In her first conversation with Black Canary, Harley Quinn observes, unprompted, “A harlequin’s role is to serve, an audience, a master. You know, a harlequin is nothing without a master. And no one gives two shits who we are beyond that”. Except someone does, Harley does. And she wants you to care as well.
Women have been the punchline, often literally, of nearly every superhero film. Scratch that, they are the most frequent target in every genre. They are the victims, the eye candy, the one liner, and the reward. So many films suggest that female characters are nothing without a male lead, and they certainly don’t get a scene to themselves. Birds of Prey proves that people should give a shit about female led superhero films, especially those where the creator, stars, and story are made by women, for women. It’s a practical and stylish film, a funny and sincere commentary, and of course, an outright rejection of fetishized male gaze. Harley and the Birds of Prey are here to change things, and Harley’s independence from the Joker is synonymous with the film’s independence from these older models. It’s also not just a superhero film, it’s a heist movie, a genre which also has a complicated relationship with women. Birds of Prey is thus a rejection of sexist tropes and sexist audiences, which might explain why the film received so many unwarranted critiques.
“They say if you want to tell a story right, you gotta start at the beginning.”
Before we unpack why Cathy Yan’s film is so incredible, we have to go back a bit. Margot Robbie’s Harley was first introduced in 2016’s Suicide Squad. While Robbie is the perfect Harley, Suicide Squad is primarily interested in treating her as a sex symbol. I could somewhat forgive that treatment the first time I saw the film, as Harley still gets some awesome lines, and I was simply happy she was there. But then I saw the film a second time at my local theater. There weren’t many people, a few families, but as I was leaving, I overheard a little girl say to her parents, “I wish the Joker was my boyfriend”. That is when I realized how damaging this film was, in ways I had not realized. It was so upsetting to hear this statement, as the girl didn’t know what their relationship was like in animated show and comics. By erasing and glamourizing the abuse between Joker and Harley, the film made it seem like their relationship was something admirable. If you know anything about Harley it is that she is in a terribly abusive relationship, and audience knew that going into the film and read Harley accordingly. The only thing worse than Harley’s toxic relationship is to not acknowledge that it is a toxic relationship, while only vaguely suggesting that it might be off camera. Refusing that representation is the worst error in Suicide Squad, and I am not even talking about their version of the Joker.
While Birds of Prey makes a deliberate point to not acknowledge the Joker, but unfortunately, I need to briefly discuss what led to that decision. The Joker’s absence was a main objection point for certain critics and male audiences, and I feel like that rhetoric needs to be addressed. Not only why he is not in the film, but why the Joker’s legacy is so toxic, and how that impacted the form of Birds of Prey.
The reason I recently started thinking about Birds of Prey is because I saw someone make a comparison between Todd Philips’s Joker (2019) and Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020). The reason they did so is because both films feature a scene where the protagonist wipes makeup and distorts themselves while looking in a mirror. Both films focus on the need for vengeance, albeit for totally different reasons. I am not sure why this needs to be said, but these films are radically different and it’s rather dismissive to suggest otherwise. It’s true, the Joker is an award-winning film, but it argues that people should be afraid of the mentally ill, and it glamorizes the plight of some self-obsessed white guy who kills people who don’t sympathize with him. There are two women in the film: one is murdered, and the is a hallucination who never asked to be involved with the Joker’s bullshit. She and her daughter are also probably murdered, it’s left unclear. The Joker is a toxic figure who destroys everything and everyone along the way. He has also become an icon for troll (even incel) culture, and so it’s somewhat difficult to distinguish his cinematic character from this online presence. He is everything that Promising Young Woman and Birds of Prey opposes, which is why I dislike comparison between it and Fennell’s work.
Even if we just close read the mirror scenes in these films, we get two radically different readings. The Joker puts on a distorted smile to mock what the world sees him as. It’s just the whole “we live in a society” thing. As I highlighted in my Promising Young Woman post*, Cassandra’s makeup is part of her commentary on male gaze, and so dragging her lipstick demonstrates that she is aware of the sexist systems which surround her and is taking control of that narrative. It’s a far more complex commentary, and Cassandra’s actions are likewise justified given what happened to her friend. The Joker’s vengeance is entirely self-absorbed, versus Cassandra, whose is confronting self-absorbed abusers. I bring this up because people criticized Birds of Prey for the very things they celebrated about the Joker. Let’s be honest, Birds of Prey is as much a commentary on Suicide Squad as Phillips’ misogynistic Joker film, which came out only a year before. Whereas these other DC films focus on men, and occasionally threatened and objectified women, Birds of Prey is only interested in its female characters and how they negotiate these systems. Ultimately, as one of its songs suggest, “the joke is on you”, or rather, the joke is on the Joker because he is nowhere to be seen, and the film has moved on.
