A Love Letter to Sucker Punch

On my twenty-third birthday, I spent the day at a tattoo parlor in Hell’s Kitchen. In simple black ink, I got a portrait of Emily Browning as Babydoll from Sucker Punch. This is my biggest tattoo to date, and it’s the one that holds the most significance to me. “That movie was badass.” My tattoo artist tells me; I can only smile because any compliment towards the movie is appreciated by me. After years of hearing nothing but misguided and misunderstood criticisms of the film, it’s always more than refreshing to know that there are others out there who feel the same as I do.

If I were to tell my teenage-self that seven years from now, she’d be getting a tattoo of someone’s face that takes up most of her thigh, she would call me crazy. She would freak out what about her parents would say. But most importantly, she would think how badass is that? That’s how I felt watching Sucker Punch.

To say I was obsessed with video games as a teenager would be an understatement. 2011 in particular was a really good year for me—Batman: Arkham City, L.A. Noire, Modern Warfare 3, Catherine…but my favorite one had to be Alice: Madness Returns. At the age of sixteen, I was quickly becoming aware of representation in the media and as a woman, I actively looked (and still do look) for female-driven stories. The first video game I remember buying with my own money was Final Fantasy X-2. Why? Because it had three women on the box cover and nine-year-old me thought that was cool as hell.

Going back to 2011—when I first saw the trailer for Sucker Punch, I was blown away. Put yourself in my shoes for a minute: you’re a teenage girl who loves video games, admires female characters like Lara Croft and frankly, you’re proud of yourself because you can get a few headshots in. It only made sense that I was excited to see this movie. My excitement only amplified when I saw that Zack Snyder, the same guy who gave me Watchmen, was the director. Around that time, I started to realize that although a career in film was a crazy goal, it was an achievable one. I liked what this Snyder guy was doing. I wanted to see more of that.

I took my grandmother to see Sucker Punch with me opening day; going to the theater is a tradition for us and she knew I was ecstatic to see the film. What I remember most about the experience is that I loved it. I loved every minute of it. Even my grandmother had a good time. Sucker Punch gave me what I wanted and more—women kicking ass, a story driven by women, voiceovers from women, everything was about women. And on top of that, it felt like a video game! I couldn’t stop thinking, this movie was made for me!

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Imagine my disappointment when I go home and the second I google Sucker Punch, I see that everyone hated it. Seeing the movie being described as misogynist, objectifying and sexist confused and angered me. But what pissed me off the most was the overall consensus that the movie was made for horny fanboys. Peter Debruge of Variety argued that the film was “misleadingly positioned as female empowerment despite clearly having been hatched as fantasy fodder for 13-year-old guys.” My response to that is the death glare that Emily Browning gave an interviewer who said the same thing to her, and that’s exactly how I feel whenever I hear that argument. I’m a woman, I never once felt turned on watching this movie, in fact, it made me quite emotional for reasons that became clear to me when I watched it again as an adult.

Seven years later, and I still love this movie. I’ve been wanting to write a defense piece on the film for months now, because we’re in a situation where the hot topics are equality and representation. We protest and make hashtags about diversity in film, about how we want to see women of all ethnicities in leading roles, about how movies don’t have to be focused on men in order to be relatable. Sucker Punch gave us all of that and the very people who criticize Hollywood for the lack of representation today are the same people who trashed this film then. I was sixteen and I realized that. How do adults miss that point?

The first problem is that we never saw the preferred version of the movie in theaters. Warner Bros. has a very bad and damaging habit of creatively limiting their directors (they still do it today, see: the DC Extended Universe) and they’ve been editing down Zack Snyder’s movies for years. Watchmen, Sucker Punch and most recently, Batman v Superman have all had director’s cuts released because I don’t know, Warner Bros. is worried that the movie is too long for theatrical release.

Avatar is a near three-hour movie and it’s the highest grossing film of all time. Stop worrying about length. It’s a bullshit excuse and it hurts the movie to be edited. Snyder’s movies have been badly affected by this and Sucker Punch got the worse of it. This is a complicated movie—in many ways, it’s experimental. It takes place in the mind of someone who’s getting a lobotomy and still has to find a way to escape. It’s depressing, it’s emotional. This isn’t a movie for a horny thirteen-year-old boy.

Let’s start with the biggest complaint towards the movie: that it’s misogynist and objectifying, thus it’s sexist. Sucker Punch is none of those things. In fact, it’s a commentary on sexism in geek culture before the commentary on sexism in geek culture even started. The film focuses on Babydoll (Emily Browning) who gets sent to a mental asylum after attempting to kill her abusive stepfather in self-defense. She’s set to get a lobotomy in a week and as a response to her mental trauma, she retreats to an alternate reality where she teams up with four other female inmates—Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Amber (Jamie Chung)—and they go on a series of fantastical missions to plot their escape from the asylum. The first layer of reality is the asylum while the alternate reality acts as a brothel where Babydoll and her fellow inmates are now dancers.

