[Content Warning: Suicide Squad Spoilers and arguments that it's a good movie]
People...I love movies almost as much as I love sex. I’ve been a cinephile for as long as I can remember, and I’ve probably been a nerd for even longer. I’ve been reading comic books since I was 8 years old and my Grandmother brought home some DuckTails comics from the Op Shop. As I’ve grown older, my tastes have become more refined, and these days I enjoy everything from Vertigo and Icon, to the occasional Marvel trade paperback. But if I’m being completely honest, my one true love will always be DC.
I fell in love with Catwoman in Hush. Green Arrow and Flash appeared in my masturbatory fantasies after late night viewings of Justice League Unlimited. And Wonder Woman became a personal hero after learning more about her origins in Wonder Woman: Unbound. So when DC started making movies, I was beyond excited. Every time a new trailer dropped, I would watch it on repeat for about a week, just hyping myself up. I now live in a world with both a live action Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn. And I couldn’t be fucking happier.
But it turns out not everyone is as happy as I am. Suicide Squad came out last week and the reviews have been...unkind, to put it mildly. People are calling the movie “Ugly", "Boring", "Toxic", "Predictable", "Unexciting", "Overstaffed and Overstuffed” and in one particularly memorable review, “Turgid.” I’m convinced at this point that everyone else saw a completely different movie to me. Because the Suicide Squad that I saw was balls to the wall, action-packed fun and excitement. It was a love letter to the villains of DC, bringing to life characters that I’ve come to know intimately across a decade of reading their titles and watching them in animation.
But perhaps the most troubling attack on the film though are the critics decrying the treatment of Harley Quinn. People are calling her depiction sexist, misogynistic and toxic. And the only conclusion I can draw from this is that the people writing these reviews are either not really feminists or not really nerds, because the Harley Quinn I witnessed was a beautiful rendering of a nuanced human being with desires and motivations as complex as my own. Allow me to prosthelytize for a moment...
One of the more problematic elements of the film, according to critics, is the violence against women. Women get punched in the face, a lot, in Suicide Squad. I’m not going to try and defend this entirely, because in some scenes it’s just lazy storytelling to make us dislike a character (Slipknot for instance). However, in the scene where Batman nearly kills and subsequently tries to rescue Harley Quinn, I feel it’s justified. Before the film’s release, statements were made around Batman’s involvement; we were told that we’d be seeing him from the villain’s point of view. When Batman dives into the water after Harley, and punches her in the face, my stomach clenched. God, Batman, what a dick move! And when he brings her to the Batmobile, and is giving her mouth-to-mouth, the way it’s shot is almost lascivious, as though the Dark Knight is kind of getting off on it. Batman suddenly went from the hero of Gotham, to a sleazy “Nice Guy ™” who enjoys abusing his power and privilege. Even in the scene when he drops in to arrest Deadshot, he does it when Floyd’s daughter is there. The Batman I’m used to would never endanger a little girl’s life just to capture a crook. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? If this is the villain’s story, and it is, why shouldn’t we see Batman as they do? To them he's a thug in an overpriced suit who doesn’t care about kids, consent or violence against women. Because in reality, do you think Batman wouldn’t hit a girl? Do you think he’s going to pull punches on Harley, or Poison Ivy, or Talia Al Ghul, when they’re endangering lives? Of course not. Batman is a man who hits women. He always has been, it's just this is the first time we've really been confronted with that fact. But if I'm being really honest, I would be a little peeved if he didn’t hit women. If Batman devised some violence-free way of restraining women who were menacing society, it would smack of benevolent sexism; it would feel like he didn’t take them as seriously as their male counterparts. So yes, the film does depict violence against women, but in some instances I think it does so to impart a crucial element of the villain's narrative.
A lot of the charges of misogyny have been levelled at the depiction of Harley Quinn. This is a character that I grew up with. From her first appearance in Batman: The Animated Series I’ve always felt a strange pull towards her. Harley is crazy. And yes, I know crazy is an ableist term that I’m not meant to be using any more. But I self-identify as crazy. I have for a very long time. My brain has never worked the the way it should, and I make a lot of decisions and act on a lot of impulses that, to put it bluntly, are pretty fucking insane. But like me, Harley doesn’t let her psychological quirks stop her from living her life. People have decried the fact that Suicide Squad sexualised a woman who was mentally unstable. My argument is that Suicide Squad didn’t sexualise her; Harley is a sexual woman and always has been. Just like me. Just like many of the wonderful women I know, who also happen to have mental health issues.
