Genderlicious: Zack Snyder and Sucker Punch

I am not fond of Zack Snyder. I chose to skip 300—I had to read the Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War as an undergrad, and I figured once was enough. Then I heard a deluge of reviews saying 300 was misogynist, queer and trans phobic and racist, so I opted out, despite my soft spot for sci fi, action and fantasy.

I did, however, see Zack Snyder's next film, the film adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen, even though I had a real bad feeling about it based on the trailers. Don't get me wrong; despite my anti-racist feminist cred, I have a pretty high tolerance for kyriarchal nonsense in film and TV. But if only because I loved the book so much, the adaptation of Watchmen not only disappointed me, it made me hopping mad.

Have you ever watched an adaptation, and felt as if the person making the film read a completely different book from you? That was how I felt about Watchmen—all the emotional power, narrative intricacy and fullness of the novel disappeared, leaving only the gadgetry and the violence; as in, the most shallow and superficial aspects of the book. To be a meanie, it felt to me as if someone had given Watchmen to a six-year old to remake. A particularly thoughtless six-year old. 

One of the things that most got my goat about the Watchmen remake, was the character of Laurie Jupiter, played by Malin Akerman. While in the book I found Jupiter to be an annoying character, she still was a total person and not a caricature. In the book she has a painful and complex relationship with her mother marked by male violence, she doesn't know how to communicate with her lover, and she is conventionally attractive but wants to be valued for more than that (for example, she does not like to wear the skimpy superhero costume that her mother makes her wear).

In the movie, however, Jupiter is a nothing character. She's relegated to a prop. She appears to exist only to wear said sexy costume (that the character in the book dislikes), and Akerman plays her in such a way that she just appears to seek male approval and nothing else. In fact, the hard edges that make her annoying in the book are smoothed over in the film, into a version of syrupy femininity that's totally digestible for the male gaze. It's not surprising then, that reviews of the film complimented Akerman for bringing "a softness" (vomit) to the film—despite the fact that the Jupiter's character is not supposed to be soft, she's friggin' annoying... she may even be a bitch; that is, the kind that our fair magazine was named after. There is no trace of that in the film.

It upset and even hurt me that Malin Akerman was cast to play Jupiter; Akerman is not a good actor. Meanwhile, she was cast alongside men like Patrick Wilson and Billy Crudup, who are considered to have quite the acting chops. It's the Olivia Munn effect, where a woman is hired simply because she is beautiful, and no one gives a poop whether or not she is actually competent. Not, obviiiiously, that being beautiful stops you from being competent. I simply mean that in this case, the woman in question is both incompetent and beautiful, which, in a male gaze saturated film, leads me to believe that the way Akerman looked was far more important to Snyder than her ability to act. Ouch.

So. Fastforward to 2010, and the trailers for Zack Snyder's new film—and first original work, each of his past films are adaptations—have just hit the Internet. True to form, the trailer for Sucker Punch is eye-popping: a tiny blonde woman leaps twelve feet into the air to punch a giant samurai in the face, a steam punk style dirigible collapses into the ground, somewhat unintelligible scenes of violence are spliced with the image of a woman putting on a lotta mascara.

You know, I would really like to enjoy Snyder's films. Because they look nice. And also, I enjoy going to the theatre, turning my brain off, and being dazzled. But he keeps on having to throw these wrenches in my brainless enjoyment. For example, the fact that—as much as I can gather, which is not much—Sucker Punch is about women who are imprisoned in a mental health institution, subject to sexual violence, and then wear short skirts while getting violent themselves.

On the one hand, it is always nice to see women with physical strength on screen. On the other hand, showing women with physical strength on screen is often an inadequate attempt to balance out gratuitous violence against women, as notes this Melanie Newman's F-Word review Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books:

*trigger warning*

In short, male novelists have for decades been selling graphic capture-rape-torture-kill novels by chucking in 'strong' female characters for balance, and have even gained plaudits for highlighting violence against women in the process.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which in the words of The Times' Christina Koning, "combines a contemporary feminist polemic with a good old-fashioned thriller" promised something different.

Sections of the book are prefaced by statistics on assaults on women in Sweden. The female characters in the book are successful in their jobs and the novel subverts the usual order of the trapped-in-a-room-with-madman scene by having the heroine rescue the hero. But these nods to feminism are not enough to compensate for the book's graphic and gratuitous violence against women, which is just as gross as anything in Patterson's novels. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also boasts two serial killers who get their kicks from torturing young women to death. We're told how one girl was tied up and left to die with her face in smouldering embers...

