I’m going to keep talking about “Birds of Prey” because it is just that important a film. It’s underrated, speaks to our time, and it’s a lightning rod of toxic reaction to its feminism and diversity. I stopped counting how many comments from people with “nazi” in their name I had on my article “’Birds of Prey’ Box Office Failure is Make Believe”.
This is a film with a generationally good action-comedy performance in Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. It has award-worthy design. The direction is wildly assured and draws from a shockingly large range of influences to create something unique and precise. Its scenes are often thickly layered with dueling perspectives even as Quinn’s own storytelling drives the plot. It’s subversive in a blunt, forward, and challenging way that’s needed.
I used to run Wednesday Collective as a weekly gathering of articles on (mostly) film that I found interesting. One of the joys of being a critic is sharing voices with readers that cover diverse perspectives, and that help me learn. Let’s talk about what they have to say about the film’s treatment of trauma, its “Tank Girl” connection, its meaningful costuming, director Cathy Yan, and Margot Robbie as a producer.
BIRDS OF PREY, Trauma, and the Female Gaze by Jessica Plummer
This is a superb article at Book Riot that deals with a particular moment in “Birds of Prey”. It’s something I could tell was playing out differently, but because I have a male gaze, I focused on the reaction and what that said about toxic masculinity.
There was also something else happening in the scene that I couldn’t identify, that plays to female gaze. That there are so many moments in a film like this, and that it can produce this level of layered meaning in a scene, continues to blow my mind.
It’s also an argument for why we need more women in film and as critics. A male director wouldn’t have included this in the film. A male critic wouldn’t have noticed it in the film. Yet as a man, I can benefit, know more, and find more beauty and care in a piece of art simply from it being included and pointed out to me.
A Girl is a Gun: ‘Birds of Prey’ and the Legacy of ‘Tank Girl’ by Maya Thornton
Maya Thornton points out for Adventures in Poor Taste one of the stronger influences in “Birds of Prey”: director Rachel Talalay’s 1995 cult classic “Tank Girl”.
Her article considers the through-lines in story, design, and comedy, how each film treats women (and how men react), as well as the differences in how studios acted toward these films in 1995 vs. 2020.
She doesn’t mention, but Margot Robbie’s production company LuckyChap Entertainment optioned the rights to “Tank Girl” in September 2019 as a starring vehicle for Robbie. That doesn’t mean it will definitely get made, but with the film already months into pre-production and director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte (who directed Robbie in “Dreamland”) tapped to direct it, it’s reasonable to hope.
Harley Quinn’s ‘Birds of Prey’ Costumes are Full of Hidden Meanings by Irina Grechko
Fashion-centric site Nylon goes into the inspirations behind costume designer Erin Benach’s unique and varied costumes. The strongest influences in “Birds of Prey” are DIY glampunk and glitterpunk, but Blaxploitation, 50s fashion iconography, and emo clubbing accessories each inform characters in the film.
Benach needed to create costumes that made statements, told histories, and defined the world of the film. They needed to be utilitarian and focused on the characters’ preferences instead of the male gaze that dictated Harley Quinn’s costume design in “Suicide Squad”. One of Benach’s most interesting imperatives was to take these influences and do something revolutionary with them – add pants.
How ‘Birds of Prey’ Director Cathy Yan Saved Harley Quinn From Joker and the Male Gaze by Melissa Leon
Here’s a rangy interview with director Cathy Yan at The Daily Beast. “Birds of Prey” is one of the most self-assured films I’ve seen recently, and it offers a storytelling voice that feels more authentic than anything else DC or even Marvel have done. Yan talks about accentuating the female gaze and how a woman filming women focuses on the actual performance being given. Yan wanted to make sure her characters sweat and that the work and effort they put forth was aspirational – not the impossible beauty standard of an impeccably photoshopped magazine cover.
This is also a different Gotham City than we’ve seen, and Yan has a precise reason for this. She discusses why she wanted to make Harley’s section of Gotham feel like a neighborhood on the outskirts instead of gloomy, downtown Gotham – that a story taking place on the outskirts of power avoids telling a story that focuses too much on established patriarchy.
How Margot Robbie Changed Her Hollywood Destiny by Anne Helen Petersen
Anne Helen Petersen breaks down Robbie’s path to production and how it enables her to choose her roles and expand the range of other voices in film. The BuzzFeed News article reminds us that Robbie isn’t just clearing a path as an extremely capable actress, she’s also one of the promising and hardest working young producers in film.
Petersen does this in an absolutely brilliant and captivating piece that calls to account male journalists’ coverage of young actresses. It takes steps beyond this to interrogate the opportunities blocked to women as producers and how Robbie’s seized on becoming an important and exciting risk-taker. It highlights the history of how studios have limited women’s opportunities as producers, how women have fought back, and how patriarchal systems artificially block women into competing for limited opportunities while men aren’t similarly obstructed.
