Birds of Prey is being read by many as an overly feminist film, deep with a critique on males. Yes, the film was written, produced and directed by women. Sure, the film sports a full female cast receiving top billing over the two male antagonists. People act as if somewhere Gloria Steinem is just gushing over this film. Warner Bros and DC Comics are pushing a politically feminist agenda with this film in today’s age. You can choose to believe this if you are male, overly privileged, ignorant or.... Alex Jones. Truth of the matter is, this film is far from political.
Yet, I cannot help but notice there is a fight for control within this film and the narrative surrounding it, within our culture. Today’s men and women are still dealing with this. Say what you will, we live in a patriarchal society. The United States still has not had a female president. Women only began to earn independence into the 1970s with liberalized divorce laws and finally being able to sign a lease by themselves. Some men cry from the mountains and clutch their pearls at the prospect of this film and any other film like it. Meanwhile, many women could not be any more excited for such a film. Looking deeper, you can find elements that get turned on their head in our gendered culture within the film. This applies to our leading ladies and the villains as well. In these qualities, you can find something of a feminist film but done quite subtlety. Let us start with Harley Quinn.
Our leading woman herself is of course the crux of the story. She is going through a break-up but not in the traditional sense, unless you count cheese wiz on the couch and crying in your pajamas. Birds of Prey is something of a break-up film you can say, but it does not follow the traditional break-up rom com kind of schlock. Harley Quinn does not eat cookie dough with her bestie, while drinking wine and watching Lifetime. More importantly, there is no new guy at the end of the film. Instead, she tries to rediscover herself. Over a period of time she was known as Harley Quinn, the girlfriend of the Joker! Many people can relate to this, where at one point they were a wife or husband and this was core to their identity. Harley Quinn gets a haircut, buys a pet and goes out on her own at night. Many newly single people can identify with traits like these.
What is interesting here is Harley Quinn has agency now, being a free, independent woman and not just the Joker’s girlfriend. Sadly, many fans still see her as this and want to always see her as that. In the film, Harley finds out quickly what this agency brings with her new independence. She now has no security and must accept the consequences of her chaotic decisions such as stomping a man’s legs for example. Again, this fits into our patriarchal society but turned on its head for a comic book movie. The gender norm is the boyfriend/husband protects his woman. Females are seen as the weaker sex; hence they must rely on a man for protection. Unfortunately, without the Joker she has no protection and faces the wrath of violent criminals and other angry men of Gotham City. Grant you she meets many of these situations differently – assistance from another woman, annoyance such as ‘I haven’t even had breakfast yet’ and sheer luck with Huntress’ surprise hit. Other scenarios she defends herself fine but nowhere is she bailed out by a man, unless you want to sickly count her deal with Roman Sionis.
Harley Quinn’s arrangement with Roman Sionis is the beginning of Harley developing her own agency. A woman at the mercy of a crime lord and his hired guns, what’s a girl to do? Perhaps cry and get all emotional? I would not put it past some male writers to just have her sleep with Sionis to get out of her little situation. In fact, the original Harley Quinn of the Mad Love story was something akin to this. Instead, she is rational, diplomatic and appeals to his little problem she overheard him getting upset about. It is with the arrival of Cassandra Cain into her life that Harley is slowly finding herself. A therapist is not necessary to see that Harley is or was in something of a codependent relationship with the Joker. It is hard to say for sure, given we do not have a good in-depth analysis of their relationship within the realms of the DCEU. Look at examples from the comics and Batman: The Animated Series, we can see a co-dependency. Some ‘friends’ of Harley’s make note early in the film, in how she will just wind up with another macho alpha-male she just stumbles upon. One can maybe even assume Sionis would take up this role, especially when we go back to the two at the bargaining table and how that could have turned out...in other hands.
Harley Quinn’s relationship with Cassandra Cain shows maturing within her own character. Grant you, she takes her in originally as part of Sionis’ deal to get the rest of Gotham off of her back, for her own security. Quickly, Harley begins to grow fond of her little captive. We see Harley does not settle for the next dominant male in her sight. Yet, she does not pick up any of the Joker’s domineering behavior to use on Cassandra. Instead, she enters a healthy relationship with Cassandra as a friend and mentee. Harley has no interest in being controlling. She views Cassandra as something of a little sister and student as she passes her own wisdom to her in the grocery store. They share a bowl of cereal together and paints her nails. If anything, Harley is not giving into the whims of another commanding male with a fragile ego. Of course, a monkey wrench is thrown into this when Harley has a change of heart and turns Cassandra over.
One can hardly guess how Harley Quinn expected this to go down. Will she turn Cassandra Cain over, ask for the girl’s safety and ask Sionis to uphold their deal? We can speculate, but we cannot prove anything when all goes to hell as Renee Montoya shows up, then Victor Zsasz and Black Canary. Things go even further south when Huntress arrives to kill Zsasz and finally Black Mask appears with his legions. Notice she is quick to take control of this situation, logically pointing out how each woman there is in trouble with Black Mask to one degree or another. She is able to unite these women into a fighting force and not through some silly girl power as some critics believe or want you to believe. Harley simply appeals to their logic and their need to survive.
What is worth noting is what she says to Sionis “I'm the one they should be scared of! Not you, not Mr. J! Because I'm Harley Fucking Quinn!” Our leading lady is onto something. Similar to the Joker, Harley is no stranger to chaotic violence for the sake of chaotic violence. Recall her stomping the man’s legs simply for cursing at her? She sicks her hyena on one man for making unwanted advances towards her. She single-handedly manages to break into Gotham City Police Headquarters to break out Cassandra Cain, while defending herself from cops and mercenaries. One can truly say - she’s a bad bitch, don’t cross her! If that is not enough, go by what we know of her and a plethora of other examples outside of the film.
By the end of the film, Harley Quinn sets out for her own adventure with her new friend, Cassandra Cain. No doubt that many men in Gotham City still want her dead but she’s alive and Roman Sionis is not. That should be a message to the criminals in Gotham. However, that’s not the point. For a split second, she was relying on the aid of another male for security. If she delivered Cassandra to Sionis then she would be protected, at least that was the deal. Where is Harley going at the end of film? Hard to say or know! What is more important is how she has taken ownership over her life. No longer is she some pawn in another egotistical man’s grand schemes. She may not even know where she is going or what she truly wants. However, what she does understand is that is for her to figure out and no one else.
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