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On Sucker Punch, Women, and Storytelling

 

A movie not about them, but you

Sucker Punch is not Inception. Zack Snyder is not trying to be Nolan. And with those two thoughts out of the way, let’s continue.

I’ll admit this—I was very reluctant to see this movie. As a woman, as a girl-geek—and a proud one at that—I was not thrilled by the trailers. The trailers pitched this movie to me, time and time, again as a fetishy, male-geek mashup of stuff I might otherwise enjoy if it weren’t for the shameless portrayal of women as oogling candy. A male friend and I argued back and forth over this—with him claiming the movie was about “female empowerment,” and me determined to prove him otherwise mostly by refusing to see the movie in protest. However, social circles and numbers with their powers combined dragged me along to see the movie Saturday night. Like many other critics, geeks, moviegoers, and everyone else here are my thoughts.

**Caution: Heavy Spoilers Ahead**

Sucker Punch is not Inception. Zack Snyder is not trying to be Nolan. Snyder takes visual aesthetic and a CGI budget to give us a movie about dreams as…dreams. Those things that occur during specific sleep cycles, which you might or might not remember upon waking. Those things you drop into during particularly boring classes when you want to be anywhere but there. For the most part, there’s zil to none metaphorical meaning to dreams, unless you believe in that kind of stuff. But dreams are a subconscious means of processing and understanding the world around us—or so we’re told.

Dreams are disorienting in film. Movies present a certain brand of irony where what we view on screen is supposed to be our perception of “reality.” “Reality,” here, is the world of the film, the settings and the characters, the story, etc. Long story short—when our perceived reality goes bonkers, so do we. Sucker Punch, in this regard, has more in common with Black Swan, which is about one woman’s perception of reality breaking down around her and carrying us with it.

For a dream to work in a movie, it has to process reality as much as escape it. Hence, the layering we see in Sucker Punch. The “reality” of the movie is a cold, cruel, early-20th century looking place. A girl is (supposedly) wrongfully imprisoned by a (definitely) wicked stepfather in a mental institution where he bribes a guy to forge the proper signatures to authorize a rush-order lobotomy. We don’t know much about the girl, BabyDoll, because she has very few lines in the movie a la videogame avatars. Is she actually insane?

The question is left purposefully unanswered as BabyDoll shows us her first dream. Against the backdrop of the asylum, BabyDoll shows us an alternate reality that’s a little more black and white: a brothel known as The Theater. The girls are all prisoners to a cruel owner, and made exotic dancers and prostitutes for the pleasure of rich, corrupt, bad men. Instead of under the table exchanges of cash for misdiagnoses, BabyDoll’s virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder (the High Roller).

Unfortunately, this is the first train stop for anyone angered, upset, or outright lost by the movie to disembark.

Yes, it’s not an improved situation, but hey—ain’t it now easier to draw the lines of good and evil? The movie doesn’t really help by choosing to spend most of its time on this level. The stupider arguments I’ve come across have already forgotten the purpose of dreams/daydreaming. Life sucks, how do I understand it so I can get away from it?

Enter the second dream level, and the furthest point from reality. It is here Snyder unleashes a cosmic mashup of pure, geek gold. Second disembarking point. Face it, anyone who otherwise sneers, glares, boos, hisses, derides, and dismisses any element on this plane isn’t going to enjoy anything from this point on because that would be recognizing that someone who has the resources to make a movie actually finds use in geek material outside of a moneymaking gold mine. Here, if you enjoy any combination of comics, videogames, sci-fi, fantasy, anime, robots, distant planets, mechas, and more you’re going to pause whatever else you might think of Sucker Punch to enjoy the moment. Because it is glorious. It is this level of dreamscape where BabyDoll concocts a “just crazy enough to work” plan to help her and four new friends escape the Theater, also known as “processing point for an asylum full of girls who might or might not be insane.” Please keep in mind the real-reality, while not presented to us, is still in here somewhere.

