Margot Robbie Harley Quinn Birds of Prey

Why Harley Quinn's outfit change in Birds of Prey is so important

Contributed by
Feb 22, 2019

It’s rare that a simple costume teaser earns any real traction for a movie, but then again, when the character you’re hyping up happens to be one Harley Quinn, “normal” just doesn’t apply.

In late January, DC shared a quick clip of Margot Robbie’s new Birds of Prey flick. In it, Robbie and the rest of her girl squad could be seen hamming it up for the camera, staring down the lens in their signature vigilante uniforms with neon lights flashing and a warehouse for a backdrop. It was badass enough to get Twitter raving, and seeing Robbie once again inhabit her comic book alter ego warranted a news post or two, but the clip was probably much more important than most people realized because, you see, Harley Quinn is sporting a new look. And that’s worth talking about.

To be clearer, Harley Quinn is enjoying her fantabulous emancipation … from the male gaze.

To understand why Harley’s outfit change deserves a deep dive we must chart her onscreen trajectory, from lovelorn comic book sidekick to full-blown big-screen anti-heroine.

Most fans, especially ones who haven’t opened a graphic novel in a while, know Harley Quinn only through her association with the Joker, which is … fine, I guess. That toxic relationship is responsible for bringing Harley’s villainous side to life. Before she treated the Joker at Arkham Asylum, Dr. Harleen Quinzel was a celebrated psychiatrist, a genius who studied criminal behavior. Her relationship with the Joker transformed her, proving her beginning theory that love can force a person to disregard the rules of society. She became Harley Quinn, a villain in the Joker’s story, helping him to escape prison multiple times, to take on his archnemesis, Batman, and to rain chaos down on Gotham City. Though Harley Quinn’s descent into madness might have been kickstarted by her affair with The Joker, her story soon expanded to include more than just the Clown Prince of Crime, on paper and on the screen.

In David Ayer’s star-studded Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn became a member of a team of antiheroes, DC villains known for causing trouble, not saving the world. The film was, in many ways, a strategic battling back against Marvel’s Avengers-style team-ups, but it was also a way to introduce well-loved outlaws from the larger DC universe. Robbie’s Quinn joined recognized rogues like Deadshot (Will Smith), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and more to take on a superhuman threat. They did it for selfish reasons — mainly to make their prison stints more comfortable — but by the end of the flick, Quinn had given up her obsession with the Joker for a time to complete her mission and help her friends. She was a stand-out character, a source of much-needed humor, anarchy personified, but she struggled to escape the chains of her romantically charged beginnings, and the trappings that relationship spawned.

Harley Quinn was a capable member of Suicide Squad, a woman with extraordinary talents with a real joy for taking down baddies, but most of her time on the screen catered to a decidedly male audience with an infatuation for the manic pixie nightmare she represented. Entire scenes were spent scrolling her lithe form, lingering on her breasts, her ass, her toned stomach as she tried on skin-baring outfits with men surrounding her. She danced on poles for fun, she practiced seductively suggestive acrobatics in her prison cell, she licked the bars of her cage. She oozed sex, fully embodying a disturbing trope — the crazy hot chick. You know, one men fantasize about, one they dream of controlling or, worse, enticing further into madness. She’s attractive because of her mental illness. She’s naughty enough to fulfill some of your darkest desires. Her insanity is part of the seduction — it means you can view her as an object, not a human being — as long as it doesn’t spill over into territory not involving sex.

The minute Harley Quinn’s mental state began to become problematic, requiring the writers to examine what led a young woman down such a dangerous path or why she insisted on going back to her abuser over and over again, an action sequence would swoop in, a fun flashback of Harley’s shenanigans with the Joker would pop up, reminding us she existed to be enjoyed, not empathized with.

Harley-Quinn-Will-Either-Make-Or-Break-Suicide-Squad.jpg
But that might be changing in Birds of Prey.

The new teaser shows a Harley Quinn who's just as lawless as her Suicide Squad predecessor, but one who is no longer suffering under some perverted male ideal of who she should be. With her short new do, bangs included, a cropped jacket complete with confetti-clipped tassels, hot pink suspenders, and a free-spirited attitude, Harley Quinn certainly looks emancipated, and not only from her former lover. She’s wearing new jewelry, a dog tag that might be a direct insult to her old boyfriend, and she’s drinking it up with a gang of badass women.

