'Birds of Prey': How the movie and animated 'Harley Quinn' series work to emancipate the character

The movie and the animated series both feature the character breaking up with the Joker, but the stories differ in important ways.

                            'Birds of Prey': How the movie and animated 'Harley Quinn' series work to emancipate the character
'Birds of Prey' poster (DC Films)

Harley Quinn is going through quite a major revamp. Trapped in an abusive relationship with the Joker for years, ‘Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)’ will see Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn break out of that relationship for a true emancipation that’s been a long time coming. It won’t be happening until February 7, however, and in the meanwhile, the DC Universe animated ‘Harley Quinn’ has gotten there first. 

Starring Kaley Cuoco as Harley Quinn, Alan Tudyk as the Joker, and Lake Bell as Poison Ivy, the series sees Harley doing her best to make it as a career supervillain after realizing that the Joker never loved her and breaking up with him in truly spectacular fashion. Ditching her old costume for a look that’s partly influenced by Margot Robbie, partly by comics artist Jim Palmiotti, Harley is showing Gotham and the world at large that she’s more than just the Joker’s girlfriend. 

It’s a task that’s easier than it sounds, as Gotham is still very much the Joker’s territory, as is the Legion of Doom, a criminal organization that Harley has her heart set on joining, just to show the Joker how capable she is without him. It’s not the smoothest of break-ups, to say the least, which is where ‘Birds of Prey’ might just have one up on the animated series in terms of allowing Harley Quinn to forge a new identity for herself. 

While the animated Harley Quinn has indeed broken things off with the Joker in what is hopefully a permanent way, she’s still largely defined by her relationship to him. It’s just that the relationship has shifted from romantic to antagonistic. She’s still dealing with the fallout of their breakup. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn has, as far as can be told so far, moved on to the next phase of her life, to the extent that ‘Birds of Prey’ will not see Jared Leto reprising his role as the Joker. 

Both properties, though, have easily recognizable misogyny baked into their antagonists. Alan Tudyk’s Joker carries every trademark or the modern misogynist, peppering his homicidal humor with remarks like, “Women can’t be funny.” It’s not just the violent hatred of the insane, the show portrays Joker’s everyday misogyny, the kind women have to deal with on a daily basis, and from the way Ewan McGregor describes his character, that’s true of ‘Birds of Prey’ villain ‘Black Mask’ as well. 

“Misogynists in movies are often extreme: they rape, they beat women ... and it is legitimate to represent people like that, because they exist and they are obviously the worst,” he said, in an interview with Premiere Magazine. “But in the Birds of Prey dialogues, there is always a hint of everyday misogyny, of those things you say as a man you do not even realize, mansplaining ... and it's in the script in a very subtle way.”

Between the movie, the animated series, and the current comics run, Harley Quinn is going through a major shift that few comics characters get to have. She’s becoming a very unique kind of feminist icon, one with a messy past, but one whose emancipation is going to be making her one of the DC Universe’s most interesting characters.

‘Birds of Prey’ releases in cinemas on February 7.

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