Battle lines and trenches have been drawn over whether or not the movie is “female empowerment.” Because much of the screen time is spent within The Theater dream, punctuated by the fantastical action scenes, naysayers argue the girls’ time as skimpy-dressed prostitutes (living in the brothel) and skimpier-dressed action heroines is too much eye candy to anything but pandering to a male, geeky audience, and how ashamed we should all be for saying anything positive about the movie, etc, etc…

Here’s the problem with that argument: this is about a girl and her perceptions of reality. The Theater segments play too much with our ideas/beliefs of women and sexuality. BabyDoll envisions the brothel in order to create clear-cut lines out of a blurred and sticky situation (in addition, we still never find out if she’s actually insane). So…yeah, pretty sure prostitutes and dancers don’t normally dress like puritans, now do they? In this level, BabyDoll’s raw dancing abilities are too mesmerizing for words—but we never see her dance. She cuts away from sexual submission to a position of growth and power in the badass-action-heroine sequences. If you’re a badass, action heroine, you’re going to see yourself looking like one. Girls, who hasn’t imagined themselves looking like

The one con costume we all wish we looked good in

Sailor Moon? Or Wonder Woman? Voluntarily. To some yaysayers, this represents a portrayal of feminine empowerment, the likes of we rarely see in either geek culture or films in general.

And that’s…also kinda the problem.

The bulk of the movie takes place in the mind of a girl whose sanity is questionable, making her an extremely unreliable narrator. She only achieves some modicum of strength when she’s furthest removed from reality. Since it all takes place in her head, it’s all wiped away by the end. The dreamscapes are shown in the single, split-second remaining before the stake is driven through her brain. Several possible questions bounced around my head as the credits rolled…

  1. So…women can be strong, but only in their minds?
  2. Um…women have the potential for strength, they just choose not to tap into it in reality?
  3. Women + Strength = Insanity? We can’t have that? Who’s “we” here?

Really guys?

At the end of the movie, as a woman, I was aggravated by this portrayal of “female empowerment,” because it wasn’t actually empowering. And it wasn’t about the costuming, or the stock characterization. The most Snyder could offer up for closure was Blue getting arrested for his crimes (forgery, bribes, etc.). It came across as an, “Oops. My bad,” more than anything. “Totally sorry about that whole mix-up back there with the lobotomy and all. Forgives?”

Um…no. No I don’t.

In an interview with Zack Snyder, he said his movie was targeted towards all those naughty nerds (male) who leer and cat-call “hot girls” be they real, or character designs (probably created for equally exploitative purposes). So Sucker Punch is basically a slap on the wrist for any geeky guy who’s leered at any girl. This makes sense. Of the two dreamscapes, the first is a black and white staging ground for the second, which is supposed to place men in the position/perspective of Blue, the Mayor, and the High Roller (i.e. bad men leering at scantily clad women forced to serve them). The two dreamscapes are literally telling the audience how men treat women like whores made to dance on command.

In hindsight, this summarizes my moviegoing experience—as a woman, I didn’t come out feeling “empowered” as much as feeling like a pawn in someone else’s game.

Snyder, and the critics who’ve positively received Sucker Punch for its supposed message, missed the mark on this one. That’s great that they all think it’s wrong for men to objectify women, and it’s a decent attempt at calling the geek culture out on its bullshit. But Sucker Punch does not empower women. Snyder is just as guilty of using women while he reprimands the other side of doing the same. He’s taking his work as a dialogue between himself and another group of men, while women are touted out as necessary. On an intellectual level, what is the point of women seeing the movie? Or being able to enjoy the movie? Or get anything out of it at all if it isn’t really about us (women) so much as a shadowy, generalized them (men)? At best, women are tossed a mangy, meatless bone while the two sides duke it out over our heads. Both sides are ironically accusing the other of being the exact same thing. What does this say about our men today? How do we approach this tentative subject of men and their sexuality?

Since the rampant, undeserved popularity of the Twilight Saga, women—girl geeks in particular—have been publically exposed for being between a rock and a hard place. The status of women, and female portrayal, in the geek culture is well documented, and coupled with the sad reality that the pool of material available for women/girls in this culture is very, very, very shallow and largely tainted. The subject of women in the geek culture is something of a touchy one, though there’s no shortage of bloggers, commentators, and general people willing to call the geek culture on its narrow portrayal of women. The conflict arises when you look at how male-dominated (thus male-oriented) the geek culture is. It’s going to be genuinely difficult to create a work made for women, but appealing to geeks (read: men). Joss Whedon is my go-to example of how to draw and walk the fine line in-between without being exclusive—his work is made for geeks (read: men), but relatable to women. See the difference?