“I underestimated you, and I’m sorry” – Montoya
(Shrugs) “I’m used to it.” – Harley
Harley’s trauma and violence are not shown directly in Birds of Prey, but they are still present. The film does not want to risk glorifying or prolonging this violence, so it instead focuses on the long-term effects of that trauma, entirely removing the abusive figure. It also adjusts what we saw in Suicide Squad, as Harley now describes that her relationship “bloomed in a highly toxic industrial plant”, and later calls the Joker a “madman”. Neither of these descriptions fit the narrative we saw in Suicide Squad, which indicates that Harley has seized control of her own narrative in Birds of Prey.
Yan’s film is not just a commentary on the Joker, it’s also about the relationship between abandonment and emancipation. The Joker is just one figure who abandons Harley. Her friends, her father-figure, her sandwich, her hyena. People keep leaving Harley, and each time is heartbreaking. We don’t see her breakup with the Joker, so the first actual betrayal shown in the film is by her roller derby friends. They don’t think she can survive on her own, so although they are not actively backstabbing her, they aren’t supporting her either. “That’s why she is still wearing that tacky J necklace” says one, as Harley rounds the corner with drinks. The group agrees, as though it’s only a matter of time before she goes back to her owner, the person who literally has his name tattooed on her. “If not him,” she goes on, “the next alpha male with a pulse”. So much for girl power.
Harley is totally alone and unsupported, and the girls she trusted, these fierce badasses, don’t think she is strong enough to survive. They don’t even believe her, and I think that reaction is reflective of the way Harley was abandoned after Suicide Squad. The people who loved her complex character, and those who just saw her as a naïve optimist, dismissed Robbie’s version of Harley after seeing Suicide Squad. She was betrayed by movie audiences, as well as creators, who decided that Harley could not survive without the Joker, and that her entire character was indebted to him. In response to this reception, the Joker is not a part of Birds of Prey, and that is crucial. His brand is all over the place, and we see him briefly in two flashbacks, one cartoon and the other from behind. Other than those quick moments, the film wants to focus on Harley and other women who have been dismissed because of their participation in a male dominated system. Harley and the Joker, Canary with Black Mask, Huntress and her families’ killers, Renee Montoya with the police department, and Cassandra with the foster system. Each figure was discarded and used by these systems, but each spends the film emancipating from these toxic places and people.
“Aren’t you glad you wore that? Sexy and Bulletproof!”
We see a very drunk Harley writing on some stolen business card at Roman’s bar. She has crossed out the name and phone number, and messily replaced it with her own, and a list of jobs she could take care of. It reads: “psychiatriss [although that is crossed out], bounty hunter, hit(wo)man, dog walker” and then some misspelled version of the word ‘mercenary’. Beside the business card, we see a napkin with Roman’s logo and a drawing of Harley. She has drawn a cartoon version of herself being choked by Roman’s two hands, each with an open eye staring out. Harley has a jester’s hat on, little ponytails, and stars for eyes, like some looney toon death pose.
We have seen these hands before, in fact, they are scattered around Roman’s bar. We saw them earlier caging Dinah Lance (or Black Canary) on stage, framing and holding her to the microphone while staring out at the patrons. There is something sinister about the logo itself. The eyes and the hands are the same thing, suggesting that touch and sight operate simultaneously. Touching, killing, capturing, they are all the same as looking. This likewise suggests that, for Roman, physical violence is an extension of his gaze. As such, the film argues that male gaze is as violent as peeling someone’s face, as Roman and Zsasz do. Male gaze is a form of exploitation long perpetuated in Hollywood and beyond. Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is by comparing Harley’s representation in Suicide Squad to Birds of Prey. Lots of people have made this comparison as the difference are quite predominant. Harley essentially wears lingerie in Suicide Squad, and there is even a scene where she strips, and everyone stops and watches her. She doesn’t even get an entire t-shirt, its already torn by the time she wears it. Also, she is often shot with her chest as the center of the frame, rather than her face or head. It’s noteworthy that Robbie was apparently quite uncomfortable with her costume for Suicide Squad and requested more control over her costuming in this later film. By comparison, you can tell that Harley dresses herself in Birds of Prey, as the costumes are more fun and comfortable. Harley finally gets to dress the way she wants to, first by taking off the Joker’s necklace and adjusting her tattoos, then cutting her hair. She is also shot directly, and her costumes are far more practical and less torn t-shirt. It’s still Harley though, so she wears outfits with her name on it and a see-through plastic coat with fringe. Regardless, the intention behind her costumes has changed. Her outfits in Birds of Prey convey her personality, not her sex appeal.
Fashion is just one way Harley expresses her personality in the film. She is the filmmaker, controlling every angle, edit, and introduction. The film is thus part of her character, rather than just telling us about her character. What I find interesting is that because Harley is in control of what we see in the film, it’s imagery and symbols are related to her psychoanalytic past. Harley was once a trained psychiatrist, PhD and everything, and that intelligence has not gone anywhere. She analyzes a few characters directly, like Roman and Huntress, but that critical gaze extends into the film’s literal format. Whenever we meet a character, a handy little popup from Harley’s psyche appears with an explanation for why they hate her. Editing is thus another costume for Harley, a way for her to dress the story and analyze it as it happens.
