Women, Genre, and the 2010s  

Do you remember Sucker Punch? Neither did I until I had a conversation about all the critically and popularly despised action movies that came out of the early 2010’s. Green Lantern (the one with Ryan Reynolds) came to mind, followed quickly by Battleship (the one with Rihanna), and then we remembered the one with the girls. “Who was in it?” None of us remembered. “What happened?” Something about a lobotomy. And a brothel. And a dragon, maybe? It took some advanced Googling maneuvers but finally I found it: the poster for Zack Snyder’s 2011 feminist(?) epic, Sucker Punch 

I’m ten years old walking out of the movie theater with my dad. We just saw Megamind (or maybe it was Despicable Me) and as we turn the corner, I find myself face-to-face with five women fighting their way out of some green-hued hellscape. They’re huddled together close enough to protect each other from the faceless soldiers and the dragon, but not close enough to conceal their outfits. They match schoolgirl skirts with samurai swords, tube tops with tomahawks, and fishnets with firearms. “That can’t be practical,” I observe, wiping blue Icee and popcorn from my mouth, cuing my father up to approve of my disapproval. Truthfully, I wasn’t offended at all- I was captivated. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be, so I followed proper 2010 “there are scantily clad women in the vicinity” protocol: snide remark, judgmental expression, move on and pretend they’re invisible. But inside, I thought they were perfect. They were beautiful and tough and in control of a situation I’d only seen Avengers and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in prior. I wanted to be just like them.  

My dad and I chatted about the movie we just saw and the movies we wanted to see, but I couldn’t quit thinking about that poster. I suggest that we go see Sucker Punch when it comes out- just to make fun of it, obviously. He winces a little and shakes his head before delivering the bad news. “I think that’s one for when you’re older, kiddo.” 

I’m older now- ten whole years. I’ve grown up to love movies like Clueless, Marie Antoinette, and Jennifers Body: films made by and for women. Jennifer’s Body is the newest addition to my roster thanks to its recent resurrection in public consciousness. Diablo Cody, screenwriter of Jennifers Body and most famously Juno, set out to write a horror-comedy with both a female protagonist and antagonist, and a message about the complicated and often toxic dynamics of female friendships. She accomplished exactly that, but we wouldn’t realize it until around 2018, when the #MeToo movement invited us to reconsider the film through a feminist lens. All of the 2009 promotional materials for Jennifers Body made it clear to prospective audiences that this was just a movie about Megan Fox being sexy. Consequently, audiences and critics alike scorned the film: the critics for its vapid sexuality, and the largely male audience for the lack thereof. There was no commercial space for genre films led by and made for women in 2009- horror, sci-fi, action, or otherwise. We saw female characters in these types of films, sure, but certainly not in these kinds of roles telling these kinds of stories. Further, there was no evidence that men, to whom all genre films were marketed, would show up without incentive. Thus, the movie’s marketing team did what marketing teams did best in the latter aughts and crafted a campaign around a sexy woman doing a sexy thing that only vaguely relates to the plot of the film. Fellow offenders include John Tucker Must Die, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, or all of the films featured in Marcia Belsky’s Headless Woman Project . Having been made to feel that they would be unwelcome in theaters showing Jennifers Body, the women for whom the film was written stayed home as the coveted “males 18-24″ demographic filled the seats. With a modern, corrected understanding of Hollywood’s relationship with women we reevaluated the film and found its merits outside the context of its faulty marketing. Critics initially faulted Cody for her trademark snarky dialogue, claiming it was unrealistic and teenaged girls would never speak like that; now young women quote Jennifer’s Body to one another. Fox’s performance was called flat, unskilled, and altogether irredemable, but the character she embodied, Jennifer Check, has become a modern icon of feminist cinema. The largely male audience of 2009 was left theaters sexually unfulfilled, but the largely female audience of 2018 and beyond has found the film both empowering and representative of the female experience. It’s fortunate that we’ve dug Jennifers Body from its early grave, but it forces you to wonder which similarly maligned films we’ve left for dead.  

A Deep Dive Into The Film

Enter Sucker Punch. At first glance, it seems like a familiar story: a female-led genre film with a less commercial feminist subtext. It’s marketed on the attractiveness of its lead actresses alone, and gets critically crucified as a result. So why, then, has Jennifers Body been redeemed in the mainstream while Sucker Punch remains somewhere between obscurity and infamy? The short answer is auteur director and public enemy Zack Snyder. 

Sucker Punch was an original script written by Snyder himself in collaboration with Steve Shibuya. Prior to this, Snyder specialized in film adaptations of pre-existing intellectual property, most notably 300 and Watchmen. He’s known for spectacular special effects, meticulously choreographed fight scenes, and gratuitous, often overwhelming violence. Impactful plots, round characters, and poignant social commentary? Not so much. Nevertheless, Snyder set out to craft a feminist sci-fi epic from the ground up, without the counsel of a single woman. It follows Baby Doll, an orphan-turned-mental patient who escapes into several layers of fantasy-first a brothel, then a plethora of sci-fi/fantasy locales- and teams up with the women around her to acquire the items necessary to gain their freedom. One of the most prevalent criticisms of the film is that its plot is incoherent and functions only to string together each of the lovingly crafted action sequences, but Snyder insists that the film is not a vehicle for his hot girl fight scenes, but rather an allegory for the treatment of women within “geek culture” in the early 2010s. In a 2011 interview with Jack Giroux of Film School Rejects, Snyder calls Sucker Punch “a fanboy indictment,” explaining that the main line between the brothel and the sci-fi fight scenes is the women’s performance for “the men in the dark”– the brothel patrons and the “dorky sci-fi kids” watching the actual film. Another common criticism was that the film was exploitative and sexist, but all accusations of sexism can be automatically neutralized using Snyder’s logic. In his Vanity Fair career breakdown, he calls Sucker Punch “a film about genre films,” claiming when he was asked why he chose to dress the cast the way he did he would reply simply “I didn’t dress them like that; you did.”  

