Harley Quinn: even if you don’t know the name, you’ll have seen her. She’s the bubblegum-haired version of Margot Robbie smiling deviously at you from billboards and newsstands, like any other lead in a big blockbuster film – except she’s a ‘she’ and a villain. Suicide Squad is released today and bad girls are in the limelight.
Ok, let’s backtrack. Technically, the Squad (which also includes Cara Delevigne’s Enchantress and Karen Fukuhara’s Katana) are antiheroes. Villains they might have been – they’re released by government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) from maximum security prisons – but they’re so good at being violent offenders that together they might be able to beat an even bigger threat and save the world. Syntax aside, it’s a refreshing change to the usual cinema tenet of bad men doing bad things. Watching mainly-nice girls do mainly-nice stuff isn’t doing it for us anymore.
In 2015, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, women made up 51% of the cinema-going audience, but, say San Diego State University, they played only 22% of antagonists. For every Alex Forrest, Miranda Priestly or Regina George, there’s a dozen male criminal mastermind/druglord/crooked cop/disgruntled intergalactic leaders (delete as appropriate).
Psychologist Sue Firth says it’s more than just frustrating. “When you see a strong woman being capable, but also being capable of something nasty, it makes them doubly inventive and curious. We’re even more wary, more scared, largely because it’s not what we expect. It counteracts stereotypes and models that we’ve got in our heads.”
Cinema is escapism, sure, but it’s also a dark room where we let our hopes and fantasies run wild for a couple of hours; and, integral to that are the women playing those out in front of us. “There’s an aspirational difference between the way we see ourselves and the way we see women on screen that helps set up the methodology of how we would actually be that person,” says Firth.
Film critic Helen O’Hara adds: “One of the things Hollywood sometimes forgets is that having a woman do a part that’s been previously played mostly by men makes a part, that might otherwise feel boring, feel fresh.”
But these roles were once played frequently by women. “The Forties with women’s pictures were astonishing,” says O’Hara. “Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, where they played bitch queens, we haven’t seen that like to that degree, since about 1950.”
While Professor Will Brooker, a film and cultural studies academic at Kingston University, looks to film noir: “You can see the women in an interesting and positive way, but that’s not how it was intended. They’re not even evil; they want something and they’re not apologetic about getting it, whether it’s money or men or whatever else.”
Of course, one issue is that where cinematic stories are expected to pack in so much, there’s rarely time to explore an antagonist’s motivations; it’s easier for a film to draw from established stock characters than recreate them. But this is something Disney, one huge studio, in possession of some of the most established villains in film canon, is using to its advantage. 2014’s Angelina Jolie-starring Maleficent was a masterful origin story and a commercial success, taking over £500 million at the global box office.
Cruella de Vil is set for her own early story, too, and she surely won’t be the last. There’s an argument that by their very nature, prequels explain away some element of a character’s evilness. But, as Brooker points out: “You could say that villains are sometimes interesting in their villainy – we don’t need to know why they went bad. But we know all about why Darth Vader did. If we’re going to have three films about why a man went bad, why doesn’t a woman deserve one?” Firth adds: “With your typical character of Maleficent, or Snow White’s Evil Queen, they’re getting away with it, because they’re depicted as witches. Perhaps the greater value is in the bigger story; there’s more vindication, more discovery and more of an explanation.”
One place that demonstrates that appetite for well-rounded female roles of any moral persuasion is TV. Shows such as Game of Thrones can develop their protagonists to a much broader extent. “It puts pressure on cinema,” says O’Hara. “If you want good actresses, you have to compete with the Netflixes and HBOs of the world and you better give them something to play with, or else why would they give you their time?”
This attitude is filtering through to film, but slowly. It may be that it has to change across the board before real standout baddies appear. “We’ve only just started getting an all-female team in Ghostbusters and people like Katniss Everdeen and Elsa and Anna,” reasons Brooker. “We need women who are bad and women who are antiheroes, like Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad. And we need women who are good decent people, but also women who are in between, like most normal human beings. We need women to be in the same nuanced and varied roles as men.” O’Hara agrees. “We need complicated, interesting, flawed characters that reflect reality. We also need some completely unrealistic, cartoonish over-the-top villains. They’re a lot more fun.”
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