There’s an interesting debate that goes on amongst feminist comic-book nerds such as myself. We ask ourselves, regularly, where do we draw the line between sexual and sexualised? As a feminist, I believe a woman has the right to decide what she wears, who she sleeps with and who she fights. Many of the characters I see in comic books are so obviously drawn for the male gaze, that it undermines any strength of character they might have. So how do we decide when it’s okay for a female character to wear a skimpy outfit and when it’s just shameless tits and ass for the sweaty pale nerd reading it (speaking for myself here).
It’s actually a simpler solution than you’d think. Simply ask, does it make sense for the character to be wearing that outfit? From what I know about the character, does it make sense for them to dress themselves that way. Take Batgirl for example. She was inspired by Batman’s costume, so her costume likewise covers her whole body and head and has a handy utility belt. This costume makes sense to me. I don’t like it when certain artists draw it as though it’s made from body paint, because that’s just lazy artwork and obvious sexualisation, but the costume itself makes sense. Because the character makes sense.
By contrast, Wonder Woman’s outfit makes no fucking sense to me. She’s an Amazon. She comes from an island of women, isolated from mankind since the days of Ancient Greece. Her outfit should resemble something that Athenian or Spartan soldiers would have gone to war in. And occasionally a brilliant artist, like the late great Darwyn Cooke, will draw her that way. This is why her recent portrayal in Batman V Superman frustrated me. Gal Gadot is a wee lass, she’s not an Amazonian powerhouse. I’m not body shaming here, Gal has a lovely body; but Diana has the physique of an MMA fighter, not a Milan catwalk model. The BvS costume looks like the over-the-top sexy version of a Spartan warrior’s that you might find in a discount Halloween Store. The leather pleats are so short that they’d do nothing to protect her thighs, and the splits on either side of her groin make no strategic sense. Her bustier is strapless...the only real purpose of a strapless outfit is for a night of drinking, not fighting crime.
Then we have Harley Quinn. In her opening scene she’s swinging from the rafters in a barely there white ensemble, before walking up to a guard and suggestively licking a pole. How could I possibly have less issues with her portrayal than Wonder Woman’s? Easy. Because it makes sense. What I love about Harley is that she’s so shamelessly herself, and much of her actions mirror my own. She likes the male gaze, she likes the attention, but she likes it on her terms. Her opening musical cue is the feminist anthem You don’t own me, and one of her first lines is “I sleep where I want, when I want, with who I want.” Harley likes sex, she likes dressing in a way that advertises that and she loves the attention that brings...and there’s nothing at all wrong with that! I too enjoy sex, I too enjoy wearing skimpy outfits and drawing attention, and I don't feel any shame for that.
At one point in the film, El Diablo is explaining to the squad how he killed his wife and kids. They're all are appalled, except for Harley who stares him down and says “Own that shit”. Everything that Harley does, she owns. It’s made clear in Suicide Squad that Harley knows how to say no, she’s not some poor mentally addled bimbo who’s just going to get taken advantage of. And she’s not a damsel in distress waiting for her white knight to save her. When the Joker says he’s coming for her, it’s implied that she’s letting him, not because she needs him, but because she loves him.
Which brings me to my favourite part of the film. Suicide Squad had a better representation of kink than Fifty Shades of Grey. In the BDSM scene, there’s a dynamic of Dominant and submissive. A submissive is someone who willingly and consensually gives up their power and sometimes their autonomy to their Dominant, or Dom. This dynamic often involves a lot of consensual pain and bondage play. In amongst this dynamic is a smaller subset of the kink known as a Daddy/Little relationship (sometimes referred to as a Caring or Nurturing Dom relationship). In a Daddy/Little relationship the Dom is often referred to as Daddy, Mister or Sir. The Little, or sub, will often engage in “age play” which basically involves acting like someone younger than themselves. Taken to its extreme this kink can evolve into adult baby fetishes, or incest play. But the most common example is a male “Daddy” and a female “little”.
