Memory, Story, and Sucker Punch

The following paper contains references to physical, emotional, and sexual assault, trauma, and institutionalization, and spoilers for the film Sucker Punch

Narrative therapy is a form of psychotherapy that relies on collaboration between the therapist and the patient to create or define the story of their life, or more pertinently the story of their self. This narrative integrates the individual’s past and present, creating a through line from what happened to what is happening and what can happen going forward into the future. It can be particularly effective for patients who have experienced trauma and struggle with how to make sense of their suffering (McAdams and McLean, 2013).

Constructing a narrative identity requires three “key components” : autobiographical memories, narrative scripts, and life stories (Singer et al., 2013). Memories are the specifics of what happened. Some are mundane and vague, others distinct and detailed. Scripts turn those memories into scenes, providing meaning and purpose to the linear occurrence of events. The life story is the resulting narrative the individual plays out. Memories are not stable and can be altered, particularly if the remembered event is traumatic or threatening. One way the brain protects itself against being re-traumatized is dissociation (Bromberg, 2003).

Fundamentally, dissociation is a detachment from reality. It is a natural process that everyone experiences and is understood to be a continuum from mild daydreaming to the extremes of mental disorders. Dissociation is a potential symptom in Clinical Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as the various Dissociative Disorders. Although dissociation can occur without any specific cause, stress and trauma are the most common triggers of dissociative disorders and dissociative events. It is a coping mechanism: mild dissociation occurs when someone is bored, extreme dissociation when one is attacked. Pathological dissociation can manifest in a variety of ways: as a fugue state where the patient becomes wholly unresponsive, fragmentation into separate self-identities (formerly termed Multiple Personality Disorder), amnesia or loss of memory, or depersonalization where the patient experiences the world and/or themself as ‘unreal’. The protagonist of the film Sucker Punch displays all of these.

Sucker Punch follows the story of a young woman known only as ‘Babydoll’ (Emily Browning) as she plots to escape an asylum before she is lobotomized against her will. The film takes place in Vermont, in the sixties, over the course of one week.

Babydoll is traumatized repeatedly throughout the film. Her father died prior to the action of the film and her mother is revealed to be dead in the first moments. Upon learning his late wife left her estate to her two children rather than him, Babydoll’s stepfather attacks them. She fights back but is unable to save her sister. Babydoll is then blamed for her sister’s death and institutionalized against her will. Her stepfather bribes an orderly to have her lobotomized in a week’s time. All of the assaults against Babydoll, her sister, and the other girls in the asylum, are implied to be sexual in addition to physical.

In reaction to her trauma and assault, Babydoll retreats to a succession of alternate realities. First, she reimagines the asylum as a bordello where she and the other patients, now prostitutes, are forced to perform elaborate dances to entertain the male investors. While Babydoll is dancing she retreats to yet another layer of fantasy where she receives weapons and a quest from a Wise Man (Scott Glen) who speaks in riddles. She must complete five tasks in the fantasyland in order to win five objects that when combined will allow her to escape the bordello, and therefore the asylum. Babydoll is joined in her quest by four other girls: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). While we don’t learn any specific details about their history, it is clear that all of the girls are imprisoned and performing against their will. The girls are directed by Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino), who is their analyst in the asylum, and the main antagonist is the man who runs the bordello, Blue (Oscar Isaac).

The film is unpopular, criticized for being overwrought, confusing, and prioritizing style over substance ( The characters are hollow, the dialogue is cryptic, the narration is affected, the imagery is derivative, the music lacks subtlety and “Emily Browning plays Baby Doll as a blank slate – she doesn’t seem to emote much, or show reactions to the outside world.” (BARCC, 2011) These complaints miss or ignore that Babydoll spends the majority of the film in a dissociative state. Babydoll is a blank slate because she is an incomplete self-state of the protagonist in a narrative being constructed around her. Each of the characters exists only in response to the others. And they do not react to the outside world because, until the final shots of the film, there is no world outside of Babydoll’s narrative.

