Call for Comments: Birds of Prey and Women in Film

From Hannah: Birds of Prey premiered a little over a month ago to less fanfare than it deserved. I, admittedly, was hesitant to see it because of both how bad Suicide Squad was and questions about how the film would handle the character of Harley Quinn. I went in with zero expectations and had an extremely good time, largely due to quick moments in the film that made these women relatable … like when Harley offers Black Canary a hair tie during a fight. And there’s no gratuitous male gazey camera shots. And it features a song by Kesha that you should all listen to. This is a movie made about women by women for women.

Although the theatrical release schedule for the year is now up in the air, Birds of Prey isn’t the only action film that will be directed by a woman this year — we also have Mulan, Wonder Woman 1984, and Black Widow. (Captain Marvel was also co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and Patty Jenkins directed the original Wonder Woman.) This is a big deal because there is such a huge disparity between the numbers of men and women being hired in prominent roles behind the camera, although by several metrics there was a rise in women counted as working directors in 2019. And in talking about Birds of Prey, I want to talk about why this matters specifically. (And sidenote, there are a lot of not blockbuster films like Little Women or Portrait of a Lady on Fire that are directed/written women that are fantastic.)

From Katya: I echo all of the above; this was a movie made by women for women with all the inside jokes I expect from a night out with the girls (including compliments about fighting in tight pants.) I’m disappointed by the reception as well, though not surprised. It’s a fun movie, not a great one, like so many other superhero movies. We love a fun fight scene even if its not cinematic gold. I especially appreciate that the movie is femme-forward without constantly bashing you over the head with the empty politics and virtue signaling that often happens when sexism appears on screen.

Birds of Prey does a good job of representing harassment in ways that are more true to daily life than I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. Most aren’t extraordinary court cases or instances of extreme violence but experiences many of us are familiar with, either personally or through the experiences of friends. From talking down to women to men attempting to rescuing another women from a disgusting man at a bar, the gender dynamics are very real to many of us even through the veneer of super-dom and hyperactive Harley Quinning. It doesn’t surprise me that audiences expecting a film in the established tradition of superhero movies were turned off. As Hannah notes, those films are made with a primarily straight, male audience in mind. As a women, I found this to be a fun movie that manages to acknowledges the patriarchy without making women into powerless victims. For a lot of men, however, I can imagine that this might feel like two hours of having toxic masculine culture shoved in their face since it isn’t just the villains that are the bad guys here, its men and toxic masculinity in general.

From Mav: Obviously I agree with everything Hannah and Katya said about the movie. I especially love the feminine touches that sort of pervaded it. The “hair tie” moment was literally one of my favorite little details of a film in years. I also think it’s worth thinking about some of the differences here between a male gaze and a female gaze when turned inward on other females. The movie was a prime example of this. I actually like both versions of Margot Robbie’s Harley (Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey) for different reasons because I think comparing the two shows the versatility of character at being in multiple circumstances. Harley is fascinating to me because she works equally for different reasons and sort of proves that there doesn’t necessarily need to be a total gender divide… and yet it’s also ok to cater to different groups under different circumstances.

I’d also be curious to talk a bit about the perceived “failings” of female led properties by the industry just because they don’t cross over with a small minority of very vocal incels who hate anything that threatens the status quo. Hannah mentioned Portrait of a Lady on Fire which was GREAT, but wasn’t really supposed to make a ton of money. But I’m thinking about stuff like Birds of Prey, as well as Ghostbusters (2016) and Charlie’s Angels (2019). All of which were financial failures because it was perceived that they weren’t playing towards the male gaze and being “too woke”. But really, a lot of the people complaining never saw them. Charlie’s Angels for instance is particularly funny because it totally WAS male gazey… a LOT. It just also subverted it. No one ever gave it the chance. And you even end up with stuff like Captain Marvel which some people like to pretend “failed” despite grossing over a billion bucks worldwide. There are probably plenty of other examples too.

Anyway, give us your thoughts!

1 Comment and 2 Webmentions for “Call for Comments: Birds of Prey and Women in Film”

  1. I don’t have much to add to this. I beat the Birds of Prey drum as loud as I could. Every reason people gave to not see this movie, is something the movie successfully addressed imo. But, the biggest thing I heard (and I think this movie suffered from) in terms of being a success is:

    – Confusing (but humorous) movie title, they changed it a bit but too little too late.
    – Being billed as an ensemble/team movie when it should’ve just been billed as a Harley Quinn movie. People know Harley Quinn, they don’t know Birds of Prey, and those who do would look at this film and go “That’s not the Birds of Prey or team that I know.”
    – Being a DC film and being closely related to Suicide Squad’s stink still.
    – Not convincing enough people that it WASN’T a superhero film that had them fight a super villain or any of the “big stakes” we’ve all come to expect from these.

    This is a bit sidetracky and maybe for an entirely different show, but that last part I think is the biggest hurdle the genre has. Things like Logan, New Mutants (RIP, the little engine that can’t catch a damn break), Deadpool 1, Birds of Prey, Wandavision, and Dr. Strange 2 are all going to fall into this category of “Not your dad’s superhero film.” I talked with Mav about this back during Logan but marketing needs to do a better job of going “Same universe, different genre.” and remove the idea that “superhero” is just a genre of film that every DC/Marvel movie will neatly fit into. There’s a big sandbox to play in, it doesn’t always have to be about giant CG fight scenes against cosmic baddies.

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