Honestly, I think that’s about as good as it’s going to get in the geek culture until a woman can come along and bridge the troubled waters. For now, I strongly encourage male geeks to just drop the subject. I’ll take your support, and your admissions of guilt, but I don’t want your mangy, meatless bones. I’ve got a juicy steak behind me, a grill, and some seasoning. I think I can show you you’re doing it wrong.

I can’t say I enjoyed seeing the movie. I’ve enjoyed arguing about it so much more. Part of its purpose, to me, is creating a dialogue on a very long, overdue conversation. However, the process of opening the lines of communication leaves a lot to be desired, and I’ll touch on that before I go.

The Story

This is a big one. I don’t have as much a problem with the story’s concept as I do the way it’s executed. I don’t mind keeping the story simple as a means of laying a foundation for the bigger picture. As a viewer, I don’t even mind the use, reliance, and outright dependency on so many tropes (the writer in me is a different story).

However, the framing leaves a lot to be desired, and I believe it is one of the biggest reasons the story falls apart.

The story’s frame (the part in “reality”) doesn’t give you any reason, hope, or reason to hope BabyDoll’s lobotomy isn’t anything less than executed on schedule. I don’t know why this type of tragedy has seeped into 21st century storytelling, but it needs to G.T.F.O. Now. When a story is framed in this manner of tragedy, particularly with the absence of hope, then the person responsible for writing the story has given the audience absolutely no reason to care about anything that happens. It doesn’t matter if the medium is fiction, fantasy, or film—if the audience has no reason to care about the material, the writer has failed at their job.

Storytelling Rule #1. Give the audience a reason to care. I spent way too much time in the theater waiting for the movie to end in the same way I spend most of my workshop classes wondering why I have to read my classmates’ sob-stories from start to finish.

P.S. By relying on caricatures instead of characters, the writer is already making their ability to pass Rule #1 hard.

Along those lines, caricatures cannot be swapped out for a surprise twist in the last two minutes. Characters can. It’s a jarring experience to suddenly go, “Kidding! This is the real main character,” when we’re talking cardboard cutouts. It’s a worthy effort, but in order to work the story has to give the audience a reason to give a damn.

Second problem with the story. Though the story has potential, in my mind Snyder is at fault for bad writing. Bad writing is bad writing, and somewhere in the immense gap between the beautiful action scenes and storytelling is a large neon sign directing the audience to which one Snyder is more accomplished/comfortable. Personally, I think a little could’ve been shaved off the ends of the CGI budget to partner a decent writer with Snyder to ensure the storytelling supports everything the movie is trying to accomplish. Then again, I don’t know much about the process of making a movie from start to finish, so maybe not. But I believe one could adjust the framing of reality, and give the caricatures some substance, and it wouldn’t negatively impact what the movie’s trying to accomplish.

And finally, I direct this last bit at the audience. If you “don’t get it” or “don’t like it” simply because of the presence of elements pertaining to geek culture (sci-fi, fantasy, videogames, comics, etc.) please shut up right now. I have been around enough of my fiction-writing peers long enough to know that if this story took out the geek mashup dream sequence and replaced it with a second, purely fictional dream sequence, you wouldn’t have had a single problem with the movie. At all. In fact, I’d lay money on it being a blockbuster. Just because someone crafts a story where parts of it don’t pertain to you doesn’t automatically make it awful. Technically, the story falls perfectly within the realm of fiction. But the story does enough damage to itself without you branding it with your sorry-ass, “But-but-but there’s fantasy in it! The horror!” excuse.

Overall, the movie isn’t terrible. It’s certainly worth seeing someday if only because people are talking about it. It’s much more interesting to talk about than it is to sit through.

