Can we please stop fetishizing Margot Robbie? Because this summer has been fucking excruciating. I had hoped that Suicide Squad would be a counter to that hideous, incoherent Vanity Fair profile of her. The piece reduced a crazy talented and by-all-accounts hardworking woman to a bizarre metaphor about Australia, but at least it looked like she was going to have her comeuppance when she appeared as Harley Quinn in the DC blockbuster. Alas, the movie can’t take its mind off her ass long enough for her performance to acquire any range.
And that’s the Robbie conundrum. She’s constantly turning in exciting work, proving her abilities as an actress, and yet she is perpetually portrayed as an object to be obtained and/or leered at. Her sexiness is viewed as something she has to overcome, as indicated by a recent video essay by Kevin B. Lee on Fandor, which endeavors to “trac[e] one woman’s journey toward being seen as more than just another hottie.” It notes that nudity and sex are involved in eight of her first 10 film roles. Robbie’s never been able to quite escape the fact that after she enters her first major film, a man whips out his dick and starts masturbating. Now Harley, according to BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore, is “damaged dolly jerk-off material.”
The aforementioned (prosthetic) penis belongs to Jonah Hill’s character in The Wolf Of Wall Street, the Martin Scorsese picture that was largely Robbie’s introduction into mainstream stardom. Robbie plays Naomi, the second wife of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), is self-aware, vicious when need be, and, above all, fuckable. You can debate for days whether the film approves of Jordan’s revolting behavior, but it loves looking at Naomi through his eyes. It puts every inch of her on display, and relishes in humiliating her when she disobeys. In that aforementioned Vanity Fair profile, Rich Cohen writes that Wolf Of Wall Street “defined her,” and, unfortunately, he’s right. How can you tell? He ends the interview with a question about the sex scenes in that movie, never mind the fact that it came out three years ago. And, no, Cohen’s not interested in the one in which Jordan rapes Naomi.
Since then, Robbie’s rarely had a part that doesn’t—in one way or another—obsess over her body or hinge on male perceptions of her. Though the post-apocalyptic Z For Zachariah is ostensibly her character’s story, we get a hungry shot of her bare legs from the point of view of one of the men (Chiwetel Ejiofor) vying for her affection. To become part of Will Smith’s con artist team in Focus, she must put on a form-hugging, cleavage-baring dress. It’s meta, yes, but The Big Short still has her in a bathtub.
In an ideal world, Harley Quinn should have been different, and yet Suicide Squad just reinforced the fact that men want to possess Robbie rather than celebrate her. The camera crassly lingers over the way her butt hangs out of her booty shorts—blithely ignoring how she must get terrible wedgies—and the script refuses to give her any motivation outside wanting to reunite with the Joker (Jared Leto), her psychotic, manipulative boyfriend, who electrocutes her and makes her jump into a vat of acid to prove her love.
It was naive to expect more, probably. The costume was one indication, and, despite the fact that I have my fingers and toes crossed for Wonder Woman, Warner Bros.’ DC franchise hasn’t been particularly kind to women. Plus, canon dictates that the relationship between Harley, who first appeared in 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series, and the Joker is laced with abuse. That doesn’t exactly scream “feminism.” But it was frustrating to see Robbie in this position once again, especially seeing how, in interviews, she’s trying to alter the narrative of her career.
Speaking with the Daily News about her other summer 2016 outing, The Legend Of Tarzan, she discussed how her Jane is “always going to be fighting her way out of” her situation, even though the plot apparently necessitates that she be imprisoned by the bad guy. In that same interview, she talked about the “queasy feeling” she gets when reading sexist descriptions of female parts. It’s a sentiment in line with her comment about how she wants “to keep looking for roles where the main interest will be in the character and her importance in driving a story forward, rather than her relationship with a male character.” These are encouraging statements, and there are other signs that Robbie is stealing her career back from the male gaze. She’s producing some of her upcoming films, and has her own company, LuckyChap Entertainment. The next prospective step: Attaching herself to projects by female directors.
Robbie is the kind of actress who’s magnetic enough to steal attention away from the charm machines of the world, like Will Smith; Focus would be 10 times better if it was just about the travails of her newbie criminal. But what makes her great is that she’s also something of a character actress. She can bat around jokes with Tina Fey as an ambitious war correspondent in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot just as easily as she can transform into Wolf’s “Duchess Of Bay Ridge” or Z For Zachariah’s devout Southerner. Instead of finding her next big studio film, maybe she should spend more time in the indie world, locating idiosyncratic projects that can highlight what a chameleon she really is. Or she should just find her own Lucy, where she can be stunning, violent, and nobody’s fool. Because Robbie shouldn’t have to stop playing sexy. But too frequently, we’re watching men try to tame her into submission. At the end of Suicide Squad, the Joker breaks into Belle Reve and “rescues” Harley. I certainly wasn’t rooting for that conclusion.