“Number 1: No one is like me.”
Both Harley and the film attempt to emancipate themselves from earlier genre conventions while still commenting on how terrible those conventions are. Harley is an expert in close reading, and I want to extend that gaze into the film’s promotional material. Take the original title- Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. That is quite a title, and they eventually had to shorten it to just Birds of Prey because people kept complaining that it was too long for marquee. I honestly prefer the original title because although it is slightly full of itself, so is Harley. It is a perfect reflection of her character, and it is also very telling. We know from this title that Harley will emancipate herself and do so in some fantastic or fabulous way. Both of those things happen in the film, as Harley’s escape and reinvention are the same thing, her literal break up is also an aesthetic kind. I am also particularly drawn to the word “One” in the original title, as Harley goes on to explain that she is not the only dame seeking emancipation. But it takes a few scenes before Harley realizes that she is not alone in this situation. This “One” could be read several ways, as it gestures to her eventual character growth, letting people in, while also declaring her identity forthright. She is the one and only Harley Quinn, and no one can take that narrative away from her.
After she saves Cassandra, Harley starts teaching her little lessons about being badass. One of those lessons is “nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence”, not looks, brains, or push up bras, just bloodshed. There is plenty of violence in the film, but it’s not quick nor gory. It features some phenomenal fight scenes which are utterly unique and not composed with several different cuts. We see the hits, and they are almost dance-like. The film still includes multiple violent scenes, but it does so without male gaze, meaning that there is a practicality to these fights. Harley appreciates violence, and so she pays attention to the effort and skill involved in these battles. She is also extremely conscious of her persona, violence, and film genre expectations. She knows the way female bodies are used in these sorts of films, and the film posters reflect that. My favourite poster features the main characters posed as Botticelli’s classic Birth of Venus painting, with Harley at the center in the clam shell. They are dressed in their regular costumes but superimposed onto this famous painted background. Venus portraiture has an overly complex history, so I’ll summarize things. Painting naked women was frowned upon, because it meant looking at a lower-class woman, the only person who would allow a painter to show them in such a pose. To get away with this imagery, painters would claim that their image did not depict naked women, but Venuses. It is why we have so many Venus paintings. The term became an excuse, as naked meant that someone had to take their clothes off, while Venus was naturally nude and never had clothes to take off in the first place. In other words, the term naked is active, nude is passive. That is why Harley’s Venus pose is so noteworthy. She is not welcoming, and she is not your standard Venus. Instead, her presence, and the presence of these other women, suggests that Venus has been rebranded. She is not a passive tool for male gaze, she has her own narrative. Look if you dare.
“I had to find a new identity. A new me.”
Harley, being an eccentric person, jumps around a lot with her story. Some critics found this approach confusing, so I think it’s important to note that everything you see in the film leads to something. For instance, Harley’s roller derby scene explains why she is so good at fighting in rollerblades in the later fight scene. Harley has the entire story in front of her, but she doesn’t know where to start because everything is important to her. The confusing tone is also entirely intentional, as Harley is a bit confused about events too. She is just telling the story in the same way she experiences things, with interruptions and rewinds. But, as Harley also notes, “This is our story, and I’m telling it, so I’ll start where I fucking want”, and then she goes back 4 minutes before to draw our attention to a new character. The film never disguises this subjectivity, and that is part of the point. Harley later notes “Hold up, I’m telling this all wrong”, again demonstrating that she is a somewhat unreliable narrator who interprets and close reads situations as she encounters them. She gets distracted with something small and then forgets to mention a bigger thing, which is why we end up going back to different locations. Harley is technically an omniscient narrator, as she knows everything that is about to happen, even events she was not present for, but it is almost as if someone handed Harley all the footage for the film and gave her ultimate creative control.
For the purposes of this discussion, I thought it would be easier to focus on each character individually and then highlight how they actively rebrand themselves by breaking away from patriarchal systems. I think this somewhat connects to the way Harley diagnoses people throughout the film, as like her, we are going to be talking about how these characters present themselves, and why they later shift in the film. Let’s begin, as Harley does, with herself.
“Don’t Call me Dumb, I have a PhD Motherfucker.”
