[Spoilers will be involved. Also, I’m not well-versed in DC comic book canon except what I’ve read in passing. I am first and foremost remarking on this movie portrayal in relation to gender, not in its relation to the comics, graphic novels, or video games in any way.]
It’s been almost a month and a half since I saw Suicide Squad at the theater with my siblings. I knew, before 10 minutes had gone by, that I was a little uncomfortable with its storytelling techniques, that it seemed a lot more time was being spent on certain characters (or, rather, bigger blockbuster names) than others, and that most of the acting was, meh, okay but nothing to write home about. The plot line was a little circuitous, but, once we got to that bar scene, everyone drenched from the rain, all giving up together, spilling vodka and secrets out on the rail, I’d found what I’d come for: camaraderie in the hardest of times, keeping each other afloat just a little while longer. It’s a batshit-crazy, really fucked-up kind of camaraderie because wow are these people criminals and hard to forgive, but it’s fascinating and gives us the slightest of hints of humanity all the same.
So, in the end, I walked out of the movie theater feeling a bit better. This superhero movie — a genre that’s really stopped doing it for me — had given me an ensemble of characters that fascinated me not only individually, but as a whole, something Marvel’s ensemble blockbusters haven’t pulled off for me since the original 2012 Avengers and that DC’s 2016 Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice entirely missed the mark on. A bonus: Not only was its cast of characters interesting story-wise, but it was diverse.
Don’t believe me? Then consider this promotional release ensemble image. What do you see?
Let’s start with the basics. The squad is nine people, plus Amanda Waller, so 10 overall. Six of those are male, four are female. Math means approximately 40 percent of the primary ensemble cast is female. Slowly but surely we’re getting closer to the real-life gender statistics of, at least, the U.S. population, which, according to the 2015 U.S. Census, is 50.8 percent female.
Next, and here’s the real kicker: Not everyone in this movie is white. Comic canon is adhered to with Viola Davis playing Amanda Waller and Karen Fukuhara playing Katana while the exact same comic canon is flouted in casting Will Smith in the role as Deadshot. Actors Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, and Adam Beach round out the diverse cast as El Diablo (heart eyes for days), Killer Croc, and Slipknot respectively and represent identities that are rarely represented on screen: Latinx, crocodile, and indigenous peoples. (I’m joking re: crocodile, but I’d argue Killer Croc as a character faces prejudice akin to racial prejudice based on his appearance at the same time that his actor’s racial identity cannot be ignored despite green screen and special effects’ best efforts.) Remarkable, right?
Actually, right. Check it out:
According to these statistics compiled by Pretty Famous, Suicide Squad is arguably the most diverse superhero movie to date. Let me repeat that: to date, halfway through the year 2016. And it barely even edges past 40 percent minority representation. (Compare: Marvel’s original heavy-hitter The Avengers is only 8.3 percent minority with Samuel L. Jackson as its token person of color.) However, 2015 U.S. Census data shows that the population of the United States is 61.6 percent white — meaning, then, that Suicide Squad is the only one of the above movies accurately representing the nation’s racial and ethnic diversity.
But, for everything Suicide Squad seems to be doing right as a diverse ensemble cast movie, it manages to pull off several more problematic mistakes, most notably in its unspoken commentary on gender and female roles.
Look at that ensemble cast image again. And then look again. Look at how its three women are sandwiched in to a line-up of men: The girls, specifically Harley and the Enchantress, take up less room in the line-up; both of them lean on Rick Flag, lessening some of their physical presence, and Harley is turned to the side while most of the men face the camera head-on, wide stances. Next, Katana is excluded from the above line-up and made smaller as she squats closer to the ground. She may be staring daggers at us and she may be closer to the other women in the photo, forming a visual triumvirate of ladies for us, but she is lesser, diminished, just as she is in contrast to Rick Flag, with whom she shares rank and military prowess. And, to make matters worse, look at the costume choices for the female characters versus for the male characters: The men are covered head-to-toe, some even dressed as if in riot gear. But we can see so much skin on the women; even Katana doesn’t escape and we’ve got to have a small hint of cleavage and leg to remind us she’s female and separate. That isn’t to say female characters can’t use their sexuality and their body to their advantage — arguably Harley and the Enchantress do —, but, in comparison to the fully-clothed boys (like, they’re in all full-length outfits, no arms or legs to be seen?), the girls are treated visually in significantly different ways. The girls just can’t catch a break.
