What We Can Learn From “Birds of Prey” and the Male Gaze

by Georgia Dodd

After Suicide Squad failed with DC fans, with its weird plot and “Hot Topic” aesthetic, many fans left the theaters with a new love for Harley Quinn, the zany, loveable anti-hero, while others were disappointed in her portrayal. Easily the best part of the 2016 film, the fan-favorite left a lot to be desired and many women wanted her character explored more. Thankfully, this fourth-wall-breaking character is getting well-earned praise and spinoffs. Her adult cartoon tv show Harley Quinn premiered in 2019.

So, when DC announced that Harley Quinn, played by Australian actress Margot Robbie, would be getting a spinoff, fans were excited. Released February 7, Harley’s spinoff has many names, Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), or just Birds of Prey, and now Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. It focuses on the infamous birds of prey comics, an all-girl vigilante/superhero team. This film follows Harley after her breakup with the Joker as she has to defend herself from those who want her dead. She is no longer just “The Joker’s Girlfriend.” Determined as ever, Harley teams up with other deadly women to get vengeance.

Now, I love a good woman revenge film just as much as the next girl, but this one takes the cake. With a diverse, killer cast, and an incredible behind the scenes team, all the women in this film have their own stories and goals. This film is directed and written by incredible women, Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson. Birds of Prey is filled with amazing moments of solidarity between women; this girl gang has got each other’s backs, even if it’s just for a hair tie.

The Birds of Prey album is woman-centric as well and is filled with powerhouses like Megan Thee Stallion, Normani and Doja Cat. The film follows badass DC characters that often don’t get the spotlight: The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). And, there are no unnecessary love interests, unless you count Harley’s love for an egg sandwich. There are intense fight scenes and one-liners that we expect from superhero films.

Unfortunately, it only brought in $81.25 million its opening weekend. This is compared to Suicide Squad’s $135.1 million, Joker’s $93.5 million and Wonder Woman’s $103.1 million. Much like other female lead movies, like Ocean’s 8, many criticized it for being too feminist and that the story was boring. Similar to the treatment of Captain Marvel, men did not understand or relate to much of the overarching plot.

Many criticized it before it even came out, calling it a bad movie. Some didn’t even watch the movie and still called it bad. So, men are allowed to watch bad movies like Fast and Furious and Mission Impossible but one “bad movie” with a female-centric cast and suddenly everyone’s a film major talking about cinematography and “plot holes”?

After the release of the trailer in 2019, many compared her portrayal in the woman directed and written spinoff to Suicide Squad‘s portrayal. For most of Suicide Squad, Harley wears a shirt that says “Daddy’s Little Monster”, a dog collar with Joker’s name on it, a push-up bra and short shorts. She is mostly framed in shots centered on her body and not her face, with a lot of them being close-ups of her butt and boobs. There are also redundant scenes where she publicly strips down or seductively licks the bars of her jail cell. In Birds of Prey, Harley is more than just a sex symbol, like in Suicide Squad. She is the kickass character that we always knew she was.

Harley is still sexy in this new film but on her own terms. She wears more eccentric outfits and keeps the short shorts. There’s an especially powerful scene where Harley cuts her hair shorter and adds choppy bangs. Her personality shines through in this film. But, no matter if this film remained true to her character, people were mad about Harley’s new appearance.

Much of the criticism followed along the lines of, “but she needs to be sexy” and “it’s sexist if you don’t make her wear a bra and underwear on screen at all times! Why are you being so conservative?” People talked about how she looked “uglier” in this film and that it was a downgrade from Suicide Squad, like it even matters. They were specifically mad about the lack of skin shown and that she looked “ugly” when she was having an emotional moment with her messy makeup. Harley’s portrayal in Birds of Prey was not a downgrade, it was just the denial of over-sexualization.

Another refreshing part of this film was that Harley’s narrative isn’t focused on a man. The Joker doesn’t even show up in the movie, although he appears in a voiceover. Her narrative is about escaping an abusive relationship, that many people glorified after Suicide Squad, and discovering herself. At her lowest point, Harley says the amazing line, “Do you know what a harlequin is? A harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master. And no one gives two shits who we are beyond that.”

Harley has always been a zany character and this film explores her own character growth, from villain to anti-hero. It is an exploration of herself. Her role in Suicide Squad was to provide sex appeal. In this film, Harley’s looney-toons-like character and sexuality remain but it also emphasizes how smart and powerful Harley Quinn really is. In Suicide Squad, she is being saved by the Joker, but here she saves herself.

Despite an unsatisfying opening weekend, fans already want a sequel and a spinoff for characters like The Huntress and Black Canary. The film even touches on Harley’s bisexuality and Margot Robbie wants to have Poison Ivy, a fellow DC villain and Harley Quinn’s girlfriend in the comics, to be introduced in a later film. This goes to show what women directors and writers, specifically women of color, and the support of the lead actress, can do for a character. Despite the faulty and offensive criticism, it is a joy to explore all of Harley Quinn’s dimensions: the sexy, the crazy, the intelligent, and the incredibly powerful.



Header image via IMdB


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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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