Harley is like a magenta Marilyn Monroe. A tonal shift, just slight, from this original feminine symbol. Monroe is no longer a person to our culture; she is an image people use to say something about themselves. She is the quintessential sex symbol, but has also become an icon for suppressed women, those who are intelligent but kept quiet. Harley knows all of this, and often refers to figures like Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, Hollywood giants, in her fashion. When she arrives at the police station, she is dressed in almost 50’s garb, with a magenta head scarf, sunglasses, and bright red lipstick. It is a fun moment, but Harley also refers to figures like Monroe during trauma sequences, which means that she uses Hollywood and cinema to make sense of the horrible things happening to her. It’s like a form of projection, of taking someone who has already been destroyed to speak about yourself. I refer, of course, to the incredible “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” sequence, where Harley suddenly appears in a modernesque version of Monroe’s famous dance number. Leading to this break, we see Harley tied to a chair, tormented by Roman and his men. Behind her, we see the two hands with eyes, illuminated by a spotlight. The light only shines on Harley and the hands, Roman’s men are kept in the shadows. This suggests that Harley and the hands are connected by the light, as though the eyes are looking down at her, judging. It’s a bit like the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg from The Great Gatsby, except it is not a judgement on the jazz era. Instead, it’s a judgement on women who get caught in male gaze.
As Roman prepares to cut off and pickle Harley’s face, she turns to one final defense- talking back. She keeps interrupting his monologue and starts diagnosing Roman, eventually noting, “You’re really not as complicated as you think”. She argues that every violent thing Roman has ever done is an attempt to win back Daddy’s love, which is somewhat ironic considering everyone assumes that Harley is just trying to win back the Joker’s love. Although Roman and Harley mirror one another in that way, Roman handles this rejection differently. He hates women, especially women who talk too loudly or freely. Harley lists several different reasons for why Roman wants to kill her, and those grievances include “Have a vagina” and “Voted for Bernie”, which indicates that Roman is extremely sexist and elitist. Harley’s interruptions are especially frustrating because she is smarter than him, and by diagnosing, she is flaunting that intelligence. She even offers to find his diamond, detailing how skillful she is at finding things. Furious, Roman tries to diagnose her back, shouting “For all your noise and bluster, you’re just a silly little girl with no one around to protect her”, and to demonstrate, he slaps her across the face. Harley tunes out the moment he hits her, like changing the channel on reality. She looks right into the camera, smiling as some blood inches down her face, and the last thing we hear is, “You are going to get me my diamond”. Harley only hears the word “diamond” before reality slips away to recontextualize that term.
We see Harley in a magenta pant suit, with the same hairdo and backdrop as Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) She begins singing Monroe’s famous song, and in doing so, harkens back to all the women who have sung it before. Even if you have not seen Monroe’s original performance, you have most likely come across someone paying homage to it. Madonna’s “Material Girl” from 1984 is an exact replica, and Nicole Kidman sings it in Moulin Rouge! (2001), just to name two examples. Madonna and Kidman’s versions take one thing from the original scene. Madonna takes the setting while Kidman takes the song. What unites these performances is that each rely on the notoriety of the original singer and use that as a commentary on themselves. Harley does the same thing, but with one crucial difference. Madonna and Kidman’s performances were entirely related to Monroe’s sex appeal. Madonna dresses like her while singing about being bombarded with wealth, and Kidman’s beautiful courtesan uses the song to entice men. By contrast, Harley refers to the trauma Monroe went through as a sex symbol, instead of being a sex symbol.
Harley has been through so much abuse that she has begun to reimagine violence in a new context, one she can understand. She does not want to see what is happening, and so she escapes into a movie she has already seen. It’s still Harley though, so we get random gun fire and modern music interjections. It’s not that Harley has completely abandoned reality, it’s more like she is trying to re-tell her own story while it is happening, instead of just in post-edit. Perhaps it is even a way for her to diagnose what is happening, a stream of symbols and images that she can close read rather than reading the immediate situation. For example, the Monroe song works on so many levels. Diamonds are Harley’s only friend as everyone else has abandoned her. It’s also her only hope as Roman will kill her if she cannot find the diamond, so it’s her savior and friend.
Diamonds also relates to romance, getting married. The original song is about an ambitious woman who wants to be wealthy and does not want to be judged for choosing to marry a man because he is wealthy. Monroe’s film is about getting married, but it views marriage in a practical way, a very direct quest for financial security. Harley herself makes the comparison between diamonds and marriage after she returns to reality, noting “Call me old fashioned, but I always thought the guy was meant to get the girl the diamond”. Here is Harley, just narrowing surviving a violent encounter, and she is still making jokes. She makes jokes about a lot of traumatic things, especially her relationship with the Joker. Makes you wonder why Harley is so good as escaping violence and interpreting trauma as a scene from a romantic comedy film. Once again, the Joker is not in the film, but the trauma he created is certainly present.
When we first cut to this Monroe scene, we see Harley surrounded by jazz hands. They part to reveal her face, and she bites one of the fingers just as it gets too close. She does so right after singing the ling “a kiss on the hand”, which implies that a kiss and a bite, love and violence, are too similar for Harley. This also happens later in the scene, as Roman extends his hand to Harley, like a gentleman inviting her to dance, and then hits her. Both moments illustrate that although Harley can reimagine her situation as a classic dance number, she can never truly separate herself from reality. She is not in denial; she never gets to that extent because things and people keep poking from the outside. This whole sequence is intercut with moments of actual trauma, as we go from smiling and dancing to Harley shouting “stop stop” while tied to the chair. These moments are so quick, as though someone is trying to turn the channel back to stop her from escaping.