And this is how the gender rhetoric of Suicide Squad treats its female characters throughout the whole film. It leads us to believe we are seeing them empowered, seeing them as strong and, sometimes, in charge. But they’re still being hidden, diminished, sexualized, and, even at points, demonized.
First, its most common fault in portraying all four of its female characters is relying too heavily on stereotypes that are wholly negative and ineffective in representing women. Like I mentioned before, on the surface, Suicide Squad is an exemplar piece on superhero leading ladies. They all seem to show very clear signs of being kickass and, in one way or another, in charge. In the same vein, most of these girls seem to hold some significant semblance of empowerment — little of which has anything to do with their being female: Amanda Waller is the originating force behind Task Force X who intimidates white male politicians into submission and unwaveringly exemplifies her invention of her own power and willingness to do anything, including murder in cold blood, to keep it; Katana is a fully capable martial arts and swordsmanship expert who makes a lot of her own choices, including whether or not to join up with the Suicide Squad to begin with; June Moone is an intelligent and scholarly woman whose alter ego wields power beyond even Amanda Waller’s wildest imaginings; and Harley Quinn is enough of a criminally household name that she has the most hardened Gotham gangsters and Belle Reve prison guards shaking in their boots. At a glance, then, these ladies seem empowered and ready to tear down the idea that only male superheroes are worth watching.
But then it all goes south. Suicide Squad was obviously written from a male lense for a predominately male audience. As Alex Abed-Santos suggests, critiquing Harley Quinn’s portrayal in particular, the movie creates “a character written and filmed by men who are doing their best to be ‘cool dads’ by introducing their teen sons to Penthouse.” The movie, then, is aiming for a specific kind of entertainment, making it wholly irresponsible in its portrayal of its characters — especially its female characters. The question in production wasn’t “How do we portray a female character well?” It was “How do we make this female character cool and entertaining for the (male) audience?” The answer was relying on rote, watered-down, and detrimental stereotypes and little sparkly booty shorts that look a lot more uncomfortable than I’d really like to think about. Even when we see a female character empowered, we also see dents in that empowering armor that are highly stereotypical and, in general, oversimplified.
For instance, Amanda Waller is a badass woman in charge whose team of the worst criminals ever are all either scared or in awe of her. Instead of emphasizing and defining her by her wild, dangerous ideas or cutthroat team leading skills, they went for portraying her — and letting male characters, and therefore audience members, react to her — as the stereotypical domineering “bitch.” All the men she must go through to convince of Task Force X’s viability look at her and treat her like she is asking too much, going too far, and just being in their way, adhering to and feeding the monster of descriptive bias against women in the workplace. Even her inferior and usually pretty respectful officer, Rick Flag, suggests they abandon the Task Force X project and rely on more typical means that have proven effective in the past. Waller’s speech that follows — putting him in his place, not budging in her goals or methods — is incredible, but the rest of the movie shows Flag begrudgingly following orders (and getting significantly more screen time as he does it). Lazy writing and character development like this leave us with misleading and oversimplified characters with a lot of potential, and no follow-through that negatively disempowers the female characters as the plot progresses.