While on screen the characters describe Babydoll’s dancing as sensual, provocative, and deeply emotionally engaging, the audience never watches the dance, instead following Babydoll into her fantasy. They experience the story entirely and only from the perspective of the protagonist. In the climax of the film the role of protagonist, and the lens through which the audience watches the story, switches from Babydoll to Sweet Pea. First there is a thinning of the tribe of self-states as Rocket sacrifices herself, Sweet Pea is imprisoned, and Amber and Blonde are killed. But backed into a corner and alone, Babydoll uses the tools she’d amassed to dispatch Blue, free Sweet Pea, and escape. As they run, the bordello fantasy and the asylum reality start to blur together. Finally, Babydoll chooses to distract their captors one last time to allow Sweet Pea to escape, telling her “You going home and living, that’s how we win.”

There is clear evidence throughout the film that Babydoll and Sweet Pea are two aspects of the same character. The first switch between realities occurs immediately after Babydoll is introduced to the asylum floor, populated by other patients, and the concept of acting out a narrative as therapy. Sweet Pea is shown to be center stage, working with Dr. Gorski, and she takes Babydoll’s, and therefore the audience’s, focus. Behind Babydoll, her stepfather and the corrupt orderly make a deal to lobotomize her and as they speak, the camera switches to the point of view of a young woman undergoing the procedure. The girl objects to the scene and the camera pulls back to reveal she is Sweet Pea. Moreover, the wider the scene has shifted from the asylum to the bordello. Sweet Pea is not only enacting Babydoll’s lobotomy, she is dressed in a sailor suit and pigtails, which is recognizably Babydoll’s costuming. This is a clear visual link that is also tied directly to the switch between spaces.

The two share one vital characteristic: they are both older sisters whose younger sisters die despite their efforts to protect and rescue them. The death of Babydoll’s sister opens the film and lands Babydoll in the asylum; the death of Sweet Pea’s sister, Rocket, sets off the climax of the film and ultimately allows Sweet Pea to escape the asylum. Rocket is Babydoll’s closest friend in the bordello and both Babydoll and Sweet Pea want to protect her. Instead, she sacrifices herself to save them. Rocket’s death is redundant, a kind of torture porn, if she is merely Sweet Pea’s sister. But both her death and life gain significance if she is a self-state of the protagonist.

And there are textual links. A cover of the Eurythmics song “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” sung by Browning plays over the first three minutes of the film, as Babydoll’s traumatic backstory is revealed, suggesting the scene, and perhaps the entire film, is Sweet (Pea)’s dream. Similarly, Sweet Pea’s reaction to the lobotomy scene she acts out in that first switch refers —notably negatively — to Babydoll’s surface characterization in the overall film as well as the role she is playing in the scene:

“This is a joke, right? Don’t you get the point of this? It’s to turn people on. I get the sexy little schoolgirl. I even get the helpless mental patient, right? That can be hot. But what is this? Lobotomized vegetable? How about something a little more commercial, for God’s sakes?”

This rant suggests that the film intends the audience to blur the lines between the realities and the characters. And the final exchange between Babydoll and Sweet Pea is blatant:

Babydoll: A map, fire, a knife, a key, and one thing more. One thing more. It’s me.
Sweet Pea: What?
Babydoll: Oh, it’s me. Of course it’s me. It’s the only way this ever could have ended.
Sweet Pea: What do you mean?
Babydoll: I’m saying you go home. Go out and live a normal life…You have to live for all of us now.
Sweet Pea: Baby, no. You can’t do that.
Babydoll: Yes, Sweet Pea. You’re the strongest. You’re the only one of us that ever had a chance out there. You going home and living, that’s how we win.
Sweet Pea: There’s gotta be another way.
Babydoll: No. This is right. This was never my story. It’s yours.

Babydoll realizes she is a part of Sweet Pea, who is the true protagonist-patient, and by taking herself out of the narrative she is integrating their selves into a healthy whole.

Babydoll comes to this realization seemingly all at once, but it had been building slowly from the beginning. One marker is her stylized history/memory presented as what amounts to a music video that plays over the opening credits. According to Singer et al. (2013), “A wealth of research points to a relationship between memory specificity deficits and psychological disorders.” (p. 574) Babydoll, Sweet Pea, and Rocket all remember experiencing a traumatic childhood, but the details blur together. Take this exchange between Babydoll and Rocket:

Rocket: Have you just ever wanted to just take something back? You know, something you said. Something you did.
Babydoll: All the time.

No specifics are given for either girl. The audience may infer that Babydoll’s guilt is due to the death of her sister, but even there it can be interpreted in multiple ways. Either Babydoll arrived too late and was framed for her sister’s death, or Babydoll accidentally shot her sister when attempting to shoot her stepfather. In neither case should Babydoll be held responsible for her or her sister’s trauma; in both cases her guilt is real.

