Fashion and Harley Quinn: The Third-Wave Feminist Emancipation of Female Superhero Fashion

by Liam Mackenzie

1. Introduction

            Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020), directed by Cathy Yan, is an auteur political film that follows anti-hero Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) after her break-up with the Joker and her journey with a group of women to save themselves from a crime lord, Black Mask. Birds of Prey is a departure from the stereotypical superhero film with its campy, neon-infused, glittery aesthetics and centering on a group of women as its protagonists. The importance of having women in cinema is expressed by Muñoz-González “an apparatus of cultural production is crucial to transmit contents that create the grounds for a certain ideology” (p. 76).  This quote highlights that the production of a film has the power to affect change in media, and in this case, Birds of Prey has contributed to the third-wave feminism movement. In the article Superheroes and Third-Wave Feminism, Curtis explains that “historically under- and misrepresented, women superheroes became more prevalent in the 1960s and 1970’s when more and more female-led titles and powerful female characters appeared in a male-dominated world” (p. 383). However, the older films focused on second-wave feminism, which received criticism for being exclusive to a specific group of feminists and degrading BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other classes. The criticism of the second-wave is expressed by Zaslow in the essay, Moving from sisterhood to girl power:”Feminists of color, working-class feminists, and lesbian feminists argued that some white women leading the movement had not accounted for different forms of gender oppression, relinquished their own privilege, or included a critique of racism, classism, and heterosexism in their feminist critique of patriarchy” (p. 49). Birds of Prey is a strong example of third-wave feminism in media, which focuses on individualism and the intersectionality of women and other marginalized genders. From the soundtrack of exclusively women artists to the writers and producers being primarily women, Birds of Prey created the ultimate girl-power movie. Each protagonist has their own complex story, emotions, and character development throughout the film. Each element of every scene portrays the development of the characters, including fashion and costuming. In Birds of Prey, the hair acts as an agent of autonomy, women are re-empowered in superhero costumes, and historical style and sport are used as a tool for institutional criticism. In this essay, three of Harley Quinn’s costumes are analyzed to reflect the emancipation from the typical female superhero costuming and contribute to the third-wave feminism movement. 

2. Autonomy in Hair

            Hair is an essential part of costuming, and Birds of Prey uses Quinn’s haircut to drive home an important third-wave message about autonomy. At the beginning of the film, Quinn gets broken up with by the Joker and goes through a transformation: she joins a roller derby team, gets her own home, and cuts her hair. The film uses the common movie trope of using haircuts to represent the self-discovery journey for Quinn, but the change in her hair is fundamental in the costuming for Quinn. Upon her first appearance in Batman: The Animated Series (1992) in Joker’s Favor, Quinn’s costume was a skin-tight black and red outfit, complete with two jester’s bells dangling off the sides of her head. The original outfit was an extension of Joker’s costume, making her a minor female counterpart for Joker. When her costuming changed, the two jester bells were replaced by two side ponytails, becoming one of her iconic features. When Quinn cuts her hair in Birds of Prey, she develops the history of her costuming by changing her purpose from being dependent on Joker to become the main character in her own story. Concerning third-wave feminism, hair is a part of women’s stories as an emblem of empowerment. “Nevertheless, we must not overstate women’s agency in this matter, for their options are significantly constrained by both cultural expectations and social struc­ture” (p. 682). This quote comes from Weitz, who conducted a study that interviewed women about their hairstyles. It concludes with the impression that hair is vital to giving women power in today’s society. Quinn’s autonomy to alter her hair highlights the power hair has to women to signal change and reassert their control in redefining their individuality. This autonomy reflects the ideals of third-wave feminism to empower women. Hence, the decision to include the haircut in the film highlights the importance of independence to women and significantly impacts the history of Quinn’s costuming and story.

3. Re-empowerment from Male Gaze

            Typical female superhero costumes in films are skin-tight and show much more skin, posing in extreme positions to suggest their sexuality. However, these styles would not be functional in the high-intensity fight scenes included in every superhero film. This hyper-sexualized costuming means that female characters were created for the male gaze, creating a sub-style called “The Bad Girl.” Catwoman in Catwoman (2004), Batgirl in Batman Forever (1997), and Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad (2016) — all of which men directed — are examples of “Bad Girls.” The “Bad Girls” style conflicts with third-wave feminism because of the disempowerment of the female characters, leaving them to be sex objects used for male audiences. This portayal of women is a trend in Hollywood and its movies, as pointed out by Haas, “women on screen almost always represent sex, especially as viewed from a heterosexual perspective” (p. 314).  In Suicide Squad, Quinn is in a thin crop-top with the words “Daddy’s Lil’ Monster,” blue short shorts, and a chunky heel. In the film, she is still in a relationship with the Joker, suggesting that she is dressing for him, ultimately reducing her to a sexual object for male audiences. In Birds of Prey, Quinn gets broken up with by the Joker, and her costume changes to a bulky tinsel crop jacket, ripped up shorts, neon pink latex bra, and a shirt with the text “Harley Quinn” all over. While it is still revealing, it is empowering, feminine, and removes male objectification. “Quinn does not seem to mind others; she is just expressing her unique and feminine self. More importantly, she does not dress up to attract the male gaze” (p. 578). Even the text change from “Daddy’s Lil Monster” to “Harley Quinn” highlights the shift of “ownership” that Quinn went through, where she becomes her own individual. The stark contrast of Quinn’s costume aesthetics between the Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey is a visual representation of the re-empowerment of Quinn and the motif of third-wave feminism in Bird of Prey.

