These past few years have been an uphill battle for minorities on the big screen. What with the rise of female/queer/POC-centric stories, the ongoing fight for what kind of sensitive content films should or should not show, and the endless platforms the divided public now get to post their opinions on, things can get pretty messy. Comic book films, in particular, have tried their best to be at the front lines of the movement. Female directed films like Wonder Woman, majority black casts like Black Panther, and films that push the artistic boundaries of the genre like The Joker have dominated the buzz amongst movie buffs on the internet. With this sensationalist formula in mind, how did DCU's Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) dir. Cathy Yan, a female directed film that promises women's solidarity, POC representation, and a unique cinematic style, ultimately flop as the weakest grossing DCU film?
The “minority” argument is not one the film world is most sensitive towards, but we can’t deny that it affects the experience of many viewers, whether positively or otherwise. But why is the representation thing so important? Simple answer: the things we consume form our reality. It’s true, identity politics within films may not be the root of the patriarchal system feminists try so hard to fight, but we can’t deny that it perpetuates narratives formed within the patriarchal context. The language used, the images shown, which actors are chosen, what they wear, how they’re presented; all of these aspects accumulate, perpetuate and reconfirm myths society has imposed on people, whether we realise it or not. It’s why stereotypes and cinematic tropes exist. These “stereotypes [then] become problematic when they lead to expectations about one social category over another or restrict opportu- nities for one social category over another” (Grau and Zotos).
Scholarly theories aside, identity politics might not be your cup of tea. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take an academic genius to know that all-woman, feral action-packed sequences are revolutionary when it comes to Hollywood cinema. Black Widow, who is played by the ever sexualized Scarlett Johansson, kicks butts while the camera trains on her actual rear, Wonder Woman, a literal Amazonian warrior goddess, walks the trenches like a Victoria Secret Model whilst dodging bullets, and even the former Harley Quinn herself fights in glorified underwear and a jacket that reads “Property of The Joker” with only one worry on her mind: making sure her hair is perfect for her criminal, abusive boyfriend. Identity politics or not, I can’t think of a single male character from the genre portrayed in a more ridiculous manner than what these female characters have to go through.
Contrastingly, in Birds of Prey, Harley is allowed to go...for lack of a better word, crazy. While trying to rescue Cassandra in a warehouse, Harley fights off a biker gang and she does not hold back. Using her signature bat, she isn’t worried about how she looks when she fights. She grunts, screams, she’s aggressive, goes for the gory and gritty like busting a guy’s knee caps. She’s still wearing her shorts and heels, but Yan does it in a way that isn’t disrespectful or sexualizing in any way. Her goal isn’t to look pretty, her goal is to keep a young girl safe.
Looking at the reviews, so many people brought up the argument that the movie was bad, and that “Social Justice Warriors” would use the “female-centric-film-card” as an excuse to argue otherwise. According to CNBC, the film debuted $48 million internationally, “bringing its worldwide gross to around $81.3 million” (Witten), making it the weakest opening of a DCU movie. Forbes speculates that the movie’s marketing, including trailers and sneak-peeks “may have turned off general moviegoers who still prefer somewhat conventional blockbuster fare, at least in terms of visuals and surface-level content” (Mendelson). While DC themselves believed it was the title of the film, and later changed it to 'Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey'.
Take a look at other recent male-dominated Hollywood action films. Mission Impossible, James Bond 007, Fast and Furious, Bad Boys, Transformers, all of the Avengers movies, and even Deadpool, who has often been dubbed the unorthodox Marvel equivalent of Harley Quinn. This brings me to my pont; all of these movies tick the same boxes Birds of Prey does - excess, explosions, unrealistic chases, wild stunts, bone-cracking sound effects, diabolical villains, oversaturation, fourth-wall breaking, punching, kicking, weapons, superpowers, flashy costumes, tongue-in-cheek humour, conventionally attractive actors. The only difference is, Birds of Prey is the first all-woman ensemble comic book film, which was enough to make people opt out of seeing it in theatres.
Because it was an all-woman ensemble, people also automatically associated the film with politics (feminism this, representation that...even though that stuff is real). When really, Yan has just done what so many other action films have done before. Birds of Prey is a Hollywood spectacle at its finest, but people seem to automatically shut down when they saw the word “emancipation” and realised it was probably going to be non-sexualised women's action. When in reality, if you know cultural studies, then you’d know that nothing is neutral. A male-dominated action film sells politics too, just not the politics we stereotypically associate with 'identity politics'. The straight white man isn't neutral. This whole thing only further proves the myths that women shouldn’t step out of line, and must only behave wildly if it is consumable for the heteronormative and objectifying male gaze, whereas "boys will be boys" and are naturally drawn to exploding cars. Why are viewers so afraid of an unruly woman, but are comfortable with an unruly man?
As a final statement: who cares if Birds of Prey is any good? It’s not about whether this film is worthy cinema since it centers around women. I can argue that The Joker was actually trash and deserved none of the Oscar buzz when compared to its contenders. But it's not about that, it’s about trash politics. Hollywood is about doing the most, going above and beyond, and doing so with an almost tacky flare...but who gets to indulge in that? Who gets to blow up the cars? And who gets to look pretty in the driver’s seat? Art is subjective, so we can sit here for hours debating whether or not the movie was good, but you can’t tell me that it wasn't innovative and feral eye candy, and sometimes that’s all there is to these mainstream action movies.