Suicide Squad had a chance to do something great. The enormous success of Deadpool, an R-rated superhero movie that incessantly mocked its own genre, proved that audiences are more than ready for edgier comic book adaptations, and Warner Bros.' latest film was poised to continue this new trend. Not only is Suicide Squad about gruff, wisecracking villains rather than noble heroes, but it's an ensemble movie that actually puts a woman and a black character (who in DC Comics is usually white) at its center. Unfortunately, rather than embrace this and give audiences a progressive or subversive action movie, Suicide Squad exemplifies one of the worst tropes in comics by using almost all of its female characters — including Harley Quinn — as leverage or motivation for the men.
This is a trend that goes back decades in comics. There's even a term for it: fridging, or women in refrigerators. It stems from a 1994 issue of DC's Green Lantern in which the hero, Kyle Rayner, comes home to find that the villain has killed his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, and stuffed her dead body in his refrigerator. As TVTropes explains, the term originally referred to female characters being killed off to further the male hero's storyline, but it has since expanded to include any time one character is harmed to motivate another. (Minor spoilers ahead.) While Suicide Squad includes some straightforward fridging, many of its female characters do manage to avoid true harm. The problem is, most of these women still exist in the movie primarily to motivate men in some way.
...to associate the word "love" with the dynamic between Harley and Joker is to legitimize a toxic, abusive relationship founded on manipulation, shock therapy, and brain-altering chemicals.
The only woman in Suicide Squad whose role isn't intrinsically tied to a man is Viola Davis' Amanda Waller. Even Katana, the sword-wielding warrior ready to cut down anyone in her way, lives to avenge her dead husband, and her most significant scene (though there isn't much to choose from) involves her speaking to his soul. Everyone else, meanwhile, serves as an example of a new form of fridging that may not be as violent, but is certainly damaging, especially because it's harder to detect.
Grace, El Diablo's Wife & Victim Of Fridging
Grace, the wife of Jay Hernandez's El Diablo, is only seen briefly in flashbacks, but that's enough time to make Corina Calderon's character a textbook example of fridging. When Amanda Waller goes through the circumstances that lead to each member of the Suicide Squad being captured, of El Diablo she simply says that he lost his girl. Much of El Diablo's arc in the movie is then about his reluctance to use his flame-wielding powers and — surprise, surprise — it's because he previously lost control and killed his wife. Just like Alex DeWitt's refrigerated body did for the Green Lantern, the memory of holding his dead wife in his arms as their house burned around them provides El Diablo with his emotional struggle and motivates him to avoid using his powers.
Grace, however, has no emotional struggle or arc. All we know about her is that she had two children with Diablo and wasn't afraid to stand up to him, even though everyone else was. Unfortunately, this strength is also the thing that directly led to her death. See, Grace didn't die in some tragic accident stemming from Diablo's fire powers — he went into a rage and murdered her because she threatened to leave him and take their children with her ( ...who he also killed). That makes this fridging even more disturbing, as it's reminiscent of an all too real scenario: a woman being killed for trying to leave a dangerous man. In real life, women are 70 times more likely to be killed by an abusive partner within two weeks of leaving them than any other time, according to the Domestic Violence Intervention Program.
In Suicide Squad, this tragedy leads to El Diablo going to prison, sure, but it also directly leads to the moment that turns him into a full-fledged hero. Grace may be the only female character in the movie to die in an exact example of fridging, but she's hardly the only one whose purpose is to motivate a man.
Zoe Lawton, Deadshot's Daughter & An A.R.G.U.S. Pawn
Technically, Zoe has two purposes in Suicide Squad: to emotionally motivate her father, Will Smith's Deadshot... and to serve as leverage against him. We see how much Deadshot, aka Floyd Lawton, cares for her and that he's willing to do anything for her, which is where the problem comes in. Since theirs is a father-daughter relationship, it makes sense for Deadshot to want to be a better person for his daughter; in that regard, she motivates him in a positive way, because she never has to be in danger to do so. In fact, she actively stops him from killing in one particularly tense scene, bravely stepping between Deadshot and his intended victim.
The issue arises when other characters use this father-daughter bond against Deadshot — Zoe quickly shifts from daughter to pawn and Amanda Waller, the rest of A.R.G.U.S., and the Blackgate prison guards see Zoe as more of a weakness than a person. Whenever they want Deadshot to do something, they simply remind him that she's out there, and that they can control whether he ever sees her again. Zoe may be a minor character, but in a movie that's already so filled with female characters driving the plots of male characters forward, seeing her treated as nothing more than a point of negotiation is deeply disappointing.
June Moone, A Solider's Motivation & Enchantress, A Powerless Villain
Cara Delevingne's characters encapsulate Suicide Squad's biggest issues and like the movie itself, Enchantress could've been so much more. There should be more female villains in comic book films and I would have been glad to see that Enchantress as the movie's big bad, if she was the movie's biggest bad. Instead, Enchantress needs to call in a male villain to literally give her power while her alter ego, June Moone, simultaneously serves as emotional motivation and leverage.
