This article first appeared in issue #1 of Filmhounds Magazine in print – you can order here now
Words: Zofia Wijaszka
The feature below contains spoilers to Birds of Prey and DC’s Harley Quinn.
The Hollywood industry is in disarray. As we all battle the virus worldwide – the multiplexes have closed their doors, and the production sets have all paused filming – we now turn our eyes to television, a medium flourishing, unlike at any time before.
Even though the films stopped their premieres around April (some risked premiering on-demand), we find ourselves blessed with a character whose sudden development and popularity exploded. Who are we talking about? Of course, the one-of-a-kind Harley Quinn. Why is she so popular? Two of the main reasons are Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, and the highly acclaimed, DC Universe, adult cartoon series titled Harley Quinn, created by Justin Halpern, Dean Lorey, and Patrick Schumacker.
Harley was introduced to audiences in Batman: The Animated Series, in the episode titled Joker’s Favor in 1992. However, her origin story was revealed in 1994’s graphic novel titled The Batman Adventures: Mad Love. It was then that the world met the legendary Dr Harleen Quinzel, Ph.D., Arkham Asylum psychologist. The doctor fell madly in love with notorious villain, the Joker, and became the one and only Harley Quinn, the madwoman wearing a black and red jester’s costume who would do anything for her lover. The audience was charmed by this anti-heroine and her unconditional devotion, but as the world changes and our society grows, women want to be empowered. It was high time for Harley’s immense emancipation. Mistah J, you better watch out.
Harley was already a legendary female character when Suicide Squad premiered. The film received negative reviews, but Harley, portrayed by Margot Robbie, gained more fame for her performance. Still, a fishnet-wearing female villain with a Daddy’s Lil Monster logo on her shirt didn’t shine as much then as she did at the beginning of 2020. That’s when Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey: The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn premiered. Yes, that same Harley who was so devoted to the Joker in the previous film, finally wants to be free, empowered, and independent. Margot Robbie’s character decides to move on from the Joker, but what was a reasonable decision to make, becomes a chain of unfortunate events after Roman Sionis (Evan McGregor), and the Gotham City mob, wants to bring her down since she’s not protected by Joker anymore.
Harley proposes a deal: he’ll let her be free if she finds him a diamond that is currently in possession of a teenager, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). When searching for her, the anti-heroine has the (dis)pleasure of meeting the police officer, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who’s also after the diamond and Roman. In the chaotic, yet highly entertaining, narrative of Harley, the audience follows all the women’s stories – as well as the mysterious Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Black Canary, aka Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett), Roman’s driver. It turns out that all of the female characters seek empowerment and emancipation in their unique ways. That unites them in the final battle for their freedom.
Birds of Prey received excellent reviews. It only proves that the female audience longed for a film packed with strong, independent women. However, a portion of the male audience seemed not to find the movie enjoyable, but rather dull. But whether they like it or not, the time has come for female characters from the superhero universe to be empowering, entertaining, and smart in their actions.
What transforms Quinn in Birds of Prey is the clothing. The character wears thirteen different, assiduously designed outfits created by the phenomenal Erin Benach. The emancipation is strongly evident through the prism of these looks. Throughout the film, we see bright yellow and gold overalls matched with roller skates and her legendary wooden mallet. Another one is the party outfit: a glitter cardigan, transparent top with velvet stars, and pinstripe trousers. Next, when we experience Harley’s tragedy (she drops her delicious egg and bacon sandwich), she wears a see-through vest with decorative sleeves, velvet top, and shorts with the emblem of the American flag. Those, and many other looks that Harley chooses throughout the film, all represent her empowerment. The first mentioned look has a special place in the movie – Robbie’s character wears it in the final battle and during the ultimate encounter with Roman. Her shiny roller skates play one of the primary roles in saving Cassandra’s life as well as everybody else’s.
Her attitude towards other female characters also deserves praise. In the final moments, you can see that Harley is a team player and misses having gal-pals. She’s bonding mostly with the youngest – Cassandra. The former psychiatrist takes on sort of a mother/mentor role and teaches her “the life lessons”, the, err, less useful ones. But it’s Harley, and we can forgive her. She even softens Montoya up at the end, which is not the most straightforward of tasks.
