Normalizing Queer Identities in Birds of Prey
[Editor’s Note: The following essay contains spoilers for Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) by Cathy Yan.]
We’ve seen the trope of the hardworking, troubled male detective in films such as Sin City, Sherlock Holmes, any movie where Denzel Washington is in law enforcement, and a plethora of crime shows as well. Specific tropes exist over and over again because they work for people’s viewing pleasure, we get it. However, it’s nice to see a different spin on it, especially one which offers better representation for queer people of color. Rosie Perez’s character in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)—Renee Montoya—offers a refreshing take on both this archetype and interracial queer relationships through the lens of a lesbian Latina woman.
For those who haven’t seen Birds of Prey, it centers on the story of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) post-breakup with The Joker, and the different women who join her to take on Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), a narcissistic crime lord. Renee Montoya has had a case open on Black Mask for a while, but with pressure from her co-workers and her ex—District Attorney Ellen Yee (Ali Wong)—to shut the case down, she can’t catch a break.
I would like to specifically focus on Renee’s former relationship with Ellen. The viewer can see that they broke up due to Renee’s obsession with her work as well as her struggle with alcohol. As Ellen storms away from Renee, she shouts, “Why don’t you go have a drink to think on it? You’re good at that!” Their break-up isn’t framed in a way that states, “all queer relationships fail, beware!” It is, instead, portrayed in a relatable way that shows how any relationship, queer or straight, deals with hardship. Part of normalizing queer relationships onscreen is allowing them to be imperfect. It’s also heartening to see the normalization of interracial queer relationships of color; the majority of queer couples I have seen in media are white, and when there is an interracial couple onscreen, there is almost always a white person within that partnership. Queer relationships between two people of color exist and deserve to be spotlighted in blockbusters and indies alike.
In the beginning of this movie, Renee wants to prove herself to her male colleagues and get a promotion in her department. In any other movie, she likely would have received the promotion and reunited with Ellen. However, this movie doesn’t take that predictable turn or try to put a band-aid over mainstream media’s history of bad LGBTQ+ representation. Instead, Renee doesn’t get the promotion, ends up quitting, and doesn’t get back together with Ellen either.
I appreciate its ending much more than what could have been, for numerous reasons. For one, she continues to fight crime alongside Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) without depending on law enforcement and the prison industrial complex to do so. Also, she is granted the same permission as male characters to be complex, flawed, and grow to the point of her goals shifting for the better. The honesty of Renee’s character paves the way toward more accurate queer representation in future films, because demanding perfection of anyone only increases stigmatization and scrutiny. The model minority myth is incredibly dangerous and has gone unchallenged in film and television for far too long.
Birds of Prey is so vibrant and colorful. The dialogue amongst everyone is funny, sharp, and thought-provoking. The clothes that every woman wears in this film, whether revealing or not, look wonderful and make them seem comfortable in their own skin. It’s also the first female-led action film I’ve ever seen where a woman asks another if she needs a scrunchie to get her hair out of her face in a fight (*chef’s kiss*). This is one of few superhero/anti-hero movies of which I would appreciate seeing sequel. These characters deserve the opportunity to evolve further as their male counterparts have in countless D.C. or Marvel movies, and that especially goes for lesbian “goody-two-shoes” superhero Renee Montoya.