We're All Mad Here: Sucker Punch Tackles Abuse In Asylums
This post discusses abuse in asylums, including sexual assault. It discusses the history of lobotomies and describes (briefly) the procedure. It also contains spoilers for the movie Sucker Punch.
I went to see Sucker Punch expecting a light peice of fluff that involved conventionally attractive young women with swords fighting a dragon. It's a movie where one of the lines highlighted in the trailer is, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." I was prepared for a light popcorn-type film and showed up for a midnight screening with one of my friends, two martinis to the wind.
I was really not expecting a film that laid out how abusive asylums and long-term care centers can be—and often are. I was not expecting a film that laid out how asylums could be used to silence uppity women. And I was really not prepared for a film that showed bluntly and horrifyingly what lobotomies involved and how they completely destroyed people's personalities.
There are very few scenes that take place in the asylum itself, but those that do are very powerful in their brevity.
Baby Doll's stepfather has discovered, to his rage, that his wife left all of her considerable fortune to her two daughters. However, the two girls are still young, and he is easily able to lock them in their rooms. He attempts to attack Baby Doll, but when that fails, he turns his attentions to her unnamed sister. Baby Doll grabs a gun to stop him, but in the struggle it's her sister who dies.
Using his appearance as a fine, respectable man, the stepfather has Baby Doll drugged and dragged into the asylum. What a great way of silencing a girl who could lead to your downfall. It's very clear in these scenes that the stepfather is bribing people, especially the head orderly (Blue), to have Baby Doll "taken care of." And by "taken care of," he means being lobotomized.
Neurologist Egas Moniz, who invented the lobotomy as a form of psychiatric treatment, was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for his work. Moniz was well aware of what the results of a prefontal lobotomy would be on his patients. The famous case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who had a spike driven through his frontal lobe in an accident, had occured in 1848, sparking a series of neurological inquiries into the effects of such injuries. According to author Robert Whitaker:
The injury dramatically changed him. Before, others had admired him as energetic, shrewd, and persistent. He was said to have a well-balanced mind. After his accident, he became ill mannered, stubborn, and rude. He couldn't carry out any plans. He seemed to have the mind of a spoiled child. He had changed so radically that his friends concluded that he was "no longer Gage." [Mad in America, pg 108]
Whitaker goes on to describe Moniz's inspiration for performing lobotomies on people with mental health conditions. An all-day conference was held in 1935 that discussed the numerous cases of accidental lobotomies of cancer patients and veterans of World War One, in addition to the effects of lobotomies on dogs, monkeys, foxes, and apes. According to another attendee of the conference, "any damage to the frontal lobes would inevitably be followed by grave repercussions upon the whole personality." (pg 112) So obviously it should be used on mental health patients.
Victims of lobotomies are still alive today. Howard Dully was 12 years old when he received the same sort of lobotomy, which uses an ice pick, that Baby Doll is scheduled for. He was lobotomized because "He objects to going to bed but then sleeps well. He does a good deal of daydreaming and when asked about it he says 'I don't know.' He turns the room's lights on when there is broad sunlight outside."
As Baby Doll awaits her fate, her clothing is taken away, replaced with an asylum-issued grey uniform. She is also given asylum-issued sheets and towels for her dorm-room bed. Depending on what modern asylum a patient is sent to, the same thing can happen now. A friend of mine who has been involuntarily institutionalized three times told me that two of the institutions took away her clothing, one as a "safety issue," the other in order to ensure compliance with asylum rules. Clothing would be returned for good behavior. As well, some modern institutions allow private rooms, others do not. The expectation in a shared room is often that the patients will take on some responsibility for each other, as the girls do in Sucker Punch. In Sucker Punch, however, the girls give up everything, including their names. (Unless you believe their parents named them Baby Doll, Sweat Pea, Rocket, Blondie, and Amber.)
As the head orderly, Blue, leads Baby Doll and her stepfather into the common area of the asylum, he reveals how the girls—and this asylum is full of girls that appear to be around 17 or 18 years of age (Baby Doll is 20), most of whom are white—are treated. The common area is concrete, all in shades of grey, and we see some of the girls listlessly playing cards while two others get into a fight. It's a very bleak place. Part of the treatment involves the girls doing physical labor around the asylum, much like the labor required of inmates in 19th century asylums in Canada. (I recommend Geoffrey Reaume's book Remembrances of Patients Past to read more about this.)
