Female Villainy & BoP
I’ve been a bit overwhelmed lately--this school year is somehow more stressful than last year & it’s hit hard. But amidst the chaos of an ongoing pandemic where everyone insists things are “normal,” I’ve still managed to find some joy.
One of those joys came from attending the annual Siren’s Conference in Denver, Colorado.
As always, it was like coming home. I have yet to attend another conference that makes me feel as safe, comfortable, and confident in myself. I can’t recommend it enough and I absolutely considered just not getting back on my plane and taking up the life of a squatter in Denver.
But alas, I came home.
Anyway, the theme of Siren’s this year was Villains and I was DELIGHTED. I adore villains and morally grey characters and worlds. They’re my jam. I’d like to share the first half of my presentation that focused on one of the favorite films of all time: Birds of Prey
Before I begin, I’d to make a few notes. One, patriarchy manifests in different ways across the globe and within different cultures. This presentation will focus mainly on the westernized version of patriarchy as experienced in America. Second, I recognize and acknowledge that being a woman is not defined by anatomy, however I do include a specific example from the film that does reference anatomy. I firmly believe that anyone who identifies as a woman IS a woman. There will also be cussing…and spoilers. Duh.
Ah, the patriarchy. The systematic societal norms wherein women are dominated, oppressed, and exploited by men. This antiquated social system and adherence to strict gender norms is in desperate need of a makeover. But why make something over when you can smash it to smithereens and build something better? And what better way to do that then by embracing all the villainous qualities that leave the patriarchy shaking in their boots?
The patriarchy wants women to be docile, domestic, quiet, and sacrificing and have argued that if women truly want to be seen as equals, they need to lean into those qualities. Then, and only then, will we prove that we are deserving of being treated not as objects, but as actual people.
That, my friends, ignites the flame of rage and anger in my heart. Anger that the patriarchy tells me I should suppress. Anger that the patriarchy tells me I should turn inward. Anger that the patriarchy wants me to manifest not as a catalyst of change, but as shame and guilt inside my heart. In her book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, Mona Eltahawy addresses this anger and how the patriarchy weaponizes it against us because they know that if we embrace our anger and rage, they won’t stand a chance.
Female villains are often portrayed as mad or unable to maintain or hold power because they aren’t complex enough (aka, not man enough) to do so. Female villains are not allowed to be capable of being both ruthless and effective leaders while still maintaining relationships with others. Female villains are depicted as incapable of caring—of being able to love and hate in equal measures. These criteria are flexible for the male villain and we’re often provided insight into why, even though they do horrible things, they’re really just misunderstood and potentially worthy of redemption. One only has to look as far as Daenerys Targaryen, Morgana Pendragon or Azula. All powerful, villainous women whose stories ended with varying degrees of insanity.
So where are our successful female villains? Where are the women who are unapologetically ambitious? Who’ve embraced and nurtured their anger and rage? Who can we look to as a shining example of how to be a boss bitch and smash the patriarchy?
Enter one Harleen Quinnzel.
An iconic villain who embodies everything the patriarchy fears and hates. Even from childhood, she was not about to accept the limits society wanted to put on her potential and her place in the world. Despite attempts to put her in her place, Harleen went on to earn her PhD. Becoming an educated woman is only one of many qualities the patriarchy despises. To quote patriarchy dude-bro Gaston, “It’s not right for women to read. Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking…”
But Harley doesn’t stop there. She embraces every aspect of herself that the patriarchy would have her smother—the seven necessary sins for women and girls as outlined by Eltahawy: Anger, Attention, Profanity, Ambition, Power, Violence, and Lust.
The 2020 film, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn shows us that the time for playing nice has long since fallen by the wayside. If we want to enact change, we need to not only embrace our inner villains, but we need to lift our voices and embrace the power inside us that the patriarchy has tried to convince us should only be used in service to the needs of men.
