Catherine Yackira ‘24
Just the title alone –Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn– caught my eye; I’m a sucker for long titles. The one thing that held me back from watching it was Harley Quinn herself because I hated how she was portrayed in Suicide Squad. Margot Robbie’s acting was amazing, but there was just something that made me feel uncomfortable when watching it, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. But, I decided to watch Birds of Prey since the title had already piqued my interest. Much to my shock, I loved it. I didn’t get that icky feeling I did when watching Suicide Squad. Instead, it was funny. The women had autonomy; they were their own character, not an addendum to the men. It really was a “fantabulous emancipation”: a superhero (more like antihero) movie that didn’t exploit the women in it. Rather they drove the plot, made the jokes, and won in the end. So I, like many people, started wondering, why is it that Birds of Prey looks and feels so different from Suicide Squad? Both films have the same actor playing the same character in the same superhero universe. But the key difference- and what I would argue is the causal factor- is that the two movies have different writers, directors, and producers, and in Birds of Prey, they are all women. These two movies can act as a case study to examine the “male gaze theory,” and I argue they prove having more women at the writer’s desk, in the director’s chair, and starring as lead roles can break down the “male gaze” in film and benefit the entire industry.
Just one problem, I’m very much a layperson when it comes to film theory. I’ve never taken a film class, and quite frankly, I’m not the best at analyzing them, so rather than spout a bunch of nonsense, I have turned to an expert. My good friend Sophia Rubino is currently studying at the Chapman University Dodge film college and is the most passionate and thoughtful film expert I know. So, she will explain all of the nuances on and off the screen that go over my head.
Sophia: “Firstly, I think it’s important to really understand what “male-gaze” means. That term is so often used without fully even understanding the term. I would use Laura Mulvey’s definition, who first wrote that there are three gazes in cinema- number one being the camera looking at the actors, the second being characters looking at one another, and the final being the audience looking at the film. Those three gazes will always be aligned, which means that the viewer will ultimately look through a camera to see what a man sees- this is very evident in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016).”
Mulvey is a renowned film theorist whose essays have been sighted as the founding work of feminist film theory. In her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, she coined the “male gaze theory” that brought to light the misogyny that is entrenched in movies for our viewing pleasure.
Sophia explained that the male gaze is: “in short, the notion that women are to be looked at, putting a man in an active position over a passive female. With Suicide Squad, it’s pretty prevalent just considering how Margot Robbie is directed to act in it- it’s very overtly sexual, and while the character of Harley Quinn is quite fascinating, she’s almost completely reduced to be an object. The idea of Robbie’s character in Suicide Squad is at its core highly voyeuristic, giving in to the notion of scopophilia, which is ‘the pleasure in looking’- meaning that movies can inherently be erotic.”
I forced myself to watch Suicide Squad again after Birds of Prey to see if my untrained eye could pick up on the prevalence of the male gaze, and it’s not hard to spot. Margot Robbie’s positioning in the frame is almost always angled so that the viewer can see the back of her incredibly short shorts. Some of the coherence of the shot is often sacrificed so that the camera can angle at Harley Quinn’s backside. For example, when she breaks a window to steal a purse, the purse is out of focus, while the shot of Harley Quinn bending over is front and center. The most blatant example of this male gaze in Suicide Squad is when Harley Quinn is given her outfit to change into. She seductively strips off her top as the camera pans from her fishnet stockings to bare stomach to her red push up bra. The music literally stops- and then it pans out to everyone in the prison yard (primarily men) standing still, completely silent, staring at her. The voyeurism is palpable. This scene doesn’t push the plot forward; it is merely a way to highlight Margot Robbie’s body. The camera slowly pans to let everyone in the scene and in the theater stop for a minute and observe.
Sophia: “With Birds of Prey, this idea is 100% subverted, the main reason for that likely being through the lens of a female director, Cathy Yan. The script was also written by a woman, Christina Hodson. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Margot Robbie was a contributing producer. When women are in charge of films about women, the result tends to be more faithful to the female experience devoid of content catered only to the heterosexual male.”
In an interview, Margot Robbie said, “I don’t get to see action films with a female ensemble ever.” Not only does Birds of Prey feature a female ensemble, but the women are also free from the male gaze. With Margot Robbie as a contributing producer, Christina Hodson as the screenwriter, and Cathay Yan as the director, they worked to make a movie centered on realistic women rather than sexualized ones. In an Insider interview, Jason Guerrasio asked Yan about one of the many moments in the film that exemplifies the relatability that a women-centered writing and directing process can bring.
Guerrasio: “And I think many women will appreciate the moment in one fight sequence where there’s a pause in the action so a hair tie can pull back someone’s hair.”
Yan: “That came from a conversation that Christina and I had. I think she brought up how crazy it is that all these women have perfect blown-out hair in all these other action films, and I was like, ‘You’re right.’ I put my hair up for anything. I put my hair up to wash my face; I’m certainly going to do it to fight some bad guys.”
Sophia: “If you look at the narrative in Birds of Prey, a lot of it is centered around Harley Quinn building a life for herself without the presence of The Joker. When he was in her life, The Joker was a dominating force- and ultimately, this made Harley a sex toy, an object for him to play around with. You can see this clearly with her costumes in Suicide Squad, and in Birds of Prey, we can see that they’re way less sexual than in the prior male-directed film.”
There is a notable difference in Harley Quinn’s outfits in Birds of Prey compared to Suicide Squad. Harley Quinn’s skin-tight shirt that says “Daddy’s Lil Monster” on it in Suicide Squad is replaced for a more comfortable and practical one that is covered in her own name. Rather than wearing her red push-up bra (highlighted in the changing scene), Harley Quinn subs it for a practical and comfortable sports bra in Birds of Prey.
The differences between the movies are clear- the women are less sexualized, more autonomous, and more realistic in Birds of Prey. But, it’s important to note that male directors are not the only ones capable of making films that employ the male gaze; female directors do this as well. That’s why change needs to happen on all levels. Directors need to actively avoid the male gaze, and consumers need to recognize and call it out when they see it. Birds of Prey is an example of the positive change that female directors, writers, and producers can have in the portrayal of women, ensuring that women aren’t passive objects who are exploited but are active participants who drive the plot forward. Changing the voyeuristic portrayal of women in film will not be solved just by having female directors behind the camera- but it sure is a good place to start.