In Praise of ‘Birds of Prey’s Unapologetic Feminism

     February 11, 2020


Harley Quinn is so fucking over clowns. What a mood. This is also the part where I tell you that there are some minor spoilers for Birds of Prey in this article.

The tale of the ever-popular side-kick’s emancipation crashed into theaters this weekend. Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn has been mostly met with critical acclaim for a wide variety of reasons. It’s bright, it’s hilarious, and whips a whole lot of, well, you know what. Not to mention the fact that its soundtrack is filled with back-to-back bangers.

Not everything in the film works. It’s told from Harley’s (Margot Robbie) perspective, which has thrown plenty of folks. With her scatterbrained conscious also comes her own idea of certain characters. That results in a complete retelling of some long-known characters, which can be a little jarring if you’re not prepared for it. If you keep Harley’s mentality in mind, then it makes perfect sense that Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are kinda weenies in some parts.

Even then, Birds of Prey uses their depictions as a tool. The film does excel in a lot of areas, but the smartest thing about it is how fiercely female it is during every single second of its runtime. Both characters might have their lame moments, but I gotta tell ya—every strong woman you know has given herself some nerdy pep-talk or another. Every track, every scene, and every character beat screams loud and proud that women made this film. It’s vulnerable, it’s fierce, and it will not hesitate a single second to hit you in the face with a bat.


Image via Warner Bros.

Let’s kick things off at the beginning, when Harley realizes she’s done with her abusive ex for good. We quickly shift into an iconic scene that nearly every girl can relate to. It also just so happens to be the scene that bros have been gnashing their teeth over from the moment we saw it in the trailer: Harley slurping down squeeze cheese like it’s her last lifeline. But what’s so wrong with that, you’d wonder? We watch scene after scene in film after film of men doing the grossest possible things.

That double standard is what I mean when I say “unapologetically female”. Not one moment of this film is made for the male gaze. That can be a tough pill to swallow when an entire genre has catered to your beck and call through the majority of its existence. The thing is, comics and their many adaptions aren’t made solely for men. It just feels that way because they’ve almost always catered exclusively to that gaze.

Harley’s spiral continues in familiar fashion, including the adoption of a new pet, a drastic hair change, a bender, and aggressive destruction of a place that symbolized the pinnacle of her abusive relationship. Each post-breakup stage serves to make the film’s complicated protagonist more and more relatable. Harley Quinn has always been a popular character, but her breakup spiral opened her up to a whole new audience of women who may not have been able to connect with her tendencies in the past.

Enter the sandwich. Whether it be drunk food, hangover food, period food, a pregnancy craving or just a plain old favorite, every girl has something akin to The Sandwich. That thing that you’ll literally go on the prowl for after a bad day. The one small snack that can bring you a tiny comfort in your moment of pain. To suddenly have your one comfort in a sea full of micro frustrations be ripped out of your grasp is almost unbearable. So, who can really blame our protagonist for her response against her current-nemesis-but-future-teammate Renee Montoya?  No one, that’s who!


Image via Warner Bros.

Birds of Prey’s aggressive femininity doesn’t begin and end with Harley Quinn. As the title may suggest, this film is about an ensemble of women, all of which are their own characters with their own flaws, fears and voices. Yes, the female power of the film includes Cassandra Cain’s (Ella Jay Basco) tomboyish clothes and Renee Montoya’s “I Shaved My Balls For This” tee. The two have very masculine traits, and those traits are just as valid as the more feminine appearances of the likes of Dinah Lance and Harley Quinn. Their inclusion doesn’t take away from the film’s femininity. In fact, said inclusion only drives home the fact that this is a film for all women, not just some.