As for Rocket, there is no explanation for her words, or even how she ended up in the asylum and/or bordello beyond “I ran away”. But given “the common thread in the overgeneral memory-psychopathology connection is a defensive strategy learned in response to trauma and emotional threat” (Singer et al. 2013, p. 575) the audience may infer she experienced an emotional, and potentially physical, threat similar to Babydoll’s trauma. Another explanation is that Rocket is not a companion at all, but an overgeneral memory herself: “While explicit memory is mediated by a single system, there are  a variety of different brain system that store memory implicitly, allowing for many aspects of the self to co-exist.” (LeDoux, 2002, p. 31) Rocket is a kind of sub-self-state representing both the memory of Babydoll’s lost sister and the guilt Babydoll feels over her inability to halt sister’s trauma and death.

Vera Gorski is the only character with a name, as opposed to a stage name, in the film. She exists in both the real world of the asylum, as a psychiatrist, and the fantasy world of the bordello, as a dance instructor who facilitates the girls performances for its customers. In each setting she is shown to be both colluding with, and standing in opposition to, the antagonist as well as the protagonist. In both settings she is in a position of power, but also trapped in a system that is both corrupt and specifically sexist: Gorski does what she can and it is not enough, something the film is sympathetic to.

Neither of Gorski’s alter-egos exist in the third layer of alternate reality, where Babydoll’s superheroine self-state performs tasks, first alone and then accompanied by the other four girls. Instead, the mantle of guide falls to the Wise Man who tells the girls what they need to accomplish in order to receive their prize. Both Gorski and the Wise Man give specific directions, but couch their advice in stylized commentary and riddle. They are not explicitly analogues, but they serve the same purpose in the story. In narrative therapy, the therapist’s role is not to construct the narrative for their patient, but to guide them and work with them to create and re-create the story of their lives. (Singer et. al, 2013; Bromberg, 1996; Bromberg, 2003)

Like Gorski, Blue, the film’s main antagonist, exists in both the asylum and the bordello. In the real world of the asylum Blue is an orderly who arranges for Babydoll’s lobotomy, and generally mistreats her. In the bordello fantasy world he is in charge of the show and controls the girls, as well as Madam Gorski, with fear. In both realities he arranges and is paid for Babydoll’s trauma and in both realities he assaults her, but is unsuccessful in her attempted rape. Blue is unambiguously a villain which allows Babydoll to dispatch him without pause or guilt.

Blondie and Amber are relatively non distinct secondary characters who are ultimately marked disposable. Amber, the least developed character, is tasked with stealing a lighter – ‘fire’ – from the cigar loving Mayor while he is distracted watching Babydoll’s dance. She is successful but otherwise contributes little to the narrative. Blondie, however, plays a crucial role. She is found crying by Madam Gorski and admits to being afraid. Blue overhears the exchange and when pressed, Blondie informs them of the plot to escape. This leads directly to Blue murdering Amber and Blondie and assaulting Babydoll, a necessary conflict that ultimately frees Sweet Pea.

It is significant that Blondie communicates directly with Gorski. In his discussions of psychotherapy with dissociative patients, Bromberg notes that when an analyst “allows himself to form relationships with each of the patient’s selves or self-states…[the self-state] can, without shame, communicate to another human being its unique sense of self, purpose, personal history, and personal truth” and that in his own work “this experience … led directly to the source of the symptom or behavior pattern that until then has been ‘resistant’ to change.” (1996, p. 519) Blondie confessed her fear of consequence to Gorski, which lead to those fears being realized. But in the confrontation with Blue that Blondie feared, Babydoll was able to fight back against Blue. And as the conflict between Babydoll and Blue mimicked the earlier conflict between Babydoll and her stepfather, it asserts the idea that Babydoll was not to blame for what happened to her and casts her as a fighter, a survivor. Thus Babydoll redeems the story of her assault.

In addition to a passing reference to using theatrical scenes to help the girls “deal with their issues”, the film begins and ends with narration — spoken by Sweet Pea, the real protagonist — that urges the audience to take control of their own story. This narration is explicit and self-referential. “Everyone has an angel, a guardian who watches over us. We can’t know what form they’ll take: One day old man.” — Such as the Wise Man — “Next day, little girl.” — Such as any and all of Babydoll and her companions. It continues:

“Yet they’re not here to fight our battles, but to whisper from our heart, reminding us it is us, it’s everyone of us who holds the power over the worlds we create…They can speak through any character we can imagine. They’ll shout through demons if they have to, daring us, challenging us to fight.”

