How Birds of Prey allows Harley Quinn to break free from Suicide Squad’s male gaze

Male gaze, a term coined by Laura Mulvey in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), describes the objectifying gaze placed on females in films made primarily by males, or women’s “to-be-looked-at-ness”. Mulvey elaborates on Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, relating it to the way women are to be viewed in film. According to Frued’s psychoanalytic theory, scopophilia is the “pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight”, and the narcissistic ego “comes from identification with the image seen.” In other words, the audience is meant to identify with the male protagonist, while the female is solely an object for erotic viewing pleasure. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory discusses men’s subconscious fear of castration by women due to their lack of phallus: symbolically speaking, placing women into objectified positions takes away the risk of a woman castrating the man (or taken literally, threatening his power) and keeps women as submissive objects for men’s pleasure. In this essay, we will examine the effects of male gaze on Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, and discuss how Birds of Prey deconstructs this gaze by allowing Harley to tell her own story through a female voice.

Male gaze in film can be identified in various ways, some of which include: costume design, dialogue, camera focus, and gratuitous nudity. Comic book films have been primarily dominated by the male gaze, with female characters dressed in impractical clothing that accentuates their body parts; scenes where a female is being sexualized without clear reason toward plot development; and camera focus on female body parts rather than their face. The male gaze is harmful for women because they “internalize the objectified perspective, self-objectifying and subsequently coming to devalue their own subjective experiences in favor of conforming to societal standards of beauty.” (Dey)  Additionally, the male gaze harms young girls because “not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength.” (Kilbourne) While Suicide Squad falls prey to the male gaze and severely limits the development of Harley Quinn’s character beyond a sex object, Birds of Prey makes great strides toward liberating female characters from the male gaze by letting Harley narrate her own story, sans the influence of her male counterpart.

The costume designs for Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey are vastly different. In the former, Harley’s clothing serves solely to accentuate the femininity of her body: a body-hugging t-shirt with “Daddy’s Little Monster” largely printed on the chest and shorts that are little more than underwear, entirely impractical attire for any realistic action figure to don. In Birds of Prey, Harley sports clothing that is as equally stylish and feminine as it is functional and realistic for women to wear. She notably wears a t-shirt with “Harley Quinn” printed in bold to emphasize her liberation from the “Daddy’s Little Monster” characterization. Advertisements for the two movies show this extreme difference in costume design: in Suicide Squad’s ad, it’s clear that the primary goal is to show Harley’s promiscuity, appealing to a male audience. Her full body is always in the shot, accentuating the revealingness of her clothing. In the Birds of Prey ads, there is more variance to her clothing and poses, revealing more about her personality than the sexiness of her body.

According to Naomi McDougall Jones in an article on Bitch Media, an important question to ask when a character is being sexualized is “Why is this woman being sexualized right now?” In Suicide Squad, there are several scenes where Harley is displayed in a sexual manner that do not advance the plot. Rather, these scenes are for a male audience, objectifying Harley for viewing pleasure. For example, there is a scene where Harley is given a box of her old clothing so she can change out of her prison clothes. In front of a large crowd of only males, Harley strips out of her prison clothing and sensually dances while putting on her new clothing, frequently bending over (while unrealistically keeping her knees straight, a move that emphasizes her posterior). The scene adds no value to the plot as it has no reason for existing beyond objectifying Harley, and could be omitted from the movie without any repercussions. Additionally, several fight scenes between Harley and enemies place Harley into oddly specific sexual positions, positions that do not make sense for any realistic fighting.

A scene from Birds of Prey does exactly the opposite to de-emphasize the focus on women’s bodies.  In a scene where Roman angrily demands that a woman strip and dance for him and she refuses, he demands that her dress be ripped off.  When her dress is ripped off by one of Roman’s workers, the camera shifts so that the viewer sees Roman viewing her bare body, but her body is not in full view. This makes it evident that this scene exists entirely to showcase Roman’s brutal violence, and not to simply show a woman’s naked body and concurrently glorify rape culture. Compared to any number of superhero movies where the villain sexually assaults a woman, this scene from Birds of Prey is a huge step toward eradicating the glorification of rape culture.

