Subverting the Male Gaze: Birds of Prey refreshes the narrative of Harley Quinn

By: Minseo Joo and Caryssa Ozuna

Birds of Prey follows Harley Quinn, portrayed by Margot Robbie, after her breakup with the Joker. Harley, now unprotected by the Joker, falls into trouble with crime boss Black Mask. Harley Quinn was first introduced in Suicide Squad (2016) directed by David Ayer. The character was highly objectified by the male gaze undermining her role and strength as a superhero. Birds of Prey’s director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson redesign the character and narrative of Harley Quinn to empower the superhero while still crafting an exhilarating film that audience members will enjoy. Birds of Prey refreshes the look of Harley Quinn through costumes, writing, and cinematography to subvert the male gaze.

Suicide Squad v. Birds of Prey Costume (ScreenQueens)

The male gaze is to view women through a voyeuristic-scopophilia lens (Mulvey). Birds of Prey made a notable change to Harley Quinn’s costumes that empowers her as a character and does not feed into the male gaze. Although the Birds of Prey’s Harley is not completely covered up, it definitely is an improvement from Suicide Squad’s Harley that sexualizes the character in every way. Comparing the two images side by side, the characters are the exact same but their portrayals are complete opposites. The image on the left from Suicide Squad completely objectifies the character making her seem like a sex object. Her bangs seductively frame her face and her ponytails are long enough to pull on. Her shorts aren’t beneficial for the character in any way but to only accentuate her buttocks. The image on the right from Birds of Prey is a colorful costume that portrays the spontaneous Harley Quinn. Her hair is more choppy and fun than seductive. Although the costume has some revealing areas, it “looks more like a choice rather than the tired ‘women’s clothes strategically ripped’ trope” (Arora).

Birds of Prey’s cinematography subverts the male gaze by focusing on the reaction of characters rather than the sexualization of women’s bodies. It would be assumed that the male gaze was subverted in Birds of Prey because the camera operators were female. However, the camera operators were male on Birds of Prey. It is a choice that the cinematographer makes to film through the lens of the male gaze. We will now compare the cinematography between Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey.

Cinematography supporting the male gaze (Youtube)

These images are from Suicide Squad when the team is changing into their attire. Harley Quinn is the only female character in this scene. The cinematography films through the male gaze as Margot Robbie’s body is completely objectified. The shot starts at her legs and tilts up to show her exposed body. The camera work never shows Harley’s face until she is fully clothed. Completely separating the face from the body further highlights how the male gaze focuses on this idealized shape of a body. The face does not matter when the body is thin and gives into male fantasies. None of the other characters are glorified in a similar sexual manner.

Suicide Squad Ensemble Costumes (SlashFilm)

 Harley’s costume is also the only revealing one from the group. While everyone else wears darker colors, the audience’s eyes are completely drawn towards Harley as she stands out the most. Suicide Squad wanted the audience to focus on this idealized version of the women body. Harley’s costume in Suicide Squad did not add any narrative reasoning. The costume’s purpose through the male gaze is to accentuate the body and “represents the role of the female not only as a hero but also as a sex object, limiting her role as subject.” (Natale).

Cinematography focuses on Reaction (Youtube)

However, Birds of Prey does not focus on sexualization on screen. It rather subverts the male gaze by focusing on the reactions. This scene from the film is a direct comment on the male gaze and how the viewing of objectified women is uncomfortable and offensive. In this scene, Black Mask forces a man to cut up and take off a woman’s dress while everyone watches. The cinematography does not focus on the body but rather the reaction of the crowd. When the woman is shown being forced to remove her clothes, her face is shown. The cinematography focuses on her horrified reaction to her situation rather than just her body. The scene was necessary to the plot and a comment on the offensive nature of the male gaze. 

Birds of Prey ensemble (Variety)

An element that makes Birds of Prey especially refreshing is the incorporation of a realistic wardrobe for all of the female characters. Rather than placing them in scantily clad outfits that would appeal to male viewers, it suits them in clothing that can be used practically within the battle. Drawing a comparison to the costuming found in the cast of Suicide Squad, we saw the men properly suited in combat gear that was free to move in and offered protection from offensive attacks.  The clothing of the Birds of Prey heroines does not offer nearly as much protection but manages to provide practical functionality for the cast to properly incorporate their fighting skills. It does not abandon femininity with the choice of apparel but rather displays looks that embrace it with an element of modesty. The promiscuous nature of any of the outfits is evident to be a personal choice of the character rather than an expectation for the male audience. 

Applying the female gaze (SuperheroHype)

Zoe Dirse finds “perception” to be the underlying difference between the alternate gazes of the genders. The film becomes a collaborative view of the cinematographer, director, screenwriter, and every member of the production team and in turn, becomes an extension of their perceptions. She explains that to “subvert the patriarchal assumption concerning gender”, the female artists must take control of their art (Dirse). Birds of Prey manages to reclaim control of the gaze with the content thanks to the collective efforts of a strong female production team both on and off camera. This rejection of the male gaze invited in the elements necessary to make up the female gaze. It shifts the frame of perception from making Harley a character in a man’s story to the narrator of her own tale. We see an emphasis on certain cinematographic tropes that are associated with the female gaze such as eyes and hands. The reason for this being that the female gaze is deployed to express emotion within the film, what better conveyor of feeling than “the windows of the soul”?

Birds of Prey Comic Book (PreviewWorld)

The egregious prevalence of the male gaze within superhero films is not entirely a mystery of the source, it stems from the reference of comic books, where most heroes and villains are born. The source material is male gaze oriented in nature, which makes sense considering most creators and consumers of comic books are male. “[Studies] reveal that male-centric production and consumption of comic books result in hyper-masculine character presentation of male characters and hyper-fetishization and hyper-sexualized presentation of female characters”. This in turn results in female film characters signifying the heterosexual male’s desiring unconscious rather than an actual subject, which further produces the objectification of female character (Avery). In short, the female characters within superhero films are already born from a disadvantage in their creation into a male-dominated medium.

Title card (Art of the Title)

Birds of Prey manages to subvert the male gaze through its rejection of emphasized femininity tropes. We are given the story of badass female heroines who prosper in their universe not through the whims of powerful men but rather in spite of the existence of powerful men. Harley Quinn refuses to submissively be the sidekick of her own story. Through the establishment of real connective relationships with other women who are tired of being dominated by men, she manages to be the victor. Birds of Prey is a film that dismisses the voyeuristic-scopophilia lens of the male gaze and embraces the emotional realism of the female gaze (Mulvey). This results in a story that is uniquely Harley’s.

Work Cited

Arora, A. (2019). Gazing at the Obvious: A Critical Analysis of the Male Gaze in Superhero and Fantasy Literature. Retrieved June 30, 2021, from https://dialog.puchd.ac.in/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/5.-Ayushee-Arora-Gazing-at-the-Obvious.pdf

Avery-Natale, E. (2013). An Analysis of Embodiment among Six Superheroes in DC Comics. Social Thought & Research, 32, 71-106. Retrieved June 30, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24642398

Dirse, Z. (2013). Gender in cinematography: Female gaze (eye) behind the camera. Journal of Research in Gender Studies, 3(1), 15-29. Retrieved June 30, 2021, from https://heinonline-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/HOL/P?h=hein.journals/jogenst3&i=15

Mulvey, L., Rose, R., & Lewis, M. (2016). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema (1975). Afterall Books. Retrieved June 30, 2021, from https://utexas.instructure.com/courses/1310572/files/60516771/download?wrap=1 

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