I wouldn't be suprised if the trend that Newman applies to Larsson also applies to Snyder's upcoming film. Throw in the fact that it takes place in an asylum... My heart just cannot take any more films or TV shows (or books or whatever) that try to turn into entertainment our culture's (and many other cultures) long history of locking up people with psychiatric disabilities and subjecting them to horrendous and unimaginable and inhuman conditions, sometimes for their entire lives.

And let's not even get into the fact that Snyder's main character (characters?) is meant to arouse our sympathies simply by being that distillation of all that needs to be protected and cherished: the perfectly petite, panty-wearing blond virgin. This is a formula that objectifies white women and erases all others, and it's just not going to fly much longer. (Trust me, the demographic of the American (and world) audience is just changing too much.)

The blog Feminist Fatale is equally skeptical about Sucker Punch:

What I gathered from the trailer was these are supposedly some kick-ass girls breaking out from a patriarchal run insane asylum – but they look super sexy while doing so! Cuts between images of violence and victimization feature the actresses in showgirl costumes, close-ups of long eyelashes, and sparkly leotard dance numbers. Apparently being in a mental hospital doesn't cramp your beauty routine!

I'm expecting to see a press tour in the coming months with lots of feminist baiting catch phrases thrown around like "empowerment" "kick-ass women" "girl power", etc.

Le sigh.

But in truth, you really can't judge a movie by its trailer. Lots of times I have cringed at a trailer and then enjoyed the movie. (Ok, maybe not lots of times, but at least once.) 

Please Mr Snyder, prove us wrong. Let this be a visually thrilling film that affirms sexiness and female strength, entertains us, and doesn't feel the need to use dehumanization to engage its audience. Let me peacefully join the legions of fanboys (fan people?) who kiss the soles of your Campers.

And yet I have the terrible feeling that you're going to prove us right.

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Comments

21 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Yes I totally agree. In the

Yes I totally agree. In the translation to film or tv, the first thing that always seems to be lost are the female characters, gently massaged until they fit a ridiculous sexualized image. The original Watchtower is praised as a piece of high art and story telling precicsely because it did refuse to conform to those sorts of superhero stereotypes. It also touched on other issues such as the lesbian "Silhouette" character, who is killed by a homophobic member of the public.

I'm not a huge Snyder fan. I

I'm not a huge Snyder fan. I love Dawn of the Dead but mostly attributed the success of that to screenwriter James Gunn. I hated 300 and found everything that was said about it to be true. And on top of that, it wasn't even a good action movie anyways. The only way I can think of it being somewhat worthwhile is if you take a step back and think of it as a satire where fascism, racism, misogyny and homophobia are colored in such a way that the nerd audience will eat it up no matter what and even go out of their way to deny that any of those things are present in the movie.

Watchmen has its problems. It's a flawed adaptation. However, the most interesting thing to me about the movie was the opening. It truly understood the role of film in history and how fictionalized film history has replaced actual history.

I'm not very excited for Sucker Punch, due to all everybody being able to tell me about is "how hot the actresses are" but I may go see it. Snyder hasn't reached Michael Bay levels of bad for me yet.

Also the giant samurai in the trailer is a reference to Brazil, another movie about escaping into fantasy worlds while the threat of lobotomy looms over.

oh, hells yes.

Thank you for putting into words exactly what bothered me so much about Laurie in the film version of Watchmen. I will admit to enjoying 300 in that "shut your brain off and watch the pretty" way that one uses for known problematic material; when Frank Miller provides the source the bar is set very low. Which is what was so frustrating about Watchmen. Alan Moore doesn't do flattering portrayals of anyone but he provides a sort of egalitarianism through misery. By making Laurie nothing more than a pretty prop to bounce plot progression off of they reduced her to less than human.

I think it's great that Snyder is putting his own work to screen now instead of trying to force his vision trough another's piece but I don't want to watch it because he really just seems like another Michal Bay. A boy with his toys but no narrative ability.

Sucker punched!

I have to copy (and I mean literally copy and paste) what my friend in the movie industry had to say about this project:

So Zack Snyder's "Sucker Punch" sees Warner Bros finally renege on their polemic 2007 decision to no longer cast females in lead roles, attributing the failure of "Invasion" and "The Brave One" to said casting (rather than being the low quality of the movies). Well, at least "Sucker Punch" boasts an all-female-cast peppered with character actors shying away from objectifying stereotypes. Oh ... wait.