Though she is a brilliant archaeologist, Dr. Moone is also the movie's weakest character, constantly trembling and often needing to physically lean on her boyfriend for support. Because that boyfriend is Rick Flag, a soldier with A.R.G.U.S., this frail woman is essentially a tool for both the organization and the Enchantress. Rick's love for and need to protect June motivates everything he does. If he ever falters in his A.R.G.U.S. mission, Waller simply reminds Flag that she has the Enchantress' heart and can hurt her, and therefore June, at any moment. Flag's arc centers on him coming to terms with the potential loss of June and doing everything in his power to save her, even if that means putting the entire world at risk; Delevingne's characters have no arc to speak of and are constantly in mortal danger — on the brink of finding themselves in the fridge.
As for June, this character has no agency; she's always at the whim of the Enchantress or Waller and knows that Flag's life revolves around her. And somehow, as the Enchantress she has even less agency. Waller has total control of the Enchantress by possessing her heart and the ancient entity relies on her larger, stronger brother to supply her with power. In Suicide Squad, no amount of intelligence, mystic abilities, or history can put you in charge of your own fate if you are a woman.
Harley Quinn, The Joker's Obsession & Sex Object
Harley Quinn, a fan favorite character long overdue for a film adaptation, may be at the center of Suicide Squad and its promotional materials, but she still is not allowed to stand on her own. Like Zoe and June, Margot Robbie's Harley surviving the movie does not exclude her from its tendency to link women with male motivations. In her case, the man is, of course, the Joker. To be clear, Jared Leto's Joker is not in the Suicide Squad and receives extremely little screen time in the movie, only popping up occasionally to remind us how obsessed he is with Harley. The key word here is "obsessed," because to associate the word "love" with the dynamic between Harley and Joker is to legitimize a toxic, abusive relationship founded on manipulation, shock therapy, and brain-altering chemicals.
...though deeper meaning is suggested, Suicide Squad backs away before it can actually make a statement.
Somehow, even though the Joker is barely present in Suicide Squad, Harley often serves as his motivation, and he as hers. Every time we see the iconic villain, he is there to rescue Harley — who is supposed to be one of the world's most dangerous villains — and many of her actions seem to stem from her hope of being reunited with him. She can only escape her forced role in the Suicide Squad when the Joker stages an elaborate plan to free her, at which point she happily walks away from the team, even though the closest thing she has to a character arc is her growing closeness to the other members and eventual acceptance of them as friends. If this is the story of the Suicide Squad coming together as some kind of family and saving the world, why is Harley willing to abandon them all as soon as her "puddin'" shows up? And why is she in need of saving at all?
The fact that Harley exists only to be with the Joker is not confined to the movie's present timeline either. A flashback to their relationship before she was imprisoned shows how the Joker used Harley as a sex object, just like the movie does. And in both cases, though deeper meaning is suggested, Suicide Squad backs away before it can actually make a statement.
In the flashback, the Joker is running a club and sends to Harley to dance for a patron played by Common, Monster T, who is openly ogling her from his seat. Following the Joker's orders, Harley gives Monster T a lap dance and flirts with him, and the Joker seems to be simultaneously excited and angry both when Monster T seems attracted to Harley and when he rebuffs her out of fear. The Joker uses his girlfriend's body to mess with other men's heads and though Harley does whatever he says, we never learn how she feels about it. She mirrors the Joker's reactions, laughing when he does and becoming angry when he yells at Monster T. This could be a comment on the abusive, controlling nature of their relationship and help to explain why the female lead of the movie lives for a man, but that point is never made. Instead, we just watch her kiss the Joker.
The overt sexualization of Harley is caught in a similar grey area. Is Suicide Squad pandering to male viewers by giving Harley a revealing costume that looks nothing like what she wears in the comics, or is this commentary on the sexualization of female comic book characters? The amount of gratuitous close-ups of Harley's butt peeking out of her sequined shorts suggest the former, but brief moments hint at the latter. For instance, after Harley believes something terrible has happened, she sits in the rain alone and cries, visibly devastated. But when the rest of the Suicide Squad comes across her, she immediately puts on a happy face and lounges across the hood of a car as she makes a funny comment. It's clearly all an act to hide her inner pain and if Suicide Squad had more moments like this, it could've actually said something about the sexualization of women in movies — the emphasis on their appearance rather than their actual character. Instead, it glosses over such deep moments in a rush to get to Harley's next quippy double entendre.
Harley survives the movie and in that sense, she isn't fridged like Diablo's wife, but Grace is hardly the film's only victim of that tired comic trope. By primarily motivating male characters and being used as pawns in others' schemes, the women of Suicide Squad may not be in the fridge, but they're certainly feeling the cold.
Images: Warner Bros. (6)