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Sounds like a video game, right? Scott Mendelson of Forbes pointed out that the film was ahead of its time regarding current GamerGate culture and it’s true: “Years before GamerGate brought institutional sexism in video game and geek culture into the spotlight, [Director Zack] Snyder and [producer Deborah] Snyder released a major studio film that argued “Yes, geek culture is sexist as heck, but it is merely a symptom of an overall culture that values women as sexual objects for male titillation above all else.””

The men in Sucker Punch view women as objects—just as men still do today. The clients of the brothel come to watch girls dance so they can choose who they want to have sex with and Babydoll catches the attention of all of them. Her dance is just so sexy and so alluring that everyone stops to stare. Wouldn’t you want to see that dance too? Too bad, because you never do.

An actual complaint of the film is that we never get to see Babydoll dance—yes, Mack Rawden of CinemaBlend, I’m talking about you and your critique that was laced with casual sexism: “Every time she [Babydoll] dances, the PG-13 strip club melts away for an elaborate video game world where her and four friends battle hideous people, creatures and robots,” and “Might as well give viewers more allusions to slutty stripping without ever showing it,” also, “There’s no actual dancing in Sucker Punch, just as there’s no point, purpose or direction.” The fact that we never see Babydoll dance is the exact point that the movie is trying to make.

Horny old men want to ogle her while she has to find a way to mentally escape in order to cope with the fact that she’s being forced to dance for them. She escapes through her missions, all of her anger towards her situation is brought out through hyper-violence. That’s exactly why the girls’ dance instructor Madame Gorski (Carla Gugino) tells the audience that her performances are raw. She’s fighting for her freedom. The dances are metaphors for what’s happening in reality.

Roleplay is something that Madame Gorski strongly encourages and it’s a major theme throughout the movie. It’s a coping mechanism that even extends into the girls’ video game-like missions: their objectives are based in a fantasy world and they have to find certain items in order to complete the mission and achieve freedom. Babydoll’s existence is a form of roleplay for Sweet Pea. The message is so heavy-handed that I don’t understand when people say the plot was thin.

It’s incredibly revealing that the film opens with a stage because we are the audience. We watch Babydoll’s story unfold while Sweet Pea is telling a voiceover about guardian angels. Babydoll arrives to Lennox House Asylum at the same moment that Sweet Pea says, “We can deny our angels don’t exist, convince ourselves they can’t be real. But they show up anyway. At strange places, and at strange times. They can speak through any character we can imagine, they’ll shout through demons if they have to: daring us, challenging us to fight.”

As if that’s not obvious enough, right before Babydoll’s lobotomy, we hear Sweet Pea shout, “Stop!” We cut to a stage. Sweet Pea is wearing a wig reminiscent to Babydoll’s bleach blonde hair. She’s practicing another scene with Madame Gorski. The opening scene was Sweet Pea acting out her past trauma in her mind, except she imagined Babydoll in her place. There’s even an earlier parallel between the two when there’s separate scenes of the both of them sitting on a bed with their backs to the audience.

They’re the same person, except Babydoll is what Sweet Pea aspires to be. Babydoll comes to her in a form of a guardian angel to help her escape—she’s motivated, determined, nothing seems to scare her. These are qualities that Sweet Pea has to work to achieve. She’s going to get the lobotomy regardless, but right when it happens she disassociates one last time so she can achieve that paradise. That disassociation is the result of the entire movie.

Sucker Punch is very close to Inception in terms of the layers of reality. The first layer is the asylum—the place closest to real life. Sweet Pea imagines Babydoll as her physical form and the next layer happens right after the lobotomy: Babydoll is presented as a real person and Sweet Pea imagines real life as the brothel. Characters from the first layer are given different roles with similar personalities—the mother figure Dr. Gorski is now Madame Gorski, Blue Jones’ job in the first layer was to watch after the girls, now he’s the owner of the brothel in the second layer because he’s an abusive asshole in reality. The final layer consists of their missions: the girls have to work together through these fantasy levels to fight monsters, dragons and even steampunk Nazis.

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It can be argued that the girls are all parts of Babydoll’s personality—Amber is a go-getter, Blondie is compassionate but weak-willed, Rocket wants to escape, and Sweet Pea is the voice of reason. These are all elements that we see in Babydoll throughout the movie and that’s what makes her feel like “real” character. Rocket is the first person to get close with her and that’s due to the fact that Rocket and Sweet Pea are sisters so it only makes sense that she would be attached to Babydoll. Both Babydoll and Sweet Pea eventually lose their sisters and that adds to the growing parallels between them.

