The Liberation of Harley Quinn
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
Ever since her first appearance in 1992, Harley Quinn has become and remained one of DC Comics' most iconic characters. Her nearly thirty years in the spotlight has spawned various iterations, most recently from the films Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. Although they both include the same character from the same universe, they have one key difference, their portrayal of Harley Quinn.
Harley Quinn, formerly Harleen Quinzel is a former psychiatrist and most notoriously, the girlfriend of The Joker. She has gone through many different versions since her creation but today we are going to focus on the one played by Margot Robbie since 2016. This iconic iteration of Harley Quinn has appeared in three films since her creation, Suicide Squad (2016), Birds of Prey (2020), and The Suicide Squad (2021) but today I will be focusing primarily on the first two.
David Ayer's 2016 film, Suicide Squad is not a movie that is fondly remembered by audiences. In fact, the studio has pretty much tried to erase it from history. Every Suicide Squad related film since has had barely any mention of the characters or plot line of the original. However, it did spawn the single most popular Halloween costume of 2016 and 2017 and that was the red and blue clad Harley Quinn. In this movie, Harley is portrayed as merely eye candy for the male audience, and I say male audience because Suicide Squad is absolutely plagued by the male gaze. Her costume consists of ridiculously skimpy high heels, a ripped t shirt and the shortest shorts you've ever seen. David Ayer's version of Harley Quinn seems to exist merely to portray the "cute but psycho" trope, to be the hot girl with the crazy side and nothing more. She is completely anchored by her relationship with The Joker. Not to mention her dialogue being some of the most vapid, cringe-worthy lines I've ever heard from a blockbuster movie. It feels like Harley exists as a character just to be the token hot girl that sells tickets and nothing more.
Things were looking grim for Harley Quinn, but when Cathy Yan's Birds of Prey came out in 2020, it pretty much changed everything we know about the character. This film spawned Harley Quinn's most well-written iteration yet. Birds of Prey and Suicide Squad illustrate the perfect example about how much of an impact a female director can have on a film. Everything from her costumes to her dialogue have an aura of independence that hasn't been present in any other version of the character. Margot Robbie actually gets to have fun with her portrayal and isn't just paraded around like some trophy and her background doesn't completely center around The Joker. In fact, The Joker never actually makes an appearance in Birds of Prey or The Suicide Squad. For the first time ever it feels like she can exist on her own, she can lose the bad outfits, cringe-worthy dialogue, and abusive relationship and still remain entertaining to watch for male and female viewers alike. Cathy Yan and Margot Robbie were able to portray Harley as an interesting yet flawed character and that ended up really resonating with audiences.
Now more than ever, it's important that we hire more female directors to tell women's stories in film because we'll end up with more movies like Birds of Prey and less like Suicide Squad.