Another way Harley introduces older and recognizable classic figures is through the film’s soundtrack. The film features multiple re-mixed versions of old songs, including “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, “Sway with Me”, and “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. Each of these established songs bring a set of expectations and familiarity to the film. However, like the Monroe sequence, Birds of Prey alters these songs while also commenting on their lyrics and original context. The film also removes any references to love, particularly in “Sway with Me”. It is less fixated with the relationship referred in the song and more in the way Harley sways from different places and situations. The film continues this removal in its narrative, as none of the characters are in love, except maybe Roman and Zsasz. Birds of Prey is not about romantic love, it is about trust. In fact, the only sexualized footage in the entire film is of Harley’s egg sandwich, with lots of exaggerated shots and longing glances. This makes sense given that each of these characters has been traumatized, especially Harley, who is just out of a toxic relationship.
“It’s a crossbow! I’m not Twelve.”
The female characters utilize a different type of violence, one which departs from other stereotypical, male gazed obsessed, films. Take the film’s logo, the one which features the actual title. Four of the letters feature a weapon, each associated with a different figure in the film. Huntress’ arrow, Canary’s baseball bat, Harley’s mallet, and Montoya’s brass knuckle. These are the weapons they use during the final battle at the carnival, the only time when all the women work together. Notice anything strange? There is not a single gun. In fact, the women very rarely use guns in the film. Harley shoots one man at the end of the station fight and Montoya tries to shoot someone at the carnival, but she is quickly disarmed. Men use guns all the time in the film, and the female characters are often running away from bullets or kicking guns away. I mention this because the women use whatever weapon they can find, everything except a gun. Harley uses dynamite, cocaine, and of course, kicking as weapons. She even knocks Montoya out with a cell phone. The film goes out of its way to make guns absolutely useless. For instance, even when Montoya gets shot, the bullet cannot pierce the corset body armor she borrowed from Harley. The film’s lack of guns likewise suggests that these women are too skillful for guns, as anyone who relies on a gun is quickly defeated. I personally would love to see a no gun action film, let’s make gun less prominent and more ridiculous in cinema.
The lack of guns likewise mirrors something about Harley’s relationship. During the final confrontation at the carnival, Harley realizes that the Joker has taken back her guns and left her with an empty cabinet. You can still see where the guns were, they left little imprints, but he literally disarmed her. This is a whole commentary on their breakup, as Harley was disarmed and left vulnerable by the breakup, but also by this theft. This moment likewise ties Harley’s distaste towards guns to her distaste to the Joker, who coincidentally only fired guns in Suicide Squad. Harley does have a “fun gun”, which she uses at the police station, but that only fires glitter, smoke bombs, and bean bags, none of which are lethal. Montoya later hands her a gun to rescue Cassandra with, but it only has one bullet, and Harley misses her shot. And so, guns are entirely beside the point in the film, meaning that its action scenes are combat based, where skill is needed.
“Psychologically Speaking, vengeance rarely brings the catharsis we hope for.”
Hands and eyes are not the only severed body parts in Birds of Prey. The final showdown highlights several female bodies in the background, seminude figures shown in bright neon colours. What’s noteworthy is that most of these bodies are sliced, focusing on one feature or a certain area rather than the whole body. We see tongues, empty mouths, as well as eyes and hands throughout the fight scene. In fact, the major combat takes place around a rotating stage, covered with large rubber hands. This entire space is symbolic for the female body and the way it is traditionally objectified, and it is a commentary on distortion and psyche. For instance, the carnival ride is called the Booby Trap, and it’s Harley’s idea to meet there. When she and Cassandra arrive at the decrepit carnival, they march into an open mouth. It’s a screaming woman with no eyes, her hands are up on the walls as though she is being attacked. This tells us that the Booby Trap is not your average ride, it’s a literal female body. It’s like the hollow corpse of some ideal woman. She is still wearing makeup, her nails are done, but some horrible trauma has happened. Everything is bright and colourful inside, and the rooms feature countless images of traumatized women. These images and bodies are later incorporated into the fight scene, like when Huntress fights on top of women’s tongues. We see these stylized bodies again in the final credit sequence, which even animates the parts so they move around.
