Birds of Prey is the Representation I Didn't Know I Needed

A few years ago around Valentine’s Day, my husband Kurt and I were driving home from a weekend in Wisconsin and stopped in a gas station. I was looking at a display of DVDs packaged as last minute Valentine’s Day gifts, when I noticed the plastic cases of Terminator 2 and The Thomas Crown Affair shrink-wrapped together with stickers advertising “His” and “Hers.” You can guess which movie was labeled as which. This immediately caused me to rage out, as one does whenever one encounters reductive gendered marketing cliches. Obviously, I had to buy gas station cheese curds to calm myself back down. 

The Thomas Crown Affair is one of Kurt’s favorite movies. He also loves rom coms much more than I do, and enjoys the cozy, comforting feeling of settling in for two hours of Sandra Bullock pratfalling her way to love. Meanwhile, I love action movies and opt for all the car chases, roundhouse kicks, and blood spatter. I see every Fast & Furious and comic book movie in the theater, preferably opening weekend. 

I have to admit that originally, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) wasn’t really on my radar--I prefer the MCU over the DCEU, and never got around to Suicide Squad. However, around its opening weekend, I started seeing articles pop up that peaked my interest. I knew the movie centered around Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, but learned that screenwriter Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yan set out to create a girl gang movie. Furthermore, Harley’s male-gazey wardrobe from Suicide Squad had been revamped into a new lewk that was all about what Harley herself would want to wear--absolute chaos but make it fashion. An action movie that combines overt girliness with mindless violence? Count me in!! I bought tickets for Kurt and me to see it on Valentines Day after our annual dinner date at Red Lobster. (I know we live in a world class food city, but we love Red Lobster. Around the second or third time we drove to the closest suburban location, I asked Kurt “At what point does this stop becoming ironic and is just our regular life?”) 

Birds of Prey begins with Harley Quinn redefining her own identity outside of her relationship with her now ex-boyfriend, the Joker. Post-breakup, she behaves in a lot of relatable ways, like squirting Easy Cheese into her mouth while sobbing, giving herself bangs, getting wasted at da club, and joining a roller derby league. She also does many non relatable things, like breaking a man’s legs and blowing up a toxic chemical factory. But, despite the many heightened comic book moments, I thought something I literally never thought I’d think while looking at Margot Robbie: I AM HER. 

There’s many things I loved about the Birds of Prey movie, but at the top of the list is that the main heroine gets to be MESSY. In one scene, Harley gets so trashed that she passes out in the back of Black Canary’s car. The most romantically filmed moment in the film is between Harley and a bacon, egg & cheese breakfast sandwich (a.k.a. my every Sunday morning). In the biggest action sequence of the film, she opts to wear roller skates. The film only includes a few brief roller derby scenes, but the entire time, I thought to myself This is a roller derby movie. The very DNA of Birds of Prey reminds me of the three seasons I spent as a skater for the Windy City Rollers (plus another very sweaty year as a team mascot in a ninja costume). It focuses on Harley’s personal evolution and the women she meets along the way who come together over a shared goal. THAT’S DERBY. Any of my friends who have witnessed me do drunk push-ups in a parking lot would likely agree. I love Wonder Woman and all, but she would never steal a sequined fanny pack while shoving a bacon sammich in her face. 

I can’t put into words how much I loved seeing an action movie that obviously had just as many women behind the camera as it does in front. During a scene in which the girl gang takes on dozens of henchmen, Harley offers Black Canary a rubber band to keep her hair out of her face while throwing punches, and the moment feels downright revolutionary. On the topic of representation, it blows my mind that in 2020 the Year of Our Lord Meghan Markle, it is still groundbreaking for an action film to feature an ensemble cast of diverse women. Cathy Yan is the first woman of color to direct a DCEU movie, and I have to give a shoutout to Ella Jay Basco who plays Cassandra Cain, because we need more famous Filipino people in this world beyond Manny Pacquiao (yikes) and Bruno Mars (loooove). When I was in college studying theater, my mom used to cut out any articles in the Arts section of the newspaper about Asian-American actors, screenwriters, and directors and mail them to me. I loved that she did that, showing me that not only was she supportive of my dream, but that people who shared my heritage were succeeding in creative fields. In 2004, she even mailed me an article touting the upcoming release of a comedy called Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, and to this day I forever have a soft spot in my heart for that film, even despite that unfortunate “Battleshits” scene. 

