Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a film with a dominant, non-heteronormative female gaze.
Throughout the film – which features fight scenes, scenes in dance clubs, scenes of torture and intimidation, and scenes of connection, understanding and support – at no time are any of the female, or male, characters objectified for the erotic fantasising gaze of anyone.
This is not to say that the characters are all dressed in twill dresses and shuffle around without personality or interest. Far from it. All the characters have a particular visual style, and this style is illustrative of their personalities, and practical lives, and tastes, rather being performed for the consumption of men.
Film theorist Laura Mulvey articulated the concept of the controlling male gaze in cinema in her seminal article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, published in Screen in 1975. Considering Freud’s concept of scopophilia, or the pleasure in the look, as well as other psychoanalytic theories, Mulvey writes that
[i]n a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.
Mulvey explores this in much more depth, but the concept itself is clear: women in film are presented for the satisfaction of a male gaze. This controlling gaze can be analysed at three levels. The first level is the level of the camera, or director, which is controlling and male; the second is the diegetic gaze of the male characters within the film that the female is narratively presented for; and the third level is that of the viewer, which is also assumed to be male. The combined weight of this gaze influences the nature of the images, narratives and objectifications within filmic representations of women and non-binary people (if non-binary people are represented at all).
Birds of Prey actively subverts and reverses all these understood gendered constructions. The film’s creative team are all female, and director Cathy Yan, writer Christina Hodson and producer/actor Margot Robbie have achieved something rare and beautiful with this film. It was certainly deliberate, and it was achieved with skill and aplomb.
As a starting point, Harley Quinn herself spends the film in an extended grieving process for an abusive relationship where she was in thrall to a psychopath. This enthrallment is written on her very skin, and although the viewer sees her fascination with her ex in the very shimmering, chemically scarred whiteness of the skin on her legs, arms and face, this is not visually eroticised or objectified. She wears costumes similar to those she has become known for in the comic books – and particularly the recent Suicide Squad film – but again through lighting, focus and a decision not to isolate body parts or choreograph her movements and fights in ways that appeal to a heteronormative male gaze, Harley is not objectified. Her denim short-shorts, worn through a large part of the film, appear as a fashion choice that appeals to her own idea of what is comfortable and looks nice. There are no close-ups of her hips swaying or her butt-cheeks peeping out from the cut-off shorts legs; she is not being reduced to an eroticised body part nor does she move in a way designed to stimulate a sexual male fantasy.
All the fight scenes focus on the dynamics of the conflict, and the problem-solving and ingenuity needed by the female characters to succeed in the battle. The female characters do generally prevail, but with a realistic representation of mistakes and occasionally fabulous humor. What the scenes don’t do is present the female combatants as achieving their goals while twisting into impossible contortions wearing impossibly high-heeled shoes and displaying breasts and butts and licking their lips (the position known in the comic-book industry as ‘broke-back’). Harley Quinn engages in a fight in a jail, with water spraying everywhere, in a white t-shirt and pink bra, and is not displayed with her breasts heaving and sweaty and glistening. This is a subversion of the male gaze that viewers have come to expect, and the reformation of it to a female gaze is a conscious, and formative, act. In fact, her breasts aren’t noticeable at all; the t-shirt just looks uncomfortably wet and the bra isn’t shot to highlight the underlying readiness of the character to have sex with a lacy-lingerie-appreciating man. It’s a crop-top under a t-shirt and looks like it’s there to support her, not enhance her breasts.
The abuse of the film’s antagonist, Roman Sionis, is never presented as either attractive or titillating. He’s a sadistic bastard with a constant need for reassurance that he is feared. His abuse is ugly, and terrifying, and very, very uncomfortable to watch – as abuse should be. This is achieved partly by not objectifying or eroticising his victims. When he forces a woman to stand on a table and dance for him, and then makes her male companion cut her dress off, the sadistic horror of the abuse is given space to breathe not through shots of the woman’s body being exposed erotically or even attractively, but through the woman’s fear and humiliation in a close-up of her face, a close-up of the dress being clumsily hacked, and then a mid-shot of her clutching her dress to her body and shivering in shock, the only exposed underwear a small section of a basic beige bra from a crappy chain store.
In a brief scene that will, I believe, be game-changing for the super-hero film genre, Harley hands Black Canary a hair-tie. That act of support and understanding and, magnificently, sheer bloody practicality, adds serious weight to the concept that female superheroes are people, and have practical needs, and emotions, and that the feminine is not an aspect of humanity to be excluded, or elided, or nullified.
All of this is important, because until the male gaze – which audiences throughout the world have been taught to accept as the only viewing lens – is identified and ‘made strange’, as gender theorists have been working to do for decades, it will remain the only perspective. The production of a film with a predominant and overarching (but not controlling) female gaze takes us one step closer to making the male gaze strange, gendered and escapable.