DC’s ‘Birds of Prey’ hates men, but wants their money - no wonder it's bombing at the box office
Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo
‘Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)’ opened on Friday and stars two-time Academy Award nominated actress Margot Robbie reprising her role as DC Comics supervillain Harley Quinn.
The film is marketed as a girl power manifesto that re-imagines Harley Quinn without the condescending sexism feminists felt was so prominent in 2016’s ‘Suicide Squad’, the last movie that featured Margot Robbie as Harley.
Although Suicide Squad was regarded as an underperformer with a notoriously troubled production history, it still made $750 million at the box office.
Early numbers suggest that despite mostly positive reviews from mainstream media outlets, the new film will struggle to do half that number in its theatrical run, and with a reported $100 million shooting budget, and substantial marketing costs, 'Birds of Prey' will probably lose money for Warner Brothers at the cinema.
How did they get it so badly wrong?
'Toxic masculinity' - check, 'male gaze' - check
‘Birds of Prey’ banished the problematic ‘male gaze’ of ‘Suicide Squad’ – that allegedly dehumanized Harley by making her purely an object of desire – by employing an all-female creative team that included producer Margot Robbie, writer Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yan. The production goes so far in exorcising men as to even have a soundtrack containing only female artists.
The problem, though, is that ‘Birds of Prey’ tries to thread the needle and make a chaotically cool combination of ‘Deadpool’ meets ‘Wonder Woman’ – only it doesn’t have the first clue about the sardonically masculine humor of ‘Deadpool’ and the appealing feminine power of ‘Wonder Woman’, or masculinity and femininity in general.
The film’s sexual politics are aggressive, to say the least. In our current cultural climate, toxic masculinity and masculinity have become synonymous, so it is no surprise that ‘Birds of Prey’ goes to great lengths to denigrate and disparage all of its male characters while also venerating all of its female ones.
Every man in the movie, with the lone exception being a character (played by the criminally underused actor Eddie Alfano) with fifteen seconds of screen time and no dialogue, is either entitled, conniving, maniacally violent, a rapist or all of the above.
In contrast, every female character wears the noble crown of resilient victimhood after having suffered at the cruel hands of men.
Is feminism about women being as violent as men?
The portrayal of men as misogynist beasts is pretty heavy-handed; at one point, Harley and her female friends are surrounded and the sadistic Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) yells to his army of all-male thugs, “Men of Gotham, go get those bitches!”
What’s so bizarre about the supposed girl power message of the movie is that, while it relentlessly tells us that men are despicable creatures, all of the female characters are lionized for trying to behave like men. As with the recent batch of feminist movies such as 2019’s ‘Charlie’s Angels’ reboot and ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’, ‘Birds of Prey’ believes that feminism means women should act like men.
Even more baffling is the cinematic schizophrenia of ‘Birds of Prey’, as it obviously loathes men yet is so desperate for their attention it serves up a steady supply of hyper-violence. As Harley Quinn says, “nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence… blow something up, shoot someone.”
This is what happens when you put a confused agenda ahead of a good story
Totally coincidentally, the New York Times published an op-ed by actress Brit Marling, titled ‘I Don’t Want to be the Strong Female Lead’ on the day ‘Birds of Prey’ premiered.
In the piece Marling describes strong female leads by saying “She’s an assassin, a spy, a soldier, a superhero, a CEO. She can make a wound compress out of a maxi pad while on the lam. She’s got MacGyver’s resourcefulness but looks better in a tank top.”
In some ways this applies to ‘Birds of Prey’, since the women in it are smarter, tougher and stronger than the men, except they have been stripped of their sex appeal in a convoluted attempt to be pro-feminist.
For instance, Harley Quinn wore short shorts and alluring outfits in ‘Suicide Squad’, but in the female-empowering ‘Birds of Prey’ she dresses in baggy, Bermuda-length shorts and a pink sports bra. It’s as if Harley went full Lady Macbeth and cried “unsex me here,” and the filmmakers dutifully complied to stick it to the patriarchy.
Contrast this with the Super Bowl halftime show, where Jennifer Lopez and Shakira were declared fiercely feminist when they wore skimpy outfits and literally danced like strippers.
How can female filmmakers like Cathy Yan properly tell an empowering feminist story if feminists haven’t even figured out what feminism is yet?
This confusion manifests when ‘Birds of Prey’ defines women solely in opposition to men, but then has them emulate masculinity as a show of their feminine strength.
Brit Marling wasn’t commenting on the troubling Manichean anti-male sexual politics of ‘Birds of Prey’, but she could have been, when she eloquently wrote: “I don’t believe the feminine is sublime and the masculine is horrifying. I believe both are valuable, essential, powerful. But we have maligned one, venerated the other, and fallen into exaggerated performances of both that cause harm to all. How do we restore balance?”Also on rt.com 'Feminist upgrade’ takes on ‘misogynist nonsense’: ‘Birds of Prey’ is teaching filmmakers exactly how NOT to sell a movie
That is a good question, but ‘Birds of Prey’ is oblivious to balance… and quality, for that matter. It’s a hot mess of a movie that features derivative, repetitive and dull action sequences, and that tries to be funny, but isn’t. Hell, there is a hyena in the movie and even he wasn’t laughing. Watching this thing felt like wading through an Olympic-sized swimming pool of radioactive 'You go girl!' vomit.
If equality is women making misandrist, hyper-violent, incoherently vapid and dreadful movies, then ‘Birds of Prey’ is a smashing success for feminism. It is also an abysmal failure for cinema… and probably humanity. It deserves to fail.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.