Next, Suicide Squad insists on rendering the majority of its female characters — excluding only Amanda Waller — as romantic entities whose characterization and personality rely heavily on committed relationships with men. According to the movie, these women and who they are do not exist without men. June Moone, for instance, is involved with the military officer Rick Flag, which is apparently the only blackmail Waller can pull on him to force him to take part in Task Force X. The few scenes in which she is June and not overpowered by the Enchantress show her leaning on Flag for emotional support or crying into his shoulder. In the end, June survives the end of the movie because Flag refuses to let anyone kill her; she is indebted to and continues to exist because of the man she is romantically involved with. Similarly, the strong but silent kickass Katana doesn’t get a whole lot of backstory except that her husband is dead, she is on a vengeful rampage, and his soul is trapped in her sword that she carries with her everywhere. According to the movie’s rhetoric, she is a great fighter because she is seeking revenge for her husband’s death, not because, as in comic canon, she was already a martial arts and samurai master whose husband also happened to be killed. To make matters worse, one of the few scenes focused entirely on her shows Katana reverently leaning over her sword, practically in a submissive fetal position, whispering to the soul of her husband in her sword. Captain Boomerang snorts and calls her “crazy.” Here, Katana essentially performs the (racially insensitive) role of the silent mourning Japanese wife who must literally and figuratively carry the burden of her husband’s death at her side — he never leaves her, and she can never let him or his dying wish go.
And then there is Harley Quinn, and her all-consuming romantic relationship with the Joker. Everything about this duo is unhealthy: their bodies, their minds, and their relationship. At the start of the movie, we see the rotten blossoming of their romance: Dr Harleen Quinzel, a competent and smart psychiatrist, becomes fascinated by her terminally insane patient, who, in turn, uses this dangerous fascination to get whatever he wants. She helps him escape; he electrocutes her, hissing, “I’m not gonna kill you. I’m just going to hurt you really really bad.” Which, in effect, he does: He strips her of her rational faculties and makes her his obedient, moon-eyed sidearm accessory — his irrevocable property, even, as evidenced by her “Property of the Joker” jacket and “Puddin'” dog collar. Initially, the Joker even tries to remove her from the equation, demanding she jump into a vat of acid to prove she would die for him. This is all physical and emotional abuse. It is extremely hard to watch.
After watching Suicide Squad at the theater, I asked my siblings how they felt about Harley and Mr J. My sister echoed my sentiments and said, “I hope she ditches him ASAP,” whereas my brother, a fan of the Batman graphic novels, argued that Harley can’t exist without the Joker: “She becomes obsolete and just crazy if she doesn’t love him.” His point is, unfortunately, true. Not only did the Joker invent Harley Quinn — even erasing her identity by giving her a new bastardized name — but their romantic association is half the reason others fear her. She’s “the Joker’s wife.” Though she’s built a reputation for herself at Belle Reve, it’s mostly as physically violent; it doesn’t stop the guards from harassing her. She has to plaster on a sardonic, wild smile when she thinks Mr J has died, as if she recognizes her character can’t exist — literally — without him. Harley’s romantic relationship with the Joker is what defines her and makes her a part of the Suicide Squad universe at all.
My final critique of Suicide Squad‘s treatment of female characters is in how they decided to treat Harley Quinn at the ending. Sure, nothing that happens to Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad is all that good, whether in her story or her character development. She serves as somewhat of an emotional tragedy punching bag for the writers, offering up an opportunity to simultaneously pull at our heartstrings and provide us with a bright, candy-colored distraction when nothing else in the plot line is going well. (What the heck was that random flashback scene on the stairwell?) But the worst thing — out of a lot of very bad things — to happen to Harley throughout the whole movie was her final scene.
After a relatively successful first mission, the Suicide Squad is returned to Belle Reve with ten years off their sentences and allowances for certain requests. Harley asks for, of all things, an espresso maker. The powers-that-be scoff at her, but, despite their ridicule, she gets her espresso all the same. And then we get this moment.
