‘Suicide Squad’s’ Retrograde Misogyny: The Trials of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn
David Ayer’s Papa Roach-meets-Juggalos superhero team-up revels in its abuse of women and racial stereotypes. A character as compelling as Harley Quinn deserves so much better. [Warning: Spoilers]
“For a man to be able to publicly refer to a woman as a fat pig, that makes me teary,” global superstar Will Smith admonished of Donald Trump, decrying the GOP nominee’s boorish, sexist treatment of women while promoting his new movie, Suicide Squad, with news.com.au. “And for people to applaud, that is absolutely fucking insanity to me.”
Well, even Will Smith must go a little insane sometimes.
Smith must’ve managed to hold back the tears of outrage while filming Suicide Squad, Warner Bros.’ DC Comics blockbuster in which his character Deadshot, an antihero assassin who kills for money and loves it, describes the mother of his child as a whore and advises a teammate to control his girlfriend by smacking her on the ass.
In another scene, a member of the squad is introduced as he hops out of an SUV and sends his fist flying into the face of a female guard. “She had a mouth on her,” quips Slipknot (Adam Beach), smirking a satisfied bad guy smirk that’s clearly meant to draw laughs from the audience.
But they’re villains! the refrain goes. They’re supposed to be jerks! It’s OK if they turn women into literal punch lines! Lighten up!
The conceit of Suicide Squad is, of course, that the fate of innocent human lives is in the hands of a bunch of irredeemable criminals—murderers, thieves, brutes, and the clinically insane supervillains who’ve been dragged out of supermax prison and forced into duty by an also shady, morally dubious government boss lady. And in many ways, Warner Bros.’ third DC Universe movie is a welcome, cheeky change of pace from the dour hero slugfests that preceded it.
But at a certain point in watching Suicide Squad, something becomes painfully obvious: It really seems to hate its women. And when it’s not busy hating those women, it’s casually exploiting other worrisome racial stereotypes. Ironically, Suicide Squad is the most inclusive superhero (or rather, supervillain) movie that either DC or Marvel have churned out in their ongoing arms race of competing cinematic universes. And that’s why its moments of bald racial insensitivity feel even more tone-deaf.
“Someone want to sit me down and explain why our first major Latino superhero is a gangbanger with domestic violence issues?” pondered critic Monica Castillo of El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), the Squad member who sees his powerful ability to conjure flames from his hands as a curse because he killed his own family in a rage-induced outburst.
“Memo to Ayer,” wrote MTV critic Amy Nicholson. “Directing Harsh Times in 2005 and claiming you’re the rare Midwestern boy who’s down with South Central L.A. does not mean you can pull off this Lotería card cliché who lunges into war bellowing, ‘Ora si, Cabron!’ especially when he’s the only Latino with a speaking part, besides his one scene with his lady.”
At least Diablo in his handful of highlighted scenes gets a backstory and an emotional arc for Hernandez to play. Castmate Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, unrecognizable under layers of CGI scales, begs even more explanation. Treated as not much more than a black stereotype for most of the film, he finally earned my sympathy when he was forced to deliver Suicide Squad’s three most cringe-worthy letters: “BET,” aka the one beloved television channel his Killer Croc demands to be able to watch in his prison cell.
Suicide Squad might not have come under so much fire from critics over its treatment of women if it had allowed even one of them to walk away with a greater measure of dignity. Instead, they’re all either hyper-sexualized (Harley Quinn, The Enchantress); hopelessly deferential to the love of a man (Harley again, the irritatingly weak-willed June Moone, and even Katana, who’s literally married to her magical samurai sword and barely gets to speak for herself); or subjected to violence either because they’re bad (Harley) or because they’re not bad (the female officer cold-cocked by Slipknot, who doesn’t even have a name).
Even the baddest badass in the movie, Viola Davis’s “unapologetically brutal” Amanda Waller, is a sociopath by Davis’s own description. Thanks to Davis, that makes for a singularly intriguing character, but still sends an unfortunate message to younger audiences: Strong women are mostly either crazy, evil, or both. When the same conditions do not apply to the men of Suicide Squad—men who are not objectified or abused or used as props for the benefit of their female peers—what’s Ayer’s excuse?