These lines from the opening narration are later echoed and enacted by Dr. Gorski to Sweet Pea, “You control this world. Let the pain go, let the hurt go, let the guilt go. What you are imagining right now, that world you control. That place can be as real as any pain.” and then Madam Gorski to Babydoll, “You have all the weapons you need. Now fight.” Gorski, in the role of therapist, advises her patient, the protagonist, to re-story her life. The refrain is repeated in the final narration, which again directly references the film while stressing the thesis that everyone has control over their narrative.

“And finally, this question: The mystery of whose story it will be, of who draws the curtain, of who sets the stage. Who is it that chooses our steps in the dance, who drives us mad, lashes us with whips and crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible? Who is it that does all these things? Who honors those we love with the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us and at the same time sings we will never die? Who teaches us what’s real and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live and what we die to defend? Who chains us and who holds the key that can set us free? It’s you, you have all the weapons you need, now fight.”

This paragraph expresses over and over that every character in the film it proceeds is a part of “you” or the protagonist, who was trapped in her fantasy as well as her reality, but by taking narrative control of her fantasy she was able to be freed in reality as well.

A traumatized individual can become stuck in a dissociated state: “the person, through continual enactment of the affective memory, creates a world of miniature versions of the original situation and lives in that world as a dissociated reality that continues to be substantiated through his ongoing relationships.” (Bromberg, 2003, p. 561) But that dissociative space can function as an interpersonal process, “a space for thinking between and about the patient and the analyst…a twilight space in which ‘the impossible’ becomes possible; a space in which incompatible selves, each awake to its own ‘truth,’ can ‘dream’ the reality of the other without risk to its integrity.” (Bromberg, 1996, p. 514) After repeated trauma Sweet Pea/Babydoll retreats to an alternative version of her reality, populated with self-states and reimagined versions of her therapist and her abuser, initially to hide or rest, but ultimately to craft a narrative that allows her to not only face her trauma, but to address it, and finally escape the nightmare.

The protagonist-patient rewrites her script not by changing her memories but by changing her reaction to her memories. She practices redemption, moving a negative event to a positive outcome. As Singer et al. explain: “Healthy narrative identity entails a capacity to narrate and draw meaning from emotionally evocative memories, while gaining freedom from narrative scripts that lead one in self-damaging directions. Accompanying cognitive-behavioral changes produce revisions in the internalized life story, enhancing agency and redemptive possibilities.” (2013, p. 578) Through her experiences as Babydoll and Sweet Pea, Blondie and Rocket, Sucker Punch’s protagonist faces her monsters and defeats them. The film ends with Babydoll smiling through her lobotomy, trapped in her fantasy forever — but Sweet Pea is on a bus home in the real world.


  • Bromberg, Philip M. (1996) Standing in the Spaces: The Multiplicity Of Self And The Psychoanalytic Relationship. Contemporary Psychoanalysis 32, 509-535
  • Bromberg, Philip M. (2003) SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES Trauma, Dissociation, and Conflict: The Space Where Psychoanalysis, Cognitive Science, and Neuroscience Overlap. Psychoanalytic Psychology Vol 20, No 3, 558-574
  • Dave. Movie Review: Sucker Punch. Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. Web. 11 April 2011.
  • LeDoux, J.E. (2002) The synaptic self. New York: Viking.
  • McAdams, Dan P. and McLean, Kate C.  (2013) Narrative Identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science Vol 22, Issue 3,  233 – 238
  • Pals, Jennifer L. (2006) Narrative Identity Processing of Difficult Life Experiences: Pathways of Personality Development and Positive Self-Transformation in Adulthood. Journal of Personality. 74:4, p1079-1110
  • Singer, Jefferson A., Blagov, Pavel, Berry, Meredith and Oost, Kathryn M. (2012) Self-Defining Memories, Scripts, and the Life Story: Narrative Identity in Personality and Psychotherapy. Journal of Personality 81 (6), 569-582
  • Sucker Punch. Dir. Zack Snyder. Per. Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2011.
  • Sucker Punch Aggregate Review. Rotten Tomatoes. Web.

Anika Dane
SCIE 623
May 19, 2018