Cishet men aren’t mad that Harley Quinn doesn’t have “sex appeal”. They’re mad that the characters of Birds of Prey have “sex appeal” that isn’t catering to them.
When some painfully arrogant critic logs onto Twitter to rant about why a particular movie is SURE to bomb in theaters, I always notice two very important things.
The first thing—besides me being 500% sure that this critic is wrong—is that the critic is usually white and male. The second thing is that the movie they’re claiming will “bomb”…features and focuses on protagonists that aren’t white men and whose promotional materials make it clear that they’re not trying to appeal to white men. This was the line of logic that Marvel film Black Panther was famously subjected to, but instead of people using the word “bomb” (because white people LOVE a good dog-whistle), critics put up low-ass box office “projections” on what it was going to make. And then were gobsmacked when the film turned out to be the cultural and box office behemoth that Black people knew it was going to be all along. And now?
A similar line of logic is being used to claim that Birds of Prey and The Emancipation of Harley Quinn will also bomb. Or “underperform”.
Look no further than this human jawbreaker thinking that Harley Quinn was invented for his eyeballs and his eyeballs only:
Addressing the most obvious part of these tweets, Charlie’s Angels didn’t bomb because “They removed any sex appeal these characters had to appeal to a female ‘girl power’ audience”. Charlie’s Angels flopped mainly because it looked like an ABC Family (or Freeform I GUESS) movie that no one knew how to promote. And it was the 24094823048320th time we’d seen these characters on film. Plus, it was very hard to get past the bland ass cast, particularly when I was made aware that Lupita Nyong’o was almost a part of the project. But BoP doesn’t seem to have that issue. I attribute 30% of this to the fact that the film is being directed by a woman (Cathy Yan), had its screenplay written by a woman (Christina Hudson), was produced by mostly women (Margot Robbie and Sue Kroll) and features a cast that is almost entirely made up of women, besides Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask and Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz. And for the other 70%, I’d wager that BoP knows exactly who its audience is:
The Girls and The Gays.
Recommended: HOW THE WHITE GAZE MISTREATS BLACK WITCHES IN FILM
Many will assume I’m just saying this because of the vivid and colorful costuming I’ve gleaned from the film’s trailers and music videos. Or will assume that I’m only saying this because of the promotional team’s WONDERFUL knack of getting other women involved in promoting the film, particularly where music is involved (see: Megan Thee Stallion, Normani, Doja Cat, etc). But honestly? That’s all inconsequential if we’re looking at the story. Per Wikipedia (with Variety as its source), the story centers around Harley Quinn leaving her abusive, Hot Topic-sponsored ex (a la Jared Leto’s Joker), getting over that messy breakup, becoming a vigilante in her own right, getting sucked into this larger story of Black Mask trying to kill a whole child (Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain), and joining a rag-tag team of women including Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Helena Bertinelli/The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Renee Montoya/The Question (Rosie Perez) to bring his ass down. Plus, it certainly does not hurt that my bisexual heart is currently in danger of exploding just from the sheer amount of sex appeal radiating off people like Winstead, Perez, Lance, and Robbie herself.
Oop. There’s that “sex appeal” term again. And it’s gonna be strange to some of you that I used that term to describe such characters considering the conniption of our aforementioned manbaby of the hour mentioned above. But if you know how film and mass media work, you’ll understand where I’m going with this. And you’ll understand the real reason [white] cishet men are mad. Which is:
Cishet men aren’t mad that these characters don’t have “sex appeal”. They’re mad that these characters have “sex appeal” that isn’t catering to them.
The term “male gaze” comes to mind, but seeing as people tend to overuse specific terminology on the internet and that I don’t have the time nor the patience to dive into that theory, I want to direct you all to a very crucial part of Laura Mulvey’s theory—which is its spectator aspect. Mulvey splits this into two parts: voyeurism—where the viewer projects [sexual] fantasies on the character (woman) they’re leering at from afar and narcissism—where the viewer’s pleasure is unabashedly at the forefront of things and usually at the expense of the character (woman) being ogled. Both are key, because they come with the recognition that the subject of the gaze is not consenting to be leered at in this manner, or worse, has no knowledge of being leered at in this manner by both the spectator and the [male] characters in the film. This is precisely what makes the male gaze such a fuck-ass and often gratuitous viewpoint.
Think about the last time you saw some women in an action film. I’m sure you saw some boob shots, ass shots, maybe even the occasional “I-am-way-too-close-to-this-woman’s face/mouth” shot and the often random “let-me-pan-up-this-woman’s-long-ass-leg” shot. Hell, if we even stay on brand and highlight this occurrence within, say, DCEU movies, you can literally track the difference that gender plays both in directing and cinematography from Wonder Woman to Justice League. All you need to do is compare the costume change of the Amazons in both films and gorgeous shots like Diana Prince walking through No Man’s Land or bursting through that window while kicking ass in the former to the excessive amounts of butt shots trained on what I assume is supposed to be Gal Gadot’s often decked-out-in-leather ass in the latter (which was often filmed from extremely low angles to reinforce the point that the spectator is looking at Diana’s ass without her knowledge or her consent)—in addition to that wildly extraneous scene where Ezra Miller’s Flash quite literally finds himself laid out on Diana’s tiddies. It’s supposed to be funny, but… it’s just fucking ridiculous. There’s literally no other way to describe it.
The male gaze is asinine and gratuitous as fuck and inherently undermines the quality and the credibility of the film that is utilizing it.
But cishet men often do not care because… ass. And tiddies. So when a film opts out of appealing to a low bar such as that, [white] cishet men everywhere lose their goddamn minds. I mean, aside from this BoP uproar, recall that many of these same man-babies had a similar ax to grind with Captain Marvel—mainly because they hated Brie Larson for having the audacity to want film critics to cater to and include someone other than white men (check) and mostly because they viewed her character Carol Danvers as an arrogant, man-hating bitch (check). Even though such arrogance is something they’ve come to love in characters like Tony Stark, Peter Quill, Dr. Strange, and Thor, and even though Carol develops a close friendship with the undeniably cishet spy Nick Fury and her only “antagonistic” interaction with a random dude (besides stealing his bike—which made me laugh my ass off) is telling him to piss off when he asks her to smile. The film then leans into this commitment to not cater to any preconceived [male] fantasies about Carol by becoming a movie about a woman being gaslit by her closest [male] friend and mentor in an effort to subdue her massive amount of power and I’m sure that message was hard to swallow without excessive boob or ass imagery. But guess what? That movie brought in a box office of 1.128 billion. The very opposite of bombing.
And I’m sure Birds of Prey is queuing up to do the exact same thing. Hopefully with a similar number.