On the stage in this room the chief doctor, a Polish woman named Dr. Gorski, is leading one of the inmates through some sort of directed session. Blue comments to Baby Doll's stepfather that watching the girls through this therapy is "quite a show," since they act out the people who "touched them or beat them or whatever." Blue and the stepfather negotiate the terms of Baby Doll's lobotomy while Dr. Gorski tells Sweet Pea "You are safe. It's all safe. Now relax, and just let go. You control this world. Let the pain go. Let the hurt go. Let the guilt go. What you're imagining right now. That world you control. That place can be as real as any pain."
It's implied throughout the scenes in the asylum—and later outright stated—that the girls are being sexually abused and raped by the orderlies. This is also based on reality. Inmates were sexually abused and exploited at the Byberry Asylum in Philadelphia, the Woodlands School in Westminster, British Columbia, and the Magdalen Asylums in Ireland, amongst others. A survey by the Disabled Women's Network Ontario makes it clear that sexual abuse of women with disabilities is epidemic, even today. Women with histories of mental illness are less likely to be believed when they report their rapes and assaults.
Baby Doll's fate is sealed by her stepfather's bribe to Blue. We see a series of scenes of her in the asylum, leading up to the day of her lobotomy. They're all silent—Baby Doll never says a word during any of the asylum scenes—and end with the lobotomy doctor coming to the hospital to perform the ice pick lobotomy. The film is surprisingly blunt about what this will involve: the camera focuses on a drawing of what a lobotomy actually does, with the ice-pick like instrument being held up to the eye and a hammer poised to strike. Baby Doll is tied down. The lobotomy doctor gets the hammer out, puts the instrument at her eye, and pulls back the hammer.
Then the scene ends, flashing to the brothel that is the setting for most of the rest of the film. Many of the above scenes are replayed, with Baby Doll re-imagining the whole experience as being locked in a brothel rather than an asylum, kept trapped for five days waiting for "the High Roller" to "do a little flower picking." Instead of her stepfather, it's a priest dragging her in from the orphanage. The scene on the stage is changed to Sweet Pea talking about this whole "creepy lobotomy thing"—what sort of "issue" do you have to have to want to have sex with a "lobotomized vegetable"? The rooms are re-imagined as places where the girls will "entertain" visitors. Dr. Gorski is re-imagined as a dance instructor who teaches the girls to dance sexily on the stage for their patrons.
I read Baby Doll's re-imagining of the asylum as a brothel as representing the rape and sexual abuse of the inmates by the orderlies. Baby Doll imagines this as a brothel because that's what she's got to go on. She knows they're being forced to perform their abuse for the entertainment of the orderlies, even if that's not what Gorski was intending. The "dancing" that Baby Doll envisions may be her own sessions with Gorski (Gorski repeats the same sentences she said to Sweat Pea during the earlier session), or they may be how she sends her mind away while being raped. Within the storyline, she's got the other girls doing things like getting copies of the map to the brothel that is really an asylum, getting a lighter so they can start a fire to distract anyone who's following them, getting a knife so they can defend themselves as they try to escape, and a key to unlock the doors.
At the end of the movie, Baby Doll realizes exactly how far she'll have to go to protect the other girls and allow any of them to escape. She lets herself be captured by the men in the brothel, and then we flash instantly back to with no warning to that hammer slamming down on the icepick, and the lobotomy doctor dropping the now-bloody icepick into water to clean it.
As Dr. Gorski and the doctor talk about the lobotomy, it becomes clear that Gorski didn't sign the papers to schedule it. As the doctors are realizing the extent of Blue's abuse of the patients, we see Blue and several other orderlies carrying the limp Baby Doll into an isolated washroom and tying her to a chair. While the other orderlies refuse to hurt her anymore, Blue orders them away because he, at least, is going to get his satisfaction.