Take that image in: A small espresso cup. Her pinky up. Pink fluffy slippers. Hair up. Steamy romance novel in hand. If it weren’t for that bright orange jumpsuit, we’d think she was comfortably at home, free to relax and do as she pleases. All in all, this penultimate image of Harley is interestingly domestic. That isn’t in any way to say “soft” or “womanly.” Instead, as we’ve witnessed previously in the movie, it’s Harley’s own ideal, her dream. Recall that, in the final fight in the city, the Enchantress presents several of the Squad members with their greatest fantasies, their deepest (significantly, for a team of bad guys, not darkest) desires. Harley sees a domestic life, a life with a pristinely white kitchen, a daughter, a husband who is clean-cut in a suit and tie who loves her and their child dearly. True, Mr J is still there, but he’s changed: He’s a straight-and-narrow businessman who has created a life for their family that looks like it came directly from the pages of a 1950s Better Homes and Gardens.
Although Harley rejects the offer from the Enchantress to bring the Joker back from the dead and is left to a life of iron bars and jumpsuits, that doesn’t stop her from pursuing that dream to the best of her ability even in prison. She has her coffee, she has her books, she has her slippers, she has her comforts and her domesticity. Even her hair looks reminiscent of a 1950s housewife’s up in curlers. In contrast to the ideal the Enchantress presented, Harley doesn’t need a man — Mr J or otherwise — to make this life for her; she carves it out for herself. She’s achieved what she wanted even in the worst of circumstances. She becomes self-sufficient in recovering a semblance of normalcy — complete with Harley quirk, though, don’t worry — she used to hope for pre-Joker. She seems, in a way, content.
How long does that last?
All of a couple seconds, of course, before the outer wall of the prison explodes and Mr J marches in, spraying gunfire right and left. He literally interrupts, demolishes, and invades Harley’s domestic scene and space. (Arguably, it’s reminiscent of a rape scene as well as the cyclical nature of domestic abuse, though most of their relationship is, so we’ll have to save that for another time.) Her peaceful, idyllic respite from the brand of insanity forced on her by the Joker is destroyed when he reveals he didn’t actually die (dang).
Similarly, the song on the official Suicide Squad soundtrack that is often played over featurettes and scenes of Harley — Grace’s cover of “You Don’t Own Me” featuring G-Eazy — portrays an equally self-dependent woman being interrupted and superseded in her productivity by the man in her life. The main lyrical female voice, which we’ll say portrays Harley, requires a significant other to recognize her freedom and individuality:
You don’t own me
Don’t try to change me in any way….
Don’t tell me what to do
And don’t tell me what to say.
The voice espouses female empowerment and demands respect from a man. She’s “free and … love[s] to be free,” able to take care of herself and stand on her own two feet, just like Harley at the end of Suicide Squad. But it’s the rapper G-Eazy, standing in, for the sake of our argument, as the Joker, who gets the first and last word of the song. He acknowledges that she is an “independent woman” who “got her own dough” — that is to say, she’s highly self-sufficient. She was doing just fine, creating a life on her own, then, before he arrived. The eerie refrain “You don’t own me” repeats over and over in the song as a reminder of her competency and power. That is, until the male voice turns on her desire to be independent: “She’s the one …. / That’s when she told me she ain’t never ever ever ever gonna be owned.” His disdain for that statement turns the course of the song. The male voice ultimately ends the song and cuts off the female voice with the definitive threat “You’ve never met somebody like me before,” as if he alone can change her — despite her earlier stipulations that he not —, own her, and destroy her self-sufficient power.
So, what are you saying, Suicide Squad? Is a self-sufficient woman just another glitch in the code, then? A trait to be eradicated by electrocution, subordination, and invasion of her ideal and self-made space? Why can’t the girl just drink her espresso in domestic, independent peace? And, by extent, why can’t she exist independently, without being associated and indebted to a man to be who she is? Why can’t she be empowered and not reduced to the role of bitch, mourning widow, man’s property? What is it about superhero movies that the portrayal of female characters is a conundrum?