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

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A little off topic, but I

A little off topic, but I don't remember reading that deeply into the problems others see in 300. I didn't go into it thinking I was going to watch a film primarily driven by a radical feminist message. I expected to see a mythical, over the top, film noir flick featuring lots of attractive and hyper-masculine men in leather bikini bottoms. As a bonus, I enjoyed ogling both the male and female eye candy, and the film was, stylistically, very appealing. I did, however, have a problem with the overly vivid rape scene in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and had to leave the theater.

Concerning the post a bit more: "It's the Olivia Munn effect, where a woman is hired simply because she is beautiful, and no one gives a poop whether or not she is actually competent."
Something about this statement irks me. Calling a specific woman out overshadows your point.

radical feminist messages and Olivia Munn

You know, it is funny what will get under our skin, and what will not. I rarely go to the movies expecting a radical feminist message, and am rarely upset when I don't get one. Yet every now and then a film's foolishness will really upset me (for e.g., anything by Kevin Smith). I think with Watchmen, the chasm between the brilliance of the book and the vapidness of its adaptation just floored me.

Re: Olivia Munn - I used Munn not because she is simply a random beautiful woman who lacks talent (or at least the standard of talent upheld by her costars), but because she was recently held up by feminist bloggers as a prime example of a woman cast solely for looks, which lead to an internet war: http://www.bitchmagazine.org/post/kerbloffle-the-olivia-munn-saga

Sci-fi

By your avaliation of Zack Snyder work I think the sci-fi fantasy related movies scene will continue to wait for a good big movie, something ground breaking like the first of the Matrix series.

The Matrix

The Matrix series was sort of pretentious.

I liked 300. It was a very

I liked 300. It was a very pretty film. I had never read Watchmen though it may have helped me understand what was going on. It didn't seem to have any kind of real story line imo and as for the female lead....there was an ugly skin tight suit with a lot of hair attached and very little else to it as far as I could tell.

I will probably watch this film, if only cause I love action movies but i have to ask... Is it only me that thinks the film doesn't know what it wants to be?

Whilst I think this article

Whilst I think this article makes some good points, there are a few things that leap out at me.

On Watchmen: whilst the film did seriously water down Silk Spectre II's character to pathetic eye-candy status, reading this article I am experiencing the feeling you mention of 'did you read the same book as I did?'. I love Watchmen, and most of Alan Moore's work, but you can't ignore the fact that he's a complete misogynist. Silk Spectre II / Laurie Jupiter is nowhere near any kind of positive female character. She's a complete flake, who bounces from one male superhero to another, with no real depth to her other than the backstory about her parentage, which equates to a woman loving a man who raped her. To call her annoying seems to be giving her too much credit, and to call her a bitch implies she has power, which she completely lacks. In a book which spends lavish amounts of time getting into the heads of it's heroes and villains, she remains a vacuous plot device, grease for the machine cogs. For me its the only disappointing thing about an otherwise wonderful graphic novel.

I also want to jump in and defend 300, not because I don't think it's a highly inaccurate, sensationalised version of history, (it really is) but because I think the media shitstorm it experienced was ridiculous. Some of the criticisms had some limited merit to them, but these valid points got buried in rhetoric. 300 was supposed to be misogynist, yet made an effort to reference Spartan women as the disproportionately powerful characters they were at the time (although admittedly 200 would definitely fail the Bechdel test). 300 was also supposed to be homophobic for the 'boy-lover' comment, yet critics really need to brush up on their history regarding ancient Greek insults, and perhaps pay attention to the heavy-handed homoerotic undertones to the film and the serious flirting between at least two Spartan men. I could go on.

Ultimately I feel Snyder definitely goes for 'supercool' and female characters have definitely been left out in the cold as a result. To see what he does with a movie that seems to focus entirely on superheroines will be something of an important test. I too hope he gets it right, it would be nice to have actually haves some good heroines for once.

Silk Spectre

I don't think Thea's point was that Silk Spectre was a positive female role model. Her point was that in the book her character had some dimensionality (in other words, more than a tight costume and sex scene), and I found her past and her mother's history to be an intriguing part, and a welcome acknowledgement of gender dynamics in Watchmen (and I do think it's a bit more complex than "a woman loving a man who raped her," but that's another post). But it sounds like Sally and Laurie Jupiter's stories were not seen as essential to the film remake (I haven't seen it).

Wow

Wow. I'm very surprised. I read the post and the comments and *then* went back to watch the trailer and... the trailer made me very sad. I'm a fight choreographer and I adore sci-fi/fantasy & I love me some high femme fanciness but that was just depressing. I tried to explain, recently, what the "male gaze" means to a female collaborator who had never heard the term. I should just show her that trailer. It has "male gaze" puked all over it. I love dragons & swords & explosions and combat and I'm a tiny person who loves to fight... such a waste of a good opportunity (and an apparently infinite CGI budget).

