In what world is it okay for a story about battered women to be marketed and delivered as badass T&A eye candy?
You all saw the trailers, right? The movie was marketed as a sexy fantasy action-fest. Swords swinging, bare thighs soaring trough the air. Let me start by saying that there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Lots of movies exist for the purpose of action sexiness, and I’ll never say that that function shouldn’t exist.
But this movie is not that. Here’s the movie that was at the other end of all that tits and swordplay marketing:
A girl gets committed to a women’s mental institute after accidentally shooting her little sister while trying to defend her sister from her abusive stepfather.
In an expositional scene, Babydoll (we never hear another name), her father, and a man that I’ll call the Warden of the asylum walk into a room called the theater.
Warden >So the girls use this place to be social. Dr. Gorski, she uses it to help them deal with their issues. Polish therapy. Hmhmm (light chuckle). It’s really quite a show watching them act out who touched them or beat them or whatever. Dr. Gorski seems to think it helps them. I’m not so sure, but whether it does or doesn’t won’t matter much to you because once we take care of a little bit of business, there won’t be any of that or this one.
W >She’ll be in paradise, if you know what I mean. [It’s soon made clear that he’s referring to lobotomy.] And all of your troubles will be over. Right? Now, I know we said fourteen hundred, on the phone, *sigh* I’m taking a really big risk here. So it’s gonna have to be two grand even.
F >What the hell are you talking about? Don’t try and cheat me. We had a deal.
W >Listen. Father. I’m not gonna tell you what to do. Clearly you’re a man that can take care of himself. I don’t know what you did to this girl, and frankly I don’t wanna know. But what are you gonna tell the detectives when they come snooping around? I’m sure they’re gonna love to get her side of the story.
F >Yeah. [nods, hands money]
So we’re informed here that virtually all of the inmates have been physically and/or sexually abused in their pasts, and that this trauma is exploited to the amusement of asylum staff. There are also multiple scenes in which one of the staff intends to rape an inmate (once by the cook, and once by the warden.) This place is an abusive hellhole.
In five days, the lobotomy doctor is going to arrive and lobotomize her.
For some reason, most of the movie takes place in a fantasy version of reality, which I’ll call metaphoric reality. In metaphoric reality, the mental institute is now a club for erotic dancing and prostitution (inmates are dancers/prostitutes), headed by the warden whose name is now Blue. In five days the High Roller (lobotomy doctor) will come and Babydoll’s virginity will be sold to him. Dr. Gorski is now dance instructor and caretaker Madame Gorski.
It’s soon revealed that Babydoll has a special ability of sorts, that consists of a super-erotic dance that mesmerizes its audience without fail. (By the way, this is metaphoric reality. It’s never shown what action this dance corresponds to in literal reality.) But the movie audience never sees the dance; instead, whenever she dances, it’s represented by the action sequences we saw in the trailers. In the first such scene, Babydoll receives vision-quest-like guidance for a mission to escape.
Guide >You will need five items for this journey. The first is a map. Then fire, a knife, and a key.
Babydoll >You said five things.
G >The fifth thing is a mystery. It is the reason. It is the goal. It will be a deep sacrifice and a perfect victory. Only you can find it. And if you do, it will set you free.
From there, Babydoll forms a plan to acquire these items by dancing for a man that has each of these respective things, and having one of the other girls pickpocket it from him. Every action segment is a symbolic stand in for Babydoll dancing.
It’s supposed to be empowering. These girls are fighting against their abusive, oppressive prison, and this is symbolized by fantasy badassery. But even in their empowered fantasy, they’re still just performing a sexy service for men! These are the scenes that got people into the theaters. They wear high heels (ridiculous for an action hero), one of them sucks on a lollipop, they all have plenty of breast and thigh showing. The girls’ fantasy relief from being sex slaves for Blue is to instead be sex objects for the movie audience.
This reminds me of a vital media archetype, the Empowerful Woman, articulated by feminist blogger Twisty:
She may only earn 3/4 of what a man earns, but she damn well has the empower to look sexy doing it in her cheapcrap push-up bra from Victoria’s Secret. She has the empower to demand pink products from manufacturers. She has the empower to cry out ‘I did it for me!’ when she gets her boob job; maybe she even has the empower to believe it. The empowerful woman is saucy, yet feminine. Clever, yet feminine. In her early thirties, yet feminine. Heterosexual, yet feminine. Stays in shape eating Lean Cuisine and sweating blue Gatorade while kickboxing in slow motion, yet feminine. Yes, the empowerful woman is many things. Too bad powerful isn’t one of them. That’s because feminine is all of them.
It gets worse.
Climax of the movie is nearing. Of the girls trying to escape, only Babydoll and Sweet Pea are still alive. They get to the outside of the compound, but there are people looking for them, and they’re going to be trapped. Remember the mysterious fifth thing?
The fifth thing is a mystery. It is the reason. It is the goal. It will be a deep sacrifice and a perfect victory. Only you can find it. And if you do, it will set you free.
Well, now Babydoll has the epiphany that the fifth thing is herself. She distracts the people searching for her, knowing that now she’ll have to face the High Roller, so that Sweet Pea can escape.
That’s right. Babydoll’s most mysterious, essential, potent resource is herself. But not in a you-can-rely-on-yourself way, but in a the-only-way-you-can-succeed-in-your-mission-is-to-sacrifice-your-body-to-rape kind of way.
Aaaaaand for the most offensive moment in the movie, this is a scene from the extended cut. The scene with the High Roller.
All I require from you is a sliver of a moment. To have you not by force, but simply as man and a woman. To see in your eyes, that simple truth that you give yourself to me freely. Not because you have to, but… because you want to. Now, of course, for such a gem, I will give as well. I’m willing to give you freedom. Pure and total freedom. freedom from the drudgery or everyday life, freedom as abstract ideal, freedom from pain, freedom from responsibility, freedom from guilt, from regret, freedom from sadness, freedom from loss, freedom to be happy.
Don’t close your eyes. I want you to look at me.
Freedom to love.
Um… What about the fact that there’s nothing free whatsoever about the way she’s giving herself? Also, how is it that metaphoric Stockholm Syndrome-d rape is freedom? The message seems to be that you can experience perfect bliss and freedom, even in the face of abuse, if you just let go and accept your abuse.
In both the original version and extended cut, we snap back to the real world, where the doctor has just performed the lobotomy, and he comments that she had a strange look in her eyes, “like she wanted me to do it.”
The movie is supposed to be about empowered women fighting for their life while using fantasy to escape the harsh reality of their circumstances. But it ends up delivering the message that a woman’s greatest and only weapon is her body, whether it be by dancing seductively or by actually sacrificing herself to her enemies. And, as a cherry on the misogyny sundae, when she finally gets raped/lobotomized, “she wanted it.”