Part Two of our dual review of Sucker Punch focuses on sex, superhero fashion, and what makes a character feel human. Click to read Part One.
T: So putting some separation between the needs of the characters and the needs of the movie is probably one good way we've come up with to fix the movie. I mean, do you think there's something so integral about identification in American film? Do you think we can't really tap into the idea that we don't need to identify with somebody, that we can't view a character as separate from ourselves but still compelling?
M: Well I think that in popular movies that tends to be the case, and I'm frustrated by it. And, for women especially. There are plenty of movies that have the sort of male Ahab figure, who's this crazy guy you can't really say you identify with but you still sort of appreciate and sympathize with. I don't think I've ever seen that person successfully done as a woman in film, and I think that's in part because of the audience. Because every time I've gotten anywhere close to that sort of person in my own writing, people have enjoyed the character as a character but they've hated her as a person. They've said, "What a bitch." Very dismissively. Which ultimately I'm just going to accept; I see that as sort of their problem. But in a movie, I think that becomes really hard, to let go in that way, because a movie often seems to endorse your reading of itself, so that a film can become in practice very mean-spirited by virtue of mean-spirited audiences. It's really troubling.
So I think that, yeah, for women especially, there probably has to be identification in the near term. But I think, even before that, the thing that I was thinking about as a way of solving this is that you need to invest in the characters as fictional characters from the beginning. I mean, you forget the main character has this backstory that seems really important, and that you'd think would get resolved by the end of the movie because it gives you a villain, it gives you a goal that's really explicit. She wants to get the money and her house back--
T: And to avenge the sister--
M: Exactly. To avenge the sister--
T: Because the sister's just gone.
M: Yeah, the sister is forgotten completely, and that's just weird. I don't think you could do that with a male character. I think this movie only does it because it's so meta--that's why it thinks it can get away with it--but I don't think it can get away with it. And if you look at the other characters, there's barely any investment in them as characters. I don't know anything about them, and they don't know anything about themselves. You don't have to know things about a character, but they have to know things about themselves. And I don't think they do. And they're enlisted in this fantasy, which is again a sort of meta solution. If it's a fantasy, of course they don't know anything about themselves, she doesn't know anything about them. But I just don't buy that, and I think that's probably where the solution is, that for female action heroes, you probably need to build in identification for an American moviegoing audience just for it to work, in the near term, though I'd like to get away from that. But then in the long term, we still just need to know that they're people before we write them.
T: Yeah. I think that's a big part of it. I think that the movie was trying to make them real people, but as I was watching, I was thinking about how part of the way you make a real character is that you make them respond to things. You not only include what they do, but what they react to. And that can tell you about them. But when your only reactions are reactions that animals would have--I'm not one to really care a lot about distinctions between animals and humans or to believe a lot in the idea that there's this intrinsic lower and higher between lifeforms--but I think that one distinction for storytellers is to remember that an animal can be fearful, an animal can be aggressive. But an animal can't be angry. Anger posits that there's something a lifeform cares about, that it wants to see corrected, that it's willing to risk something to see corrected. And I feel like most of what we got from Sucker Punch was fear--very instinctive fear that would come from having a gun pointed at your head or from being under the thumb of this bordello operator. They were basic responses to objects and people--
M: "Aagh, gun!"
T: Right. They weren't born of personality or wants, other than not wanting to be killed. An animal needs only those characteristics that will help it not die. And that's a long list, and humans have them just as much as animals. But I never felt like they got the characters past those sorts of basic survival reactions. And again I'm not typically one to care about these sorts of distinctions.
M: But every little bit helps. We need it somewhere, and we needed them to do something more. I mean, maybe that's it, is that the characters are always doing what we expect them to do and need them to do. And I was thinking about that too. Characterization often comes from what's gratuitous. It comes in the decision a character makes that's undermotivated, which tells the audience there has to be some element that this character brought to the situation, and I never felt that in watching the film. I never felt that anybody did anything gratuitous in that sense, anything that wasn't purely motivated by what was in the scene at that moment.
T: And I thought that was going to be sort of the point, that in part, Baby Doll's fantasies are just fantasies, and that there would be something revealing about her in the fact that she creates these fantasies. For a second, I was thinking when she reveals her plan, and she puts it in sort of the same language as her dream narrative did, I was thinking, "She doesn't know what's going on. She's not living in a real world." And Sweet Pea seems like she's going to be the character to call her out on it, to say it's childish and vague and has no basis in reality. She might as well tell them they've got to fetch a secret sword; this way of solving problems doesn't exist in a world like theirs. And I wanted somebody so badly to question that plan and to call her out on the fantasy of it--not out of fear that it wouldn't work but more out of a kind of critique of her as a person. To say she hasn't thought it out appropriately. But the movie is sure she's right. And in the end she is right to follow the dictates of her dream-states. The whole time I was thinking, "This is impulsive," but I think that impulsivity could have helped me understand the character if they would have acknowledged it.