The film begins with the end of the longtime relationship between the Joker and Harley. Harley also notes that “behind every successful man, there’s a badass broad.” She was the uncredited brains behind many of the Joker’s greatest schemes. At this point, Harley acknowledges she’s working in the shadows to make someone else great, but she’s also smart enough to use the Joker as a shield. Harley understands that in a patriarchal city like Gotham, it’s easier for her to claim protection under the Joker’s umbrella than go out on her own. She’s taking the patriarchy’s objectification of women and using it to her advantage, which is why even though she begins to move on from her failed relationship, she continues to use his name as a way to protect herself.
This changes when she decides she’s done being in the Joker’s shadow and she blows up Ace Chemicals. This destruction of her and Joker’s special spot makes her position on the breakup very clear. She doesn’t just ghost him, or stop talking to him. Harley violently answers the idea that she is still his by blowing up a chemical factory. A move that shows her power, her anger, and her violence, and is absolutely going to draw attention to herself. Four of the seven necessary sins. Harley is done hiding. She’s ready to stand on her own and become the Queen of chaos in Gotham.
The emancipation of Harley Quinn is a layered experience that begins as soon as she makes the grand gesture of making sure the Joker knows in no uncertain terms that she’s done and moving on. This decision, in and of itself shows Harley breaking free from the patriarchy’s grip. The patriarchy wants us to believe that unless we’re supporting a man, we are unfulfilled and unhappy. Harley actively rejects this with the film’s extended title as it’s scrawled across the main title. This is Harley actively stepping into her role as the Queen of Chaos and saying it’s her story, not his. She is reclaiming her agency and her voice from the patriarchy.
Throughout the film, Harley is berated, insulted, and underestimated by the men of Gotham city. One particular scene I’d like to highlight is where the grudge this particular man has against her is because of something the Joker did—not Harley. The man given unfortunate facial tattoos by the Joker, is determined to take his anger out on Harley. Even when she clarifies that it wasn’t her, the man refuses to back down. Instead of blaming the man responsible, he blames the woman he claims “dared him to do it.” There is zero accountability for the Joker. This shows that as a woman, Harley is not only responsible for the actual villainous things she’s done, but also for his sins. The bro-code of not holding each other accountable runs rampant in the patriarchy and this is only one of several examples from the film.
Continuously throughout the film, when men are talking about Harley, they refer to her as an object or possession to be obtained or disposed of. She is Joker’s girl, Roman Sionis says that he wants her and sees her as an object to add to his collection of things. This also happens to other female characters in the film. Black Canary being known as Sionis’s “little bird.” Cassandra Cain becomes a bargaining chip between them and one that Sionis is desperate to get his hands on at any cost. And when Sionis learns about the “crossbow killer” he first, immediately assumes that it’s a “him” and follows this up by declaring “Why don’t I own the crossbow guy?”
I’d like to think Huntress would absolutely have something to say about that.
Since his name has come up, I guess we need to discuss Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask, as well as his second in command, Victor Szasz. If Harley represents the ideal female villain who’s done taking the patriarchy’s shit, then Sionis and Szasz effectively embody the patriarchy. Particularly the white patriarchy. It’s interesting that it takes two men to be a worthwhile enemy to one, individual, Harley Quinn.
Sionis however, brings forth every thing we hate about the patriarchy. He’s arrogant, he’s from established wealth that was no doubt made at the expense of others labor, he’s self-absorbed, detests emotions, is insecure in his manhood, and believes that everything in the world exists for him. When things don’t go his way, he quickly dissolves into a temper tantrum and claims to be the victim. His embodiment of the patriarchy is shown so well in the scene where he and Szasz are having breakfast.
Szasz is pandering to him and as soon as Sionis gets upset, he’s up and massaging his shoulders in an attempt to quiet the oncoming tantrum due to the fact that Sionis doesn’t own the crossbow killer. His mood immediately shifts when Black Canary arrives—someone he has forcibly made his new driver. As he brags about the stolen artifacts and cultural items he has decorating the room, you see his disdain and irreverence for all things that are other and you see Black Canary remain silent. Her silence and body language speaks volumes though and you can see the things she’s probably thinking. Sionis’ tour ends with a statue of himself, which reinforces his arrogance and self-absorption. Throughout this tour, Szasz becomes more and more irritated that Sionis is giving more attention to Black Canary than him.