Screenshot from Birds of Prey, HBO Now

Suicide Squad makes sure that the camera is always focused on Harley’s butt. The placement of the characters is often unnatural and odd, specifically placing characters in positions where Harley’s butt will never be out of the shot. There is no scene where only her face or upper body is seen, even though all of the male characters have scenes with only their upper bodies. This is exemplified in a scene where Harley steals a window to steal a purse: rather than focusing the camera on what she is stealing (it is almost so out-of-focus that you can’t see what it is at all), it remains focused on her butt as she bends over. It clearly is not important in showing her character or personality since it’s unclear what is being stolen.

According to a lecture from Dr. Jennifer McClearen, post-feminism theory asserts that gender equality has been achieved and women are liberated to live how they wish. In Ayesha Romie Dey’s publication, Contemporary Action Heroines: The Quest for Emancipation from the Male Gaze, “The postfeminist sensibility ignited sex-positivity, a loud and liberated approach to sexuality, ‘one that emphasized women’s pleasure and power over their victimization’”. One might argue that in Suicide Squad, Harley is expressing her ultimate freedom and female empowerment by showing how “sex-positive” she is; however, her role is limited to only being a sexual object, unable to reach her character’s full potential while shrouded by the male gaze.  A common practice in comics is “creating female characters that are just off-shoots of famous male characters”; for example, Batgirl/Batwoman, Spider-Woman, She-Hulk, Supergirl, and Harley Quinn/Joker (Ray). Harley is merely an extension of her male counterpart, an unequal role that exists only for the purposes of male fantasy.  Post-feminist theory fails to recognize the limitations and unrealistic expectations that are placed upon women in society, as represented in Suicide Squad’s depiction of Harley.

Contrary to the male gaze, the female gaze gives the audience the ability to gain a perspective through the female lens. Instead of being overtly objectified, the female gaze seeks to create an empathetic intimacy with their characters, understanding them for more than just their bodies. Birds of Prey highlights female gaze through exploration of female relationships and independence (Forster). Birds of Prey is not only a primarily female cast, but also has mostly women behind-the-camera. With the screenplay written by a woman, directed by a woman, and produced by women, Birds of Prey follows the female gaze by “taking note of traditional patriarchal practices, avoiding these pitfalls by giving women agency and making sure their depiction is not voyeuristic or 2-dimensional” (Ray) With a largely female cast and crew, the film successfully portrays the female gaze. This differs from Suicide Squad, where there is almost no female cast or crew.

One way in which the female gaze is seen in Birds of Prey is that Harley Quinn narrates her own story, displaying her independence and personality on an intimate level. As stated by Ciara Wardlow in an article from the Hollywood Reporter, “the camera follows what Harley is doing, not how good her ass looks in the process.” Birds of Prey is a story Harley gets to tell from her own perspective. Wardlow elaborates that “The authorship is present in the film’s full title, with (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) scrawled in what is clearly supposed to be her own handwriting.” A prime example that the creators aren’t shy about this being Harley’s story is when Harley talks about Joker to Cassandra and she doesn’t know or care who he is. “Well, sounds like a dick” is the only response Cassandra gives. The female gaze is apparent in this scene as Birds of Prey establishes Harley’s independence, making it clear that this isn’t about the Joker or his story.

In replacing the male gaze with the female gaze, Birds of Prey eradicates the overt sexualization of its characters; however, it is careful not to de-sexualize or strip the characters of their femininity. Instead of taking away their femininity to imply that you have to have masculinity in order to do fantastical things (like be a superhero or supervillain), the film emphasizes the point that you can be a feminine, sexual being, while simultaneously executing roles traditionally reserved for men. Traditional gender roles do not apply in Birds of Prey. Things that are societally attributed with femininity, like being emotional and empathetic, are played up big to emphasize that these aren’t faults that make women weak. Additionally, the women in Birds of Prey aren’t necessarily virtuous.  Superhero films often portray women as saintly, pure, and only concerned with the greater good. Birds of Prey shows women as normal human beings with normal motives, which aren’t always saintly. According to director Cathy Yan in an interview with Daily Beast, several of the actors did their own stunts in order to “show their physicality and their actual strength and not create that strength and power through editing or really fancy gadgets or superpowers.” She wanted to “emphasize the idea that these aren’t men’s fantasies, these are real badass women. . . imperfect human beings, and that they can still be aspirational. They can still be these superheroes, but it doesn’t mean that they have to be perfect”, adding that “we’re burdened as women with perfection all the time.” Further, “They’re all undeniably still beautiful and sexy and all that, because it doesn’t have to be one or the other.”

