This concept sounds so awesome, doesn't it?
An action film starring a team of five women! Tough girls shooting huge guns and flying indestructible planes! Confident chicks fighting zombie soldiers and slaying fire-breathing dragons and deactivating hazardous bombs! Oppressed women battling their captors and slaying low expectations of society at large to become the superheroes of their own story! A hardcore musical soundtrack propelling them on the whole time!
Sucker Punch had so much potential to be an empowering tour de force for its female viewers. Director Zack Snyder took all of the action and excitement and visually arresting storytelling of his previous films 300 and Watchmen and put women in the swirling center of it. On the most visceral level, girls were obviously supposed to leave the theater ready to take charge of their lives and beat up some samurai robot monsters in the process.
So as a woman, always looking to feel strong and empowered, why did I come away from Sucker Punch feeling confused? And maybe a little dirty?
Unfortunately, the film fails on the female empowerment front. In pretty epic fashion, too.
Sucker Punch fails to be empowering because it takes such a caricatured stance on what female empowerment actually entails. It's a male-driven version of female empowerment, where machine guns and powerful right hooks take the place of more nuanced displays of strength and confidence and accomplishment. The movie assumes that by having girls use their high heels to kick enemies in the face, its work is done. The female leads don't have to be empowered in any other way, because whoa, they just threw a grenade and blew some stuff up!
It's not that the depiction of a woman who is good with a gun or a sword can't be incredibly empowering. Watching Angelina Jolie dominate any action movie -- be it Salt or Wanted or Mr. & Mrs. Smith or the Lara Croft movies -- can inspire me to join the CIA or take on five guys at a time with a simple crowbar or even, hell, a walking stick. But in those cases, her physical prowess is only one small part of her appeal. She's also smart. And cool. And mysterious. And confident. And mature. And she can deliver a quippy "I'm about to kill you" line like no one's business. Not only do I want to beat up guys like her, but I want to be her.
Same with Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill series and Sigourney Weaver in the Alien films. Even old reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer make me want to pick up a stake and stab a vampire! Or at least march in and tell my boss it's time for that raise.
But not so with the Sucker Punch girls.
For starters, they do all their fighting dressed as burlesque dancers or Japanese schoolgirls. Yes, I know that this is supposed to be seen as some part of their empowerment -- everyone underestimates them because of their looks, and then bam, dead! -- but their fetishized outfits are a constant reminder that ladies in yoga pants and t-shirts fighting off evil doesn't sell movie tickets. We are led to believe that every battle scene is taking place in main character Babydoll's imagination. Yet if that's the case, then shouldn't we be suspicious of her subconscious's choice of pigtails and a bare midriff as ideal fighting garb? No modern Millennial woman is going to see Babydoll in her thigh highs and envision that as a powerful version of herself... unless it's herself dressed up like a 16-year-old for Halloween.
Aside from the outfits, the women -- when they aren't in combat -- are completely one-dimensional. Their emotional cores are underdeveloped and explored only through cheesy, stilted dialogue and voiceovers. They all speak in clichés, and their only source of power is their sexuality (in the form of Babydoll's seductive-but-never-seen dance moves). As inmates of a mental institution-cum-brothel, they don't come up with an escape plan themselves, but instead blink their wide eyes and fake lashes at a wise old man who lays it out for them in paint-by-numbers fashion. Even the outcome of their efforts (no spoilers!) is a disappointment, having left me rolling my eyes instead of cheering them on.
Why would I want to feel connected in any way to these depthless women? Guns or no guns?
As a woman watching Sucker Punch, I found myself mentally pleading with the film. Give me something -- anything -- other than standard action movie fare to make me like and relate to these women. Give me some heart, some dimension, some intelligence, some sassiness, some grit, some victory in which I can actually feel invested. Don't simply feed me comic book versions of heroines and expect me to walk out of the theater with a smile on my face and a fire in my heart. Feeling empowered as a woman these days is a much more complicated quest than that.
Snyder definitely gets points for trying something new and creating another aesthetically stunning film. And by all means, action film directors, please continue to feature women in your multi-million dollar blowouts and let them carry big weapons. Just try a little bit harder with everything else. Don't fall back on the kicks and punches to prove your point. Make me care about the women -- so that I can care when they get the bad guy in the end (or not).
Also, ultimately, make me want to go kick some ass. And not just because I can rock a miniskirt.