When my partner and I left the theater, I was practically vibrating with excitement. I was gobsmacked.
“It was just so good,” I said for the umpteenth time.
“Is this how men get to feel every time they see a superhero movie? Because this feels amazing!”
It was hard for me to quantify the feeling in the moment directly after viewing Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, or previously known as Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), but what I was feeling was relatability. This was a superhero movie about women, for women. I, and fellow femmes, were the target audience. This was for us. The characters were complicated. They were motivated by their own desires. And they kicked ass.
And then there was the inevitable deluge of fandom gatekeepers crying online about how BoP was a SJW flop. “Sabotaged by wokeness,” “no one wants to see ugly women in a comic book movie,” etc. Most of the criticism was coming from cishet men who were so desperate to convince people not to see BoP, they started comparing it to the new Sonic the Hedgehog movie, declaring that Sonic had “beaten the feminists” as my eyes rolled into another dimension.
So why do these men hate Birds of Prey so viscerally? And was it really a flop?
I think to effectively dissect the toxic rhetoric surrounding BoP (and the comic book community in general), we have to talk about privilege. We all move through this world with certain unearned social privileges and marginalization. For example, as a white woman, when I get pulled over by a cop, I am not afraid that I might die in that moment. That is an unearned privilege stemming from my whiteness. I also rarely use ride apps like Uber or walk home alone because I am constantly attempting to minimize the chance of being sexually assaulted. That is a marginalization I experience due to being a woman. These are not shaped so much by my actions, but by society in general. Specifically, how much social power society attributes to certain aspects of my person.
In America, the people with the most social power are cishet, able-bodied white men, usually rich, usually young. And by social power, I mean that this group of people rarely has to deal with the fear of repercussions simply for existing. And more importantly — at least for our discussion here — they are also the most represented group in our media. In a study conducted in 2014 by the University of Southern California, three-quarters of all film characters were white. The Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film reported as recently as 2019 that while more women are being seen on screen (40% of all films featured a female protagonist), they only comprised 26% of characters portrayed as leaders.
Our movies are clearly still catering to a particular audience, and that audience is very used to seeing itself well-represented. However, that audience doesn’t see itself as being overly represented, because that is the nature of privilege: when you have it, it’s invisible. The less society “others” you, the more you see your attributes as being generic. For example, if a character in a piece of fiction isn’t ascribed a race or gender identity, the reader will likely assume the character is a white man regardless of the reader’s own identity. This is referred to as a Default Bias, and is explored thoroughly in books such as Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez. American sociologist Michael Kimmel sums it up nicely in this interview from The Guardian: “I am the generic person. I am a middle class white man. I have no race, no class, no gender. I am universally generalisable.”
This is the source of all that anger directed at BoP: cishet white men are rarely excluded in our media. For most of us, we are used to not being represented to varying degrees. And even if we do see characters that resemble us, it is still usually through the white male gaze. For instance, take a look at Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad versus BoP:
In Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn’s ensemble is very clearly supposed to be appealing to the male gaze. With cheeky “shorts,” a ripped shirt that ascribes her identity to a (sexually charged pet name) man, long hair that maintains perfect bounce, a push-up bra, and tattoos that draw the eye to the crotch, this is an outfit straight from someone’s thirsty fantasy. In BoP, the outfit is just as revealing, but more realistic (and something I would literally wear). The post-break-up hair is choppy and fun, and the accessories are a delightful mix of ravewear and whimsy. Even the way these two shots are focused is telling: Suicide Squad centers on her breasts, while BoP centers on her face.
Even though Suicide Squad was a critical flop, these same fans now bemoaning DC’s newest film had little critique to offer regarding Harley Quinn (except to create an entirely new category at PornHub). In large part, I think that this has to do with her relationship to Joker. In Suicide Squad, Harley’s entire identity is wrapped up in her extremely toxic relationship to the infamous Batman villain. Her world revolves around him, despite the fact that he is clearly abusive. For many men, this represents the perfect girlfriend: someone who looks like they walked out of a thirst trap, who constantly offers support regardless of your own behavior, and has no drive or desires outside of your own.
So what are these same men supposed to do with a Harley Quinn devoid of her attachment to Joker? A Harley who finds herself alone and not the object of someone else’s desires, but suddenly autonomous and free? For anyone who has come out of an abusive relationship, Harley’s journey to self-actualization feels all too familiar. The initial meltdowns, the search for an identity outside of your ex’s, and eventually (hopefully) finding something resembling balance, often with the kind of support found in platonic relationships.
To go from the doting Harley Quinn of Suicide Squad to the chaotic neutral powerhouse in BoP must have been jarring for an audience that’s used to seeing the former. And then to couple her with a moderately diverse cast of equally powerful and complicated women, each with their own desires and moral alignments, this male audience was suddenly feeling left out, a feeling they’re probably not very used to. And their reaction was straight from the cycle of abuse: belittlement and mockery.
On top of that, the only prominent male characters are antagonists. The primary villain, Roman Sionis/Black Mask, clearly serves as a call-out to the same toxic fandom that is now heralding BoP as a box-office failure. He sees Black Canary as property and decorates his loft with images of bound and gagged women. The icing on the cake, however, is a scene in his club. A woman laughs, and Roman believes she is laughing at him (she clearly isn’t). He forces her to get up on a table and dance for his amusement, telling her that her dress is ugly and forces another man to rip it off of her. Roman treats this poor woman the same way fans (and Joker) treat Harley: as an object of amusement that should cater to their specific tastes, as opposed to an autonomous human being.
Finally, was Birds of Prey a flop? With a Fresh rating of 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, it is certainly doing well with the critics. But the trolls have primarily focused on its revenue as opposed to its general quality. Some have even claimed that it’s lost $60 million. That is obviously false. BoP was released in the United States on February 7th, so as of the publication of this article, it’s been out for a little over 2 weeks. Its budget was approximately $82 million, and so far, it has made $173.7 million. 173 million, for those playing at home, is more than 82 million. More than double, in fact. So no, to call BoP a flop is completely disingenuous and inaccurate.
The criticism circling around Birds of Prey is a simple ploy to try and trick others into thinking it is a bad movie when it is not. It simply isn’t servicing the male gaze. These toxic gatekeepers are used to being able to bully others (especially women/femmes within their social circles) into agreeing with them. It’s important to remind them that they do not own these fandoms. They don’t get to dictate how others enjoy them, or how they evolve.
Personally, I loved so many things about BoP, from the awkward but deadly Huntress, the brief appearance of Ali Wong, gay characters that the writers don’t make a big deal out of being gay, to the weird love letter to roller derby. This is why representation matters. This is why I want more diversity in my fandoms. I walked out of that theater feeling seen. Everyone, not just a select audience, should get to feel that way.