Birds of Prey and the Failed Emancipation of Feminism in film.

Birds of Prey is not a good film. My letterboxd review of it is “Full of D.C. fuck ups and bad heavy handed ‘feminism’. Huntress reignited my slumbering gay energy though.” Two and a half stars.

Before I say anything further about it, it is important for me to make it clear that it is not the responsibility of every blockbuster film that features a majority female cast to represent feminism, because Hollywood has literally never been at the front of social progress (see: its treatment of gay actors and cinema, people of colour in every single way, sexual abuse within the industry, women in general, the list goes on). This is why it annoys me so much when every single film like this does, and then does it so badly. It legitimately sets back the feminist movement and I am not exaggerating.

The kind of feminism frequently portrayed in female led films is so wildly inaccurate and fundamentally damaging that whenever it is inflicted upon me as an audience member I want to scratch my skin off and jam the offcuts into my fucking eyes. It isn’t feminism first of all, but more importantly it is exactly what most people think feminism is: denying any and all help from anyone regardless of the situation because ‘I’m a strong independent woman who doesn’t need anyone!’ *Z snaps and struts away whilst ‘Who Run The World (Girls)’ by Beyonce blasts loud enough make your holes bleed*. I cannot describe to you how much physical pain it causes me to watch this waking nightmare of a political message play out on a screen in front of other people for them to see and hear with their eyes and ears. I watch it and want to turn back the clock, not to a time just before I had to watch it, but to a time when I didn’t have the vote, the ability to drive, own property, money or a whingey blog because if this is what gained us those things I don’t fucking want them.

Can I just say this so it exists for other people to see and understand? Being a woman doesn’t make you fucking amazing. It makes you a human being. That makes you vulnerable to all the regular human things like ignorance, weakness, rudeness, selfishness and prejudice. Feminism is not trying to absolve women of these qualities. It is trying to achieve neutrality for women so that when we demonstrate these inevitable human qualities, people don’t blame our lack of a Y chromosome. We’re literally fighting to be seen as people, because ‘woman’ and ‘person’ are not synonymous words. Every single time a female character in a film uses her woman-ness as a reason that she doesn’t need a normal human thing like advice, support, information or help the film perpetuates the narrative that we are not neutral. That we are not people. They damage the feminist movement in the worst way because that is a fucking annoying personality trait to have, and now idiots think that is what feminism is, and subsequently women are dickheads when trying to emancipate themselves. It has come from such a frustratingly low level of consideration, namely “The exact opposite of a bad thing is a good thing” principle. “Women are portrayed as weak and stupid about everything, so we’re going to portray them as strong and clever ABOUT LITERALLY EVERYTHING.” The childish mentality that ‘swinging the pendulum the other way = progress’ is nearly always wrong, particularly when that pendulum is made of actual shit. Social progress and emancipation requires a frequently invisible and thus unstudied amount of nuance. And feminism in film is literally never nuanced.

There’s a film on Netflix called ‘Falling Inn Love‘ (bear with me) that I’m sure you saw advertised to you when it first came out. It’s about an American office worker who moves to New Zealand after winning an inn when the San Francisco company she works for closes down (I watched it for research purposes and nothing more I promise you). The inn she wins (it hurts to type that out) turns out to be a dilapidated building requiring extreme renovation. Upon arriving in NZ she gets lost and a friendly man stops and offers her a lift to the town she is trying to get to. When he makes a joke about swooping in and ‘saving the day’ she retorts “I don’t need saving.” Despite being stranded in the countryside of a foreign country with broken luggage and a dead phone. Strike 1. It’s okay to admit you need help when you objectively do.

The man turns out to be the ‘local handyman’ of the town in which her inn resides, and upon her search for workers to help her renovate, he frequently offers her advice based upon his expertise which she routinely ignores despite her complete absence of experience or knowledge. There is a scene where she goes to the hardware shop for advice as a tool she has bought for a specific function isn’t working, he tells her she’s using the wrong tool and she tells him to stop ‘mansplaining’. Strike 2. This is not what mansplaining is. What’s weird is that he frequently commits behaviour that is actually very annoying, like telling her what she should/can eat and refusing to let her pay for things, but she doesn’t whip out the pseudo-feminist lingo for these situations, and the film frames these actions as objectively likeable traits that cause her to warm to him. Because, and I hate to burst the bubble, her behaviour…isn’t…feminist. The plot of the movie is literally ‘idiot rejects experts help on issue based on deluded sense of own abilities’. Falling Inn Love’s plot is the Tory Government circa Brexit. A missed opportunity by Netflix not casting Michael Gove in the lead role actually.

Listen, I’m not angry because some shitty Netflix movie wasn’t feminist, nor do I look to shitty Netflix movies for solid feminism. I’m annoyed because there was any ‘feminism’ in it at all. I understand that that kind of stuff is above their station, and everyone else knows it too. So don’t include terrible allusions to feminism in your shitty film, I’M BEGGING YOU. It is far too important of an issue to be ham-fistedly jammed into fucking terrible movie dialogue and the minimal personality of an irritating character. If you’re not going to do it properly, leave it the fuck alone.