4. Institutional Criticism with Roller Derby and Gorilla Masks

            The final costume is Quinn’s metallic yellow/gold diamond-checkered overalls paired with a crushed velvet pink bra, roller-skates, and a massive sledgehammer that comes out during the climax scenes—the combination of feminine and aggressive elements of the costuming in these scenes has enormous importance. The mixture turns “the girly-equals-

powerless paradigm inside out and leads to the pervasive pop culture presence of girls in feminine trappings who nonetheless enjoy power” (p. 190). This costume mimics the Guerrilla Girls and Riot Grrrls, which were women’s punk movements started in 1985 and 1991 to protest sexism in art and music scenes. The participants would wear baby doll dresses, knee-high socks, and other feminine garments, paired with combat boots, piercings, gorilla masks, and other aggressive clothes. The styling intimidated men and opposed the sexism in the art and music scenes that targeted women, known as institutional critique. Quinn mimics these two movements by pairing her vibrant overalls and bra with her sledgehammer and roller-skates. The misé en scene of the climax also mimics the movements in an abandoned amusement park called The Booby Trap. The Booby Trap has the styling of a sexist, blow-up sex doll man-cave fantasy, decorated with cutouts of women in their underwear and puppets of women with their tongues sticking out. To have Quinn combat a bunch of men in a sexist environment while wearing a mixture of feminine and aggressive garments lends itself to be compared to Guerrilla Girls and Riot Grrrls. Quinn’s roller-skates and roller derby hobby deepen the institutional criticism due to the sport’s reputation for being a power-punch of female energy in a violent sport. Pavlidis argues “that both the musical context and physical aspects of roller derby allow women to experience themselves differently, affording them to enrich their subjectivities through the styles and attitudes of various genres of music, along with the body capacities roller derby requires” (p. 166). The feminine and aggressive aspects of the sport allow women to express all of the pieces in themselves that are represented by Quinn’s outfit, which strengthens the direct visual criticism of The Booby Trap and other institutions. Quinn’s ensemble preaches the third wave’s teaching that’s encapsulated by Baumgardner and Richards “feminism is not about the choice you make but the freedom to make that choice” (p. 452). Quinn’s costuming that mirrors historical third-wave feminist movements, and a women-centered sport proves that Birds of Prey focuses on emancipating from the institutional typical female superhero fashion.

5. Conclusion

            Harley Quinn’s costuming and fashion in Bird of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn contributes to the film’s overall intent as a third-wave feminism vehicle infused with glitter, neon lights, and camp. From Quinn cutting her iconic hair to represent the evolution of her costuming to having the freedom in her own stylistic choices, both of which signal her becoming more autonomous in a male-dominated world. Her release gives her the space to become an individual in her narrative, following third-wave feminism ideology. The mirroring of historical events like the Guerrilla Girls and Riot Grrrls reflects the anti-patriarchal welcoming and intersectional assertion of femininity within their respective institutions. These aspects demonstrate the third-wave’s main attributes: the freedom of choice and disillusion of the patriarchy. Cutting her hair expresses the character’s growth and centers the narrative around Quinn. Changing her iconic costume to reflect her attitudes and ideas denotes that female characters are more complex than objects for the male gaze. Mimicking the punk movement and highlighting roller derby gives a novel approach to femininity and power. Quinn’s transformation and development with costuming and styling embody the emancipation of the typical female superhero fashion.

Margot Robbie as Harley Quin Soars in Birds of Prey

6. Works Cited

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Curtis, N and Cardo, V (2018) Superheroes and third-wave feminism, Feminist Media Studies, 18:3, 381-396, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2017.1351387

Dini, P. (1992, September 11). Batman: The Animated Series. episode.

Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.

Muñoz-González, R. (2017). Masked thinkers? Politics and ideology in the contemporary superhero film. KOME, 5 (1), 65–79.

Pavlidis, A. “From riot grrrls to roller derby? exploring the relations between gender, Music and sport.” Leisure Studies, 31(2), 2012, pp. 165–176.

Setianto, A. L., & Win, M. V. The application of Girl Power through third-wave feminism in birds of prey. Proceedings of the International Joint Conference on Arts and Humanities (IJCAH 2020). 

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Warner Bros, 2020.

Weitz, R. “Women and their hair.” Gender & Society, 15(5), 2001, pp. 667–686.

Zaslow, E. “Moving from sisterhood to girl power.” APA Handbook of the Psychology of Women: History, Theory, and Battlegrounds (Vol. 1)., 47–67.