Welcome to part II of my analysis of Birds of Prey and how it portrays female villainy. Last time I provided a broad overview of how amazing this film is. In this post I'm going to dig into a very specific way that this film slaps, so without further ado..
Now that we’ve established the big picture of how the Birds of Prey film smashes the patriarchy, lets dive into how it subverts the male gaze so prevalent in film—especially films that exist in the superhero genre.
The male gaze centers the masculine, heterosexual perspective that views women as sexual objects present only for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer or as way to signify a male protagonists masculinity as he fights to either defend or take revenge for a female love interest. But the male gaze is no match for the powerhouse trifecta of director Cathy Yan, writer Christina Hodson, and producer-slash lead actress, Margot Robbie. These three women created a script and brought it to life with vision and intent.
Our first point of interest in how Birds of Prey subverts the male gaze is in the clothing choices. In Harley’s cinematic debut, Suicide Squad, her outfit is clearly chosen to highlight the sexual fantasies of a specific demographic *cough cis-het males cough*. She’s given what can only be called booty shorts in the most generous of definitions and a fitted long sleeve tee that says “Daddy’s lil’ Monster.” The logo on the shirt is the crowning jewel of her objectification. She is not a Harley who has her own agency and voice, but she is a possession of the Joker. Countering this is the outfit that Harley spends the majority of the film in for Birds of Prey. She is still wearing a shirt and shorts, but the shorts are now actual shorts and her shirt has her name printed across it. A direct fuck you to the male gaze as Harley reclaims herself. (also, interestingly, I could NOT find a picture of Harley's BoP shirt with the "fucking" not blanked out. Which I find absolutely fascinating)
Another fantastic subversion comes during a moment when Harley steals a purse—a plot beat that happens in both Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. Film reviewer Ciara Wardlow points out that in Suicide Squad, the camera focus in on Harley’s body as she commits her theft with the details of the purse and the shop blurred out. In Birds of Prey, the focus is on the action, what is happening to Harley and doesn’t pander to the male gaze. This disparity is telling and despite the fact that women consistently consume more media than men, the creators of film and tv continue to cater to the male gaze and pare brilliant, complex female character down to how sexually attractive cis-het males will find them.
Harley’s costumes are always loud, calling attention to herself and making it impossible to be ignored. Seeking attention is one of Eltahawy’s seven necessary sins (remember her book from last time?? The Seven Necessary Sins for Woman & Girls) and one that Harley leans into with gusto. Each of the women in the film is outfitted in thoughtful and functional ways and the camera never focuses in on boobs, butts, or bellies. It demands you pay attention to the story itself and not just how these women look moving through it.
Alright, we’ve reached my favorite part of this blog post and one of my favorite aspects of this film and perhaps the most magnificent way it mocks the male gaze.
Okay, stay with me, I swear the endgame is worth it here. TV, film, and books written and created by men have long relied on the trope of fridging. The killing, torturing, or sexual assault of female characters as a plot device to motivate a male hero or to justify a male villain’s rage are a staple of the comic book and super hero genre. The concept of “women in refrigerators” was pushed into the public view by writer Gail Simone. On a website of the same name, she discusses how women in comic books are reduced to being a plot device and often meet brutal ends in service to advancing the male protagonist’s story arc.
Birds of Prey effectively said, “hold my beer,” subverted this trope and ran with it. At the beginning of the film, after a hard night of partying and Harley’s official declaration that she and the Joker are over, her only care in the world is to ease her hangover with a delicious egg sandwich. A very relatable goal. The creation of this sandwich and Harley’s focus on it are given a one minute and eighteen second introduction. In a movie, that is a huge amount of screen time. One only has to look at one of the promotional posters or watch Harley’s face as her Sal creates her sandwich to see how in love she is. The song choice reinforces this as well with Barry White crooning as she's about to take her first bite.
Her love of this sandwich is intense. Just as she’s about to take her first bite, Renee Montoya attempts to arrest Harley. Interrupted, Harley stuffs the egg sandwich into her shirt, where she can protect it from harm and keep it close to her heart. Thinking she’s escaped her pursuers, she pulls it out and prepares to indulge in a tasty bite only to have another enemy show up. She looks at the sandwich and promises it that “We’re going to get through this, okay?” the same way a male protagonist would reassure the female that is driving his character arc.
But a happy ending is not to be had as tragedy strikes. When Montoya runs headlong into Harley, the sandwich is lost, flying through the air in slow-mo and landing in a destroyed mess on the payment. The moment is balanced between comedy and tragedy, as Harley notes “It took losing something I truly love for me to see that the target on my back was bigger than I thought.” The egg sandwich has been fridged, meeting a same violent end so many female love interests have. And just as the loss of that female object spurs the male protagonist into action, so does the sandwich spur Harley on.
You’d think the subversion ends there, but it doesn’t. It comes up twice more. At the end when Montoya shows up at the Booby Trap and fights with Harley, before landing the winning blow of the fight, Harley announces angrily, “You killed my sandwich.” Harley will never forget the love that was cut short because of Montoya’s interference. The sandwich’s final appearance in the film is at the very end as Harley and her apprentice, Cassandra Cain, drive into the sunset. Harley has a new sandwich and has brought one for Cass as well. The reappearance of the sandwich is a way of noting that she’s found love again and has taken suitable revenge for the destruction of the original sandwich.
**CW: Sexual & Physical Assault**
Another way the male gaze is subverted are related to the depictions of sexual assault in the film. As mentioned at the beginning of my presentation, these moments will not be described with graphic detail. I will instead be discussing them in how they differ from these moments in other films and the effect that shift in focus creates.