I believe that each of these body parts symbolizes suppression and torment, the very things that Harley and the Birds of Prey are fighting against. These images are all sexualized examples of male gaze, that which prioritizes certain body parts rather than the character they compose together. Male gaze dissects women, and here, it uses their bodies as carnival rides to be enjoyed. I mention this because the Booby Trap was once Harley’s hideout. She knows the ride well, and she still has armour tucked away. She takes Cassandra to the attic space, right above the main ride. We could read that attic as a metaphorical mind, seeing as the entrance was a mouth. Below the mind, in the body, we get these tormented images, but the mind is different. Harley joins forces with the other women here, so they can escape and defeat Roman together. It is as though the images below reminded them of what they are fighting for, brought them together to finally make a stand against male gaze. By fighting beside and even using these images, like bouncing off the rubber hands, the film makes it abundantly clear that something new is happening with female representation, as the women who were once spliced have reconciled with other parts, other women, to form a more realistic and cohesive form/force.
Each of the women take turns protecting Cassandra during this climactic fight. They pass her around, while still fighting, to ensure that she is safe. This mirrors Zsasz’s death, as he is killed by Harley, Huntress, and Cassandra. His death belongs to each of them, and they had to work together to do it. This film is not just about emancipation, it’s also about reconciliation with yourself and others. Finding people you can trust and realizing that you are not a single part, and that together you can form something greater. While each of these women operated in a patriarchal system, they were also isolated by these systems, much like any toxic relationship. Montoya is teased by her department and had a messy breakup with the assistant DA. Cassandra lost her mother and Roman is obsessive about her. Huntress lost her entire family, and although she found a new and accepting assassin family, she has zero female friends and generally operates on her own. The only way to utterly reject these systems is to find friends, as corny as that sounds. We get this final drink conclusion, where each of the women validate one another and talk about how awesome everyone was. They raise each other up rather than trying to take credit for their work, as Joker, Montoya’s boss, and Roman did. That trust is hard to cultivate, and I think the reason we focus so much time on Harley, versus the others, is because it takes time for her to let these figures into her story. She has already cut the Joker out in nearly every way, so it makes sense that she needs time before letting other characters into her story. This explains why the film’s form sometimes goes back and forth, as though she is just getting comfortable with it.
“She’s Got a Killer Voice.”
Dinah sings an old song in a new way. We first meet her onstage, caught between Roman’s hand eye motif, she sings, “this is a man’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl”. Her performance is captivating, the kind of singing where you can’t help but pay attention. At least, that is how it should be, but none of Roman’s patrons are paying attention. They are so busy drinking and laughing that no one sees how incredible Canary is. She has, as many people note in the film, “a killer voice”, but that turns out to be pretty literal. On the stage, she is just a bird in Roman’s cage, or his “little bird”. Roman thinks the song is about him, and that it is a compliment. After a business deal goes sour, he stands in front, watching Canary. He is the first person to clap, not because she was good, but because her success is his. He assumes the song is about a man in power, the kind of man he wants to be. The song, however, is about the very opposite. It’s about how foolish powerful men are, and how that power comes entirely from women and girls, those pushed aside and exploited. The kind of work Harley once did for the Joker, the stuff he took credit for.
The film makes multiple references to birds, and Dinah is the most prominent example of this. Roman refers to her as his “little bird”, but she is also Black Canary, although she never calls herself that in the film. Like the others, she has shut everyone out and is trapped in a cage. Dinah is masterful at shutting people down, much like her literal power to knock people out. She shuts down Montoya when she arrives at her apartment asking for help. Dinah’s mother once helped the police but was killed, which according to Dinah, was because she didn’t think enough about herself as she “put everyone’s lives above her own”. The film eventually suggests that it wasn’t simply that Dinah’s mother put other people ahead of herself, it’s that she did not have the right support network, as the police did not bother to help her. Dinah claims she is different, but she still defends Harley after seeing some men try to kidnap her. At first, Harley drunkenly objects, to which Dinah says “You got this? You sure about that?!” and continues to fight. Harley needs Dinah, and later, Dinah will need Harley. They have to support one another because they’re screwed on their own.
The fact that Canary’s “killer voice” is a scream is especially noteworthy. Much like the entrance to the Booby Trap, screaming women have a long-standing tradition in male gaze films. As disturbing as it is, screaming is a fetishized thing, and so to turn that back on the very people who represent male gaze says a great deal. It is like the images, sounds, and parts which make up the male gazed are rejecting these systems and reversing. Dinah’s scream is powerful and destructive, not passive. It also happens to be right in the mouth of the Bobby Trap, as though that still corpse is emitting the scream.
“They call me…”
Huntress has the most intriguing backstory, and yet despite her badass nature, we spend very little time with her. People consistently misname and misgender her; Roman assumes that she is a guy, and everyone calls her the “crossbow killer”. When she does introduce herself, she says, “They call me Huntress”, except no one actually calls her that. She is trying to create and market a person, trying it on really. We even get this amazing scene where she practices saying her name while looking intimidating in a hotel mirror. Although she is given this amazing story, she does not know how to tell it yet. The film shows her in a very practical fashion without diminishing her badass nature. Sure, she can fire an arrow into someone’s throat while saying something cool, but she is also extremely socially awkward because she has been totally isolated. That isolated background also means that Huntress is the most practical person in the Birds of Prey group, and that goes for her remarks as well. When she and the others begin fighting at the Booby Trap, Huntress refers to the situation as “something I don’t give two shits about”. Sound familiar? Harley used that phrase when describing harlequins, noting “And no one gives two shits who we are beyond that”. Harley interrupts Huntress as she says this, and that alone signals a massive shift. Harley suddenly wants everyone to start giving a shit about one another, because no one has ever done that for them in the past.
