Believe it or not, there was a time when Harley Quinn had not yet been created, leaving Batman and Joker to duke it out without a shrill, nasal, heavily-accented voice (or oversized mallet) interfering. But from her first introduction in Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn’s rise from supporting character as ‘Joker’s Girlfriend’ to a full-blown DC Comics mascot has had much to do with her sex appeal – more than ever before with Margot Robbie playing the part in the upcoming Suicide Squad.
While fans will firmly state that Harley was always a fan-favorite, the comic writers themselves had uniformly admitted that it was Harley’s appearance in a revealing, bust-boosting corset in the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game that caused the surge in her popularity. Sequels revealed even more, and Harley gained popularity and starring roles at DC (in an even skimpier costume). But as much controversy or criticism as she may court in the mainstream – and has with her Suicide Squad appearance, too – the people behind the movie are doing what Harley would: not really caring about what other people think.
That was the message when we visited the set for ourselves, long before images of Margot Robbie’s body in trailers and TV spots spawned opinion pieces and editorials posing the question (or outright accusing) David Ayer, DC Entertainment, and Warner Bros.’ of objectifying the character. By the same token, others opposed the idea on the grounds that judging a character’s role or significance in the film on her appearance alone was also a problem.
It’s a debate that has raged for some time, and instead of continuing it here, we’ll point out that the dichotomy at work (whether or not a female character can be overtly sexual, without it being exploitative) can also be raised against Harley’s entire personality in every comic book, video game or animated version. You could even conclude that, thanks to her personality and appearance, Harley Quinn invites that kind of discussion, enthusiasm, and contradiction no matter where she goes.
When speaking with writer/director David Ayer on the movie’s set, he didn’t shy away from the idea. In fact, he singled it out as one of the major reasons he included her in his Suicide Squad roster:
“I wanted Harley. She’s freaking cool, and she represents so many dichotomies in today’s world where everything is sensitive, and you can’t talk about anything, and you can’t represent anything, and you can’t do anything… she doesn’t care. She transcends everything. And that’s what’s so fascinating about her, you know? She’s so many things, and such a powerful woman who’s living life on her own terms, and so honestly in the moment, and a person of this incredible joy in the moment. It’s great to be able to work with that character, and Margot is knocking her out of the park.”
The trailers and TV spots released since out interview shed light on those ideas in the most obvious ways: can a killer be a hero? Can a woman be both tempting and murderous? Can a woman not be objectified (or raise eyebrows) while wearing stiletto heels and short shorts?
It’s a question that may be best raised to the costume designer on the film, Kate Hawley (Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak). As we toured her department, it was clear that no costume decision had been made lightly, with Harley Quinn’s wardrobe as experimental as any other design on the film. And, unsurprisingly, the question of the character’s sex appeal came up rather quickly.
The costume in question was the torn prison singlet Harley sports while doing some inverted poses, revealed in the very first Suicide Squad sizzle trailer. As Hawley revealed, even David Ayer questioned if Harley should instead be shown wearing the standard prison pajamas of her Squadmates. But it was Hawley who pressed the original instinct, since Harley was “too sexy” for a standard outfit.
The response was overwhelmingly positive, which confirmed that Hawley and her colleagues were asking themselves the right questions, and going where the answers led them:
“It’s been an amazing transition seeing Margot become Harley… we’ve had so many prototypes for outfits for her. And what we ended up with felt… you know, there was a call in some areas to make her overtly sexual, and everyone’s got different sliding scales. And as a department with pretty much the only female voice on this film – and I’m not saying that in a horrible way because it’s been an amazing collaboration, we’ve had to toughen our balls up and grow some hairy balls too – but to find, you know, ‘what do our daughters want?’ In a modern age where… You know, my daughters who grow up going ‘I want to f*** who I want when I want’ and own it, own the sexuality. But it’s hers, it’s not for anyone else.”
Hawley would go on to describe Harley Quinn and Joker as “two alpha males” in their criminal activities, so there’s clearly more to this story than how much skin is revealed by Harley’s wardrobe. Still, we doubt that the conversation/debate/argument will end any time soon. And going by Ayer and Hawley’s comments, they don’t need it to: they knew what they were getting themselves into – which was kind of the point.
Suicide Squad is scheduled to arrive in theaters on August 5, 2016; Wonder Woman is slated for release on June 2, 2017; followed by Justice League on November 17, 2017; Aquaman on July 27, 2018; an untitled DC Film on October 5, 2018; Shazam on April 5, 2019; Justice League 2 on June 14, 2019; an untitled DC film on November 1, 2019; Cyborg on April 3, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps on July 24, 2020. The Flash is currently without release date.
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