Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – a Feminist Flicker Excerpt

An excerpt from Feminist Flicker #116, on Channillo

For Birds of Prey, the key is in the subtitle. Emancipation.

“The fact or process of being set free from legal, social, or political restrictions; liberation.”

That’s right – it’s a hilarious movie about a shin-splintering goddess of chaos grabbing her freedom with both hands, helping some new friends to do the same, and clearing a path for the rest of us. But aren’t there lots of other movies that claim to do that, too? With their “strong female leads”? What makes Birds of Prey so special? The thing that makes Birds of Prey so special, is that it is made by women, which means that when it does emancipation, it actually gets it completely right. And the depiction of that process of disenthralment, from the perspective of the audience, is truly fantabulous.

Birds of Prey is directed by Cathy Yan, written by Christina Hodson, and co-produced by its star, Margot Robbie. Indeed, the film stems from her pitch to Warner Bros in 2015, after she stole every scene in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. Its cast of named characters is mostly women – including Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as The Huntress, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, and Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain. Its plot takes standard narrative tropes – a MacGuffin, a shot at redemption, a bid for revenge – and drapes them in a tale so meticulously crafted that its detail just keeps revealing itself the more you unfold the material.

We find Harley  (Margot Robbie) immersed in the grief of her final break-up from The Joker. She self-medicates with alcohol and junk food, throws herself into roller derby, and tries to move on with new friends. As soon as word gets out that she is now single, however (after she blows up the chemical plant in which she so famously bonded with him), it becomes open season on Harley Quinn – with everyone who ever had a grievance with her targeting her for retribution, without fear of The Joker’s retaliation.  One of these aggrieved parties is organised crime boss, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor).

This is where the MacGuffin comes in. 

Sionis wants The Bertinelli Diamond – a giant jewel that has been etched with the offshore bank details of the criminal Bertinelli Family, who were slain in a brutal mass murder. Harley Quinn bargains with Sionis that she will retrieve it for him if he spares her life. Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious woman popping up all over town, murdering criminals with a crossbow; a perennially overlooked, hard-working police detective named Renee Montoya, trying to solve the murders; a club singer working for Roman Sionis named Dinah Lance (aka Black Canary); and a neglected teenage pick-pocket living in Dinah Lance’s building, named Cassandra Cain. Cassandra Cain steals the diamond from the pocket of Sionis’s right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), and the stage is set.

The biggest triumph of Birds of Prey is in utilising the female gaze in such a way that it makes its own contrast with other, male gaze movies. This occurs in both subtle moments and fleeting scenes, as well as within the main narrative arc. As this is essentially an origin story for a team of characters, the main goal of the action is to bring together Harley Quinn, Renee Montoya, Huntress, and Black Canary, and this is achieved by having them unite to protect Cassandra Cain. Without having any of these adult women characters defined by motherhood, we see them all wrestle with their own motivations, before working together to keep young Cassandra alive. This child has swallowed the Bertinelli Diamond, and Roman Sionis wants to literally cut it out of her.

As one of the most prominent crime bosses in Gotham, Roman Sionis has a large following. His evil alter ego is Black Mask – a costume piece we do not see him really don until the third act, at which point we also meet his following en masse, as The False Face Society. Harley Quinn and her group have retreated to a disused Carnival, where Harley hopes to use one of The Joker’s abandoned lairs to her advantage. Black Mask and The False Face Society assemble outside, however, and we see this large, intimidating army of men gather with their backs to the lair, before they turn to reveal that they are all wearing masks.

Yes, Black Mask and The False Face Society both have their place in the fictitious comic book city of Gotham, but their use here is interwoven with Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson’s investigation of duality, and the manufacturing of reality – both of which are concepts that contribute to the basis of patriarchy. The biggest contrast is obviously between the men and the women. This denouement is literally men versus women, but the women have finally embraced their true selves, while the men are purposefully hiding their identities. The five women are exuding great personal bravery in the face of literally being under siege by men that would do them grave harm, while the men are exhibiting cowardice.

But, it’s a very particular kind of cowardice that is being depicted here. It’s the kind of cowardice that goes hand-in-hand with a baying mob – in which you can reveal your deepest evil because there is safety in numbers, and nobody can identify you anyway. It is the cowardice that comes with the knowledge that one can act with impunity, and that there will be no personal consequences to face. That specific kind of anonymous, crowd-based violence is sexism, and racism, and religious bigotry. Sometimes it manifests as Ku Klux Klan rallies, and sometimes it manifests as genocide. Sometimes it manifests as rape as a weapon of war, and sometimes it manifests as public executions.