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A Modern-Day Mecca

I submitted the following for my nonfiction assignment of the week, but I think it’s a nice contrast to me going on about more serious (to me) subjects.  At the very least, I needed the change of pace…


My sister wants to go to Comic-Con. The one who couldn’t sit through a single episode of Firefly, complained through all of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and doesn’t know the difference between Marvel and DC. But she wants to go to Comic-Con.

“Can you even name the Star Wars movies—in order?” I asked her between fits of laughter. What you’re about to hear may be extremely disturbing.

She stuttered and fumbled for a moment, then began, “The first one…the second one…Return of the Jedi—uh, something, the one with the Ewoks—um, Revenge of the Jedi. I don’t know. Like I’m supposed to know any of that!”

Now I’m obligated through family to love her and ignore the fact that my soul is bleeding through any of the offensive wounds above, but what really makes me facepalm is I can’t talk her out of this. I’ve tried. I’ve explained what to expect, and the kind of people who go to cons—even the really scary nerd stereotypes that you think you won’t see until you do and then you will never unsee, or unsmell. People with her interests go to California for places such as Beverly Hills. People like me go to California for Comic-Con.

In August of 2008, I almost didn’t go to Otakon. There was the question of travel—not only between Virginia and Maryland, but into Baltimore as well—and at the whopping age of 19 the most I could get out of my parents were the rights of someone 13—God forbid after having been away at college for an entire year I go somewhere where I might stay out past sunset. However, after having spent the summer not-finding a job in an economy making a turn for the worse and sitting around with nothing better to do, I managed to convince my parents to grant me some manner of fun.

But there I stood in the lesser heat of Maryland’s August. Facing the direct shade-less, concrete walls of the Baltimore Convention Center, I knew I’d been led into the Promised Land. Before, I was thrilled to learn there were even five people like me. By the end of a weekend I mingled with over 26,000.

Previously, conventions were something I’d only heard about on TV. It seemed to only be a trait of the West Coast far, far away. When I learned there was not only a convention on the East Coast, but it was also the largest anime convention on the East Coast—and relatively close to me—I didn’t want to not-go. I didn’t want the rooms big enough to land jumbo jets, the thousands of thousands of people, the merchandise, the games, the panels, and more to exist only in someone else’s description.

According to the Baltimore Business Journal, “In 2009, [Otakon] brought in $12.5 million in direct spending and drew 26,600 attendees, according to the city’s tourism office.” In 2010, Otakon raked in $15.3 million. The last three years have seen over 26,000 attendees, making it the largest anime convention on the East Coast, second largest anime convention overall, and the third largest convention in the United States behind Anime Expo and Comic-Con. Since moving to the Baltimore Convention Center 1999, it has been the city’s largest hosted convention.[i]

From 2007-2009, it was the single greatest source of revenue for the City of Baltimore—including the Ravens and Orioles.[ii] In the interests of professionalism I will not take time to be my usual self and say, “Suck it, sports fans.”

However, in 2008 all I saw was the line of people wrapping around the entire convention center—people outside much longer than my late-coming self. In 2009, I stood in that line before eight in the morning as it wrapped around the entire Convention Center twice (I stood in a not-as-climactic wiggle for 2010 while everyone who didn’t get their badges the night before wrapped around the Convention Center). I stood amongst the cosplay and even recognized some of the characters portrayed. People dressed as Ash and Misty still today? As I discovered, a few staples of the geek world are always required, including your Mario Parties.

That first year, the moment when I discovered the fabled Dealer’s Room, the one large enough to hold a jumbo jet, and saw the wall-to-wall rows of tables and tables of stuff, was the first moment in my life that I truly loved shopping in the same manner as every other girl. The next year, I played it smarter and made a list.

Maybe Otakon is the Promised Land, but every good geek knows Comic-Con is something greater. If not Heaven on Earth, then at least the Mecca, Canterbury, Jerusalem, and the final resting place of a very large Holy Grail. For someone like me to travel to Comic-Con must be akin to a mountaineer scaling Everest—compare the brutality of climbing Everest to the financial costs of investing in a trip to Comic-Con. I could go to Vegas and spend less, let’s put it that way.