Babydoll’s purpose is to be a guardian angel and a sacrifice so Sweet Pea can escape. The Wise Man who shows up to brief the girls on their missions is also a guardian angel but in the form of advice. He could be viewed as the father figure Sweet Pea never had—he’s the only man in the movie who isn’t horrible and genuinely cares for the girls. In the end, Sweet Pea gives up her physical body—Babydoll—in order to achieve peace, if only mentally. They may have her body, but they’ll never have what’s most precious to both her and them—her mind.

And that’s the point of the movie: men will never control women. The girls take back geek culture by embracing their sexuality and using it to spit in the faces of men who objectify them. One may ask, “Then why are they dressed in an objectifying way?” Because women are often objectified by men. Sweet Pea even comments on the outfits they have to wear at the brothel—why do men think this is sexy? Why do they have to wear these clothes while they dance?

That’s exactly why the only kind of dancing we do see is during a musical montage that never lingers on women’s bodies. We get an idea of how the entire brothel works but we don’t see the whole thing. The same goes for Babydoll’s “dances”—we never see her performances because the focus isn’t on her body. It’s on her kicking ass and in the process, she becomes a survivor.

Madame Gorski said it best: “Your fight for survival starts right now. You don’t want to be judged? You won’t be. You don’t think you’re strong enough? You are. You’re afraid. Don’t be. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight.” The movie constantly tells the girls to fight and at the same time they’re telling women viewers to do the same. Sucker Punch is a cinematic video game about women, for women.

Sucker Punch came out seven years ago and within the span of its release to now, we haven’t seen another original blockbuster that’s female-led. We ask for original stories—Sucker Punch is an original story. We ask for female-driven narratives—Sucker Punch is exactly that. We ask for women unapologetically kicking ass—Sucker Punch did that. In this world of male-dominated action films, here is a movie that is led by women and it’s only about women yet people view it as the problem when it’s actually the solution.

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We’re so accustomed to women being reduced to non-characters that we praise male-driven movies that give only women a few seconds of “power”—Pepper Potts in the Iron Man suit, Black Widow in every movie she’s been featured in—women deserve more than that. We deserve movies about us and for us and that’s exactly what Sucker Punch is. I don’t know about you, but I would have no hesitation choosing a woman-led blockbuster with an original story over the next generic male-dominated action movie where I have to wait to see the sidelined romantic interest.

Emily Browning even revealed that Sucker Punch was the reason why she didn’t quit acting: “At one point I was [doubting that I would continue with acting] and actually this film, to be honest with you, is the one that’s brought me back and made me realize this is absolutely what I want to do. I have faith in this industry, if a movie making experience can be this positive and this much fun, then I can’t imagine ever doing anything else.” Imagine if Hollywood fully embraced not only female-led stories, but original female-led stories. The industry would change for the better. Sucker Punch should’ve paved the way.

Watching the director’s cut as an adult was a revelation. Outside of the mesmerizing slow-mo fight scenes and witnessing women embrace the role of action hero, the message of female empowerment is even more clear than before. None of the girls are defined by their trauma. They are victims of a sexist society but they challenge the patriarchy by fighting back. Their journey closely parallels the #MeToo movement happening in Hollywood and beyond. No longer will they be silenced by their abusers; they realized that enough is enough. Change can’t happen with one person, so they work as a team to dismantle the institution that exploited them.

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In many ways, Sucker Punch was ahead of the game. Had it been released now and in its original format, it could’ve been better received. This is a movie that’s led by women of different ethnicities, it shows that women can be just as violent as men are in action movies and like I said before, it’s a message for all women that tells us we are in control of ourselves and no man can take that from us. At its core, Sucker Punch is a very emotional, psychologically driven movie. Physically, Sweet Pea loses so much—her sister, her family, her friends, her body. She has to sacrifice her physical self in order to achieve that mental peace she’s always desired. Did I cry when I watched this again? Hell yes, because it suddenly made sense.

This isn’t your average action movie—it’s cerebral, it throws you right into the fantasy and leaves you questioning the reality, and ultimately, it’s about girl power. These girls love each other; they work together, congratulate each other, they’re not afraid to be close. This is exactly what girls need to see in the media and it’s one of the biggest things I appreciated about the film when I saw it seven years ago at age sixteen. My girlfriends and I love this movie. We love this movie for the reasons I just stated, we love it because it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

What’s most interesting to me is the fact that mostly men are the ones who claim Sucker Punch is for sexist fanboys. Some even go as far as to say the film is a rape fantasy, as Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune claimed: “Zack Snyder must have known in preproduction that his greasy collection of near-rape fantasies and violent revenge scenarios disguised as a female-empowerment fairy tale wasn’t going to satisfy anyone but himself.”

As someone who’s a victim of sexual assault, I find these comparisons to be off-base and offensive. To grossly misinterpret and project the false idea that Snyder made Sucker Punch just to watch women get hurt says more about the reviewer than it does the director. I think the men who make claims like that are projecting and their failure to look past their projections is the exact reason why they missed the point of the movie.

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