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'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


Warner Brothers

I saw Sucker Punch under the best possible circumstances: With absolutely no expectations that it would be good. For a lover of the Strong Women Who Blow Things Up genre of entertainment, the appeal of Sucker Punch had nothing to do with whether it got favorable reviews (it didn't), or whether its plot made any kind of sense (it doesn't), or whether it had memorable and well-crafted dialogue (oh, Lord, no). It had to do with the goofy, thrilling payoffs promised by its trailers: Strong Women with dragons! Strong Women with robots! Strong Women destroying robots and dragons, with swords! Indeed, all of these things were present. But Sucker Punch still managed to disappoint. It has the dragons, the robots, the steampunk zombies; it has everything. Except for the Strong Women.

By my count, there are at least five attempted rapes in Sucker Punch. When its female characters aren't fending off rapists, they're being lobotomized, stabbed, imprisoned, sold, shot in the head, forced to strip, or blown up on trains in outer space. Sucker Punch has been pitched as a girl-power epic, but it feels like watching a little boy tear the heads off his sister's Barbies. After dressing them up in their sexiest outfits and making them fight GI Joe, of course.

Zack Snyder's gooey mix of fetish gear, rape fantasies, and girls-with-guns action sequences represents the nadir of a long, slow, steady decline in action films starring women: from the genre's heyday in the 1980s with Alien and Terminator to the confusing mess that is Sucker Punch. But the mixed messages of Sucker Punch—girls are powerful! Resistance to male abuse is ultimately futile and you will die! Being reduced to a sexual object is terrible! You can take charge, using your sexuality!—are weirdly compelling, as a statement on our cultural cluelessness about what "female empowerment" means.

Strong female film characters came into their own as feminism did, toward the end of the 20th century. They started in exploitation flicks—low-budget and sensationalist genre movies which were produced with no intention of meeting critical standards, let alone creating a lasting legacy. The Final Girls of horror, the ultraviolent survivors in rape revenge flicks like Ms. 45, or Pam Grier, whose roles in Coffy and Foxy Brown made her the first real female action star: Their artistic legitimacy was questioned, but they were what people needed to see.

Those movies were based on simple math: If watching violence was fun, and watching pretty girls was fun, then pretty violent girls would be fun squared. But the combination was resonant; in the late '70s and early '80s, people were simply ready to see women taking charge, and claiming the same right to plow through enemies that their fictional male counterparts had always enjoyed.

The idea of the woman as action star permeated the culture; soon enough, big- budget movies joined in. James Cameron gave us Sarah Connor in The Terminator, and perhaps the best version of the iconic Ellen Ripley in Aliens. Both of these women are defined around motherhood. But they're strong, smart, and very capable of dispatching killer robots or aliens when duty calls. These women, while carefully constructed to be "feminine" enough to appease a public that liked its gender roles predictable, were decisively not girly; their wardrobes were unisex, their style was military, and one could not imagine them shopping for anything but a more effective flame-thrower. In a way, they were '80s career women—succeeding at a man's game, by men's rules. They just happened to be wearing robotic exoskeletons instead of suits with shoulder pads and built-in bow ties.

And then, we hit the '90s, and the third wave of feminism, and the genre exploded. Movies, television, and even video games were stuffed with action girls. Sarah Connor came back, with more muscles. Ellen Ripley came back, and shaved her head. The new recruits were often disposable or goofy—Lara Croft didn't make it into a movie until 2000, but her omnipresent Tomb Raiding started to grate well before that; those who remember the Tank Girl movie regret it—but at least they weren't rare. And some of them were genuine winners: Lo and behold, there was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the unapologetically perky, fashionable blonde cheerleader who could fight back the very powers of Hell.

So why have we ended up here? Why Sucker Punch? Well: Movies have to make money. And risks don't sell. After the '90s came the backlash; Strong Women survived, but they no longer got the attention they once did. In the absence of a widespread enthusiasm for Girly Power, misogyny—as always—crept back in.

The Strong Woman Action Heroine may have resonance for women, but she was always based on math: If watching violence is fun, and watching pretty girls is fun, then pretty violent girls will be fun squared. Filmmakers just reverted to that reliable formula. Sure, Quentin Tarantino got to make Kill Bill; he's Quentin Tarantino. But as for the rest of it, we got a slew of interchangeable Ultraviolets and Underworlds with interchangeable latex-and-leather clad heroines, and a revivified Charlie's Angels franchise, for those who preferred their action in a bikini. You could blame the shift on Lara Croft's skin-tight outfits, Tarantino's fetishistic recreations of the exploitation flicks from which female action heroines emerged, or even Buffy and her girl-power miniskirts. But at least two of those three things had redeeming value. And redeeming value is expendable, if you assume your audience would be satisfied with mini-skirts and exploitation.

Thus, Sucker Punch. Slap-dash, sexist, loud, and stupid—and as "sexy" as a bright red nylon teddy. But it might just be the only action movie this year which focuses on a female ensemble. The question isn't why it's so misogynist, but whether any action movie about women would be allowed to exist (let alone get an $82 million budget) if it didn't promise to objectify its female characters and appeal to the "teenage boys" for whom Snyder made the film. Whether or not Sucker Punch is what we want, it's what we've earned, by not demanding better movies for women.

The good news: People hate Sucker Punch. And not just critics; comment sections and discussion boards are full of outrage. Even the geekiest of action fans won't defend it. Despite its massive promotional campaign, it didn't make it to the top of the box office on opening weekend. There's a chance that Hollywood will listen; that they'll see a need, among moviegoers, for "girl power" movies that don't insult the girls. Of course, there's a better chance that they'll shrug their shoulders, and go back to making movies about men. That always works.