Birds of Prey’s shortcomings hurt more, because I actually had hope that the overt feminist tone of the film would be handled correctly due to the people involved (mind you, I knew it was a D.C. film so I was equally prepared for it to be terrible). It had a phenomenal soundtrack, it was being directed by a woman, it was being produced by Margot Robbie’s production company, who’s mandate is: “Tell women’s stories on screen and support women creators behind the scenes.” It felt like there was going to be actual substance behind all the conspicuous messaging! Oh my god! Maybe real feminism in a big film!? I watched it with my mum on 22nd of February this year and oh my god, I didn’t like it.

It genuinely hurts to say that, not just because of my high hopes, but because you can tell it has quite legitimate effort behind it. You can feel the earnest eyes of the ‘very sincere attempt to make it a valid feminist movie’ puppy looking up at you, and saying it fails in doing so feels like booting that puppy in the face. But it’s not good, for so many reasons. The confusing non-linear time structure, the horrid expositional narration that’s required throughout to make up for said time structure, the fact that the movie feels less like a film and more like a series of music videos? It’s clunky and fragmented and all feels so surface. Female led films of any kind, but especially superhero films, will be bad as long as the characters, plot, the entire film itself, feels the need to call attention to how wildly unusual it is because of its female quality. I understand what they’re trying to do, but they’re actually contributing to the problem they’re trying to fight. I don’t want to watch a film that’s supposed to ‘represent’ me, and have the film tell me the entire time how unrepresented I am. I don’t need that. I know, and you’re othering us again by doing so. If I needed to find out how marginalised I am, I’d go and read the comments on a Jordan Peterson YouTube video.
A lot of Birds of Prey’s problems are D.C.  specific issues – namely, the fact that basically all D.C. movies treat their audiences like idiots. All the exposition and fucking name cards for characters, the extremely simplistic characters, the dialogue that sounds like it came out of a fucking caricature generator, the list goes on. But the most egregiously tone deaf demonstration of ‘feminism in film’ that I can think of comes from a Marvel movie – actually, the biggest movie there’s ever been. Avengers: Endgame is a fantastic film, but that scene during the final battle where all the female characters rally around Captain Marvel made me audibly groan when I saw it in cinemas. Every time I’ve watched it since, it has appalled me. It felt like every time a man has ever turned to me, pointed at a pink option of something and gone ‘there you go, there’s one for you’.

It is is the single greatest and most condensed example of what I’m talking about. ‘Women are always thought to be weak and incapable, so we’re going to dedicate a whole 16 seconds to depicting all of our female characters teaming up to fight the opposition alone. As women. Only the women. To show that women can do it too.’
Uh oh! Russo brothers! Your patronising is showing!
It literally drips off the screen and rings incredibly hollow. I don’t need you to tell me the women characters are capable. I know that already because they have fucking superpowers and are fighting already. There’s 10 female characters in that scene, and only one of them has their own movie. There could be 11, but they killed her off earlier in the film because she didn’t have kids. The only reason why you feel the need to tell me they’re capable is because you’ve never made the rest of them their own films, because apparently 16 seconds is all we need to know about them. They’re women. The scene isn’t ‘look at these accomplished heroes’, it’s ‘look at these women’. In fact, it’s ‘look at these women joining together because one of them alone isn’t enough.’ Fucking hell. The dead one? She’s getting her own movie. After she’s died canonically.

It’s shallow, insulting, infuriating and condescending as fuck. And it leaves such a bad taste because it is as superficial a gesture as they come – there is no substance, no truth behind the statement they try to make and earn brownie points on. Scenes like that don’t feel like empowerment, they feel like an allowance. ‘This is your bit of the film, the girl bit. The rest of it’s normal, but here’s the girl bit with the girls in! Woo!’
It’s true that women don’t exist neutrally both on and off screen, so I get that these little ‘girl power’ moments are often attempts to recognise and rectify that. But that’s just it. Women led films are a novelty, I already know that going in, so I don’t want the film to address it just for the sake of it. You’re not drawing attention to/fixing the problem by doing so – you’re undermining your own content. We want neutral value, recognition for our humanity. That doesn’t mean cinema depicting women should exist in a vacuum. It’s not about abandoning feminine qualities or stories or images in order to achieve neutrality, that’s not what I’m asking for. It’s about using our ‘other-ed’ identity correctly and coherently. Which it barely ever is.

I have rambled on for too long and fear I haven’t spoken to what I’m trying to say properly. Feminism in film shouldn’t be about empty, infantilising validation – ‘see, you can do it!’ I know, motherfucker. Women have known that they’re capable of doing what they’re frequently told they can’t for a very long time. We proved that by being able to vote and drive and work and own money and property and all the rest. Because you don’t need to tell a powerless thing that it’s powerless. We don’t have laws telling babies they can’t drive and dogs they can’t vote, because, they can’t. They physically can’t, so we don’t need to construct laws impeding their ability to do so. The fact that there has been an entire ideology made up since the beginning of time designed to tell women they’re incapable and inferior is literally proof that we’re not. Feminism in film is about treating women and femininity as neutral, complex shit, and giving them opportunities and rewards accordingly. That’s literally all feminism is asking for:
“I don’t need telling that I can do something, I know I can. Treat me like a person, and I’ll show you.”

 

N.


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