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Birds of Prey Review – Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn Movie Has a Thoughtful #MeToo Message
In the past two decades, around 60 films have been created based on Marvel and DC properties, and until now only five of them (Catwoman, Elektra, Captain Marvel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Dark Phoenix) have had a female character’s name in their title. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is the sixth, and it also has the distinction of being the first to feature an all-women superhero team, one made up of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress, and Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya. The film rescues the Harley Quinn character from the endless leering she was subjected to in the truly atrocious Suicide Squad—and thoughtfully tackles issues of rape and sexual harassment along the way.
Sexual assault isn’t at the heart of the film, which tells the story of Harley’s attempt to strike out on her own after being dumped by the Joker. (Jared Leto is, thankfully, absent.) Along the way, she meets up with adorable child pickpocket Cassandra Cain, who’s swallowed a diamond that local crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) really wants to get his hands on. With every goon in the city competing for the bounty on Cassandra’s head, the women band together to protect her from Sionis’s droogs.
Still, themes of sexual predation arise again and again in Birds of Prey. Early on, Harley feeds a lecherous dude to her adorable pet hyena, Bruce. And she and Black Canary have one of their first meaningful encounters when Canary saves Harley from a likely sexual assault. After a night of drinking away memories of the Joker, Canary spots a barely-conscious Harley canoodling with a far more sober-seeming dude. When the guy and one of his friends try to trundle Harley into the back of a van, Canary beats them up and saves her.
But even more revealing is the scene in which the villainous Sionis sexually humiliates a woman at his bar. He’s enraged, and mistakenly thinks that she’s laughing at him. He orders her to dance on a table, and then has her dress cut off her, leaving her half naked and terrified.
In her indispensable 1975 book Against Our Will, writer Susan Brownmiller famously framed rape as a crime that was about power, not sex. But it’s rare to see this illustrated in popular depictions of assault and harassment. Sionis’s demand that the woman be publicly stripped isn’t portrayed as having anything to do with sexual attraction, a framing that skews towards letting perpetrators off the hook because they “got carried away” or “couldn’t help themselves.”
McGregor has said that his character is “more than likely” gay, and while big screen blockbusters’ new habit of including inexplicit references to characters being kinda-sorta-maybe-queer is pretty annoying, it suggests that Sionis’s desire to humiliate and threaten the woman isn’t born of attraction to her. Instead, it’s rooted in a desire to harm and control her. Amid the movie’s fun, if at times ham-handed girl power moments, and artfully choreographed fight scenes, this scene stands out for its serious-minded and affecting portrayal of sexual harassment.
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.