Everyone wants to tell you why Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is a flop — but most of them are wrong

What internalized misogyny might have taught us about consuming female-led films

Clémence Michallon
New York
Thursday 13 February 2020 20:46
Birds Of Prey - Trailer 2

There is an odious rumour going around. The kind that stops me in my tracks and prompts me to turn my head, one eyebrow raised in suspicion, ready to ask: “Wait, what?”

The rumour, you see, is that the movie Birds of Prey, starring Margot Robbie as a freshly-freed-from-the-Joker Harley Quinn, isn’t doing very well at the box office – with the underlying implication that the film is flopping because it’s not actually very good. But the reality is, of course, more complex than that.

Birds of Prey is a good movie. It’s immensely fun, absurd at times but in a way that always feels in line with its tone, and well-written. It’s also very aesthetically pleasing (this is my way of saying that the outfits are absolutely out of this world) and home to some of the best body fight scenes I’ve seen in a while. The soundtrack is a treat. Crucially, Birds of Prey gives the character of Harley Quinn, who seemed inextricably tied to Jared Leto’s Joker in the 2016 Suicide Squad, a much-needed liberation story.

The way box office figures work is a little more complex than “said film makes what sounds like a meager amount of money” = “said film sucks”. It makes sense to compare the amount a film brings in to the amount of money that was spent making it. As it turns out, Birds of Prey has made $85m worldwide in its first five days of release, compared with an estimated budget of $84.5m.

This somewhat mitigates the apocalyptic reports of a box office flop, but sure – even I will admit it: Birds of Prey still hasn’t entered blockbuster territory. Some have blamed its R rating for its perceived paltry performance (with the reasoning that it cut off valuable potential viewers, namely young teens and families. I personally think that the timing of its release played a part – Birds of Prey came out in early February, known as the kiss of death as far as movie season is concerned. It premiered during the weekend of the Oscars, when pretty much every seasoned movie-goers’ eyes were turned away.

Warner Bros, the studio behind Birds of Prey, seems to think that the film’s title is to blame: they’ve changed it from Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – fun, if somewhat lengthy – to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. The new title makes it a bit more obvious that the film is, in fact, about Harley Quinn, who became an immensely popular character after the aforementioned Suicide Squad (just think of how many people rocked shiny mini shorts and bicoloured pigtails for Halloween that year).

But none of this accounts for what might be the most influential factors of all, which is that narratives about women aren’t widely perceived as being universal. In the world of fiction, to be a man is to be a person. To be a woman is to be a woman – meaning your experiences are understood and analysed only within the confines of your gender, usually by other women.

Harley Quinn’s tale in Birds of Prey has very much been sold in promotional materials as a female empowerment narrative. “The Joker and I broke up. I wanted a fresh start, but it turns out I wasn’t the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation,” Quinn narrates as images of her new (female) battle partners flash on the screen. Now, don’t get me wrong, as far as I’m concerned, this sounds like an exciting story. But while we are taught from childhood to care about stories about male friendship (from, say, Lord of the Flies to Ocean’s 11), the same isn’t true of their female counterparts. Female friendships tend to be depicted (when they are depicted at all) as competitive and all sorts of complicated, while male friendships get to be uplifting tales of camaraderie.

This impacts not only how films such as Birds of Prey are told, but also how they are marketed – or not: I live in New York City, where people love movies, but in the lead-up to Birds of Prey’s release I saw nary a poster advertising it. Perhaps it didn’t help Birds of Prey’s case that Harley Quinn, as a character, has such a, shall we say, “girly” (I use this word with the biggest quotation marks you could possible think of) aesthetic – she loves bright colours, glitter, and make-up. Again, in an ideal world, this wouldn’t be considered othering – but decades of internalized misogyny mean that Quinn’s loud femininity might put off some potential viewers.

This isn’t to fault the movie. Birds of Prey is a female ensemble film in all its glory, with clear battle-of-the-sexes undertones. Harley Quinn is only one part of a squad that also includes Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). (That’s for the film. Things are different in the comic books the movie’s based on.) It’s a movie about women, which many still take as meaning it’s also for women.

Growing up, we’re taught to identify with male characters, regardless of our gender, because their experiences as perceived and presented as universal. When I was 17 and taking my end-of-high-school exams (the French equivalent of the SATs), the examiner asked me whether I identified more with Emma Bovary, the protagonist of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (the story of a woman tragically bored with her banal life) or that of Flaubert’s L’Éducation Sentimentale (the tale of Frédéric Moreau, a tortured, romantic young man coming of age during the 1848 French revolution).

Without missing a beat, I chose the latter. Of course I identified more with a young man looking for love and a place in the world at a time of great unrest. I had spent my formative years as a reader empathizing with male characters (does any teenager not go through a Holden-Caulfied-from-Catcher-in the-Rye phase?) because those were the ones presented to me in assigned readings. Years later, I’m left wondering how many male students would have spontaneously chosen Emma Bovary as their alter ego. I’m tempted to say very few, not because her story felt unrelatable (Emma is a bored person yearning for passion and intensity, and isn’t that basically the tale of every teenager growing up in a small town?) but because it simply wouldn’t have occurred to them to identify with a female character.

Stories about women – be they Harley Quinn or Emma Bovary – are no less universal than stories about men. Our pain is your pain. Our love is your love. Our anger is your anger. Come on in.

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