Harley’s newfound independence is also seen in the beginning of the film when Harley overhears her friends say she isn’t capable of standing on her own, and she disposes of the necklace she wore to remember Joker. Her independence is evident as she removes the necklace representing her past and begins her journey as an independent female. Traditional gender roles often encourage women “to be submissive to men and fulfill their needs and wants, seek men’s protection, and accept responsibility for limiting and controlling men’s sexual behavior.” (Gholamrezaie)  Birds of Prey seeks to challenge this role by showing that the women in the film are capable of handling things on their own without the help of men. Whereas Harley relies on Joker to rescue her in Suicide Squad, she is fully independent in Birds of Prey.  The only man she relied on for safety ended up another roadblock in the way of her absolute freedom, and yet her capability did not falter. In a scene like no other in the comic book film genre, all the women team up against Black Mask’s men to defend themselves and need no male assistance to win. Whereas most comic book films would have a male come in to help assist the female implying that the female cannot win alone, the women of Birds of Prey are fully capable. Although Harley describes the new vulnerability she has after her break-up from the Joker, she has proven that her power never derived from him.

Romia Dey states that “The complete erasure of the male gaze is an impossibility, for we must acknowledge that it has been so inherently embedded at the heart of Hollywood. Yet it is possible to toy with the conventions of traditional characters and align them to modern audiences, as well as seek to empower them with nuanced screenplays that allow us to explore more complex and alternate identities of women.” While there is still quite a bit further to go in representing a fully female gaze (for example, LGBTQ representation, more varying body types, etc.), Birds of Prey successfully deconstructs the male gaze implicated in movies like Suicide Squad. Toward the end of the film, Harley stumbles upon her old “Daddy’s Little Monster” t-shirt. Rather than destroying it, she keeps it for sentimental reasons. This is symbolic of the idea that, rather than shun or burn every remembrance from past male gaze-y comic book films, they can be remembered fondly, but set aside to let room for new, better stories to be told.

Ayer, D. (Director). (2016). Suicide Squad [Film]. United States: DC Films, RatPac Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment.

Dey, A. R. (2019). Contemporary Action Heroines: The Quest for Emancipation from The Male Gaze. [Master’s thesis]. University of Huddersfield.

Forster, Stefani. (2018, June 12).Yes, there’s such a thing as a ‘female gaze.’ But it’s not what you think. Medium. https://medium.com/truly-social/yes-theres-such-a-thing-as-a-female-gaze-but-it-s-not-what-you-think-d27be6fc2fed 

Gholamrezaie, J. N. (2019). Women as Superheroes: Empowering or Stereotypical? [Bachelor’s thesis]. University Utrecht.

Jones, Naomi McDougall. (2020, February 04). Returning Our Heads: Inside the Fight to Dismantle the (White) Gods of Hollywood. Bitch Media. https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/the-wrong-kind-of-women-male-gaze-excerpt

Kilbourne, K. (2017). With Great Power: Examining the Representation and Empowerment of Women in DC and Marvel Comics. [Undergraduate honor’s thesis]. East Tennessee State University.

Leon, Melissa. (2020, February 11). How ‘Birds of Prey’ Director Cathy Yan Saved Harley Quinn From Joker and the Male Gaze. The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-birds-of-prey-director-cathy-yan-saved-margot-robbies-harley-quinn-from-joker-and-the-male-gaze 

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6-18. https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/16.3

Ray, Shantell. (2020, April 04). It’s (not quite) a Man’s World: Birds of Prey and the Male Gaze. Medium. https://medium.com/@beforemoonlight/its-not-quite-a-man-s-world-birds-of-prey-and-the-male-gaze-d37e34cb5c8c 

Chaudhuri, S. (2006). Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed. Routledge.

Wardlow, Ciara. (2020, February 08). How ‘Birds of Prey’ Deconstructs the Male Gaze. Hollywood Reporter. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/how-birds-prey-deconstructs-male-gaze-1277232 

Yan, C. (Director). (2020). Birds of Prey [Film]. United States: DC Films, LuckyChap Entertainment, Kroll & Co. Entertainment, Clubhouse Pictures.

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