The second production, DC’s Harley Quinn, premiered last year and became a hit. The second season of the adult cartoon just ended. When it comes to this version of Harley Quinn (Kaley Cuoco), her look is closer to the original jester’s outfit, yet is slightly different. In the red and black colours, she wears a black choker, bralette, shorts, and boots. In season one, she dreamed of breaking away from the Joker. When she finally breaks free and unites with Poison Ivy, she then changes her outfit to the one mentioned above. Throughout the whole first season, she fights an inner battle – she desires to forget about Joker, but she can’t. Thankfully, she ultimately defeats him in the first season finale and is finally able to move on with her life. Her next mission? Becoming the best supervillain that New Gotham has ever seen.
With the help of her best crew – Clayface (Alan Tudyk), King Shark (Ron Funches), Sy Borgman (Jason Alexander), Dr Psycho (Tony Hale), and Ivy (Lake Bell), Harley challenges The Riddler (Jim Rash). While she thoroughly adores her whole crew, it’s the bond with Ivy that transforms her, helping her get better every day. With Ivy’s help, Harley grows, and her morals (or rather the lack thereof) change. In the last episodes of the second season, we realize that Harley surely is the anti-heroine, but she’s on the verge of becoming a hero. Yes, she curses a lot and spills blood left and right, but it’s only bad guys’ blood. She even cares about the environment (thank you very much, Ivy).
There are two significant factors and similarities between the film and the series that contributed to the overall fame of Harley this year. One of them is the theme of emancipation. In both cases, the character finally breaks off a very toxic relationship with a man who almost killed her, a man who was systematically destroying her value system and womanhood. Through profound mental abuse, Joker made Harley his prisoner. We could even risk the statement that she suffered from Stockholm syndrome. In Birds of Prey, Joker was the one who broke up with her, but the prison was in Harley’s head, and she had to break free. In the series, Harley needed more help and moral support from Ivy.
Another essential element is Harley’s sexuality that was finally established on the big and a small screen. The character of the anti-heroine was always a woman that was paired up with Poison Ivy. The comic book fans liked the idea of this particular duo. Eventually, in Injustice 2 #70, Poison Ivy revealed that she and Quinn got married in Las Vegas by an Elvis lookalike (obviously, because why not?). Although it was a significant step towards bisexuality and homosexuality in the DC Universe, that information didn’t reach a broader audience. That’s where Birds of Prey and Harley Quinn stepped up. In the first one, it was a rather subtle way of letting the audience know about Harley’s bisexuality. Right at the beginning where she talks about herself, we see a little animation. As she mentions her relationships during college years, there is a pairing of her and another woman. Although it goes by too quickly for most people to notice, the LGBTQ+ community quickly picked up on it.
In regards to the cartoon, Harley’s bisexuality is way more evident, and with that, the second season is crucial for bisexuality’s representation. The main character finally admits to herself that she feels something much stronger than just a friendship with Ivy. While battling all kinds of villains, Harley also battles her strong emotions, as Ivy decides to marry Kite Man (Matt Oberg). Quinn takes an unexpected yet very mature step and tells Ivy about her deep feelings. Reluctant and torn at the beginning, Ivy finally snaps and confesses her feelings to Harley as well. With that, a second season finale has a beautiful happy ending with a fancy car, explosions, and parademons flying around and killing people- indeed in Harley Quinn’s style.
I believe that both determinants above have a significant and meaningful impact on the sudden fame of one Harley Quinn. The character is one of the first bisexual anti-heroines (if not the first) that has finally gotten a large platform to shine on a big screen in a major, action-packed motion picture and on a small screen. Birds of Prey has not only that, but also a very diverse, all-female main cast. That’s one of many reasons it speaks to female audiences and critics. It just works. Cathy Yan deserves all the praise for her work on this film as well as Margot Robbie for giving us a legendary psychiatrist who finally has a voice. The same goes for the series. The character voiced by Kaley Cuoco is chaotic yet very smart and loving. You can see her soft side between all the cursing and limb-ripping.
Robbie will reprise her role as Harley in the upcoming The Suicide Squad, where she returns to her roots – black and red hair (as per pictures from the set). We also know that Margot adores playing this character, and she really wants to do Gotham City Sirens. For now, nothing is confirmed yet. As for DC’s cartoon, it was announced that the first and second seasons are on their way to HBO MAX.
We had Batman, we had Superman, but now it’s time for a chaotic former psychiatrist whose narrative can give you a headache but also plenty of laughter. We can only hope that this cult of Harley stays and continues to empower women all over the world.
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