In Suicide Squad, we see Harleen Quinzel, the professional psychiatrist, who is brought in the treat the Joker. Most BDSM practitioners are intelligent, career focused, highly driven people. Dr. Quinzel is exactly that. Until she meets the Joker. He asks her for a machine gun, and she delivers. The next thing we see is Harleen, clothing askew, laid out on a hospital gurney with the Joker looming over her. She asks, with a smile and a wriggle, if he’s going to kill her, and he replies that he’s not, he’s just “going to hurt you, really, really, bad” and we see him applying defib-paddles to her temples, as Harleen starts smiling, eyes wide with excitement.
In another flashback, we see the Joker ask Harleen if she’d die for him. She nods, smiling docilely. He then asks if she’d live for him, and she softly says she would. Joker takes her chin in his hand and excitedly says “You’re so good!” This exchange is probably one of the most perfect representations of kink I’ve ever seen in cinema. Margot Robbie captures a woman in “subspace”. When you’re being submissive to someone else, it’s not unusual to get to a place where you’re kind of blissed out, and your responses become soft and demure. Joker’s reaction is one I've seen many Doms and Daddy’s give when their sub is behaving well, it’s a genuine excitement brought on by the control they have and their attraction to the person in front of them. The exchange is so natural, so perfectly kink, that there’s no way for me to believe that this dynamic wasn’t done intentionally.
Harley and Joker in Suicide Squad is not an abusive relationship. It’s not a portrayal of someone taking advantage of someone else. Harleen is there by choice, she and Joker are participating in a relationship dynamic that is completely consensual. Which is more than I can, and have said for Fifty Shades of Grey.
In one flashback we see the Joker “give” Harley to a Gotham thug. She doesn’t protest, she doesn’t argue, she happily does exactly what she’s told because she has willingly submitted to the Joker. It’s not unusual in a Daddy/Little dynamic to engage in this form of objectification, or “gifting” of partners to others. It’s a common kink and one that plays into the level of submission that Harley has for the Joker.
We later see her in a t-shirt labelled “Daddy’s Lil Monster” and a jacket that says “Property of the Joker”, reaffirming both the Daddy/Little kink as well as the role of objectification in their play. Everything about Harley's aesthetic plays into an age-play dynamic, from the pigtails, to the chewing gum, to her wardrobe choices. What seals it though, is when Harley is getting her outfit together and she puts on a collar that says “Puddin’”. Any comic book nerds will recognise this as her pet name for the Joker (along with Mister J). But any BDSM nerd can tell you that “collaring” is a very deliberate act between a Dom and sub. It denotes ownership and is often taken as seriously as a marriage ceremony. This is further reiterated when Harley believes the Joker is dead and the first thing she does is to heartbrokenly remove her collar, because she knows she can’t belong to him any more.
People are outraged that Harley Quinn was sexualised and mentally ill. Perhaps the reason she’s so sexual is because she’s mentally ill. I know, for myself, that being crazy often involves letting go of my concern about other people’s opinions. I worry less about what others will think and say about me, and I spend my time wondering how I feel about myself. So when I’m in that headspace, and I pull on my fishnets, or my corset, I’m doing it for myself. I’m doing it because I want to look good for me, because it makes me feel closer to how I see myself in my mind. Harleen Quinzel was a conservatively dressed professional. Harley Quinn is a sexual woman in a loving and committed relationship, who isn’t afraid to draw attention to how fucking awesome she is. And it worries me that this is the part society seems to have a problem with. Not Wonder Woman in the world’s most impractical battle dress. Not the absolute lack of female led comic book films. Or even the lack of female led comic book titles.
Is Suicide Squad a perfect film? No. It’s riddled with lazy storytelling tropes, it’s main storyline isn’t nothing you haven't seen before, and despite being the most diverse cast in any comic book movie to date, it still manages to be pretty racist. But regardless of all of that, it’s a good movie. It features a female antagonist (Enchantress) bent on ruling the world, a woman who could actually run the world and proves it in every scene she's in (Amanda Waller), a woman who outperforms every one of her male counterparts, despite having no powers or skills (Harley Quinn), and a man who gets damseled so fucking often (looking at you Rick Flagg) that he needs his own female bodyguard to keep him alive (Katana). So I hope you'll forgive me if I don't buy into the idea that this isn't a feminist movie, cos what I saw was a whole bunch of women who were kicking some serious ass without giving a single fuck what the dudes around them were doing. I can only hope we get this much female representation and badassery in Wonder Woman.
So whether you’re a comic book nerd, or a BDSM geek, go see Suicide Squad and let your freak flag fly!
That is all.
You may go now.