Well, that's why I'm working on making my OWN d*mned film! Grrr.

I had to watch the trailer a

I had to watch the trailer a few times before I could form an opinion. As with most trailers, it was visually stunning. I think the premise is interesting, where the girls go in their mind. But as seen in the trailer, and Zach Snyder is known for it in his other films, there will be a long, drawn out sex scene. I can imagine that the other women will be sexually abused at the hands of male orderlies and thus in their minds they become unstoppable warriors to cope. I forsee this being marketed as a movie that both guys and girls want to go see, "a chick flick that you want to take your girlfriend to see" sort of thing. As the other poster said, this is all "male gaze." It isn't a film meant for women, though it may be disguised as such.It seems to have every male fantasy devisable. Of course, we can't judge a film by it's trailer, so we'll have to wait and see.

aestheticization of politics?

There is definitely something that feels wrong about Suckerpunch. I have no problem with women using violent means to overcome the basis of their oppression (here I'm in agreement with Cell 16's analysis of violence, and celebrate to 3rd World radical womens' militias like in Nepal's Peoples War), but why does female resistance always have to happen (at least in mainstream films) in near-nudity? [I'm being rhetorical.] The male versions of action hero-women don't rush about in bloody underwear and g-strings...

I did not watch 300 because I found the comic source material reactionary. Like the author of this trailer review, however, I went to see Watchmen in the hope that it would conform to my nostalgia for the comic. And like her, I can imagine Snyder's Watchmen being made by an elementary school version of me who, upon first reading the book, was incapable of anything but a surface understanding. There's something entirely too flashy about Snyder's work that obscures and flattens subject matter that should be gritty and thoughtful. Girls in a mental asylum escaping through fantastic means is an interesting topic and, in another director's hands, would actually be worth seeing. In Snyder's hands it turns into (judging by the trailer at least) what Benjamin called "the aestheticization of politics" - a hallmark of fascist art.

Snyder and fascist art

Now there are a couple of words that go together quite nicely. I'm actually going to argue that his 300 is a satire of fascist art. First of all, there's the way the story is framed-- it's something being told by a soldier to rally his troops for battle. As far as I'm concerned, that's an unreliable narrator right there. Hence why all the Persians are portrayed as gross gay ogres. Dehumanize the enemy and the troops have an easier time killing them. This also leads up to my next example-- the rape of the queen. Once again, remember we're told all this by a soldier rallying his troops. But how does this soldier know about these events? The dialogue? He's obviously filling in the details as he pleases to make the Persians seem more inhuman. He's literally saying "Those Persians want to rape our women!" The entire point of the scene is how trivializing rape by using it as a minor plot point dehumanizes both the villains and female characters.

The flashiness of Snyder's work doesn't obscure the meaning; the flashiness IS the meaning. Seeing somebody get stabbed or shot in slow motion decontextualizes the images. You don't have to think about the why, you just enjoy the spectacle. Snyder's work draws attention to this and views it as another symptom of nihilism.

and yet the source material...

Was looking at this again almost a year later and saw this reply. Yeah, this was Zizek's reading of the film and I'd *like* it to be true except it doesn't work for four reasons: 1) the source comic by Frank Miller was intentionally right-wing and Miller even said that he was writing a metaphor about how the west was under attack by forces of "barbarism"... the hulking ogres in the movie were directly lifted from the drawings and Miller was intentionally doing a work of racist dehumanization; 2) the movie (which I finally made the mistake of seeing) was almost identical, panel for panel, to the comic book; 3) Snyder is incapable of political satire - he has only claimed that he was just doing a direct adaptation of the comic, and that he wanted it to look almost identical to the comic, and nothing more... and Snyder's inability to understand the politics of Watchmen (judged by the fact that he removed the majority of the comic's progressive critique) demonstrates this lack of critical thinking; 4) 300 as a film was largely responded to as a war-on-terror propaganda piece by patriots and anti-patriots alike...

I understand the "death of the author" thesis and all that, but I generally don't agree with it for political reasons because it tends to create an invisible college of specialized readers who can claim to have an interior critique that is outside of the author and the general audience: so when it comes to propaganda and politics, and a message that was both produced and consumed as racist-imperialist trash, why should we seek some hidden meaning? And what is the source of that hidden meaning - it clearly lacks any material cache. So if the original author produced it as racist propaganda (and Miller is a racist right-wing libertarian comic author) for western imperialism, and Snyder uncritically reproduced this propaganda without any detournement, and the majority of the audience consumed it as such: then this is what it is. Otherwise, by the same logic, you can read a Reifenstahl film as satire.

