The Sexual Objectification of Women in Recent Film

by Ron Vitale

While away on a recent work trip, I surfed on over to and saw that Sucker Punch was being highlighted until the end of the month. I had heard extremely bad reviews of the film and not being a fan of Zack Snyder's 300, I almost passed, but took a chance and watched the movie anyway.

If you watch the trailer, you might think that the movie is simply about women in loosely imagined revenge stylized situations parading around in tights and short skirts. Sucker Punch is a mix between Showgirls and 300. It's a flawed film, but one worth watching. What intrigued me the most is the film's sexual objectification of women and it's attempt to twist that around (or attempt to). If you look at American films over the last 15 or so years, there's a crop of films that portray women as sex objects who are killing machines: The Fifth Element, the Underworld series, the Resident Evil series and Kill Bill 1 & 2. These are the films that come to mind when I think of this genre. 

The premise is pretty simple: Attractive young girl wears tight clothes or sexy outfits, is put up against the bad guys and she kicks ass. Often the plot is a mix between survival or revenge. And sex sells or, should I say, the sexual objectification of women sells. If you just take the Underworld and Resident Evil series alone, that's a good many films that take the premise, shake it up a bit and pump out essentially the same thing each time.

Yet what Snyder attempts in Sucker Punch is to make a film for women, disguising it was one for men. I'm fascinated by that. The film was heavily marketed to show its violence and battle scenes but, at its core, Sucker Punch is about women having the power to set themselves free against the tyranny of men. I find that intriguing especially with the new crop of films coming out that take the heroine in distress plotline and are changing it somewhat (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

What I wonder is: What do women want to pay to see on film? It always appeared to me that the Underworld and Awakenings films were made by mostly men for men. Our culture nicknames "Chick Flicks" to those movies targeted to women: Something Borrowed, The Devil Wears Prada, and The Notebook--just to name a few. But Sucker Punch falls into an interesting category being almost a half-breed. The film's ending lines packs a punch: "...who holds the key to set us free? It's you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight." One might say the ending is a sucker punch: We've just watched a film with women in pretty horrible situations, jumping in and out of stylized action scenes dreamed up in a young boy's wet dream and then the movie ends with a pretty interesting command: Now fight.

But fight what? The sexual objectification of women in our society? One could say that, but life imitates art and the lines aren't so clear. I recently came across a blog post that women fare better in the work place if they wear makeup. Are you disturbed by that? Does it surprise you? Sucker Punch might only be a movie, but there's much at stake here. The good news is that there is a counter-culture fighting back. You need not be a sexy clad ninja wielding a katana blade to be successful.

Ever hear of Lena Dunham? Go watch her recent film Tiny Furniture. Yes, it's bleak and pretty messed up, but if you wanted a better depiction of how lost millennium young women are, yet continue to struggle toward finding their way, look no further. Dunham must be doing something right, since HBO picked up the idea and her series Girls starts next week. If women are not the sexually objectified stylized fighting machines that Snyder portrays nor solely Dunham's lost and self-sabotaging heroine on film, then who are they? I suspect that historians in the future will have a field day looking back at the films of today. I only hope that they look not only to the films portraying women as sex kittens ready to break some bones, but to look at the wealth of content being produced by women online. That is the power of today's world: With little technology, a woman can create a blog, make funny shows or share her music with the world

In the end, will it matter or will women be defined and boxed according to how popular culture sees them? I don't know. But I will keep hoping that more women will tell their stories and make movies.

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