Before Blue, who is enraged that Baby Doll is no longer reacting to his abuse, has a chance to rape her again, the police and both doctors break into the bathroom and drag him away. As Blue screams that it's not fair that Baby Doll has "escaped to paradise," we finally see her face post-lobotomy: she has a beatific smile and it's implied that she's lost in her imaginings of paradise, forever safe from anything that Blue can do to her, and content in the knowledge that she saved others from his abuse.
I know, that's an awful lot of typing for what amounts to less than 20 minutes of a nearly two-hour long film that's mostly stylized scenes of young women in sexy outfits fighting steampunk zombie Nazis and shooting bi-planes out of the sky with hand-guns. On the other hand, I'm fascinated that a movie that spends most of its time on exactly that sets things up by showing exactly how frighting being involuntarily committed can be. It's pretty bluntly stated that Baby Doll is being abused and lobotomized because there are corrupt people who are willing to do these things to her for a price.
I read this film as being critical of asylums, albeit in a way that puts the blame on individual orderlies rather than on a system that allowed limited oversight and gave unlimited power. This is still an ongoing problem.
What I'm unsure of is if the purpose of these scenes is to be frightening for the sake of being frightening, or if Zack Snyder, the director of the film, is trying to use the asylum as a metaphor for how women are treated when they're uppity, when they try and fight back, or when they're simply "bad girls." It's notable that the only woman with any appearance of power, Dr. Gorski, is shown as completely impotent throughout the film, unable in the asylum to realize how much abuse is going on under her nose, and unable in the brothel to protect her charges from Blue's abuse.
Regardless, Sucker Punch packs a pretty strong wallop. I enjoyed a lot of it, but I wish someone had warned me that a lobotomy was going to be a major plot point.
What are your thoughts on the film?
Note on these "Further Readings": Sucker Punch generated a lot of commentary back in March. I've tried to grab a sampling from various points of view, although this is by no means the whole picture of the conversation. Please feel free to link to your own or other people's commentary on the film.
- Sady Doyle at the Atlantic: 'Sucker Punch' and the Decline of Strong Woman Action Heroines ("Zack Snyder's critically panned, commercially disappointing mess of a film represents the nadir of female-centric action movies"
- Impertinence: I include a Buffy Reference in this post ("So this was a movie about trauma, basically. It was also about dragons and clockwork Nazis and shit blowing up, because it was an action movie. But it was an action movie with themes, and those themes were misogyny and trauma.")
- Impertinence: Me, too: Sucker Punch and mainstream feminism ("Sucker Punch really hit me emotionally because it portrayed prolonged abuse, attempted rape, and dissociation in ways that rang as very emotionally accurate to me. This was coupled with violent revenge fantasy fodder and a message that spoke to finding inner strength.")
- Maria & Leigh at The Hathor Legacy: Sucker Punch (Spoilers Ahoy!) (" I was definitely not expecting what we got in this movie. From what I had read (which was admittedly very little) it was supposedly a very fluffy action movie, and instead we got a visually gorgeous and really thoughtful film that put a lot of effort into portraying its ideas without 1. slamming you over the head with them and 2. without being insulting.")
- Dave at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center Blog: Movie Review: Sucker Punch ("Aside from the fresh action sequences involving dragons, samurai with miniguns, WWI era clockwork Germans, and robots, Sucker Punch is probably the best movie about dissociation I've ever seen.")
- Katie at A Blog of My Own: Sucker Pucnhing Your Audience is not a good idea; or, I know you're trying to tell me something, but I just don't know what it is ("Now, I think that (my best guess at) what Zach Snyder et al. were trying to say is that sex is not a form of female empowerment and that there are no real forms of female empowerment whatsoever. However, that is just not acceptable.")
- Thea Lim at Bitch: Generlicious: Zack Snyder and Sucker Punch ("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.")
- Skye at Heroine Content March Links: Sucker Punch Edition ("I just keep thinking about how cool it could have been if the fantasy war scenes were actually what the girls themselves would have chosen, instead of what Zack Snyder claims we chose for them...")
- ETA: Skye at Heroine Content: Sucker Punch: Such a Waste of Potential ("White girls in this film have the choice of valiant sacrifice to save friends, or escape to live a long and happy life. Brown girls are support staff, betrayers, and victims.")
(Admin note: Still having irritating computer problems. I'm sorry I'm way less available than I intended to be.)
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