On the basis of sex: How does a director's gender influence their work?

Amy Brown takes a look at the female gaze and how Cathy Yan's take on Harley Quinn has advanced the character.

Amy K Brown
8th March 2020
Cathy Yan, director, Birds of Prey. Image: Youtube
The film industry has been male dominated since its inception, and after having no women directors nominated in the Oscars category this year (disappointing, but no surprise), we have to start having these conversations.

The basis is that there should be more exposure for women in film, even more so for women of colour. I look out for women directors because as a woman, I know for a fact their stories will be more realistic for me. 

The differences between the directing styles are obvious. Frequently, a lot of male directors are catering to their male viewership only, and the (almost always traditionally beautiful) women characters are one dimensional, with little to no development. It is almost always male directors that fall into stereotypes or borderline damaging tropes, often ones that are to serve the male characters only. An example is the makeover montage that we see often, where a girl only gets the guy after completely changing her physical appearance and/or adapting her personality (see Grease, The Princess Diaries, Never Been Kissed, She’s All That…).

The presence of the male gaze is obvious; any female characters have to become the object of heterosexual male desire. And that’s not to say, as a female viewer, that I don’t enjoy these movies. A lot of classic rom-com/coming-of-age teen movies include these tropes and we still appreciate them, but we should also be able to recognise the problematic nature behind them. These films support the idea that we shouldn’t actually be true to ourselves if we want to succeed. They continue to perpetuate wrong ideas to younger viewers and this isn’t what we should be teaching them. 

These movies capture reality for women (albeit, white women, with exposure to films about women of colour rare, a whole other problem in itself). 

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad (2016)

Some of my favourite films of this genre happened to be directed by women, and it does make a difference. Edge of Seventeen (2016) directed by Kelly Fremon Craig is wholly underrated. Watching it in my teens and even now, it has been one of the most relatable films for me. There is no makeover, no over-sexualised outfits and it's all pretty realistic. Another of my favourites is Lady Bird (2018), a movie that you can tell Greta Gerwig poured her heart into. These movies capture reality for women (albeit, white women, with exposure to films about women of colour rare, a whole other problem in itself). 

So what about other genres? This is where we get on to the brilliance that is Birds of Prey (directed by Cathy Yan), Harley Quinn’s solo movie after Suicide Squad. I was beyond excited to watch Suicide Squad when it came out, and to see Margot Robbie portray Harley Quinn for the first time. But as we all know, it didn’t exactly impress, though Robbie was one of its redeeming qualities. That being said, the presence of a male director has never been more obvious. As a woman watching Suicide Squad, none of it felt right. The camera angles were too close, the costumes were questionable, and that scene where Harley Quinn undresses in front of a group of men? The male gaze isn’t even a theory here. It’s happening. Her main outfit is still a point of question. It's cute and has a nice aesthetic, but it also looks majorly uncomfortable. Also, although this isn’t essential, it’s not in keeping with fashion trends. Low-waisted shorts? Harley Quinn would never. Obviously, they’re trying to bring Harley to life from the comics (which also frequently sexualise women) but the costumes in Birds Of Prey demonstrates how that can be done without it being overly sexualised.

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey (2020)

Harley Quinn turns some looks in the new movie, every outfit uniquely Harley, like she’s actually picked it out herself. And the kicker was that there was a lot of critique online that viewers didn’t like Birds Of Prey because Harley and the other women weren’t ‘sexy enough’. This was also an issue with Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman. (see that ‘What? No smile?’ scene in Captain Marvel). I absolutely adored the costumes in Birds Of Prey and thought Harley and her gang looked beautiful (see those high-waisted shorts!) but certain people had an issue because they weren’t sexualised; the male gaze wasn’t hovering over the entire movie. It was more grounded, and even had a moment where Harley gave Black Canary a hair tie during a fight scene. Only other women would think to include that. The problem is that certain viewers have come to expect women to be sexy. And hey, sexy is great! Women should have total control and freedom over what they do with their bodies, but it becomes a problem when it’s only catering to the male gaze; objectifying instead of empowering. This needs to change; it’s 2020. 

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AUTHOR: Amy K Brown
Head of Culture. @akathrynbrwn on Twitter.

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