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Okay, Let’s Discuss “Queerbaiting” in Birds of Prey

Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

There are a lot of conversations surrounding Birds of Prey that are frankly not helpful or interesting, so I wanted to talk about an aspect of the film that does actually have room for real discourse: queerbaiting.

**Spoilers for Birds of Prey.**

In the film, it doesn’t take long for it to confirm both Harley being bisexual and Renée Montoya being a lesbian, something that is canon in the comics. It doesn’t bring self-congratulatory attention to it the way Marvel movies have been, and both the characters are leads, with Renee being a lesbian Afro Latina in her 50s—already better than anything Marvel has done canonically. However, when it comes to gay rep, a lot has been made of the relationship between Roman Sionis and his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz.

What kicked off this whole conversation was a series of interviews with actors Ewn McGregor and Chris Messina, who play those roles. On the press tour, these two were frequently asked if their characters were indeed gay, and the two sort of circumvented the conversation, trying not to confirm or deny anything.

According to Looper,

When asked directly about their characters’ relationship, McGregor responded, “It’s very complicated. Their relationship is very much based… there’s a want and a need in there for sure.” Messina agreed, saying, “There’s like a real love of anarchy.”

In the film itself, there is some homoerotic subtext between the two characters, but nothing that I found made it more important or noteworthy than the actual canonical queerness of Harley and Renée. It wasn’t until I saw the film a second time, with a friend of mine who found it a bit much, that I thought that maybe I was missing something.

Within comic book canon, to my knowledge, neither character is gay or queer. Both are men who love torture and have teamed up together in some way due to said love of torture. They are kindred spirits for sure. Zsasz certainly takes his role as Sionis’ bodyguard seriously, saying that “he has to look out for him,” and yes, that can be seen as romantic, but I think it also just might be that these two are as close as two men who both love torturing people and hating women can be.

McGregor and Messina have great chemistry, and I don’t dismiss the sexual vibes; I just don’t think that it was in-universe queerbaiting, because there is nothing that confirms or denies their queerness, and the film doesn’t really focus on romantic relationships.

Plus, the only two people with exes in the entire thing are the two queer women.

So, in the end, I find myself torn. I think that it is frustrating that a movie that has a canon Latina lesbian lead and a canon bisexual lead has not even been seen as worthy of celebrating or discussing, but the question of how erotic the subtext is between Black Mask and Zsasz has been so loud.

I think McGregor and Messina were trying to be civil and not dismiss a gay reading of their characters, because—let’s be frank—most of the characters in this movie are either queer in the comics or could absolutely be queer in the content of the film. Still, their statements highjacked the conversation and turned their relationship into something more important than the relationship between all the other women.

There is still a huge, storied issue of queer coding being used for villains, but I do think context matters, and in a film that is so loudly gay, I don’t think it’s attempting to use those tropes in the usual way we’ve seen in Disney films and the like.

What did you guys think? Is the relationship between Black Mask and Zsasz queerbaiting or problematic to you?

(via Looper, image: Warner Bros.)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.