In Birds of Prey, as in the world, it manifests as patriarchal oppression.

For the women, their embracement of their true selves is a new thing. Harley Quinn has discovered herself as a unique entity, separate from The Joker. Black Canary has discovered herself as a unique entity outside of the gilded cage Roman Sionis had her trapped in, as a singer/chauffeur at his club. Huntress has discovered herself as a unique entity outside of the story of her family. Renee Montoya has discovered herself as a unique entity outside of the male dominated police force in which she has thanklessly toiled for years. Each of these women has been emancipated, and they seek to protect Cassandra from the cowardly violence of patriarchy – the violence they themselves have had to endure for a lifetime. They each want something better for the next generation, so they make their final stand against faceless men.

The routes that each of them have taken to reach this point could not be more different, though each is threaded with the idea of duality. For Harley, she is constantly faced with decisions about which path she should take. Should she align herself with a new alpha male, or commit to real independence and risk her life? Should she let Sionis murder the child to retrieve the diamond, or fight to save her life? Being a villainous character in her own right, her choices are not predictable, and indeed, it is not until all the women are assembled and in conflict that she sees making a stand to save the girl as a viable option.

She sees that her instinct to fling herself into roller derby was right – that she can have a sense of belonging, and a sense of companionship, without an abusive man being in the mix. The fact that she buys a hyena and names it Bruce goes further to reflect the idea of a manufactured reality – that she has created a situation in which she can have a Bruce that will be loyal, reliable and trustworthy at all times; a Bruce upon whom Harley can depend for unconditional acceptance.

Like Harley, Dinah/Black Canary faces her own complicity in patriarchy. She comes to appreciate the harm that her enabling of Roman Sionis has done – in spite of the fact that her willingness to do his bidding stems only from her desire to stay alive. She finds herself in a situation from which she believes there is no escape. She sings in Roman’s club and, when Harley breaks the legs of his driver, and Roman sees Dinah defending a semi-conscious Harley Quinn from would-be abductors in an alley-way, she is forced to become his replacement chauffeur. Her loyalties are immediately torn, however, when she realises that Cassandra is in danger – and it is this that drives her actions when she reluctantly agrees to team with Harley Quinn.

The Huntress has the most inclusive path to the embracement of her true self, in that she spends most of the film trying to build up the courage to announce her identity – practising in the mirror with, “Do you know who I am?” before murdering people with her crossbow. The mysteriousness of her crimes leads people to refer to her as The Crossbow Killer, but this is not the name she chooses for herself. There are clear parallels here between Huntress and those in society who seek to identify as someone other than whom others assume them to be, but the point in this narrative is that Huntress was originally Helena Bertinelli – the child who witnessed Victor Zsasz and others murder her whole family. Her entire sense of self has therefore been wrapped in the need to avenge their deaths and, by the time she enters the abandoned Carnival in the third act, she has almost reached the end of the list. Her question then becomes, who am I without that motivation? The answer is, she is a member of this team.

There is history between Black Canary and Renee Montoya that is used, in a beautifully crafted scene, to highlight the intersection of racism and sexism. In a confrontation between the two women, Renee invokes the memory of Black Canary’s late mother – referencing the fact that she had the same vocal gift as Black Canary does, and used it to help the Gotham City Police Department. Renee memorialises Black Canary’s mother as a magnificent woman – writing her story right there in the stairwell as though she were a folk hero. Black Canary takes exception to this, and goes to great pains to remind Renee that her mother was a magnificent woman, but she was also discarded and left for dead by that same police department, so she is not interested in the process of manufacturing a reality that seeks to maintain the status quo.

Renee Montoya is a ‘token woman’ in the Gotham City Police Department and, despite being a legendary detective who solves the most complex and heinous crimes, she is consistently passed over for promotion in favour of less qualified men, and her male colleagues are routinely given the credit for her work. She has no voice in her department, and her theories are always met with dismissiveness and derision, despite the fact that she is usually right. She descends upon the abandoned Carnival with the aim of arresting Harley Quinn and rescuing Cassandra, but when this group of women are confronted with Sionis’s sadistic right-hand man Victor Zsasz wanting to slice Cassandra open, Renee realises that the women are not the enemy – the men are.

