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The Male Gaze in the Media: A Tale of Two Harley Quinns

By Skylar Alley
On November 22, 2021

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The Male Gaze is described as the depiction of women in movies and television from a masculine, heterosexual perspective, showing off their body and sex appeal rather than fleshing them out as their own independent character. In simple terms, the only purpose women have in these stories is to be eye candy for the male characters and viewers.


I believe the most obvious and distinct representation of the male gaze comes from David Ayer’s 2016 film “Suicide Squad” and the depiction of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn.


In the film, rather than dawning Quinn’s comic-accurate red-and-black outfit, she’s seen wearing a see-through white shirt (that later becomes wet in the film) with a prominent red bra, sparkly booty shorts, always wearing heeled boots, fishnets, bangs that frame her face and a choker saying “PUDDIN” (in reference to her relationship with Joker).


Now, one could argue that these costuming choices were decided upon to emphasize her toxic and abusive relationship with Joker and how he treats her as a dispensable object. I can somehow see this being the case, but then we move onto the camera work for Robbie.


Nearly every scene she’s in, the camera is practically eyeing her up and down, stalking her like a predator. When she walks, the camera makes sure to get a shot of her body -- specifically of her rear. The shot also makes sure to include the men around Harley’s reaction, treating her like something to gawk at rather than her own person.


And don’t even get me started on her lines. 


(The following is an interaction between Harley and a prison guard, written by David Ayer)


GUARD: Look at you. You know the rules, hotness. You gotta keep off these bars.

HARLEY: What, these bars?

GUARD: Yeah. Those bars.

HARLEY: Oh, my god.

GUARD:You are really in bad shape upstairs, lady!

HARLEY: Gonna come in here and tell me that? Or are you too scared? Come on, I'm bored. I'm bored. Play with me. 

GUARD: You put five of my guards in the hospital, honey. No one's gonna play with you. You sleep on the ground.

HARLEY: I sleep where I want, when I want, with who I want.

I think the dialogue speaks for itself.


On the other hand, audiences have also gotten to see Harley Quinn through the female gaze in 2020’s “Birds Of Prey,” directed by Cathy Yan.


Her costuming, though still revealing, is clearly items of clothing that Quinn would pick for herself: glittery, yellow overalls, a white see-through shirt that’s covered in her name with a bright pink crop top underneath, suspenders paired with checkered pants, hair that’s more messily cut. She even switches to wearing roller skates in the final fight. 


The camerawork also follows Quinn around through her story, rather than through her body. There’s a shot during a scene where Quinn is dawning a disguise in order to rob a bank. The shot begins at her ankles, but rather than slowly snaking up her frame, it cuts away to the front of her as she walks toward the bank teller, emphasizing that the viewers are along for the ride with her and not there to gawk at her.


There’s no oversexualization in the film. When Quinn is having fun at the club, she’s doing everything for her and not to appease the men around her. She’s living her life, having a breakdown over dropping a breakfast sandwich, and tearing up bad guys with roller skates on. She’s unapologetically her.


Watching Ayer’s film, it’s very disheartening to see women portrayed in such a dehumanizing way, and my heart breaks for Robbie having to be portrayed like that. The male gaze is something that needs to be stopped, and with film’s like “Birds of Prey,” I hope it shows filmmakers that women are their own people and not objects for men to appease themselves with.

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