M: Yeah. A lot of what we're talking about it just basic rules of good drama, right? If all your characters are competing and arguing and jostling for power, these problems tend to solve themselves. To motivate a character enough to do that creates a character. So I don't think ultimately that the fact she's looking at us is so much a problem; I think you could have a male character doing that all over the place and it wouldn't necessarily be an issue. But the fact that she's doing it is sort of heuristic. Like, she doesn't have anything better to do. She doesn't have anything else demanding her attention, but she needs to if she's going to be a character.
T: Yeah. I think that's her only way of asserting any kind of power over and above the narrative, is to say, "Look at me. I'm in charge."
M: When she could just be in charge.
T: Right. And I think actually that the exact same thing would happen if you had a male character doing that. If you had Superman just staring at you, you'd know he was pretty super, that he would take care of everything, that he'd be right all the time. He'd have moral superiority. And it would be the most boring movie I'd ever watched.
M: And I'm sure we could think of examples of that.
T: Any Christ movie. Any Christ movie is going to show you that it's not what Jesus did so much as how he bore it. And unassailability is fine when it's Jesus. But even when it's a superhero, I think that would be really alienating; we wouldn't know what to care about. Because he'll take care of everything.
And I think that's how the looking in Sucker Punch felt too, except that we're a little less quick to trust in the gaze of girls. We're used to seeing looking in a female as a sign of vulnerability, looking to us, rather than just looking at us.
M: The other thing I was thinking about--I was trying to think of a solution to the whole "What do you make her look like? How do you dress her?" situation. So I thought about what you do with guys in this situation: What does James Bond look like? He's a sexy figure. But, the thing with him, I realized, is that he's just an exaggerated version of something we all recognize.
T: He's a gentleman.
M: Yeah, exactly, he's a gentleman. He's a type. And he's really good at being that type. He's clean cut, he has a really nice suit. So you'll have superheroes who'll have a variation on some military get-up; you'll have a superhero whose outfit communicates, you know, science is about to happen--he's got on a lab coat and a robot arm, and you're thinking, "He's into science"; he's got on some goggles--and then the other thing is, maybe there's a somewhat exploitative element of that costume, like maybe the shirt is really tight, but not to the point of being totally non-functional. Not--like, why on earth would you want your tits ready to fall out at a moment's notice, that sort of thing. So I was thinking that the issue with Sucker Punch is that no one actually wears that shit, right--no one is ever out and about in anything close to--
T: There's no analog for it. And to the extent there is, it's hookers, or these various performances that are intended to be sexy. Like I was imagining, you said the gentleman, and I thought about "the lady," what if there's a lady who's in a really smart dress, you know, and sensible heels? And obviously she can't fight in sensible heels, but probably James Bond can't fight in his toe-constricting wingtips.
M: No, he shouldn't be wearing Gucci.
T: But he is. He clearly is.
M: He is, and that's fine.
T: And we deal with it. I don't think it's so much--they've found that to be true in anime. It doesn't matter if the girls are wearing knee-high boots, and extremely high heels. It's just that they're recognizeable as something other than sex. And something other than cobbled-together pieces of sexiness: ribbons, tiny skirt, plunging neckline, bare midriff. They just put that all together and there's no analog for it. Except lingerie. Whereas I would really like to see just a fighting lady in a cocktail dress.
M: Yeah, I can imagine a lot of variations on that sort of thing. Just stuff that I've seen women wear. And then you make it a little better. You enhance it.
T: A little sleeker. And I think that's part of why the superheroes we tend to feel pretty neutral about, from a feminist stance, are the ones that just kind of wear catsuits. Ladies can wear those, and we know what they are. They're for sneaking. They have a meaning.
M: The other thing is, in anime of course, men have equal odds of being exploited. They have equal odds of being shown as sex objects and objects of desire, even in what would ostensibly, in the West, be considered a "straight" show. A Japanese show that is aimed at a heterosexual audience is very likely to have portrayals of men that feel homoerotic, and the fact that it feels homoerotic is, of course--well, that's the result of some things. But still--the Final Fantasy character designs, we've talked about, they've become increasingly objectifying of everybody. And I'm actually okay with that--I think that objectification is a normal part of art, and I think it's especially a normal part of the sort of entertainment that action movies provide. The irony is, Zack Snyder has made, in 300, a really exploitative movie about men. And it doesn't feel so exploitative, because it's about men.
M: Which again, is a thing.
