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:
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.
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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