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How “Birds of Prey” Succeeds in Disrupting Cinema’s Male Gaze

How “Birds of Prey” Succeeds in Disrupting Cinema’s Male Gaze

Birds of Prey, which opened in theaters on February 7th, is the newest addition to the DC Cinematic Universe, and perhaps the most fun, campy, and certainly the most feminist, of the franchise yet.

Directed by Cathy Yan, written by Christina Hodson, and produced by Margot Robbie (can we get a hell yeah for women behind-the-scenes?!), the film currently holds a 78 percent on Rotten Tomatoes—much higher than its universally panned prequel, Suicide Squad, which featured the main protagonist Harley Quinn as the hyper-sexualized girlfriend of the Joker. Despite this, the movie hasn’t soared at the box office and much of its critique can be attributed to the film’s obvious deconstruction and disruption of the male gaze—the very thing that makes the movie the wonderful feminist triumph that it is. 

Birds of Prey follows Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) after her break-up from the Joker, whose reputation was the only thing protecting her from a slew of villains in Gotham City. While on the run, Quinn teams up with a group of women, including Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), to save teenager Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) from the the misogynistic wrath of Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). 

What makes Birds of Prey different from other “women-led” superhero films, and what has arguably been at the core of its criticism from audiences, is its complete revolt against the hyper-sexualized, “not like other girls,” narrative that has often dominated superhero films like Tomb Raider and the portrayal of Black Widow in the Avengers movies. Not to say that movies like this are bad per se, but the kind of girl-power they dare to preach lies in the idea that women have to be “bad ass” in skin-tight suits to warrant appreciation. The Harley Quinn we saw in Suicide Squad–which I will say is a bad movie—featured Quinn in unreasonably short hot pants, fishnets, and a ripped t-shirt with the words “Daddy’s Little Monster,” all of which Robbie hated, by the way. 

In a refreshing switch from the male-gaze—a term coined by Laura Mulvey to describe how the male viewpoint in cinematic storytelling, both behind the camera and onscreen, directly correlates to the consistent objectification of female characters—Birds of Prey features women characters that are 1) not dressed in an unrealistic way to appease male viewers and 2) are “like other girls” and face the same problems of misogyny and abuse that women everywhere deal with on the daily. Unlike in Wonder Woman, in which we see women facing off against anonymous foes, the women of Birds of Prey are directly seeking revenge on the abusive men in their lives, including Black Mask, who is shown throughout the movie grossly objectifying women for his own pleasure. 

Overall, Birds of Prey, is a fun, hilarious, action-packed gem that doesn’t try to paint its women leads as anything other than what they are. These women are angry, and they have a reason to be. Unlike Suicide Squad, where Quinn’s characterization (despite her awful treatment by the Joker) formed the foundation for male-fantasies everywhere, Birds of Prey allows its women to be ugly, throwing back spray cheese, chopping their hair off, and weeping where it is so justifiable to do so. So cheers to Birds of Prey, for finally getting it right. 

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