It’s dire cultural commentary that a comic book adaptation like Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) feels revolutionary. Objectively, we’ve seen this story before: the protagonist tries to make it alone, metaphorically (and physically) gets knocked down, slowly realizes the value of forming alliances, and ultimately overcomes a force of evil via the power of friendship. What makes Cathy Yan’s film a breath of fresh air is how it tells this story, and through whose lens it is viewed.
Attempts to explain the difference between the male and female gaze can get mired in subjective minutia, but perhaps the simplest concept is this: objectifying the observed versus self-insertion into a power fantasy. For decades, men have been given muscle-bound heroes as role models. Scantily clad (Conan the Barbarian) or not (Batman), their choice of attire is implicitly that—a masculine pair of oiled, quivering tree trunk thighs are for the purpose of intimidation, not titillation. Men making films for other men tend not to leer with the lens. Vulnerability or submissiveness was never on the table. No character possesses true agency. The creator’s framing means everything,
When you understand this distinction, it becomes clear that the women in Birds of Prey dress to please themselves, to increase their fighting efficiency, or to communicate something about who they are. Of course, none of them are real or capable of choosing for themselves, but the way that they’re presented to the audience suggests they’re granted that freedom.
Margot Robbie’s love for Harley Quinn leaps out of every frame. She’s larger than life, equal parts irreverent, capable, cheesy, messy, vicious, and empathetic. What a breath of fresh air to see so many contradictory qualities! Her fourth wall-breaking narration serves as a window into her rich inner life. Surrounded by a cast of eclectic supporting characters, she’s takes center stage and shoulders task with rare charisma. If a sequel is greenlit, I hope we’re given deeper insight into the ferocious yet guarded Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the cynical Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), the hyper-competent yet painfully awkward “Huntress” (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and the resilient Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
It would be remiss of me not to discuss the queering (both textually and subtextually) of almost every adult character. There are brief references to the fact that both Harley and Renee aren’t straight. We catch a glimpse of a girlfriend in animated flashback of Harley’s prior relationships; there’s a scene which suggests that Renee is involved with Ali Wong’s Ellen Yee. Beyond that, queerness is manifested in the complete bucking of conventionality in diametric opposition of Disney’s traditionalism. Avengers: Endgame not only normalized, but aggressively prioritized concepts like the heterosexual family unit. In many ways, the entire thesis of the film rests on the concept of women finding their place outside of the typical heteropatriarchy.
A delicious, grotesque villain, Roman Sionis (a.k.a. Black Mask), hungers not only for the acquisition of power, but the sadistic degradation of those who displease him. Ewan McGregor revels in the role; your eyes drift to him every moment he occupies the screen, even when engaged in inhuman acts of cruelty. His enforcer, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), is also his lover. He’s that particularly loathsome brand of “white gay” who hates women and appropriates black art. Rich and entitled, he tours indigenous cultures to “expand his horizons” while plastering his apartment with pilfered treasures.
Queer-coding of villains is a decades old concept; is the fact that Sionis overtly queer enough to overcome this tired cliche? Does enough positive LGBTQ+ representation exist in our popular culture to counteract the effects of a negative archetype? It’s an important question that society at large should continue to explore.
Birds of Prey is inherently anti-establishment. It turns expectation on its head, it allows its protagonists to wear skin-tight gold pants to a street brawl if they so desire. It’s gory and violent and spits in the face of Disney’s milquetoast, watered-down superhero formula. But more than anything else, it’s god damned FUN.