By now, a lot of you have seen Suicide Squad; it’s record-breaking weekend debut booted Guardians of the Galaxy out of the top slot as the highest grossing August movie. Despite its great commercial haul, Suicide Squad was ravaged by the critics for its senseless plot, boring action sequences and complete lack of character arcs (see our own review here). While I agree with the critics wholeheartedly, I believe that its portrayal of women also greatly contributed to its poor reception.
Hollywood is slowly becoming more diverse and properly representative of minorities and women; Ava DuVernay is single-handedly breaking barriers for both. This increase in representation is aided by rising audience demand and prominent celebrity outcries. We are only just now getting two female-led superhero movies in the form of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, a first for both DC and Marvel franchises. Therefore, is is unacceptable when a movie that has a giant fanbase, a lot of which are female, promotes sexist and misogynistic characters.
Suicide Squad is certainly not the worst offender when it comes to the poor portrayal of women, and even critical darlings like Marvel do not pass the Bechdel test. However, Marvel movies portray complicated women with important and realistic character development, despite their lack of screen time. In this year’s Captain America: Civil War, the Scarlet Witch struggled with her relatively new powers, ultimately moving from a fearful, indecisive character to an action-oriented, confident superhero. On the other side of the spectrum, Suicide Squad ruined almost every female character in the movie (not that there were many anyway). A co-worker astutely pointed out that director David Ayer has never even directed a female character with more than a few lines of dialogue. His previous two movies, Fury and End of Watch, feature almost no female characters at all.
The only character that emerged unscathed from Suicide Squad was Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, the morally ambiguous government official who is in a position of power and whose story doesn’t revolve around her relationships with men. The other three women, Karen Fukuhara’s Katana, Cara Delevingne’s June Moon/Enchantress and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, are depicted poorly, defined by their relationships with men and are often greatly mistreated. The greatest offense may be found in the one-note wife of Jay Hernandez’s Diablo, Grace, who is the epitome of sexist and misogynistic stereotypes in film. (Warning: spoilers from here on out).
During a small five-minute sequence, Diablo explains his background and the story of how he came to be imprisoned. At the beginning of the movie, Diablo is shown to be the most sympathetic, since he refuses to use his powers for good or bad. He nobly wants to be imprisoned so he doesn’t hurt anyone else. I was most intrigued by his character, and was looking forward to hearing more behind this monk-like behavior.
And then I heard his tale of woe.
Diablo’s “tale of woe” follows his foray into drug dealing and other criminal activity, which he used to support his wife and two kids. His wife, Grace, didn’t support him using his powers to hurt and kill people, and wanted Diablo to give up his life of crime and become an honest man for her and their children. Understandably, Grace wanted to leave a dangerous man and keep her children safe. Diablo then reveals to the group that when he’s angry, he loses control of his fire-making abilities — so Grace and her children were killed as a result. Note that this happens in real life all the time: a couple gets into an argument and the man kills her for it. Therefore, Diablo can’t use the excuse that he “couldn’t control himself.” Grace didn’t even start an argument, she tried to do the smart thing by leaving a violent spouse.
Grace’s entire character only exists to show the inner turmoil in Diablo. Ayer expects audiences to feel bad for him because he accidentally murdered his wife and children. Sure, Diablo feels horribly guilty and regrets it more than anything, but this is still as Class A example of domestic violence and murder.
Katana is a character not too dissimilar from Grace. Luckily for her, she does show up for more than a total five minutes. However, she still probably has the same amount of lines, speaking for a grand total of maybe 10 sentences and most of them not in English. Katana’s backstory consisted of a one-minute scene of her killing the criminals who murdered her husband.
The martial arts star Karen Fukuhara states that she was thrilled to play Katana in several interviews, pointing out that not many Asian superheroes exist. “It’s hard to find a superhero to dress up as an Asian person on Halloween,” she astutely points out. While this may be true, her status as a female character is incredibly disserviced by a mediocre backstory that could have been more interesting.
The main problem with Katana’s characterization is the focus on her dead husband. Although Katana is a badass character and certainly not a “damsel-in-distress,” she spends the entire story lamenting the loss of her husband. In fact, one could say that she lives to avenge him. Her drive stems from some pain and loss that has been forced on her, and her backstory relies on her relationship with a man.
Both June Moon and the ancient god who possesses her are terrible characters: one is a trembling child and the other is a boring magician in a green bikini.
The Enchantress could have been a slightly more interesting character if given more characterization and backstory. It is refreshing to see a woman in the role of a villain, which has been usually offered to men in superhero movies. However, most of her time on screen features Cara Delevingne twisting her body around in a shiny gold bikini that reminds me of a weird combination of the Green Lantern and the robot Maria in Metropolis.