Each characterization’s a little different. Cassandra Cain—while a much different telling than her typical cowl-wearing comic counterpart—is a pickpocketing orphan with a penchant for swallowing diamonds. We’ll touch more on that later. In addition to all that, she’s the most tomboyish of the lot, favoring clothes that keep her from standing out in a crowd. Renee Montoya keeps to the suits as she desperately fights to be taken seriously by her male counterparts. Helena Bertinelli (AKA The Huntress) is a kind of middle ground between Cass and Renee’s more “masculine” looks, and Harley and Dinah’s more traditionally “feminine”. She’s sporting a midriff, but with a more blocky, eighties looking attire. Dinah Lance (AKA Black Canary) shifts effortlessly from evening attire to flattering crop tops, as one would expect from the character. But the one we’re able to dive the deepest into is Harley Quinn.

That ability is less because the film is largely about her and more because we’ve already seen her from a male perspective. Looking at Harley’s characterization in Suicide Squad vs her depiction in Birds of Prey could be used in a master class about the male gaze. Her clothes are still sexy, but on her terms, and with no mention of the word “daddy” anywhere. Meanwhile her pigtails are cut short, and her bangs are a choppy fringe rather than provocatively framing her face. She’s allowed to be “ugly”, whether it be when she’s sucking down cheese or weeping over the loss of her beloved sandwich, rather than remaining perfectly coifed at all times.

All of this is to say that not one moment of Birds of Prey is made with the intent for it to be sexually appealing to men, and that’s part of what makes it exceptional. It’s women dressing how they want to dress, whether that be feminine, masculine, or somewhere in between.

The movie excels not just by focusing on what should be the obvious perceptions of femininity, but the things that are still strangely considered to be taboo as well. For example a surprisingly large percentage of the movie is about trying to get a teenage girl to poop. I don’t know how to break this to the men who may or may not be surprised, but women do that. Your mother, your sisters, your girlfriend, all of them. There’s a whole book about it everybody pooping. Yet, somehow, it’s still largely considered a big no-no to acknowledge.


Image via Warner Bros.

We’ve seen it in comedies, where it’s usually treated as a joke (because let’s face it, poop jokes will always play). But, while there’s plenty of humor in Birds of Prey, this arc is never really treated as an attempt at humor. It’s just a perfectly normal situation where you’re trying to get one of your teammates to crap out the insanely expensive diamond that they just so happened to have swallowed to avoid being murdered on the spot.

Now that we’ve covered the fact that women have, do, and will continue to poop, let’s take a look at another nonsensical “taboo” that the whole of the world needs to get passed: not letting older women be hot. It’s such a small moment, but I adore the fact that they put Renee Montoya, the eldest member of their merry band of misfits, in Harley’s corset. Girl’s running around in suits and shlubby tee-shirt for the entirety of the film thenbam she’s there showing that she absolutely still has a body. Down with the idea that women in their mid-to-late thirties need to play mothers to teenagers while guys in their fifties and sixties are still considered hot. They didn’t get more attractive, they just learned how to groom their beards, and Rosie Perez (a stunning fifty-five) can get it in that corset!

The two best moments in the film both feature Dinah Lance. In the first, she’s the one coming to the rescue, in the second, she’s the on the receiving end of the help. Women might still often be portrayed as catty, but never underestimate what we’ll do for one another if we see a sister in danger. Even at her most disinterested, Dinah comes to Harley’s rescue when she’s too drunk to function and is being taken advantage of outside the club. It doesn’t matter if it’s our best friends or our worst enemy, the majority of us are stepping in if we see something like that. Mostly because almost every woman you know has a story.

The moment that has her on the receiving end of some help is the very same moment you’ve seen everyone gushing about online since critic reactions dropped—the hair tie. This is such a quintessentially female moment and it’s worth every ounce of adoration it’s received. It’s so simple, yet so, so meaningful. Not to mention the fact that it’s something that a dude director never would have thought of. And that’s not at the fault of any male director! It’s just an experience that guys don’t have. Which is one of the many reasons why it’s so important to have women telling women’s stories.

At the end of the day, Birds of Prey didn’t have the opening weekend it deserved. Honestly? That feels kind of on brand for this misfit of a movie. Hopefully you’ll take the time to check it out because sure, it might be a little flawed, but it’s flawed in a lot of the beautiful ways that every woman out there is flawed. It’s unapologetic, it’s bright, and it doesn’t give a shit about your boner.


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