Anyway, if you like bad-ass girl gangs and roller derby, I recommend seeing Birds of Prey. It is a literal confetti cannon of chaotic, cheeky energy straight into the dour, gloomy Gotham of earlier DCEU movies. Right now, I’m feeling kinda inspired to pull a Harley and send a gasoline truck careening into the factory that makes “His” and “Hers” promotional stickers.

——

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The word of the month is "Lycra"

On 2 things I became obsessed with this month: Cheer on Netflix, and CATS the film.

READY?... OK!

I have three favorite niche genres: unhinged ballerinas spiraling into chaos, rich kid prep school murder mysteries, and gritty documentary deep dives into small town cheerleading. So as you can imagine, I pounced on the new Netflix docuseries Cheer like junior high me on a fresh pair of Kaepas. 

When I was 5 years old, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d answer “A cheerleader!” I’m not even sure where this came from as I grew up in an artistic, non-sporty household and I was definitely not an athletic child. In middle and high school, I dreaded gym class; I have terrible hand-eye coordination and miss like 50% of all high fives. But I LOVE dance and any sort of themed outfit, so in fifth grade, I joined cheerleading. My grade school squad was regionally famous, and by that, I mean that if you went to a parochial middle school in the north Chicago suburbs in the early 90s, you may have seen one of our impressive halftime pom routines choreographed to Erasure songs. There is something incredibly satisfying about performing in synchronization, in hearing all of those pom poms swoosh at the exact same moment. But my personal cheerleading experience was nothing like what is depicted in the Netflix series Cheer.

The Navarro College Cheer Team is not a pom squad who dances on the sidelines--they are a full-fledged competitive cheerleading team, performing tumbling passes and ever-morphing pyramids that launch their flyers over a dozen feet into the air. The level of skill, precision, strength, flexibility, and focus needed to pull of these types of stunts is staggering. And through it all, these kids are devoting their time, energy, and bodies to a sport that promises no lucrative future career post-graduation--no professional league, no Olympics. Each person featured on Cheer is given time to show their backstory and many of them have experienced tragedy and suffered heartbreak. I cried throughout the series at what I like to refer to as my “Friday Night Lights rate”: pretty much every episode. 

I think my favorite thing about cheerleading is that the competitive version of the sport has eschewed the sideline pep squad format and has become its own entity. Last year, I attended the UCA/UCD National Championships in Orlando, and I will never forget overhearing some middle-aged, beer-bellied dude walk by and sneer “Where are the football players?” AHEM, SIR. Cheerleaders don’t need to cheer for NO MAN. The cast of Cheer, as well as the hundreds of athletes I saw perform in Orlando, are pulling off physical stunts that are breathtakingly dangerous and thrilling to watch. I’m glad that the Netflix series drives home how serious these athletes are, and how the threat of life-changing injuries is a constant worry. Competitive cheerleading is just as dangerous as football if not arguably more so, and yet the widespread general public tends to only deify the sport that doesn’t involve lycra skirts.

Jellicle Cats, come out tonight

I didn’t know what to expect when I threw the post on Facebook asking if anyone else was interested in getting rowdy and seeing the movie CATS: “For real, where my Jellicles at? I am ready to wear ears and sing Mr. Mistoffelees.” The early reviews were rough, calling it a “victory for dogs” and the first trainwreck of the decade. Obviously, I had to see it. Last summer, I dragged Kurt to the live touring production and an obsession was born. I love me a high camp Lycra-clad fever dream, bombastic musical theater with incredible and occasionally weirdly sexual dancing, and actors running down the aisles pawing at the crowd. I love that it is a 2-hour-plus long show of cats introducing themselves, and all of them remind me of our long-haired tuxedo cat who is easily the biggest asshole living in our house. Of course I had to partake in the trainwreck sweeping through movie theaters nationwide.

Our CATS outing fortuitously coincided with the recent legalization of marijuana in the state of Illinois and the opening of several dispensaries in Chicago. This explains the nearly-full theater more than anything. The crowd was a mix of drunk musical theater fans and twenty-somethings who had never heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber but thought it would be fun to see a batshit movie while tripping balls. I was especially excited to see a group sitting in the row in front of us wearing cat ears. Things were looking promising for a rowdy experience.

