The Worst of the Worst: Suicide Squad as a Case Study in Oppressive Stock Characters
Note: Spoilers for Suicide Squad follow. Content warning for mentions of domestic violence, murder.
By many standards, Suicide Squad was a subpar movie. While it had several redeeming factors–Margot Robbie and Will Smith’s performances arguably accounting for most of them–the stringent writing timeline (and its eleventh-hour editing too, in all likelihood) definitely left its mark for the worse.
Suicide Squad is far from alone in the category of big blockbusters that failed to be remarkable storytelling ventures, so I don’t mean to pick on it too much, but I do want to talk about something I think it illustrates rather well: in modern Western culture, stock characters reflect our racism and sexism, and reliance on stock characters weakens representation by failing to develop characters from diverse backgrounds. Suicide Squad is a useful example if only for the simple reason that almost no one was well-developed, so it serves as an extreme illustration of a trend in poor writing–and while the cast manages to be rather diverse, it’s far from the ideal of what true diverse representation looks like. (It should go without saying that mostly-good writing can also be sexist/racist/etc.!)
For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to try to focus on the core Suicide Squad rather than picking apart single-scene extras, and I’m going to exclude Harley Quinn and Deadshot from my analysis, as I feel the movie did the best job giving novel backstory to these characters—while I have criticisms of the way this was done, particularly with Harley Quinn, those could take up entire articles of their own.
So, breakdowns by character:
El Diablo–He used to be quick to anger but killed his family as a result, so now he’s gone hyper-pacifist even in situations where a degree of violence would be very useful (if not necessary). This particular type of stock character isn’t inherently problematic, but, as in this instance, a piece of that backstory often involves fridging women, and it further plays into stereotypes of Latino men as inherently violent against women. The movie spins this story as a way to make us sympathize with El Diablo, so not only is his wife’s death (and the death of his children) something that happened to him, it’s also something used as a way to show how bad he used to be compared to how “good” he is now. I want to make a note here that clips of his backstory make efforts to show how virtuous his spouse was—most depicted disagreements are her calling him out for murdering people—which compounds how very bad he was and how good she was.
Katana–A female Japanese assassin, Katana’s character focus is largely on the sword that killed her husband and which carries his soul. She speaks exclusively in Japanese, wears traditional cultural clothing, and talks to her husband’s spirit regularly in reverent tones akin to prayer. Unlike El Diablo, she didn’t kill her spouse, but also unlike him, we don’t know anything about him except that she loved him enough to go on a lifelong quest for vengeance following his death. In this sense, he’s fridged too, but we’re meant to take it for granted that he was a positive influence on Katana herself instead of needing to be shown as much (as is the case with El Diablo’s wife, perhaps because we’re supposed to be able to assume men are inherently desirable for women). Beyond this bit of husband-fridging/”woman living her life for a dead guy” backstory, Katana is presented more-or-less with zero complexity that’s not given to us from caricatured racial stereotypes.
Dr. June Moone–A fragile white woman in peril. She’s well-educated, but the biggest impact that seems to have on the plot is that it means she managed to touch the wrong artifact and became possessed by an evil witch. She’s portrayed largely as someone too weak to control her fate and as someone whose helplessness means that she needs to be rescued/can be used as leverage. In another story, her education may have given her a modicum of skill which could help her save herself, but in this one, it seems to be used mostly as a way to show how very civilized she is compared to the ancient force of evil that is tormenting her.
Enchantress–The ancient evil witch that’s inhabiting Dr. Moone’s body. Unlike Dr. Moone, who dresses pretty conservatively, the Enchantress wears what amounts to a bikini and a bunch of adornments to really drive the point home. She starts “dirty” and unkept when her powers are less strong, but then gains more powers and a similarly-naked sort of refinement (because what’s an evil witch without near-nudity?). Most of her growing power seems dependent on releasing Incubus, her male counterpart. Enchantress manages to avoid being a mystic black woman, though many of her adornments (such as the rings around her neck) are often associated with people of color, as is arguably the jungle setting and artifact she came from, though the precise location is never revealed.
Of course, this list isn’t comprehensive–there’s still Amanda Waller, the Joker, and Captain Boomerang, among others–but I’m hoping it serves as enough to illustrate my fairly self-evident point that these stock character types are problematic by virtue of existing in a culture rife with oppression, and that even when the stock character type isn’t inherently problematic, it easily lends itself to such interpretations when we’re plopping people into roles based on our preconceptions.
That being said, while I recognize that no amount of meticulousness or writing skill will inherently weed out bigotry in fiction–I think that takes a level of cultural awareness that even otherwise-great writers may not have–I do think that Suicide Squad and other media that work on a tight schedule do themselves no favors by giving writers limited time to develop characters. I think it’s a fair assumption that writers are more likely to rely on stock characters in situations where they have less time to deliver a final project, and I think a piece of media is more likely to have its “diversity” go uncritiqued when the editing process is rushed.
A lot of my personal disappointment with Suicide Squad doesn’t even come down to the fact that its portrayals are often racist and sexist, so much as it’s lazily racist and sexist. I don’t think we’ve come far enough as a society for it to be a reasonable expectation not to have socioeconomic critiques of our media–but we have definitely come far enough to expect a 175 million dollar blockbuster to take the time and do better than rely on decades-old racist and sexist character types.
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Edeline Wrigh is a writer, artist, and game developer who informally researches the impact of stories and creativity on people and cultures. That’s what she claims, anyway, though she actually spends a lot of time devising new ways to claim playing video games is “productive,” pining over kittens, and dressing like a fairy and dancing with hula hoops. Art, writing, and other chaos can be found via her blog.
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