There are two specific instances of sexual assault in the film. The first is enacted against Harley. Following an intense night at Sionis’s bar, she is very clearly inebriated as she leaves in the company of an unnamed white male. Outside in the alley, she askes if they’re going to get breakfast. At the same time, Black Canary walks by. Canary gives them a long look, but the man assures her “[they’re] all good here.” Canary hesitantly continues on. We see the indecision on her face as she walks to her car and throws several glances back towards the man is now trying to wrangle a drunk Harley into the back of a van.
This focus on Canary highlights the feelings of powerlessness that women have in these situations. We clearly know that something is wrong. We want to help. And instead of Canary driving away, she takes action, giving the scene a very decisive turn away from the male gaze. The male gaze would have allowed more to happen to Harley and would have then claimed it as character development or a way to explain why she’s villainous. But Birds of Prey turns this moment on its head and makes it very much for the gratification and enjoyment of female viewers as Black Canary beats the shit out of these two men and rescues Harley. This is a moment that many women fantasize about—being able to lay our assaulters and aggressors low with as much grace, power, and athleticism as Black Canary.
Every time I watch that scene, it sparks something in my heart—both guilt at having not done enough in the past and igniting the potential that in the future, I will absolutely take a firmer stand against men trying to take advantage of women.
The second instance of sexual assault follows a moment where Sionis has just been given bad news. Unable to fathom that Harley might have a good reason for not bringing Cass to him, he immediately crumbles and is on the verge of a tantrum. A table of patrons is heard laughing above the din of the club and Sionis immediately becomes a victim. His narcissism makes him believe that the woman he hears laughing is laughing specifically at him—a theory confirmed by Szasz, who clearly knows it’s not true, but is always looking to cause trouble. Black Canary tries to intercept him, but he ignores her and goes to the table, confronting a woman named Erika. Already, we see a clear departure from the male gaze since the woman is given a name. Sionis, convinced she is laughing at him, wants revenge, he wants to humiliate her and remind her that to him, she is an object. He forces her to stand on the table and dance. Knowing Sionis has a penchant for drama and for cruelty, Erika does as she’s told. The other people at her table—another woman and two men—do nothing to intervene. The scene escalates as Sionis demands that one of the unnamed men cuts her dress off, which he does, all while apologizing to Erika.
This scene is powerful. First, it shows how the patriarchy chooses to dehumanize women all to soothe their fragile egos—Erika is Sionis’s target because she laughed. That is the nature of her “crime.” For this, Erika becomes villainous to Sionis. It also highlights the complicit nature of other men even when they see something happening that they know is assault. Even as Sionis starts to cut her dress off, Erika's boyfriend (I'm making an assumption here that he's her boyfriend, its never implicitly stated in the film) apologizes to her—but he doesn’t have the guts to stand up to Sionis, the one responsible for this assault. This focus on his interaction and complicitness highlights the patriarchy’s blind obedience and refusal to speak up against other men who cross boundaries that should never be crossed. A similarly filmed male gaze scene would likely focus on Erika and her body—making a distasteful attempt to glorify her assault. This scene contains two other very telling moments. One is when they cut to Black Canary and you see her wipe a tear away from her eyes.
Canary has proven herself as a tough as nails, take no shit kind of woman who’d already beat up two men trying to take advantage of Harley, but in this moment of Erika’s vulnerability, she cannot escape the truth that she lives in a world filled with men who bow to the patriarchy’s twisted ideas. Similarly, we see Huntress who has been witness to this event. The look on her face is just as telling. She is horrified by what she sees and one can only imagine that when she does eventually kill Victor Szasz, she’ll give up a piece of her vengeance to Erika because Szasz is absolutely just as responsible for this assault as Sionis.
Another scene that nails the subversion of the male gaze is a moment of physical assault against Harley. The scene itself is common in superhero movies—the protagonist has been caught and is tied up, defenseless and at the mercy of the antagonist. As Harley tries to talk her way out of being killed by Sionis, he becomes agitated by her and strikes her face. This in turn leads to a surrealist musical rendition of “Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend,” before returning to a close up of Harley’s face—now sporting a bloody mouth and a split lip. In the article titled “On the Significance of Harley Quinn’s Split Lip in Birds of Prey,” writer Leah Schnelbach points out that this is a distinct departure from how a scene of this nature normally plays out. Schnelbach begins by pointing out that we’re never in the women’s head in this moment, we always see the seen through either the male savior’s eyes or as an outside observer. But in Birds of Prey, we jump into Harley’s mind to show us how she processes her fear and pain in this moment. This is how she comforts herself.
Schnelbach goes on to say that from this point on, Harley’s lip is split “whether covered with lipstick or tequila or grease from the perfect breakfast sandwich. The consequences of the punch are front and center. Schnelbach compares this with a similar scene involving Black Widow, who, after being punched glares back at the man who did it, but she’s flawless—no blood, no bruise. In opposition to this, Birds of Prey refuses to allow Sionis’s physical aggression against Harley to fade into the background. The filmmakers made sure to silently acknowledge in every scene that followed that Sionis’s violence has consequences that will not just be covered up and forgotten.
These are just a few ways in which Birds of Prey subverts the male gaze. Each time I watch the film I notice something new, something more. Feel free to drop by on Twitter and tell me about your favorite scene that subverts the male gaze. I'm always here to fangirl over Birds of Prey (especially Huntress. She is gonna be my wife someday! She'll go off and have a busy day of revenge and assassinations & I'll be home, making dinner and ready to hear all about her exciting day. It's a perfect future...)