Like anyone protective of their holy relics, my sister’s unconventional declaration raised as much shock as it did outright cackles of ridiculousness. Geeks have but so few places to go safe from the forced swirlies and locker-stuffings of the rest of the world. I mean, I’d heard rising complaints through the internet that Comic-Con was bringing in more and more Others—but if the people that snub and dismiss you the other 360-something days of the year suddenly want to hang out in the same place, would you be all “with arms wide open?” I bet you’d be thinking, “It’s a trap!” too. Sure, the 2000s have been the Decade of the Geek with the advent of mainstream hits such as Lord of the Rings, Batman Begins, the Dark Knight, Iron Man/2, and plenty of things in-between and after previously associated with us, and considered only appropriate for us. Hollywood discovered the bank mu-lah to be made if you produce the material right—instead of textual complexity, make it visually engaging, or summarize decades of dense continuity with singular Box Office home runs—and the walls have been chipped at ever since.

I can only imagine the occurring shitstorm over the year Comic-Con first hosted Twilight stuff. Think about it, the entire science-fiction/fantasy genre is forced to wear that scarlet letter—but I’m sure fiction’s got plenty of equally unglamorous, fiber-less, dinosaur craps it doesn’t have to account for.

Thankfully, that’s not why my sister’s interested. While Comic-Con’s known for hosting guests and panels related to popular TV shows, Big Bang Theory is almost a complete crossover between the geek world and the rest of the world. If anything, it’s re-popularized how okay it is to laugh at the pale, socially awkward, nerd stereotype making up a very, very, very large percent of any convention’s population. As much as I want to go to Comic-Con, I do not want to babysit my sister in my idea of paradise when she (1) realizes that “Sheldon Cooper” isn’t going to whisk her off into the sunset, and (2) discovers she’s an attractive young woman in a convention center full of thousands of “Sheldon and the gang” equivalents, and (by the time Comic-Con comes around) she’ll longer have protection afforded by the term “jailbait.”

While the above begins to resemble a sitcom episode, the big reason is this: Comic-Con is five times the size of Otakon. From 2006 on the San Diego Convention Center has been privy to crowding issues, and seen years where it’s been completely sold out—complete with scalping. Over 130,000 people attended in 2010. According to the North County Times in San Diego, Comic-Con 2011’s Wednesday Night Preview sold out of its 15,000 passes two hours before the 2010 convention ended. Overshadowing Otakon’s $15.3 million revenue in 2010, Comic-Con contributed $163 million to San Diego.[iii] What began as a small expo where a few hundred comic fans showed off their collections in the 70s has grown to be the—and the largest—convention in the United States.[iv] So yeah, as the mature sibling I’m a little concerned about sending my sister across the country to something she might or might not (coughmostlikelycough) be able to enjoy

During one episode of Big Bang Theory, after spending an entire summer in the North Pole on a special, highly classified government-assigned physics study Sheldon laments, “And I missed Comic-Con.”


[i] Bernstein, Rachel. “Otakon and soccer mean big business for Baltimore Read more: Otakon and soccer mean big business for Baltimore | Baltimore Business Journal .” Baltimore Business Journal 30 July 2010: n. pag. Web. 9 Mar 2011. <http://www.bizjournals.com/baltimore/stories/2010/07/26/daily43.html?page=1&gt;.

Proctor, Carolyn M. “Room to Grow.” Baltimore Business Journal 10 Dec. 2010: n. pag. Web. 9 Mar 2011. <http://www.bizjournals.com/baltimore/print-edition/2010/12/10/room-to-grow.html&gt;.

[ii] Same as “i”

[iii] Wolff, Eric. “REGION: Comic-Con sells out 2011 Preview Night before Con ends.” North County Times 26 July 2010: n. pag. Web. 9 Mar 2011. <http://www.nctimes.com/business/article_0dd24a8a-a75d-53ae-a16e-3c0c244d5e0c.html&gt;.

[iv] Rowe, Peter. “Invasion of the Comic Fanatics.” San Diego Union-Tribune 16 July 2006: n. pag. Web. 9 Mar 2011. <http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20060716/news_1n16comicon.html&gt;.

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