It seems that every attempt to make a film that sets women front and center is met with angry, male-centric resistance. Why is it we can have countless stories of boys being boys, but the moment women are announced as leading the film complaints and criticisms start rolling in? As of 2019, the 2016 Ghostbusters trailer was the most disliked video on YouTube simply for the crime of having a primarily female cast. Mad Max: Fury Road, which starred Charlize Theron alongside Tom Hardy, was accused of “succumbing to the feminist agenda” by fans of the testosterone-packed franchise. And more recently, Birds of Prey: The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn has been plagued with negative reviews and angry fanboys because it dares to celebrate femininity.
Harley Quinn of DC Comics is best known for her highly toxic and problematic relationship with the Joker since her debut in 1992 on Batman: The Animated Series. Originally a brilliant psychiatrist working at Arkham Asylum, she fell for the Joker’s manipulation and mind tricks, helping him escape to continue wreaking havoc in Gotham. Harley’s undergone numerous incarnations, retcons, and updates over the years, sometimes breaking free of the Joker only to get swept back into his abusive and gaslighting ways. She’s hardly an innocent character, and she’s every bit as insane as the Joker, but 2020’s Birds of Prey was a refreshing and ultimately delightful movie that unapologetically celebrated femininity and powerful women. Margot Robbie reprised her titular role as Harley Quinn from the critically panned 2016 Suicide Squad film; in Birds of Prey, however, the underwear-shorts and impractical stiletto heels, the unnecessarily revealing outfits, and the lingering camera shots were left behind along with the Joker. Perhaps it helped that the film was written and directed by women, since it felt like Harley and her squad of kickass women were treated as people, not objects. They were allowed to swear, to fight dirty, to cry, pout, laugh, and be obnoxious. They didn’t have to constantly swing their hips and wink at the camera.
With Margot Robbie set to reprise her role as Harley in the upcoming remake of Suicide Squad, we will have to wait and be cautiously optimistic that her onscreen representation will continue the journey she started in Birds of Prey. Strong female characters don’t have to prove they’re just as good as their male counterparts while still being sexy for the cameras – they can and should exist as themselves, for themselves. It’s refreshing to see women as people on the screen, not as glamorous objects that must constantly strive to please the male gaze.