The Fantabulous Evolution of the Harley Quinn Gaze

A war is being raged over one of the most popular characters in Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery. Since her 1992 debut on Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn leaped from cartoons to comic books, video games, and live-action movies, with revamps all along the way. She’s had new looks, new lovers, new accessories, but as long as she’s hitting punch lines, punching fools, and cuddling up to the crown prince of crime, her beloved hyenas, or Poison Ivy, fans have been on board. The DCEU has brought Harley to a new level of fame with Suicide Squad and its spinoff, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Yet the two films show wildly different approaches to this quirky character. Through comparing the Harleys presented by Suicide Squad writer/director David Ayer and Birds of Pray helmer Cathy Yan, we can get some insight into the future of this fantabulous anti-heroine.

Out of the gate, the sharpest contrast between these Harleys is costuming. In Suicide Squad, Ayer chose a signature look that put Margot Robbie in perky pigtails dip-dyed blue and pink, cheek-baring booty shorts, fishnets, and a skin-tight base-ball tee that reads “Daddy’s Little Monster.” In Birds of Prey, the look that’s plastered all over posters, commercials, and online ads shows Harley in shorter pigtails and oversized overalls in a vibrant diamond print of mustard and gold, covering a candy-pink, velvet bralette. These looks serve as an introduction to the audience ahead of the movie’s release. But what do they say about the perception of that audience?

(Warner Bros)

Each is a look that speaks to the fantasy promised by superhero movies – but not the same fantasy. With a smirk, dyed hair, and smattering of tattoos, Suicide Squad‘s Harley seems plucked from the webpages of Suicide Girls. This Harley Quinn is introduced as a sexual fantasy for a presumed audience of straight men. Sure, women across the Kinsey Scale may also enjoy Harley’s sporty and spicy look, but their pleasure isn’t the focus of the film. Ayer makes this clear through Harley’s arc.

In Suicide Squad, Harley is first and foremost Joker’s girl. Her backstory revolves around the madman, giving little insight into her life before Dr. Harleen Quinzel fell hard for the creepy clown and right into a vat of chemicals. Most of Harley’s big moments involve him, from her ditching the titular crew to her Enchantress-spun fantasy of domesticity to her final prison break. She is essentially an accessory of the Joker, and her tattoos suggest this is how she sees herself. Many sing of her association to him. Playing card symbols litter her limbs, as do homages to her pet names for him (“J” for Mister J, and “Puddin”). Plus, “Property of Joker” is etched on her shoulder. She’s proudly his pet, and so dresses to impress him and those he’d want green with envy.

Over the course of Suicide Squad, Harley gamely plays the role of deranged sex kitten. In her introduction, she has shredded her prison uniform to create a skimpy outfit that bares much skin and cleavage and allows her to do aerial acrobatics. (That’s when she’s not licking prison bars to tempt the male guards.) When partying with the Joker, she wears a low-cut sequined mini-dress and gold jewelry that looks like chains, a visual cue to how she belongs to him. Then, as she gears up for her big mission, she chooses not armor, but those booty shorts and tight tee, slipped over a vibrant red push-up bra. We know this because Ayer makes sure to leer with his lens, crawling up Harley’s fish-netted legs, over her wiggling hips, and bared belly to the bra. The tops of her pale breasts are briefly exposed before she tugs the tee-shirt over, then asks what the circle of male guards is staring at. Ayer knows. The Male Gaze of PG-13 Suicide Squad values Harley first and foremost as a sex object for the teen boys and young men to whom superhero movies have long catered.

(Warner Bros)

Suicide Squad’s spinoff recognized and rejected all this with its full title: Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. The script by Christina Hodson begins with a quirky cartoon introduction that frolics through Harley’s life before the Joker, giving her an identity outside of him. That clown doesn’t even appear in this film. The focus instead is on Harley reclaiming her identity post-break-up, forming new friendships and fighting her own battles. Once more, the costumes reflect her sense of self as well as her anticipated audience.

Where Suicide Squad gave male audiences a sexual fantasy, Birds of Prey offers a power fantasy for women. Even though Birds of Prey has an R-rating, Robbie will not put nudity on display, and Yan never treats her body as a sexy vista to be lingered on. This time, Harley’s outfits aren’t about appealing to the Male Gaze, but appealing to the female desire to look fierce and fashionable. Plus, her new looks contrast with the old to showcase Harley’s evolving image of herself: In a scene where she tears it up at a nightclub without Joker, she pairs a glittery trench coat with boldly striped pants, demanding attention, but less for her body and more for her sartorial choices. Perhaps she’s even signaling to the world that she’s in control, wearing the metaphorical pants. Likewise, the aforementioned overalls are eye-catching, but not curve-hugging.

Yang also recontextualizes some staples of Harley’s DCEU look to powerful effect. A heartbroken Harley chops her signature locks shorter; this not only gives her a starting over makeover but also cuts off much of the dye from that fateful day in the chem vat, a constant reminder of Joker’s taint on her life. Her tattoos, once licked over by Ayer’s lens, now play as reminders, symbolic scars from an abusive relationship that still stings. 

(Warner Bros)

Both films also feature Harley fighting in the rain while wearing a white t-shirt. Yet the angle is striking different. In Suicide Squad, the fit of her white tee is already snug. Pair that with the push-up bra and you’ve got Robbie in a big-budget wet t-shirt contest. The water makes the shirt cling tighter to her curves and abs, drawing our eyes to the spectacle of her body. In Birds of Prey, Yan drapes Harley in an oversized white tee, shorts that actually cover her ass, and underneath that a pink bralette, designed for coverage not provocative uplift. So when Harley gets wet, the t-shirt doesn’t cling to her like a creepy ex. Instead, it sways in slow motion, slinging water droplets and drawing focus to Harley’s fighting and physicality as she flips, kicks, and smashes any dude who dares cross her. The spectacle here is her actions, not her T&A. Notably, her new tee ties back to the title and the message of emancipation from Joker’s control, because this shirt doesn’t reference him or her deadbeat dad. This shirt is plastered with three words: “Harley F*cking Quinn.”

So what does all this mean for Harley Quinn? Frankly, that’ll depend on Birds of Prey‘s reception. After decades of superhero movies that kick women to the sidelines as supporting players, damsels in distress, sex kittens, or some combination of all three, the DCEU has been grappling with a more feminist approach. First came Wonder Woman, which not only was female-fronted but also offered a Female Gaze in coveted fashion, and turned the tables on ogling with love interest Chris Pine. Birds Of Prey takes things a step farther by cutting the love interest completely. Instead, it makes room for more women to take to the spotlight and save the day, regarding them as complicated characters, rather than pretty props that sometimes have plot points. If Birds of Prey soars at the box office, we’ll not only see a sequel, but also a future where superhero movies don’t consider female characters chiefly as eye candy – and female fans as an afterthought.

Birds of Prey” is now available for online rental.

Kristy Puchko is a New York-based film critic whose work has appeared on Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Vulture, and Pajiba. Born in a small Pennsylvania town known for flooding (and being the filming location of 'Slap Shot'), Kristy showed a deep love of cinema from an early age. She earned her B.A. in Film Studies at Macaulay Honors College's Brooklyn branch. Then, she spent some time on Sesame Street (as an intern) before moving into post-production, editing music videos, commercials, and films. From there, Kristy branched out into blogging, and quickly realized her true passion was in writing about film in a way that engaged and challenged audiences. Since then, she's traveled the world on assignment, attended a variety of film festivals, co-hosted movie-focused podcasts, and taught a film criticism course at FIT. But amid all her ventures, she's proud to call her home, serving as the site's Chief Film Critic and Film Editor.

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