sheer grimness of the women's situation undercuts any perceived titillation, and by the end their sexualisation is only deeply sad.

Dave Cesarano said...

What is totally being missed is that the costume combat is, essentially, entirely dream-sequence fantasy. Camberwell's point about Batman's costume has problems because Batman is (theoretically) trying to be realistic (or as realistic as Hollywood or comics can ever be), and the focus is not sexual. However, women's fashion and clothing is always somewhat sexually oriented. It's unreasonable to expect to see these girls in their dream sequences fighting in baggy grey sweaters or full-body 19th-century Victorian-era dresses.

Is there an exploitive angle to the fetishistic styles? Yes, I would agree with that. But hang out on any college campus today and you'll see that and moreso. Young women's fashion and sex appeal are intrinsically linked this day-and-age.

It's a case of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't. If you don't try to accentuate these women's sexuality, but instead display them as completely asexual, you run the risk of drawing ire in ways completely different from the exploitive angle.

Finally, sex appeal doesn't have to be sexist, and any comparison of Sucker Punch with Smells Like a Glove is, in my opinion, a very weak and flimsy one. Hanging out at a college campus and seeing lots of sex appeal on display doesn't make college sexist. Women like to dress in ways that are flattering and make them feel desirable, just as men will go to the gym and stage acts of physical prowess in women's sight (just go to the beach sometime and see how girls watch guys surf and play "ultimate frisbee"). To not expect these girls to want to feel desirable is to deny them their sexuality.

And we just keep going around and around and around in circles. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

The very fact that they're girls instead of boys trying to escape and battling through this elaborate metaphoric fantasy is proof that it's not as sexist as people want it to be.

VictoriaH said...

Dave Cesarano:

Gosh, if only there were some sort of middle ground between fetish schoolgirls and "baggy grey sweaters or full-body 19th-century Victorian-era dresses". I for one don't have *anything* else in my wardrobe!

You said:

Women like to dress in ways that are flattering and make them feel desirable

You also said:

If you don't try to accentuate these women's sexuality, but instead display them as completely asexual, you run the risk of drawing ire in ways completely different from the exploitive angle.

Is there anything you want to rethink about the ways in which these situations might be different? Hint: agency!

VictoriaH said...

(Adam: That was Nic, not Vicky; Alexandria groupmind/group-signin strikes again...)

Adam Roberts said...

Camberwell K. I entirely agree.

Mark C.: Certainly the film presents itself as being 'anti-sexist'; it's exactly that presentation that seems to me fatally muddled. It is saying: 'rape is bad, but bad in a sexy kind of way'. That strikes me as mendacious, dangerously so.

Dave C.: I have to say, I disagree with pretty much everything you say. You see nothing wrong with young women dressing in sexually objectifying ways on eg college campuses, although you concede that it is 'exploitative'? That a whole generation has internalised the logic that says 'desirability is all about making myself available to being exploited by men' is surely a terrifying thought. (Are you really comparing the way women dress on college campuses with the way men dress on the beach? Of course men dress that way on the beach - they're on the beach. The cultural pressure, though, is for women to dress that way all the time. Try the thought experiment: imagine a college campus in which the women all wear jeans and long sleeved tops, and the men all wear speedos and nothing else.) You say:

"If you don't try to accentuate these women's sexuality, but instead display them as completely asexual, you run the risk of drawing ire in ways completely different from the exploitive angle."

As if that's the either/or! Either you are a slutty schoolgirl stripper or you are asexual. Idiotic nonsense. Sexuality is a fantastically varied thing; and grown-up sexuality is better in a hundred ways than the 2D notions of randy 15-year-old-boys. (Quite apart from anything else: 'Drawing ire'? Whose ire? The ire of people who expected to see the girls dressed like strippers, and were disappointed? Boo hoo.)

"The very fact that they're girls instead of boys trying to escape and battling through this elaborate metaphoric fantasy is proof that it's not as sexist as people want it to be."

The fantasy is not girls', though, is it; it's Synder's. He's the one with the money and the power; the girls just do what he tells them to. The fact that the girls are all babelicious dolls in skimpy costumes rather than -- say -- ordinary looking and dressing females embodies a particular aesthetic logic that says: rape is bad, sure, but rape is closely connected with sexiness; and a rape victim who fights and struggles is even sexier!

Imagine constructing the film according to a different logic: that rape is not about sex at all, but violence; and that violence is ugly and demeaning, not sexy and empowering. But that would be a film diametrically opposite to this one.

Adam Roberts said...

Nic: my comment near-simulposted with yours, which makes me appear simply to repeat your points. I'm not plagiarising you, though; honestly!

David Chute said...

Adam, I'd be curious to read the names of a few films that you consider sexy but not sexist -- a list that will be crumpled up and thrown away if it includes "Don't Look Now."

A few pieces on the film that seem somewhat less pre-determined:

http://www.chud.com/45479/high-plains-scribbler-the-feminism-of-fishnets/

http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/2011/04/sucker-punch-and-the-fetishized-image/

http://cinerati.blogspot.com/2011/03/sucker-punch-just-what-is-going-on-here.html

E.T. said...

I think the film was supposed to be a sort of metacommentary geared towards the "infantile sci-fi geek-culture" (as opposed to people reading/watching SF, because they see some genuine aesthetic qualities in it).

(I mean, it is kind of ironic that these heroic fantasies with a dollop of sexual objectification come from the mind of a girl.)

But Zack Snyder's direction (in general) is simply all over the place.

As much as he is capable of some kewl technical stuff with the camera, at least ten times as often he indulges in such utter visual tastelessness that he comes across as a guy with exactly the kind of thinking he's trying to make fun of in Sucker Punch.

Wally said...

My god, was viewing this film a job requirement or something? Because no human being now living seems less qualified to comment critically on sex/violence than the director of the Fetish Fairs known as 300 and Watchmen. Hell!