Smith’s Deadshot is described as a cold-blooded killer for hire, but even he has heroic scruples: He only kills bad guys for money, and refuses to off women or children on principle. We are to understand that his professional evildoings are driven as much by the pleasure he derives from killing as the love and responsibility he feels for his young daughter. Surprise! He’s a good guy in bad guy’s clothing. It is Will Smith, after all.
There’s a fine line between subverting stereotypes and glorifying them, but in Suicide Squad writer-director David Ayer trips and stumbles all over said line. It’s a shame that the film’s best and most beloved character is the one who gets it the worst. In an ensemble that leaves no woman unsullied by some slight or another, Margot Robbie’s centerpiece turn as fan favorite Harley Quinn is at once the most captivating and the most troubling.
Forget the hyper-sexualized costumes Robbie gamely squeezes into as The Joker’s (Jared Leto) hopelessly devoted gal pal—a male gazey look that The New York Times’ A.O. Scott described as “a frat boy’s idea of what a feminist action heroine might look like.” She at least totally owns those short-shorts while declaring that no one—well, no one other than her deranged boyfriend—owns her. Harley actually begins to discover and enjoy her independence in her life away from The Joker, even if for most of the film she’s secretly waiting for him to come rescue her from indentured heroism.
It’s the flashbacks in which we learn the story of their “love” that provide the most frustration. While working as a prison shrink, Dr. Harleen Quinzel fell for the demented patient who physically tortured and then seduced her into self-harm and insanity. Held captive by The Joker in one of the film’s most provocative scenes, she asks if he’s going to kill her. He promises he’ll only hurt her—“really, really bad.” Later, he offers Harley as a sexual gift to a colleague. We can see the abuse, but can she?
It shows awareness that Ayer wrote, filmed, and included moments like that in the film, an exchange that briefly peers into the festering emotional wounds that have left Harley lost in her mad love for The Joker. But not once in Suicide Squad is Harley allowed to really experience the momentary blips of clarity that made her story in previous iterations of the DC comics and animated series ring with such tragic weight and humanity—i.e., holding The Joker accountable for mistreating, manipulating, beating, and negging her into brainwashed subservience.
The comics allowed her to seize a gratifying sense of agency and set out to kill The Joker for the emotional and physical abuse he’d inflicted on her—even if she took the creep back at the last moment anyway. The film offers no such satisfaction for Harley. Instead, she flashes back to the beginnings of their romance with no revelation of how dysfunctional it was. Just as she’s starting to form a new sense of self alongside her fellow Squad members, she goes right back to pining for The Joker and a bizarrely basic housewife fantasy of living a “normal” life with Gotham City’s most maniacal villain.
As BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore writes: “It’s a depraved version of amour fou, or at least, it should be in Harley’s warped point of view—but the movie is just as infatuated with Leto’s tiresomely tic-laden Joker… as Harley is supposed to be. There’s no distinguishing the movie’s take from Harley’s woozily romanticized one.”
Fans are well familiar with the defining complex issues that form Harley’s romantic life and mental instability. But while the film has plenty of time to ogle her curves and watch her prance around acting adorably psychotic, it’s not concerned with letting her explore the darker depths it scratches. Could Ayer have spared a line or two to allow the biggest and brightest star of the Squad the dignity of a little personal growth?
The film either doesn’t know how to adequately unpack all the issues that have always made Harley Quinn so crushingly human, or it doesn’t care to. And with hordes of girls and women idolizing Robbie’s sexed-up Harley Quinn before they’ve seen how Suicide Squad underserves her extreme emotional trauma, simply fetishizing her quirks feels all the more irresponsible—not to mention the fact that in Suicide Squad, it’s not just The Joker who plays rough with Harley.
Flashing back to how she got sent to Belle Reve Penitentiary in the first place, we see her trapped underwater after a car chase with the Bat. She surprises Batman by swiping at him with a knife; he knocks her out flat with a punch to the face that lands, like Slipknot’s fist into that lady cop’s face, for a laugh, before hauling her unconscious body to his car and administering what Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan describes as “weirdly sensual” mouth-to-mouth.
Plenty of fans will have no problem with any of this. Some will even claim that this is what the comics were all about, and besides, these antiheroes are all villains and bad guys—as if that makes it OK to still use women as props and punching bags. But as Suicide Squad barrels toward an enormous opening weekend box office, we should ponder what it means to applaud when a beloved character like Harley Quinn is assaulted, abused, and objectified without consequence for the amusement of the movie-going masses.