I found this movie really interesting to me. Of course there were some deeply problematic elements (there almost always are in mainstream pop culture) but there was also a lot that spoke to me. This post is going to have a lot of spoilers so don’t read if you haven’t seen it yet and you care about that kind of thing.
I suppose because of my particular experiences and perceptions I read this film very differently from many other people who seem to think it is purely a male masturbatory fantasy.
The story goes like ths: A young woman known only as babydoll is framed for the murder of her younger sister by her step father who after their mother’s death becomes enraged as she has left all of her money to the two girls. As a result Babydoll is committed to a mental institution. From here in order to cope with the realities of life in the institution Babydoll descends into her mind where the institution becomes a girly bar and brothel and further from there when she dances to please the men she goes deeper into her mind and creates vivid mental pictures of fighting villains with swords and guns in order to complete missions. These missions are linked to retrieving the objects she and her friends require to escape from the asylum.
What I saw that was deeper about this movie than a mere sexy chicks and guns gore fest was this.
The film presents a world that is ruled by men. Even when women are in charge they are not actually, they have some power but they still have to play by the rules which are created by men. This is seen by the character of Dr./Madame Doskey who is meant to be the real authority at the mental asylum but is subverted by the orderly Blue and who is in charge of the girls in the brothel but is ruled over by the pimp Blue. She is an authority figure but her authority is never absolute, she is always either not being taken fully seriously or ignored when what she is doing does not suit the men around her.
At the same time however the movie indicates that subverting male authority is difficult but possible. This is seen when the ‘girls’ (babydoll and the other patients and the asylum) band together in order to find the things they need to to get out. This to me spoke of using the tools of the world order to subvert them – Babydoll would do her sexy dancing to distract men while other stole or copied the items they needed.
At the end of the movie it is made clear that a group of orderlies have been sexually abusing the patients of the asylum and it is likely that this is where Babydoll’s inner fantasy of the brothel comes from – she sees the asylum as a place where men can use women for their pleasure and they do. This speaks to the disturbingly high rates of sexual abuse in institionalised women because society does not value them and their voices are not heard, something I feel is a running theme throughout the movie.
This is not to say that prostitution is always victimisation, just that the particular juxtaposition of the two environments in the film leads to this particular contextual reading.
What I like most about the movie I think is the idea that men are both in the position of opressors but can also be allies. Throughout babydoll’s battles there is an older man present. He reminded me of the Charlie character in Charlies angels – telling the beautiful young women who’s butt they were meant to kick. I definitely found this off putting. However at the end of the movie his ‘real life’ role turns out to be the bus driver who drives the bus that leaves from the station near the asylum and he helps the one patient that makes it out to get back to her home town.
Of course there are plenty of elements to this movie that were not necessarily pro woman at all, but I did think there was a lot more there than many other people. Perhaps I am reading too much into it but I found it interesting nonetheless.