M: But you could put those two casts together and it could sort of cancel itself out, and that could be the universe--a universe where sexy people do sexy things. But it doesn't feel that way.
T: And I think part of what gets confusing about the movie is that they feel like they have to justify the sexiness. And that's maybe part of the problem, that you have to show these girls in an exploitative situation so that we know this is why they're being shown in exploitative ways throughout the movie. This is why they're going to be dressed this way, and why they're going to style themselves and picture themselves this way. They're in an exploitative situation, and that's warped their minds, and should warp our expectations. These aren't supposed to be normal women. Which is I think probably the wrong way to go, to say these are not normal women, these are characters removed from our notions of what women are and what women can do. Don't try to view them as representative. And I think that ends up reiterating the problem of exploitation, because it's relying on the framework of it so heavily.
M: It's the same problem with all the violent movies that are telling me how bad violence is. There's a reason Zack Snyder is making these sexy violent movies, and it's because that's the kind of movie that makes enough money to justify spending what he spends on those movies. And you can decide not to make those, but there comes a point where you either accept that that's the movie you're making and stop talking about it and try to make it work, or stop doing it. It really does not seem like a good excuse to me that he thinks it's dumb.
T: No, exactly. I don't think you can make a movie and just say, "Well, I think I pretty clearly laid out my theoretical perspective," which is that we conflate violence and sexuality, or we conflate vulnerability and ass-kicking. We put these two things together because this is how we view the world or this is how we really feel about it. You can say you're trying to satirize the situation as much as you want, and I think I've talked about this on the blog before, but theory just can't be enough. The most high-minded feminism can't carry a story that doesn't know what its characters want.
M: Right. And I think too, that, like I said, there's legitimate room for exploitative film. Exploitative film can, will, and should exist; you know, I like watching sexy movies where sexy things happen. But I do think you have two choices: You have to accept the current state of affairs in terms of what's potentially ugly about exploitation and make a sort of fun, harmless movie that will look barbaric in a few decades, which is what most filmmakers do, or, and this movie could have done this, you can imagine another kind of exploitation that's different, weird, and alienating, but ultimately still sexy and still exciting. I'm trying to think of examples of things that do that--anime actually does do it a fair amount, and I think other things we've seen have done it too, but I'm not thinking of a lot of great examples.
T: I feel like you could actually go more sexy. I feel like you could actually put them in skimpier outfits, or whatever, and let that be your statement implicitly. And of course some people are going to get off on it, because people get off on Sailor Moon, people get off on any anime. You're not going to avoid getting people off. And I felt like the movie made a point of that, as soon as it let you get to the point of potentially getting off, it took it away again, as if to say "This is bad." And probably it could actually be okay as long as it doesn't take it to bad places, as long as it doesn't show it as--desirable or--consequential--or, I don't know--
M: I don't know either.
T: That feels weird.
M: Yeah. I just, I think that there's room for sexy fun that doesn't hurt people. That doesn't hurt them. It's partly about specificity again, and kind of goes back to what the rules of good writing are, because if you write something that is sufficiently specific to the characters, to your own style and whatever, it can be totally sexy and not feel like this--
T: Like those characters are there for you, I think.
M: Yeah. It's the fact that--the audience has to come to it, has to negotiate with it, rather than feeling like, "Sweet, I can just settle into my usual spot here, and enjoy this exactly the way I've always enjoyed it. And there's nothing to work through here, there's nothing to challenge me." Really I guess that's it. I'm totally cool with stuff being hot and sexy and whatever, if I'm not shutting my brain off while I watch it. And that's why I sort of liked this, is that I did feel like it was trying to engage me. But everything about it visually conflicted with that. Everything about the way it actually happened told me not to think about it even though the structure required that I think about it even to make sense of it as a film.
T: I think that's why I wanted to see her dance so bad. I think that's why just one instance of that dance is necessary, because that's her primary way of getting stuff done. And I think that's going to be okay if I'm turned on by it, like the rest of the characters are. Let me go ahead and feel weird about that, like I do in Black Swan, where they're showing me this girl destroying herself and the shots and the costumes are still telling me she's so pretty and so talented. I think that's the good kind of exploitation for storytelling purposes, and I think they took the dance away because they didn't want to undermine their idea that, just because this is set in an environment where exploitation is accepted and perpetrated doesn't mean you should feel good about it or that you should enjoy any of this. And I think you can still have that message but have her do her dance, which transfixes everybody, and makes the whole movie happen. And if you do it right, it's going to be uncomfortably sexy. But I think it has to be there.
You have anything?
M: I'm out of ideas.
T: Me too. That's kind of a weird place to end.
M: That's going to take forever to transcribe.
T: Yeah, that's okay.
M: You don't want to do it. Honestly, I don't think you want to do
(end of recording)