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Guilty Men and the Allure of Feminine Empowerment

Stephanie and I watched Sucker Punch the other week (with bonus We Hate Movies commentary, which was much appreciated).  I didn’t care for it.

It’s not a totally miserable experience of a movie.  Some of the action scenes were kinda fun and I appreciated the design of some of the fantasy scenes, even if they didn’t totally mesh together or make much sense.  It seems like there’s a good movie buried somewhere in there that’s suffocating under a couple of layers of melodramatic bullcrap.  I almost wish this would get remade with a more direct approach to the fantasy – skip the brothel / burlesque-club-with-slaves layer altogether and just have an imaginative patient at an asylum who daydreams while trying to escape, change some of the costumes, and you’re pretty much good to go.

The elephant in the room when you talk about Sucker Punch is the idea of feminine empowerment.  The topic chases the movie like an orange shadow.  People either love to hate it as a failure, or they hate to admit they love it as a success.

What do I think about it?  Well… honestly, what I think is kind of irrelevant.  I’m not a woman, so I’m not the one who really can feel empowered / disempowered.  It’s not that men can’t or shouldn’t try to make an empowering story for women – men both can and should - but we can’t control what other people will ultimately feel.  It’s basically the same thing as when a billionaire runs for public office and keeps trying to appeal to working class values.  You can say that you’re looking out for us as much as you want, but unless you grew up in poverty at some point, you live in a different world and you just have no clue how the rest of us live.

Nevertheless, this is my blog, so I’m going to write about it for another seven hundred words or so, anyway.

I think Sucker Punch took a good idea (taking tokens of femininity that are universally sexualized and used as a means of exploitation or condescension and twisting them around to reflect strength and independence) and went so far overboard with it that the result is basically just more of the same.  It’s not that it couldn’t work in theory.  It’s just that it doesn’t work in practice.

But it did get me thinking about how men, myself included, often hope to tell stories that can be empowering to women, and why it is that we fail so often.  So, maybe the real value of Sucker Punch won’t be in the film itself but rather in its inspiration for the rest of us to think a little harder on the topic.

I don’t know much about Zack Snyder as a person.  But I do wonder if he’s one of those Nice Guys we all keep talking about.  Sucker Punch certainly feels that way.  He comes across as a guy who wants to be a more progressive and equitable person, but who is so caught up in that ideal he never actually listens and ends up barking commands and objectifying and reducing women down to archetypes and stereotypes the same way the worst of us do.

Or, it could just be that I’m projecting my own insecurities again.  I do that a lot, usually with the things that frighten or bother me the most.

What this makes me think of are some of the earliest Strong Female Characters I tried to write.  Back when I was in my teens and early twenties, I went through a phase where I’d overthink the politics of a character rather than just trying to come up with a character.  That overthinking led to one of two outcomes:  either they were ridiculous figureheads with stilted dialogue and unmemorable personalities, or, through a series of mental acrobatics, they became the exact kind of cliché garbage everybody hates.

An example of the former: Mariel Rensworth, the protagonist of my perennially-revised Final Fantasy fan-fiction, Project Zero.  I went nuts trying to make sure Mariel was the ultimate in female empowerment.  She would be physically strong, a capable fighter, intelligent beyond belief, masterful at conversation, beautiful, popular, and so on.  The one thing she never was?  Interesting.  Mariel, throughout virtually all versions of the story, ranked among the worst Mary Sues ever committed to fiction.

An example of the latter: Elsa Torres, the protagonist of my screenplay about a demonic biker gang, "Going Home."  Elsa was exactly like Mariel in that she was independent and strong and intelligent, but this time around, I knew I had to give her a fatal character flaw so she would be more relatable and engaging.  I came up with two brilliant ideas: she would be clumsy, and she’d be quick to anger.  Gee, a woman who’s prone to hysterics and yells at men while falling down a lot?  Never seen that before.  Give me a Pulitzer!

I can’t say that the female characters I write now are necessarily the best in the world.  I don’t know what other people think about them and I’m not so arrogant to make that claim.  But I do know they’re better than what I was writing before.  And the trick that’s gotten me there is simply this: not thinking about them as women.

I don’t mean that I simply write a character as a man and then do a sex change on the pronouns.  What I mean is, instead of looking at a character as a woman or a man, I look at a character as a ball of aspirations.  And then I try to find out what the obstacles are to those aspirations.  As it turns out, that’s the source of all literally all drama and tension in literary history.  Whether the character is a man or a woman doesn’t really matter – that’s the stuff that you add in later.

It’s the kind of thinking Sucker Punch could have used more of.  Strip away the politics and just try to make an engaging psycho-thriller with some neat daydream sequences, and you could have ended up with a riveting film that had a cast of memorable female leads.  Want to empower women?  Make a movie for the little girls of today that’s as exciting as Ghostbusters was to the little boys of my generation.  Something that kids would want to reenact on the playground where they all get to be a hero and they all have something cool to do.  That’s empowerment.

That kind of film is the one that effects real change.  It’s worth more than all your tokens of guilt.

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