To understand why this Harley Quinn looks to be free of the male gaze means we have to know what the male gaze actually is. It’s a difficult definition to pin down because we’re fighting against decades of filmography that have propped it up. The male gaze isn’t constrained to the “skimpiness” of a female character’s outfit, though it can include that.

We often think of the male gaze in strictly visually, sexually-suggestive terms because that’s the form in which it’s easiest to identify but it includes so much more. 

For instance, Harley Quinn looks to be showing just as much skin in these new looks as she did in Suicide Squad. The difference is in how she’s captured by the camera. In Suicide Squad, Ayer chose to linger on specific body parts, looking down on the character with an angle that suggested a tinge of voyeurism and specific power dynamic. We were roaming her frame freely, we were staring down her cleavage or roving up her fishnet stockings in a way that felt, if not predatory, at the very least, sleazy. By contrast, this new glimpse of Harley Quinn centers the camera on her face; she stares down the lens, as do many of the women. We linger on crossbows, not tits, we appreciate sparkly hemmed boots, not thighs encased in uncomfortable stockings. Harley is just as seductive and alluring, sucking on a lollipop, twirling with a drink in her hand, but she feels like she’s choosing to be like she’s actively participating in the seduction, not a victim of it.

It’s a fine balance to strike, harder still because the “male gaze” isn’t just about a female character’s sexuality; it’s also about how she’s portrayed in relation to the men around her. Is she the focus of her own story? Does she have an arc, purpose, hell even a damn line that doesn’t hinge on a male character’s development? “Fridging” and the Bechdel Test are all part of this male gaze issue; they describe how female characters are often relegated to the background, used for the benefit of the men they share screen time with. We often think of the male gaze in strictly visually, sexually suggestive terms because that’s the form in which it’s easiest to identify, but it includes so much more.

It requires us to identify what’s happening behind the camera and then make connections to how that manifests on screen. For instance, Suicide Squad was helmed by a largely male creative team. Ayer directed and wrote the thing, he had male cinematographers and editors. Basically, men were in charge of the look, feel, and the story of the movie. Again, that’s fine. Do we hope for gender parity? Sure, but we’re in no way suggesting men can’t make good films. The problem comes when men are in charge of female characters and chose to portray them in a highly sexualized way without also affording them the luxury of a three-dimensional persona.

Harley Quinn is not just an object to be gawked at, the comedic relief, a crazy sexpot, but you wouldn’t know that if Ayer’s version of her was all you had to go on. Men aren’t the only ones guilty of utilizing the male gaze, though they do seem pre-naturally disposed to it. Women too can fall into the trap, especially when they’re handling a property that’s intended for a majority male audience, as comic book films have historically been. Think of Catwoman, Elektra, even Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman had an all-male writing team, though it managed to avoid the worst impulses of the male gaze — but Diana Prince and her Amazonian sisters were subjected to it in the Justice League follow-up.

Birds of Prey is a project Robbie has been championing even before Suicide Squad thrust her character into the spotlight. The film could’ve easily been a solo adventure, but instead, Robbie fought for Quinn to be surrounded by other women, women in similar positions as herself, women who have been confined by their male counterparts’ storylines. Robbie wanted Harley Quinn to be bolstered and challenged by fellow heroines, not men, and not the Joker specifically. And because she is a producer on this thing, she’s had say in who directs (Cathy Yan), who writes (Christina Hodson), and, we’re assuming, what Harley Quinn looks like (the film's costume designer is Erin Benach, who previously worked on A Star Is Born). This doesn’t mean the movie is completely shielded from the male gaze, but combining that knowledge with what we’ve seen from this new teaser, there’s an easily identifiable difference, a certain “vibe” that just didn’t exist before. That’s worth noting, and even celebrating because maybe it means Harley Quinn will finally get her due. Maybe we’ll be treated to a film about a woman battling against a toxic relationship, struggling with her own identity, trying to understand the chaos in her mind, and doing all of that without having to sport short shorts so the men watching her can get it up.

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