Harley Quinn is the most complex and interesting character in ‘Suicide Squad’. Played by the Australian actor Margot Robbie, she's the Joker’s psychotic girlfriend, a dangerous badass, the sidekick who gets all the best lines. ‘I like your perfume,’ she jokes. ‘Is that the scent of death?’ Thing is, like all of the female characters in ‘Suicide Squad’, the movie lets her down. (With one exception, Viola Davis’s government official who proves you can kick ass in a Hillary Clinton-style trouser suit.)
My problem isn’t even with the skimpy costumes, it’s the male gaze. Take Cara Delevingne’s character, the witch Enchantress. She’s the villain all the villains in the Suicide Squad are fighting. She isn’t sexy. Her outfit might be nearly nude but it doesn’t read as sexy. Despite this, the camera lingers on her boobs and hips like a creepy old dude in a pub. Even still, you’d think that the ultimate bad guy being a woman would make a pretty empowering move, but it backfires. The Enchantress is actually a nice archaeologist possessed by a witch, thus taking all autonomy away from her character’s badness and just turning her into yet another comic book damsel in distress.
Harley Quinn is let down most of all. Mainly because there’s not enough space in the movie to explore the backstory that sets her apart from other ‘sex icon’ or ‘damsel in distress’ female comic book characters and also because ‘Suicide Squad’ fetishises the damaged relationship that led to her villainous nature.
Harley was originally a psychologist treating The Joker at Arkham Asylum, but fell in love with him and decided to turn bad to create mayhem together. She’s also a victim of his emotional and physical abuse. Throughout the movie she uses overt sexuality – licking the bars of her prison cell and constant flirting – to gain power, reflecting the behaviour of someone who’s trying to reclaim their own autonomy in an unhealthy way. It makes sense of her impractical fighting outfit: hotpants and high heels. And, it could have been a really interesting narrative, if it had been explored properly.
It’s not, though. The film skims over her relationship in rose-tinted flashbacks. Plus, male characters make comments about her like – ‘A whole lot of pretty and a whole lot of crazy’ and ‘Outside you’re amazing but inside you’re ugly’. Harley’s dark story is flipped and sexualised to turn her into a character from a 'crazy girl just wants to get laid' porno. It’s especially disappointing given that Jessica Jones demonstrated that damaged relationships can be dealt with sensitively and interestingly in fun comic book movies/TV. That character’s alcoholism and commitment-phobia stems from the psychological torture within her ‘relationship’. The series has plenty of unrealistic action but also deals with the aftermath of rape in a realistic way.
It’s something that needs to get sorted out if the Harley Quinn tentpole movie that everyone’s predicting gets the go ahead. It’s rumoured that DC will be filling the movie with heroines and villainesses such as the Birds of Prey and Batgirl. That’s something I’d love to see: I just want to see it written and directed by women who can tell female stories with honesty and without fetishisation.