As the theater darkened and trailers began, the crowd was silent. I began to get nervous that no one else would be on the same page as us. I could try shouting a dumb joke out loud, but what if it bombed? I’m too old to be kicked out of a movie theater. But the turning point came during the trailer for Call of the Wild. As soon as the CG dog appeared, the theater started booing. “Boooo dogs! Where are the CATS??” people hissed. And we were off and running from there.

Listen, people who say that CATS is terrible aren’t wrong, but they also didn’t see it in the right frame of mind. I can understand that at a Sunday matinee in the harsh light of sobriety, the film pulls off the feat of being both dull and horrifying. But if it’s a Saturday night and you’ve just shotgunned several IPAs at the theater bar and plunked into your reclining theater seat with a plastic cup of Truly (for hydration), dancing cats are fucking WILD. Like the stage show, the dancing is mesmerizing and impressive. However, unlike the live performance, every time the cats freeze and raise their CG tails in unison, you get a clear view of their weird animated furry bodies and wonder why they don’t have buttholes.

So many things happen for no reason. Rebel Wilson unzips her fur suit to reveal another fur body. Singing cockroaches with human faces fall into her mouth. James Corden probably did something too but I don’t know; I left to pee during his song.

As the film kicked in, so did the collective audience’s edibles. People cheered for the tap-dancing Skimbleshanks, screamed when Idris Elba meowed and disappeared into a magic cloud of dust, and shouted “YASSS QUEEN” when Jennifer Hudson hit the thrilling high note in “Memory.” During “Magical Mister Mistoffelees,” which is a real banger, the crowd sang the entire chorus. I felt like I had found my Jellicle tribe. I, a 40-year-old adult, threw a ball of fuzzy pink yarn at my friend’s head (PROP WORK).

When the credits rolled, the theater filled with applause. I also heard several shouts of “What the FUCK” and one dude said “Thank God for marijuana.” Some guy wandered lost in the aisle and wondered to himself out loud “Am I a furry now?” 

I turned to look at my husband. “That was better than Star Wars,” he said.

As we filed out of the theater, the projectionist CAME DOWNSTAIRS just to tell us that we had been the most entertaining crowd he’d ever witnessed. 

We posed for a group photo in the lobby with friends and strangers, all of us wearing cat ears. “We’re cat-bonded now,” one of the women said to us before she waved goodbye and rushed to her friends on the escalator. Some of them handed off their ears to people entering the next showing, passing on the magic of Now and Forever.

What can I say, I love being a part of a Movement. A Moment. A Meowment. Perhaps that crowd-bonding experience brought back those joyful memories of being a synchronized squad. Perhaps I am trying way too hard to tie these two pop culture stories together. Either way, my January has landed in the sweet spot of the Venn diagram where competitive cheerleading overlaps with the CATS movie, with the unifying power of Lycra.

2019: a year of saga conclusions and luxurious sweaters

Here we are at the end of the year as well as the decade.* Decembers are chaos --it’s the busiest time of year for me at work, and it doesn’t help that I’ve been fighting off a respiratory infection this entire calendar month. I saw Little Women in the theater the other day and feared that I’d break into a coughing fit during the scarlet fever scene, which would be the rudest.

I’ve actually seen several movies in the theater in recent weeks, which is one of my absolute favorite things to do during this time of year. Of course, this includes Star Wars Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker. Like many Xennials**, I can’t remember life before Star Wars. It’s part of the fabric of my childhood, as elemental as Capri Suns and velcro kangaRoos. As a kid, I longed for a stuffed animal Ewok (Princess Kneesaa!) thanks to this commercial. And guess what, I finally bought one while at Disney Springs because being an adult with a credit card is the best. Starting in late November, I did a chronological rewatch of every Star Wars film, and besides having seen SO MANY planets explode in the past month, I came away with a newfound appreciation for the way each volume fit together. Besides adding a layer of poignancy to the upcoming final film, all of my childhood memories came rushing back—watching VHS tapes in so many friends’ wood-paneled basements, seeing the special edition releases at a suburban mall which no longer exists, and watching the actors age in ways that are now all too relatable.

