Please be aware there are spoilers for Suicide Squad.
“Own that shit! You own it.”
At the end of Suicide Squad‘s second act, as Jay Hernandez‘s Diablo confesses the great sin that led him to swear off his powers, Margot Robbie‘s scene-stealing Harley Quinn barks at him from across the bar. “Own it,” she demands, unphased by Diablo’s heartfelt admission of one of the most horrific crimes conceivable. And that’s the epitome of the Harley Quinn we meet in Suicide Squad. A barb-tongued spitfire with chutzpah to spare; whatever nastiness comes her way, whatever her damage is, she owns that shit. The only problem is how poorly that damage is defined and how routinely it’s exploited in favor of a glamorized portrait of a brutally abusive relationship.
Suicide Squad is plagued by a host of problems. Incomprehensible narrative choices, chaotic editing, and a mish-mash of tones make for a pretty bad movie that’s frustratingly close to being pretty good. Structural issues aside, Suicide Squad boasts enough engrossing performances (Will Smith and Viola Davis unsurprisingly delight, while Hernandez is an unexpected standout) and off-beat character moments to keep me happily glued to my seat. And even if the story is somewhat mangled, there’s a lot to love about the rag-tag band of black sheep who forge a new family in the thick of battle. While I had higher hopes for Suicide Squad, it would have been enough. It would have been enough but for the fact that the film is almost uniformly terrible to women, and to Harley Quinn in particular. And as a female viewer, it’s absolutely disheartening to watch.
Growing up as an action and genre junkie in the 90s, I got pretty well adjusted to skewed gender dynamics in film. Excepting a few oddballs (The Long Kiss Goodnight, Point of No Return), it was all but a given that the leading men would serve as hero and female characters would come up as second best…at best. More often, they were pale, sexist portraits of vixens and damsels, rarely afforded the integrity, intelligence, and determination of the male characters that surrounded them. Which is to say, I learned early on to be able to enjoy a film and be offended by it at the same time (there’s literally no other way to be a fan of James Bond if you’re a woman). But decades have passed. Female action heroes have become the norm. And while that kind of sexism still lingers, it’s usually a lot more subtle than what we see in Suicide Squad.
Amanda Waller is admittedly a triumph, but from there things get pretty grim for the women of Suicide Squad. June is a frustratingly feeble non-character, Enchantress is a gyrating emblem of tribalism, and for some reason, Katana isn’t allowed to speak for herself despite the reveal that she’s fluent in English. Women are regularly used as literal punchlines, and even the female characters on the periphery are deadbeats (Deadshot’s wife) and plot points (Diablo’s wife). To put it bluntly; it’s 2016, we expect better. We deserve better. And so does Harley Quinn.