‘Birds of Prey’ and Women’s Anger: Harley Quinn Busts Myths

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And that’s the way it should be IRL

(Photo: Warner Bros.)

“I’m here to report a terrible crime,” purrs Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), eyes twinkling mischievously behind her oversized sunglasses as she saunters up to the front desk of a police station. The bored officer looks up at her and says, “And what terrible crime is that?” She opens her trench coat to reveal a bandolier of (non-lethal) ammunition and pulls out her Fun Gun, taking aim at the officer’s forehead before he can even process what’s happening. “This one!” Harley grins as she fires a red rock that shatters his glasses and knocks him out on impact. Fighting her way through the rest of the station with ease, she leaves a trail of unconscious cops, red and blue smoke and glitter confetti in her wake. The scene is chaotic, beautiful and fun.

Watching Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey was a serendipitous and cathartic experience for me. It happened to premiere on the night that marked five years since I’d survived my co-worker sexually assaulting me, so seeing a group of women fight back against violently entitled men and the institutions that enable them was especially poignant. I couldn’t help but marvel at how they never hesitated to listen to their emotions, channelling their righteous anger into protecting themselves and an innocent child from harm. Directed by Cathy Yan and produced by Robbie herself, Birds of Prey presents a world where women have agency and therefore humanity, where their emotions are normalized and not repressed.

Emotions are a natural human instinct that help us engage with our environment. Yet for women, especially those who hold multiple marginalized identities, our emotions are often weaponized against us. In her 2018 book, Rage Becomes Her, author Soraya Chemaly connects the ongoing subjugation of women to how our culture polices our emotions. Women are expected to vocalize their displeasure with sadness, a “retreat” emotion associated with submissiveness. We’re punished for expressing anger and taught that doing so is unbecoming and shameful. “Anger is often a response to a boundary crossing,” Farzana Doctor, a Toronto-based psychotherapist, tells FLARE via email. “It [shows] us that an injustice has happened that we must respond to.” If anger is the emotion that helps us identify injustice and enforce our boundaries, it makes sense that the dominant culture would demand that we silence ours.

In Harley Quinn’s world, however, we see what it looks like when women are allowed to express their emotions without shame. The film begins with Harley openly mourning the end of her abusive and co-dependent relationship with the Joker following the events of Suicide Squad. It was refreshing to see her give herself the space to express and move through her grief without the script coding her as hysterical. In processing the breakup, she comes to resent him, not just for breaking up with her but for how poorly he treated her throughout their relationship.

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Harley thus embarks on a quest to “become her own woman,” publicly emancipating herself from her identity as the Joker’s girlfriend. This makes her vulnerable to the wrath of several Gotham criminals, who set out to kill her in the first act of the film. Thankfully, her healthy relationship with her emotions allows her to fight her aggressors with ease, effectively taking out groups of men twice her size with nothing but her body and resourcefulness. By the end of the film, Harley becomes a better person who no longer needs the senseless violence of men to protect her.

Along her journey, Harley becomes acquainted with Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer with a beautiful and supernaturally lethal voice. We first meet Dinah performing at Black Mask, a club belonging to Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Through her performance, she expresses obvious resentment towards him, but she holds herself back from acting on those feelings. She declines to be Detective Renee Montoya’s (Rosie Perez) mole within Roman’s organization, seemingly grateful that he had taken her off the street. But once she’s promoted from singer to Roman’s personal driver, becoming more involved with his criminal activity, she’s increasingly repulsed by his violent and abusive tendencies.

“Most Black women and women of colour are taught that anger is equivalent to disrespect,” says therapist Dr. Kelsei LeAnn, who’s based in Houston. So it’s not surprising that Dinah initially stifles her anger, like too many racialized women do to survive in real life. But by denying our anger a healthy outlet, says LeAnn, we sell ourselves short of our full potential. It isn’t until Dinah fully realizes her anger at Roman and his henchmen and she needs to protect young Cassandra Cain (Ella Basco) from harm that she demonstrates the power of her supernatural vocals. As a result, she bonds with Harley and the other women, finding her community and a sense of purpose by the end of the film.

Harley and Dinah are later joined by the Huntress, Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Helena was traumatized at a young age after surviving a rival gang violently slaughtering her entire family. After going into hiding, she spent 15 years training under assassins so that she could eventually hold the men who robbed her of her childhood accountable. Helena’s anger is a direct response to her childhood trauma, and it was satisfying to see her express that rage without facing shame or ostracization for it.

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Cleveland-based psychologist and author Dr. Tyffani Dent describes anger as an “externalizing emotion” that allows us to direct our righteous rage outwards at the systems and people who oppress us. From the moment of her trauma, Helena was encouraged to act on her anger instead of being expected to silence and ignore it. By having the space to express her rage, she was able to process her trauma in a healthy way. I was particularly moved to see that she still retained her sense of empathy and humanity through her extreme hardships, going out of her way to protect Cassandra during the fight at the fun house. Helena acts on her aggression with deliberate clarity, directing it only at the men who deserve her wrath while using it to protect herself and her newfound friends.

Between Harley breaking free of her abusive relationship, Dinah finally embracing her supernatural powers and Helena unabashedly seeking justice for her trauma, I felt empowered walking out of the theatre. After years of reading about rape culture, I now know that anger is a natural and justified reaction to trauma. But in the aftermath of my assault five years ago, I saw my rage as a liability and tried to repress it; I feared that people would perceive me as irrational or vengeful and dismiss any attempt to hold my abuser accountable. Internalizing my anger, however, ultimately harmed me more than it helped. Without a healthy outlet, that rage festered into depression, which held me back from standing up for myself when I was deeply wronged. It wasn’t until I gave myself permission to express my anger that I could truly put my full strength into fighting for the justice I deserved. At the end of Birds of Prey, I wondered what my journey as a trauma survivor would have been like had I known that I should leverage my anger instead of stifling it.

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is, yes, a fun, campy comic book movie, but it’s one that illustrates a beautiful message on how emotions make women more powerful. Expressing and acting on their anger is how Harley and company outsmart and overpower the top crime lord in Gotham and an army of his henchmen. The film demonstrates that healthy rage is a force for good that can help us fight against injustice and oppression, a catalyst for radical change and growth on a personal and systemic level. Our anger isn’t something to fear or be ashamed of—it’s simply part of being human. Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey calls on us to change the way we perceive women who express their full range of emotions. Beautiful things are possible when we fully embrace our humanity.

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