I want to believe that Snyder’s defense of the film is genuine and not an excuse to save face after its less-than glittering critical reception, but one has to wonder why he felt personally called to champion women in 2011 geek culture, and why he chose to do it like this. In order to critique genre films that excessively sexualize their female characters, he created a genre film that excessively sexualized its female characters. It’s like protesting the meat industry by opening a burger joint.  

While I understand the mechanic of ensnaring the very men who came to watch schoolgirls play with shotguns and forcing them to reflect on their motivations, there’s really no gut-punching, eye-opening call out in Snyder’s self-proclaimed “protest film”. There are lines in the script where the women acknowledge their own exploitation, like the first scene in the brothel where Sweet Pea has suddenly taken the place of Baby Doll in the sanitarium, and the lobotomy has been dramatized into a striptease on stage. She acknowledges the function of the schoolgirl gimmick, and even the helpless mental patient, but she draws the line at lobotomized vegetable. “How about something more commercial?” she offers forgetably, though most arguments for the film’s self awareness hinge on this moment. Baby Doll’s dance hypnotizes the men in the brothel and triggers the fantasy sequences which convey how high the stakes are as the women steal the items for their escape. The statement is that women can liberate themselves by weaponizing their sexuality and exploiting the male gaze. Snyder’s attempting to say something revelatory and empowering here, but I can think of few more tone deaf assertions you could plop into a narrative about women escaping sexual slavery (imagined or otherwise). A  popular read of the text from the end of the film when Baby Doll sacrifices herself so that Sweet Pea can escape. The theory is that all of the women are fragmented embodiments of Sweet Pea, our true protagonist. Blondie, Amber, and Rocket’s symbolism is debated, but the consensus is that Sweet Pea is the mind and Baby Doll is the body. In order for her mind to escape, Sweet Pea must sacrifice her body, embodied by Baby Doll. The assertion here was presumably intended to be something to the effect of “through their mental fortitude women can escape the confines of the patriarchy and fight back against it”. But in a film with so many exploitative depictions of women’s bodies, the message of sacrificing the body to free the mind as the final, most heroic act of the film- and Snyder’s message to women on behalf of all the “dorky sci-fi boys” like himself- becomes “just let us look; it only hurts you if you let it.”  

In Conclusion?

Big swings and big misses: Snyder attempts to grapple with important ideas here that, if conveyed effectively, might afford Sucker Punch the protest movie status he thinks it deserves. But the way he tries to navigate them and weave them into the narrative manages to be both clumsy and covert. Audiences attempting to read the text deeply are left feeling uninspired at best, and at worst offended; audiences watching for pretty girls with big guns get exactly what they came for. If a text can be read and enjoyed on a literal level by the very group it is attempting to indict it’s really not much of a protest.  

Jennifers Body is a film about women made by and for women; Sucker Punch is a film about women made by and for men. It took some time but Jennifers Body has found its young female audience; Sucker Punch has had its cult audience of fanboys willing to overlook the faulty plot since its premiere. I wanted to be empowered by Snyder’s film at twenty years old just as badly as I did when I saw the poster ten years ago. I wanted to be the cinematographic archaeologist that dug Sucker Punch up out of the rubble of the 2010s and cleared its name. I wanted to feel feminine and capable and strong but as the credits rolled I felt nothing at all. The film had plenty to say about women, what’s holding them back and what they should aspire to, but had nothing to say to women at all. So as women become increasingly active participants in shaping our media landscape and we pick which films to salvage and which to leave behind, it doesn’t surprise me that Sucker Punch hasn’t been redeemed, at least to the same degree as Jennifer’s Body.  

This may not be lights out for Sucker Punch, however. Snyder has a history of delivering disappointing projects, blaming the edit, and claiming that there’s a far superior director’s cut in the vault. The “Snyder Cut” of Justice League comes to mind, and came after a slew of backlash towards the 2017 theatrical release of the film. It required an additional $70 million to complete and involved considerable re-shoots, but the reception was considerably more positive. In a recent recap of his career with Vanity Fair, Snyder alluded to the existence and possible release of a director’s cut of Sucker Punch, with significantly more footage than even the extended cut of the film. Snyder claims that both releases are significantly watered down to make them as commercially palatable as possible, and much of the footage that would elucidate the psychological and allegorical elements of the film was cut. Maybe Sucker Punch is about to enter its own renaissance- a re-release into this media climate with a more substantial emphasis on the inner lives of the women could catapult the film into our feminist canon with the likes of Jennifer’s Body. Or maybe Zack Snyder just has a go-to defense mechanism when his films flop. There may be some unseen footage- there may even be a lot- but could it be pieced together without millions of dollars of re-shoots? The demand for the Snyder Cut of Sucker Punch is nowhere near the demand for Snyder’s Justice League, so realistically it’s hard to buy that there’s a budget for a third cut of a ten-year-old, critically loathed film that’s largely faded into obscurity. Your move, Zack.