That practicality enters the later fight scene, especially when Harley offers Dinah a hair tie. If you are like me, you have wondered how on earth figures like Wonder Woman and Black Widow are not constantly complaining about their hair. It gets everywhere, how are they supposed to fight when hair keeps covering their face? It’s so impractical and so clearly written and designed by men. Their hair looks amazing, sure, but it makes no sense. This small moment in Birds of Prey, just a hair tie, means a great deal. First, Harley noticed that Dinah was struggling to fight and was willing to stop fighting just to help her. Second, by passing her a hair tie, the film draws our attention to the impractical expectation in superhero films that women should always have long flowy hair. And third, it’s a little thing that so many women have done, and that recognition makes this fight, and its characters, feel more approachable. Simply put, this hair tie is the film’s greatest example of shifting gaze. This film pays attention to practical things, and so, its female characters are more dimensional. There is also a later moment where Huntress compliments Dinah the best way she knows, noting, “I really liked how you were able to kick so high in those tight pants”. Huntress is right, it was extremely impressive and skillful, and the film wants us to recognize it as that instead of sexy. Even the film’s fight choreography emphasizes skill, as it focuses on the characters for fairly long shots and seeks out interesting angles and paces for the fights. Consider other action films, which rely on the most impressive CGI they can master or rapidly cut sequences to make it seem like punches hit. This film is as skillful and practical as its characters, and it wants us to pay attention to that. When Harley suddenly appears with rollerblades in the last fight, Montoya pauses and asks, “When the fuck did she have time to do a shoe change?”, drawing our attention to the ridiculousness of this moment. Birds of Prey’s practical sensibility thus pokes fun at traditional action scenes where women are overtly sexualized for no reason.
“Does she always talk like the cop in a bad 80’s movie?”
Montoya comes from a similar background as the other women, but her character arc illustrates that sexism and suppression is a systemic issue. The very people meant to help the city are stupid and afraid, and Montoya seems to be the only one capable of doing her job. Eventually she realizes that the only way to protect people is by abandoning this system and striking out with people she can trust: The Birds of Prey. That name has a double meaning. It initially reads like the birds are the prey, as though the birds belong to the prey: “of prey”. But it means the opposite, as the term ‘birds of prey’ refers to a category of birds who hunt prey. Seeing as the women are consistently referred to as birds in the film, by forming the Birds of Prey at the end, Montoya and the others signal that they have taken on that term and made it their own, much like Canary’s scream. They are birds, but specifically, birds of prey, those who will hunt you down and destroy.
Just as Montoya signals the systemic version of suppression, Cassandra represents the next generation, which explains why each female character tries to protect her. She is the complication, the catalyst which forces the women together and eventually unites them. They might all be traumatized, but they still want to save this next generation by recognizing their own trauma and then using that to help Cassandra avoid it. During the fight scene, Huntress pulls Cassandra away, and hands her a toy car. We know from the flashback that this is the same car Huntress’ brother gave her right before he and her entire family were murdered. The car has become a comfort blanket for her, but it’s also a reminder of the trauma she has endured and what she is fighting for. By handing it to Cassandra and telling her she should not have to see this fight, Huntress signals that not everything here is glorified fun. The action might be cool to watch, but there is an underlying trauma to it, and her priority is to protect Cassandra both physically and mentally. Harley does something similar, as she almost immediately begins reciting lessons about everything from stealing to how to order food from Doc after they meet. She does so instinctively, as though she wants Cassandra to go further than she has, to not have to deal with trial and error. Perhaps the greatest example of Cassandra’s promise is that she has no idea who the Joker is. Not even that, she doesn’t care who he is as she is far more interested in Harley as an independent role model. This suggests that the old male system of Joker versus Batman is ending, and that new heroes can now step forward. I can’t help but think about that young girl I saw at the theatre, and how protective I felt. I wanted to explain that what she saw wasn’t healthy, and I was angry that the film had suggested otherwise. I think Birds of Prey tries to rectify that damage, and maybe it does that successfully. I certainly love the film, and I hope that it does shift what we think of as a superhero movie, or just a movie in general. Male gaze is an outdated and honestly frustrating mode, it’s time we move on.
“These are My Things. That diamond is my thing. My things.”
