By Quill Kukla
Love for “Birds of Prey: The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” seems to be dividing up roughly along gender lines, with women/non-men generally adoring the critically panned movie, despite its blatantly terrible editing and pacing, and the fact that it feels like it ran out of budget two thirds of the way through and was turned over to someone’s high twenty-year-old art history major niece to finish in exchange for a bag of Molly.
What does this have to do with fitness, and the themes of this blog? Let me start by saying that by the end of the movie, I NEEDED an egg sandwich. Not just an egg sandwich, but a greasy one, with runny yolks and gooey cheese, and I would need bacon on it too if I hadn’t truly forsworn eating my pig friends. This is because a major narrative focus of the movie is Harley Quinn craving, ordering, watching being cooked, losing, and finally eating (but never paying for, of course) the world’s most appealing and beloved egg sandwich.
A couple of points are obvious. First, with Joker having ditched her, Harley is very pointedly single in this movie, and it is the sandwich, not a man, who plays a narrative role akin to a lover – the desire, seduction, meeting, loss, and re-meeting with the happy romantic ending. After decades of PhD-educated Harley reduced to a boy-crazy Joker appendage, seeing her turn her love to a sandwich is gratifying; women don’t need men! We need really good sandwiches! (Yes, nerds, I know Harley is bi and there have been women in her life too, but her primary role in the DC universe is as Joker’s sub.) Second, it is nice to see a woman who is supposed to be sexy and interesting enjoying greasy f*cking food for once. That sandwich is full of fat and salt and it looks delicious and she is there for it.
But third and less obviously I think, the sandwich plays an unusual role in the film that bucks a major and toxic cultural trend. In my recent article, “Shame, Seduction, and Character in Food Messaging,” I argued that people – and very much especially women – are caught between two contradictory and unsustainable sets of cultural norms around eating.
One set of norms treats eating anything other than austere, ‘healthy’ food in small quantities that don’t risk making you fat as shameful – as a transgression for which we should always feel guilty. We talk about being ‘bad’ and ‘letting’ ourselves have dessert, or of treating ourselves off limits food as a ‘reward’ for having exercised or starved ourselves for a week. Remember when Huma Abedine’s emails were subpoenaed and we found out Hillary Clinton wrote to her about being “bad” and splitting (splitting!) a crème brûlée? In this framework, all food that is not eaten for health and skinniness reasons is framed as ‘junk’ food that is inherently worthless.
The other set of norms sexualizes or, I argued, pornifies the consumption of food that is not ‘healthy.’ In this framework, hot women and ‘real’ men indulge in meat and pie, as a form of seduction and as metonymic for sex, while people who are austere about what they eat, like vegans or people who avoid gluten, are portrayed as less fun, desexualized, boring, and repressed.
Of course, both these stories are sexist and oppressive, and they leave us, I argued, with no good way to eat. Our choices are to be transgressive and eating ‘junk,’ and hence be blamed for our weak character and insufficient self-discipline, or to strictly regulate what we eat and stick to ‘healthy’ foods, while being treated as unsexy and not sufficiently bold or pleasure-seeking. Or perhaps, finally we can get away with eating some ‘junk’ food if the performance of doing so is sexualized and porny and as long as we are skinny.
Re-enter the egg sandwich. On reflection, what I loved most about the scenes featuring it is that this sandwich broke all these rules. Harley Quinn, as the movie subtitle tells us, has been Fantabulously Emancipated. She is emancipated from her man, and very clearly emancipated from social norms more generally, as she is not at all ‘well-behaved’ in the movie. But she is also emancipated from the tyranny of our messed up diet culture, healthist culture, porn culture, and impossible eating norms.
As she tells us in voice-over, the egg sandwich is the first thing she wants after she frees herself by blowing up the chemical plant where she and Joker had their first big date. And who can blame her; it looks f*cking delicious. Her eating of it is not sexualized at all. When she finally gets to it, she chows down unceremoniously. What she is enjoying is the food, not any kind of metaphor for sexual indulgence. We see her chewing, her mouth moving, the sandwich dripping messily. How often do we see scenes of women just tucking in in movies and other mass media, aside from fat women who are being shamed or mocked? Harley does not take herself to be doing anything bad, and the sandwich is not framed as an indulgence for which she should feel guilty. It is framed as a glorious act of freedom and pleasure. It doesn’t matter whether it is ‘healthy.’ It matters that it is yummy, and that she is eating for herself, because she wants to. It matters that it is framed as a masterpiece of egg sandwich making, and not as ‘junk’ or as low quality food. It matters, I think, that she gets some guy to cook it for her too, so it is not a reward for her gendered domestic labors.
The day after I saw the movie, I recognized how much I crave seeing healthy scenes of women just eating good things and liking them, and how very rare they are. To quote Janelle Monae, watching Harley enjoy her sandwich, you could tell she was a “free-ass motherf*cker”, and I did indeed feel fantabulously emancipated by it all.
And now I need to try again to find a sandwich as delicious as hers was. Runny yolk, extra grease, extra cheese, just a splash of green onions. Wish me luck.
Quill Kukla is Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, and also a Humboldt Scholar at Leibniz University Hannover. Their forthcoming book is entitled City Living: How Urban Dwellers and Urban Spaces Make One Another. They are also a competitive amateur boxer and powerlifter