This jealousy of thinking that a woman will come between bros is a common patriarchy trait and throughout the film, Szasz continues to stir up unnecessary trouble as a way of ensuring that Sionis does not turn away from him or ever see him as not being his second in command.
Once Sionis learns that Harley is no longer the “Joker’s girl,” he demands she be brought to him. The list of grievances Sionis has against Harley are many, but at the forefront is one that solidly establishes him as a staunch member of the patriarchy. The fact that Harley has a vagina. For Sionis this single feature is by far the darkest mark against her. Something he sees as a gross aspect of her female-ness.
But enough about Sionis’s narrow and misogynist views on Gotham. Let’s get back to how Harley and the others destroy him. In the scene where Sionis has decided that he’s going to kill Harley—a decision made at the encouragement of Szasz in a attempt to bolster his mood after learning that he’s lost the Bertinelli diamond—Sionis comes on screen and is ready to monologue. Harley refuses to give him the chance, constantly interrupting him and psychoanalyzing him. Each time he tries to pontificate on his grand plans and paint himself as the victim, Harley shuts him down, finally telling him, “You’re really not as complicated as you think.”
Because he’s not. We all know men like him, narcissists who can’t fathom the idea of not being at the top of the social and intellectual pyramid. Sionis’s comeback has as much bite to it as you’d expect from a generic school yard bully. He tells Harley she’s nothing but a silly little girl. Throughout the film, Sionis continues to refer to Harley, Black Canary and Cassandra Cain as “little girls.” He sees them all as being powerless and nothing more than objects to serve his whims.
Harley’s declaration of him not being as complicated as he thinks is powerful. She is directly calling out the patriarchy for its antiquated belief that they are justified in their oppression of others and that they act as they do to protect themselves and each other from those who challenge their authority. Sionis’s response is to kill her—with his reasoning being that not only is she just a “silly little girl” but also because she is no longer protected by the Joker.
Harley doesn’t need someone to save her though—she is more than capable and quite brilliant enough to do that on her own. And she does, convincing Roman that she’ll be the one to bring him his missing diamond. The ensuing shenanigans culminate in a final battle between five badass women and an entire army of men at Sionis’s beck and call.
I know I’m skipping ahead here—but don’t worry, I’m going to circle back around to talk about the other characters ( in my next blog! There was just too much for one post), some of the stellar scenes that happen in the interim, and of course, how this movie subverted every aspect of the male gaze, but first, I want to focus on the overarching way Birds of Prey smashes the patriarchy.
This battle royale has three key moments.
The first is that it brings our heroines together. Harley, Black Canary, Huntress, Montoya, and Cassandra Cain have to lay aside their differences to combat a common enemy. Each of them has their specific reasons for wanting to bring Sionis down and a common goal of keeping Cassandra alive. The patriarchy doesn’t ever want women to band together. They actively work to socialize women as enemies to each other and perpetuate the idea that if women want to hold power, they can’t have female allies—they will only find power in supporting and upholding men.
But these women instead come to an agreement that they have a common enemy and their chances at success are higher if they work together. This is done quickly and efficiently without the posturing that comes when men who were enemies are forced to work together. They’re able to put aside their personal feelings and goals because they recognize the threat is beyond just their own wants and needs. For the patriarchy, nothing is more terrifying than women coming together with the united purpose of destroying them. It goes against their unwritten directive to keep women apart and to cultivate rivalries between them.
The patriarchy wants us to believe that the only goal is to serve the man who rises to power, that everything else should be set aside in order to ensure his success and his happiness. But it’s only because the patriarchy is afraid, as it should be, of the combined power of women who’ve seen past the veneer of lies and oppression.
The second key moment comes in analyzing Sionis’s Braveheart speech to his army. He addresses them as friends and brothers, then goes on to remind them that he’s funded them, protected them, kept them out of jail, that he’s scratched their backs. This quid pro quo attitude is a mainstay of the patriarch as they actively work together to keep women in their place and becomes a major tenant of the patriarchy to be a good dude-bro and have each other’s backs. This moment exists in direct opposition to the way Harley and the others joined forces.