The women in Birds of Prey are not the only ones trying to dismantle old systems for a new future. Roman does so, but not for the next generation. He is an entirely self-obsessed conqueror who steals other’s greatest treasures. He takes credit for Dinah’s singing career and steals the Bertinelli diamond. None of these things or people are his, but like his namesake, Rome, he wants to absorb and possess what already exists. His new order is essentially the same as the old order, it just has him as a figure head. It is no coincidence that Roman’s final scene takes place on Founder’s Pier, which features the all-male founders of Gotham as statues. Because of the mist, Roman blends in with the statues, which implies that he is the same kind of person. Although he has been disinherited by his wealthy family, he still comes from that old world background and is desperate to find a new family by force. He tries to enlist the Golden Lions, a well-established crime family in Gotham, but that doesn’t go as planned. He largely sees others as possessions, much like the diamond, and so this isn’t so much of a family as a collection. Most notable here is that he wants to possess black people and culture.
I am not the first to make this point, I have come across several discussions about this online. Essentially, Roman takes faces in more than one way. Yes, he literally peels off people’s faces, the Keo family to be specific, who are Asian, but he is also called Black Mask, and that mask is just black face. His apartment also features objects and bodies he has taken from different tribes in Africa. For example, in his conversation with Canary, Roman insists on giving her a tour, and pays special attention to a 1,000-year-old shrunken head, noting, “now he’s just an ornament in my living room. Ew! I love it”. It’s such a disturbing encounter, as Roman not only possesses a head, but he also refers to as an ornament, an object to decorate with. He also asks Canary if she has been to the Congo, probably because she is black, and then interrupts her by saying that it is dirty. Roman wants to possess and display these items, people, and cultures and completely own them. He wants to control their narrative and their bodies. He thinks of Dinah in the same way, and I think it is crucial to note that Roman’s obsession with her is very much connected to her blackness. He is not in love with Dinah, his need for her is far more disturbing. He claims that Dinah soothes him, when in fact, he views her as just another object in his apartment, another ornament.
In addition to being a racist colonial germaphobe, Roman hates women, specifically the ones he cannot possess. When he finds out that Dinah has betrayed him, we get this shot of Roman’s apartment. The wall behind him is covered with a drawing of slightly abstract nude women, all bound with black thread by the neck, and a few with their heads completely suffocated with by thread. It is a terrifying display of fetishized violence, centered entirely around the need to suppress women’s voices (their throats and necks). Although the film includes this horrifying image, it handles actual violence against women differently. Take the scene where Roman assaults a woman at his club because she laughs too loudly. He is so insecure that he assumes she is laughing at him, and, edged on by Zsasz, he orders her to get on a table and dance. That’s not humiliating enough though, so he asks her friend to tear off her dress with a knife. This event is so horrific that the film refuses to focus on the tearing. Each shot instead focuses on the trauma, not the exploitation. It refuses to show the nudity demanded by Roman, and instead focuses on the patron’s terror and then Dinah’s horrified face as she watches in the crowd. Comparing these moments illustrates that the film wants to talk about exploitation without being exploitative. As such, it doesn’t rely on any male gaze in the actual filmmaking, although it is still a conversation about male gaze. Roman is the personification of that gaze, and it’s need to cut bodies and possess them.
“Call me a softie, I dare ya!”
Right before Roman dies, we see Harley limping down Founder’s Pier with a one bullet gun. It’s foggy, so clouded that she cannot distinguish Roman from the statues. Suddenly she hears a voice in the fog; “I’m the only one who can protect you” and “you need me”. It’s Roman’s voice, but are they his words? We don’t see Roman talking in this sequence, so it’s possible that Harley is hearing something she has already heard and just adding it here. Her response, “I’m the one they should be scared of. Not you. Not Mister J. Cause I’m Harley frickin Quinn” is directed at both Roman and the Joker, suggesting that the two figures are synonymous. The film begins right after the Joker breaks up with Harley, and the only explanation we get is that she was sick of being cast aside and having him take credit for her work. This statement declaring that she is Harley Quinn is a moment of authorship. She is the creative genius behind the film, behind this story, and behind herself. No one can take credit for what she has done. She is the one and only Harley and she doesn’t need this someone like the Joker, they need her.
Birds of Prey begins as a film about Harley, but then extends outward. It’s about her and the Birds of Prey, but also about female audiences, women who have been the subject of male gaze in cinema since before Monroe’s era. Female identifying viewers have watched whatever representation they got and saw how that representation was routinely sexualized and abused. Worst still, those films won awards and that gaze perpetuated in the real world. Yan’s film is for people who never saw themselves represented in a practical way. It’s also for those who never got a funny, badass, and encouraging film which addresses patriarchy while also going after Joker fanboys on the internet. It attempts to rewrite the joke and adjust its punchline, literally. Let’s be honest though, it improves the joke as well.
*Want to read more on this subject? Check out my earlier post on Promising Young Woman (2020) https://youremindmeoftheframe.ca/2021/04/can-you-guess-what-every-womans-worst-nightmare-is-listening-to-cassandra-in-promising-young-woman-2020/