The real problem with this portrayal derives from June Moon, a doctor in archaeology who discovers the spirit of the Enchantress that possesses her. Hardly given many lines as well, June Moon purely exists to give her boyfriend, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), purpose. The only reason that Flag listens to Amanda Waller and fights to save the world is to protect and save her. June Moon exists to give Rick Flag’s characterization and drive throughout the movie, and never receives her own story whatsoever.
Like Grace and Katana, her character must also go through immense psychological and physical pain. She is essentially traumatized the entire movie, forced to commit terrible acts through the possession of the Enchantress. After she changes back from the Enchantress to June Moon, she always begs Amanda Waller not to do it again, and is clearly in deep signs of emotional and physical distress.
Instead of focusing on lackluster action sequences, perhaps Ayer should have given more characterization to both characters, or at least given June more purpose than to serve as the emotional heart of another bland male character.
Harley Quinn is probably one of the best villains/anti-heroes in the DC universe. Her iconic speech and rocking costumes make her a compelling and hilarious character, a great additive for female characters in a thoroughly male-driven franchise.
I, as well as many other women, was excited to see Harley Quinn on screen. The early footage of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn looked fantastic. Her costume was skimpy, sure, but still effortlessly cool; her action scenes showed her kicking ass and her funny one-liners stole the show from other acting heavyweights like Will Smith. Then, David Ayer and co. ruined her by turning her into a sex object that is abused and tortured.
To be fair, Harley Quinn’s portrayal has some slightly feminist factors. Along with Will Smith’s Deadshot, she is given the most screen time and backstory. Despite being rescued by the Joker a couple times, she is not given the trope of “damsel-in-distress.” In addition, the Joker is the one who purely exists to give Harley a bigger backstory and character purpose. She can take care of herself and clearly dictates that she “sleeps where I want, when I want, with who I want” as Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” plays in the background.
Unfortunately, these couple of scenes are not enough to redeem the sexist and misogynistic portrayal of Harley Quinn. A lot of film reviewers have criticized the small outfit that Harley Quinn wears, giving a very graphic look at her butt and legs the entire movie. I disagree that is the problem. Scarlett Johansson wears a tight, form-fitting outfit that shows off her body in Marvel movies, which never comes off as sexist. The real reason that Harley Quinn becomes a sex object is due to men’s treatment of her.
First off, we are subject to a very lewd scene of Harley changing around the half-hour mark. All of the men and soldiers stop to look at her unabashedly, while she is clearly unphased by it. Luckily, Ayer does not spend too much time on lingering on Robbie’s half-naked body, but the entire scene shows these men and the audience leering at her. We get another overly sexualized glimpse of Harley Quinn in a flashback with the Joker, where Robbie is essentially stripping in a club. At this moment, and another half a dozen times, other male characters comment on Harley Quinn’s appearance. Examples of this include “hotness” and “you look good on the outside but you’re ugly on the inside.” Although many superhero female character have been greatly sexualized in other movies, I’ve never heard the male characters comment on her attractiveness the way Suicide Squad does.
Part of this over-sexualization leads to her terrible relationship with the Joker, which is abusive and manipulative from the start. Harley Quinn’s backstory begins with her falling in love with the Joker when she was a psychologist in Harlem Asylum. The Joker then exploited this love by getting her to release him and promptly killing everybody in the Asylum. Instead of murdering Harley, which she believes will happen, the Joker puts her through extensive electric-shock treatments. After the treatments, she then willingly falls into the same vat of chemicals as the Joker, effectively turning her into the Harley Quinn we know today. The rest of the movie shows the Joker saving and abandoning Harley many times, and it seems as though Ayer didn’t know how he wanted to portray the relationship.
Even if the Joker truly cares about (or loves?) Harley, the relationship consists of him manipulating her from the start. During the club scene mentioned before, he offers to trade Harley as a sexual gift for a potential client. On the back of Harley’s red and blue leather jacket, it says “Property of the Joker.” Harley refers to the Joker as her “puddin,” which she literally wears on a dog collar around her neck. Harley’s desires and goals completely revolve around the Joker, and while she does mature slightly after she believes he died, the ending nulls this by putting her back with the Joker.
The final slap in the face to Harley Quinn comes towards the end of the movie, when the Enchantress makes the superheroes see their greatest desire. Apparently Harley’s “greatest desire” is to be a normal housewife with the Joker, leading a stereotypically happy 50s lifestyle. Female superheroes are already a scarcity, but it’s always fun to see these characters kick ass as well as men on screen. Ayer takes this equality and eccentricity away from Harley, the qualities that make her stand out as an individual, and turns her into a sexist stereotype which women have been trying to defy for decades.
Amanda Waller may have saved the movie from being completely misogynistic, but Ayer and Suicide Squad failed its female characters by turning them into stereotypes filled with sexism and male-centered storylines. AlthoughCaptain America: Civil War doesn’t have too many female characters either, at least they have character development and fully-fleshed out backstories. I’m hoping that Wonder Woman, the first female protagonist in a superhero movie, will help save the destitute genre, and that they don’t make the same mistakes.