Trigger warning on this post for mention of sexual assault.
Dear Director Zack Snyder,
I saw your film Sucker Punch today. Based on the premise and the posters, I had decided not to go. Then I saw the trailer, and it didn’t strike me as badly as I’d thought it would. I didn’t see as much cleavage as I had feared, and I saw a lot of young women doing extremely fun stuff like sticking a sword through the head of a dragon. I had heard some bad shit about your movie 300 (Jehanzeb Dar on racism in 300, Grace on ableism in 300), but I enjoyed Watchmen aside from the incredibly wrong ending. So I thought I would give Sucker Punch a shot and try to keep an open mind.
First, let me say, you made a very pretty movie. The music was also phenomenal. Stories about female resistance can be fantastic, and I particularly appreciate films that show the strength of young women. You had the raw material to make a truly cool film.
But this is where you failed: You care more about yourself than you do about who your characters really are.
Let’s talk about Baby Doll (Emily Browning). When her mother dies, her evil stepfather tries to sexually assault her, then turns his attention to her little sister. Baby Doll tries to kill him but accidentally kills her sister. This works fine for the stepfather, who commits her to a mental institution to be lobotomized so he can grab all her cash.
That would all be heartbreaking if Baby Doll were a person. But she’s not. She’s a cardboard cutout of a little girl, though you make sure to establish her age as 20. She has a little girl name, a little girl voice, and wears her hair in little girl pigtails. Her complete lack of personality allows you to create whatever scenes you want to create, without any regard for her backstory. Under great stress, Baby Doll either creates or retreats to two separate fantasy worlds. In the first, the mental institution is a front for a bordello. Baby Doll’s power is to dance sexier than any of the other girls and distract the menz so her friends can steal the items they need to escape.
How does this make any sense for this character? How does this come from anything aside from your desire to dress up girls in skimpy clothes and show them being hurt by men?
If you instead created characters you actually care about, they might be more than cardboard cutouts. They might be interesting. The film might reflect how young women who have been hurt actually think, feel, and act. And yes, one of the things they do is fight back. But they don’t always fight back by dressing up in your male fantasy lady-combat outfits of the second fantasy world Baby Doll creates. Strangely, some of them even feel uncomfortable in that kind of clothing. Some don’t, and put it on as a way to feel strong. Again, this is you creating the visuals you want, treating your characters as you want to and ignoring who they are. As a result, they feel like paper dolls. They are all form and no substance.
Can you please think about that for a while?
While you’re at it, you also might want to work on your racism. 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. It’s ugly and predictable and it’s so backwards that I don’t even know what more to say. I would also caution you that if you’re going to set a film in a mental institution, you might want to know more about the history of mental health treatment in this country instead of just using it as a dramatic backdrop. It’s true that women considered troublesome by their families have been “disciplined” by forcible committal, but there’s a much bigger picture here and it’s callous to use the bit you want and throw the rest away.
My husband is part of your target market, and he was also pretty disgusted. He’s in his thirties, plays a lot of video games. He said he would rather see a film by the creators of D.O.A., notorious exploiters of women, since then he wouldn’t have to deal with the veneer of respectability you tried to pull over the film with the drama and torment aspect. If you’re going to make a film of young girls running around video game fight scenes wearing their underwear, then just do that and stop pretending it’s something else.
I am 100% certain that you’ll be able to find a lot of white women, and maybe even some women of color, who will embrace Sucker Punch as a girl power movie. That’s very sad. I guess as a starting place, it’s better than some, but the disrespect for female characters that oozes from almost every scene just breaks my heart. It’s not even the clothes for me, it’s what the clothes say about how much you just don’t give a damn about these girls you created and brought to life. They’re not real people, but fictional characters can be inspiring to real people, and you threw away your chance to make that happen.
A woman who is not as radical fringe as you’re probably telling yourself she is
p.s. I noticed when you switched out Baby Doll’s shoes in the temple fight scene. If her shoes keep the stunts from working, then why is it so important that she wears them?
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.