Roman expects and demands obedience from his brethren regardless as to whether or not they actually like or agree with him. The women of Gotham, however, come together of their own free will because they recognize it as the smart move, not because Harley demands or expects it. She’s done nothing but make their lives difficult throughout the course of the film and they have no reason to help her. But they do.
A third key moment comes at the very end of the film, when we reach the showdown between Harley and Sionis. As Harley confronts him on the pier, Sionis still insists that he’s the only one that can protect Harley—despite the fact his entire army of men has just been decimated by five women. He tells her that she will never stand on her own, that she’s not the type. Sionis doesn’t know how wrong he is. Here we’re witness to the culmination of Harley’s success in reclaiming her agency and voice. She tells Sionis that “[she’s] the one they should be scared of. Not him. Not [the Joker]. Because [she’s] Harley fucking Quinn.”
This statement of power, of owning who she is and claiming control over her life and her narrative is a dynamic ending statement that comes only moments before Sionis dies a rather violent death via grenade, a fantastic moment where the symbol of patriarchy is blown to smithereens. This culminating moment becomes the capstone of Harley’s emancipation. By fully embracing her villainous qualities, the very same qualities that the patriarchy wants to eradicate in women, she was able to find fulfillment and freedom.
For the patriarchy, simply being a fulfilled woman who has a voice and agency is grounds for being a villain. So, while Harley absolutely has other gender-neutral qualities that qualify her as villainous, her more powerful traits come in all the ways she rejects the patriarchy and demands that everyone listen and pay attention to her. The patriarchy actively works to prevent women from embracing their anger, their ambition, and their power, vilifying all of these traits in an attempt to keep women obedient.
In her book, Mona Eltahawy notes, “Women are meant to be quiet, modest, humble, polite, nice, well-behaved and aware of the red lines. They are supposed to tread softly and within their limits. When a woman is too much, she is essentially uncontrollable and unashamed. That makes her dangerous” (76). Harley Quinn is absolutely not quiet or modest, or nice or well-behaved. She’s aware of the red lines only because she crosses them so often. To the patriarchy, a woman who has embraced her villainous side is dangerous and a threat to the oppressive systems they’ve built.
The patriarchy has shaped the world we live in for countless centuries through manipulation and lies built on a framework of fear. The patriarchy has espoused the inability of women to be of sound enough mind or body to hold and maintain power. Harley represents the ideal female villain who is done taking the patriarchy’s shit. She’s ready to stand on her own. Her utterance of “I’m the one they should be scared of,” should be a daily mantra for those seeking to destroy the patriarchy.
Despite how far we’ve come in tearing it down, we still have so much further to go. Playing nice and following the patriarchy’s rules isn’t getting us the results we need. Mona Eltahawy writes: To beat the patriarchy, we have to start early. We need curricula that includes lessons on the importance of rage, the various ways to express and use it. We must show girls a wide range of examples of women and queer people who are angry, who express rage, who are not polite or compliant, and who proudly make a scene.”
Her seven necessary sins of anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence, and lust are principals that Harley Quinn not only embraces, but wields with the precision of a deadly weapon. Throughout the film, Harley never tries to play down her embodiment of these qualities and admits to being a “terrible person.”
As a teacher, I am ready to fully embrace such a curriculum and I believe that Birds of Prey: The Fantabulous emancipation of One Harley Quinn should be a required text. While I can’t actually endorse committing crimes, I do fully endorse not apologizing for who you are, even if they aren’t the prettiest parts. Harley is unapologetically herself and if you’re going to be on her team, you take the good with the bad.
In the eyes of the patriarchy, becoming the villain means embracing all the things they want us to shun. Anger, Ambition, Attention, Profanity, Lust, Violence, and Power. I call on all of us to embrace every part of ourselves, especially the parts that make society afraid. We must become the villains if we expect to be the heroines of our own stories.
//End part one: Join me next time at the same Bat-blog as I deconstruct the male gaze in the film and talk about some of my favorite scenes! In the meantime, please feel free to leave a comment here or on my twitter @KatjaBookDragon //