It feels somehow fitting to end this decade with Star Wars, in a year full of saga conclusions. Last April, three monumental events occurred in one weekend: the Avengers saved the world, the Starks fought the Night King in the Battle of Winterfell, and I turned 40. I left Chicago for a 2-week birthday road trip the morning after seeing Avengers: Endgame on opening night, and I probably didn’t stop talking about it until we crossed the border into Oklahoma. Two and a half days later, Kurt and I camped out in the desert just outside of Roswell and propped up an iPad on a picnic table to watch one of the last 6 episodes ever of Game of Thrones. My obsession with the books began in 2011, and I dove headfirst into MCU fandom roughly around the same time. 10 years is a long time to love something, and I am the kind of unabashed nerd that loves HARD. Days into our road trip, I’d still spontaneously cry if I even thought about the moment [mild spoiler alert but c’mon and get with the program already] Steve Rogers picked up Thor’s hammer, or when Jaime Lannister knighted Brienne of Tarth. 

Seeing three beloved sagas conclude gives me a nice sense of closure that aligns with the closing out of the 2010s. It makes me feel like in the ‘20s, everything I look forward to and grow to love will be something brand new. I’m ready for new stories, new worlds to explore, and new reasons to geek out. (I mean, besides the upcoming Fast & Furious 9, featuring the Family we know and love but now with John Cena AND Cardi B!!!). 

A few other things I loved in 2019:

  • Between Succession and Knives Out, many of my faves this year involve wealthy people behaving horribly while wearing really nice sweaters. I enjoyed Ready or Not but I wonder if it would have made a bigger splash had they dressed Adam Brody in a luscious merino wool cable knit. If you haven’t seen Succession yet, the post-holiday season is the perfect time to get caught up on my #1 show of this year.

  • I saw Carly Rae Jepsen touring with her newest album Dedicated and it was one of my favorite dance parties ever. Her infectiously fun album plus her tour outfits catalogued on Instagram are my 2020 mood board.

  • Everyone knows and rightfully loves Lizzo by now, but I had an afternoon of pure joy dancing to “Cuz I Love You” while riding shotgun on my birthday, wearing a pink novelty tiara and singing lyrics out the window. Lizzo and I are birthday twins so I like to think that she was living it up at the exact same time as me.

  • I was enjoyably creeped out by Midsommar, had fun with Fighting With My Family, and low-key wept for the full runtime of Little Women, so it’s safe to say I’ll watch anything with Florence Pugh. I’m looking forward to Black Widow (FINALLY) in 2020.

  • The Mandalorian was a treat to look forward to on a weekly basis, and I love Baby Yoda as much as the next nerd but my personal favorite was the Armorer.  She have a bad-ass fight scene AND her beskar was the most fashionable with helmet points that looked like Ariana Grande cat ears, 10/10 would wear to Comic Con.

  • Watchmen, OMG just drop whatever you’re doing right now and binge it on HBO GO.

Some 2020 Resolutions:

  • As a writer and occasional freelancer, I like using social media for promoting and networking, but it can also be a slippery slope into major time suckage. I find myself more and more likely to sit down with the intention of reading a book, stop to glance at my phone for a quick sec and click innocently on a hashtag, and then next thing I know it’s 45 minutes later and I’m still scrolling through an “Unofficial Chris Evans” Instagram maintained by a Brazilian teenager. I need to set some boundaries and I plan to experiment with removing Facebook from my phone and instigating a nightly Twitter/Insta cut-off.

  • This isn’t pop culture-related, but every year I add to my list of resolutions “learn to cook,” and every time I know deep in my heart I have zero intention to actually do it. Cooking stresses me out and I have a tendency to wander away to read online celeb gossip and forget I was supposed to stir something. I’m super lucky to have a partner who not only enjoys cooking but is fantastic at it, so I’ve gotten real lazy. But I should probably be a better household contributor so THIS YEAR, I PROMISE I MEAN IT. The sad truth is that I’d probably be more eager to learn how to use the instant pot if we got the R2-D2 one, but I will learn to soldier on with the branding-free version we already own.

Happy New Year! xoxo

*controversial! but I am going with what I committed to back in 1999.

**I hate this phrase but I was born in 1979 so it is the cross I bear.

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Welcome to KiMDB by me, Kim Nelson. Writer. Outdoor cat. Pop culture nerd. Karaoke enthusiast.

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