The notion of these men wanting to slice the diamond out of Cassandra is not a plot gimmick. It is not included here solely to engender shudders and horrified gasps. When Cassandra swallows the diamond, Roman Sionis and his followers cease to see her as a human being. She is merely the object that contains a thing that they want. She is reduced to being an obstacle to overcome, or a problem to be solved, or a container to be opened.

She becomes a vessel – just like women in a patriarchal society. 

So, when these four adult women come together to protect Cassandra from men that disregard her physical sovereignty, they do so in a political act.

Physical sovereignty and overall autonomy for women is the focus of a particularly unsettling scene in the midst of the second act. The scene takes place in the club owned by Roman Sionis, and sees the Gotham supervillain lash out and target a woman for humiliation in response to being told that his plan is going awry. Noticeably irritated by the bad news, he then becomes focused on a woman at another table, who is laughing loudly with her friend. Roman becomes paranoid, and decides that she is laughing at him. He approaches and aggressively menaces her – ordering her to stand on the table and dance. Once everyone in the club is silent and staring at her, he intimidates her male friend into cutting off her dress in this very public arena.

It is an effective scene in terms of the characterisation of Roman Sionis, because it reveals even further the depths of his misogyny, and generally dangerous and unpredictable nature. It also reveals the ease with which his ego can be made vulnerable when things do not go his way which, when added to that already toxic cocktail of personality traits makes for a very volatile situation. What is important to note, though, is that this scene is shot through a feminist lens, using the female gaze. The intense humiliation experienced by the targeted woman – Erika (Bojana Novakovic) – is communicated through the responses of the other people in the room – specifically the women. While Cathy Yan ensures we see the uncertainty turn to horror in Erika’s own expression, equal coverage is given to the reactions of Black Canary, and Huntress. Crucially, though Roman Sionis bullies Erika’s date (Andy Hoff) into cutting her dress off in public, Erika’s body is not revealed onscreen. The shot is framed in such a way that the focus is reaction, rather than exploitation.

This is a demonstration of the fundamental difference between male gaze and female gaze in cinema. So many movies shot through the male gaze have been released featuring the disproportionate exploitation of the female body that we unconsciously come to expect it as a matter of course. Netflix’s 6 Underground is a perfect, recent example of this. With Birds of Prey – and this scene in particular – Cathy Yan delivers a masterclass in how the reality of sexism and misogynist harassment can be depicted without the film itself becoming part of the problem.

The framing of this scene makes the filmmaker – and, by extension, the audience – a witness to the abuse as opposed to a participant. The removal of the potential for titillation makes the impact of the scene more powerful, because all that is left is the pain of the victim, and the discomfort of those forced to watch. Most importantly of all, it draws attention to the complicity of others in the harassment of women, through the silence of bystanders. In this scene, nobody intervenes to help Erika. Black Canary tries to leave, but is prevented from doing so by Roman. Huntress – lurking in the shadows of the room – does remove herself rather than watch Erika be publicly humiliated for the crime of enjoying herself.

Compare this club scene in Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey to the club scene in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. The narrative goal of both scenes is to depict the fear that their respective supervillains engender, and the power they wield over those around them. Both scenes also have their respective supervillains abuse a woman. However, in Ayer’s scene, that woman – Harley Quinn – is specifically sexualised in an exploitative way. The scene opens with Harley dancing in a suggestive style, specifically for the entertainment of Joker (Jared Leto), who then notes that fellow criminal Monster T (Common) is looking at her. Joker then calls her in by whistling – as one might do to a dog – and ‘gifts’ her to Monster T for the purpose of sex. When Monster T refuses, Joker kills him.

Ayer’s framing of his club scene reflects the male gaze in that it sexualises Harley as much as Joker does. The camera views her in a way designed to mimic the gaze of the men in the room – and the audience. While Harley is perhaps dancing for the purpose of drawing that attention, she is ultimately humiliated in the interaction between two men, for the purpose of bolstering their power. Of course, in this film, the point is that she is in an abusive relationship, but when this scene is compared with Cathy Yan’s club humiliation scene, we can see that it is possible to reflect the presence of toxic and abusive relationships without using the male gaze at all; without perpetrating that abuse with the camera. Cathy Yan’s club scene achieves exactly the same narrative goal as Ayer’s does, but through an entirely feminist lens. It is this inclusive feminist lens that allows for each of these women to be drawn in complex fashion, with their own motivations, histories, and fighting styles. Equally, they each have very different responses to trauma. These women are not a monolith…

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