*thank you*

I know I'm late to the game here, but I just had to say thank you for writing this. Every time we see a preview for this stupid movie my partner goes on and on about how awesome he thinks it looks and how he totally has to see it. It bothered me from the first time I saw it, and my perception of it from the previews I've seen is that it looks like horrible misogynistic porn for video game nerds (I am a video game nerd, and I still think this). You've articulated the problems with it excellently here, and this is the first piece online I've seen (and I went looking) that had anything to say about this film other than how "kick ass" it looked.

conflicted about it

saw Suckerpunch today and I'm deeply torn. Let me say first that I read very deeply into movies and often interpret things that others don't because I see them through the lens of my own experience. That is probably why, on the whole, I actually loved this movie. I could see the message in it - at least what I felt was the message - which is one that goes right to my heart. I loved the layers of fantasy and how it is very much left up to the viewer to interpret exactly what is real and what's not. I like the idea that one can save ones-self from even the darkest experiences with only strength of mind. I've worked with many women who've lived through sexual violence and I myself have lived with mental illness. I saw something really beautiful in it.

On the other hand - I was deeply troubled by the sexualization. I loved the movie so much that I keep trying to come up explanations for it that make it more palatable to me. But I still come back to the fact that the story is portrayed, as another poster says, through the male-gaze. I understand that one can interpret that perhaps because these characters have been violated and exploited sexually, the envision their powerful selves as hyper-sexual beings - the way their victimizers view them but instead are using that to their advantage. I can buy that, but it also depresses me that this is as far as we as a society can seem to come with this idea.Does female sexuality always have to be that particular image? Or can women own and use their sexuality to their advantage without co-opting the stereotypical view of feminine beauty.

This is what I posted on another message board, hoping to elicit a discussion that would really explore this:My concern is that it is a movie about finding your inner strength against all odds. Why then, does Sweet Pea (or Baby Doll - depending on how you interpret the movie) need to visualize a brothel in which they are all used as sexual objects? I could interpret a few reasons but there were never any indications of them in the movie so I'd love to hear another viewpoint.

And why, in all of BabyDoll's fantasies are they wearing highheels and fishnets? Is this the only way she can visualize female power? In spite of what we see in action movies, it's pretty damn hard to kick butt in high heels, fishnets, and corsets. Sports bras under army fatiques with steel toed boots would probably be better.

Even though it pains me because I want to love it so much. I'm afraid the I conclusion that makes sense is that women running around in fatigues and boots doesn't sell movie tickets. I think without the T&A, it would lose a lot of it's comic book styling, and what does that really say about that genre and our image of female power?

Snyder interview on sexuality

I recall reading an interview on io9 in which Snyder said himself that part of the reason the young women fantasize themselves in very sexual clothing is because what makes people feel sexy is generally shaped by the society we live in.

Personally, I thought that it was interesting that anytime anything overtly sexual was about to happen to a character (even dancing) results in Baby Doll going deeper into the fantasy. So it presents an interesting dynamic of a character that fantasizes herself as a sexual being yet cannot cope with the idea of actual sex or sexiness.

I also liked the fact that a character flat out says in the movie that the whole idea of people getting off on the institutionalized girl fantasy is pretty sick.

I had no problems with the movie and I do think that years from now more people will realize it isn't just male gaze, but actually about male gaze. You are not going to get that in the advertising. The guy in the marketing department cutting the ad together is not concerned about your message, that guy is more concerned about what is going to get more butts in seats and make the studio some money. This has been a consistent problem in the advertising of movies since the dawn of advertising movies. So really, no one should be judging a movie based on its trailer when you get down to it.

In addition, I'm kind of offended that there was a need in the article to say Olivia Munn is not qualified for her work. I've greatly enjoyed her spots of The Daily Show and think that she has fit in rather quickly with the rest of the cast. The whole idea that a woman being attractive means she has to prove extra hard that she is qualified for her job is silly. It's just as silly as a black man having to work twice as hard to prove he's just as good as the white guy.

As to Watchmen, the problem is the source material. Mom in love with her rapist! Seriously, how is it that okay?

I saw the movie yesterday.

I saw the movie yesterday. This review pretty much sums it up for me: http://blogs.indiewire.com/spout/archives/sucker-punch-review/