That would be more than enough to make the article stunning and important, but Petersen also threads how class plays into the opportunities women have, and how it informs and leads to typecasting, while also recognizing Robbie wouldn’t have this opportunity if she were nonwhite. I’m trying really hard not to swear to accentuate just how good this article is.
When something is this well-researched, clearly voiced, intersectionally woven, and pointedly structured, it is important. It functions as crucial journalism as well as a clear-eyed piece of art unto itself. Read this, it is one of the best articles covering the industry of filmmaking that I’ve recently read.
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Movie and box office websites have fallen all over themselves to report the failure that is “Birds of Prey”. The Harley Quinn superhero movie only made $33 million in its opening weekend! What if I told you this assessment of its failure is inaccurate? What if I told you there was a male-driven action film with the same budget and same box office performance that came out at the same time of year? Would you be surprised that it was lauded as a box office success and got two sequels?
“BIRDS OF PREY” VS. “KINGSMAN”
Bear with me while we get into some numbers. The budget for “Birds of Prey” is variously reported as between $75 million and $97.1 million. The two most reliable box office reporting sites measure it as $82 million (The Numbers) and $84.5 million (Box Office Mojo). We’ll go with these figures, but also talk about the most expensive estimate later.
The budget for “Kingsman: The Secret Service” was $81 million. It was a male-driven, niche action movie that came out in 2014 and was widely applauded for its surprise performance.
As mentioned, the opening weekend for “Birds of Prey” was $33 million. The opening weekend for “Kingsman: The Secret Service” was $36.2 million.
Well, what about international box office, outside the U.S.? “Kingsman” earned about $53 million overseas in its opening weekend. “Birds of Prey” earned just over $48 million in its opening weekend.
It’s notable to point out that “Birds of Prey” counts its totals without a China opening. China takes an outlandish cut of box office earnings made by foreign films, which account for $22.5 million of the “Kingsman” opening and thus far $0 of the “Birds of Prey” opening. This means that in terms of earning profit, they performed pretty equally and “Birds of Prey” may have even had the better opening weekend abroad.
You have two movies that cost essentially the same, and earned essentially the same opening weekend, at essentially the same time of year. “Kingsman” was widely reported as a rousing success. “Birds of Prey” is being widely reported as an abject failure.
PERFORMANCE IN THE DCEU
But maybe we should compare “Birds of Prey” to other DC superhero franchises. At about $84 million, “Birds of Prey” has just over a third the production budget of 2013’s “Man of Steel”. It has a third the budget of “Batman v Superman”. It has less than half the budget of “Suicide Squad”. It has just over one-fourth of the budget of “Justice League”.
(Even the higher $97.1 million budget estimate reported by Screen Rant means that “Birds of Prey” would be the second least expensive DC Extended Universe movie just behind “Shazam!”)
Advertising budgets aren’t made public, but they are estimated at 1-1.5x the cost of the production budget. Advertising and production in total typically equals between 2-2.5x the production budget alone.
“Man of Steel” made $291 million domestic off a $225 million budget. A $668 million worldwide total (including domestic) means it likely eked out a profit in the theaters after advertising is accounted for…just not that much of one. It got a $250 million sequel.
“Justice League” never even matched its budget. When it came out in 2017, the $300 million film made only $229 million in the U.S. At a $657.9 million worldwide total, it likely didn’t even make up its outlandish advertising budget.
After just two weeks in release, “Birds of Prey” has made $61.7 million domestic and a $145 million worldwide total. It’s on track to make up its production budget domestically, and to more than turn a profit after advertising once international takes are added. That’s the definition of a success, and it already out-paces other DCEU films.
Of course there are DC films that have performed better: “Aquaman”, “Wonder Woman”, and “Shazam!” are the best performing films the DCEU has. The point is, there are more DC films that have performed equally or far worse.
FEBRUARY BOX OFFICE IS TERRIBLE
But “Birds of Prey” came out in February, the same month as “Black Panther”! That means something for some reason, right?
February is actually one of the worst months in terms of box office, and that’s not even talking about being a shorter month. Simply looking at weekend openings, only two films have ever opened above $100 million in February. Only 11 films have ever had an opening weekend above $50 million in February.
An opening of $33 million is directly in line with other films of this budget. Beyond that, the film had a great second weekend hold, only dropping 48.2%. In fact, it joins “Aquaman” and “Wonder Woman” as the only DCEU films not to have dropped more than 50% in their second weekends.
Why we’re suddenly pretending it’s a surprise or mystery is…well, the reason’s obvious but let’s get to that in a second.
“BIRDS OF PREY” VS. “FORD V FERRARI
As Comic Book points out, another close comparison to “Birds of Prey” is “Ford v Ferrari”, the Matt Damon-Christian Bale Oscar-bait film that opened at $31.5 million domestic. Comic Book points out that this was a $97.6 million film, just out-pacing even the highest budget estimate for “Birds of Prey”. Yet it was celebrated as a success with a lower, $31.5 million opening. With the benefit of Thanksgiving, the holiday break, New Years, and extending its Oscar run, it amassed a grand total of $117 million domestic and $224 million worldwide.
At $145 million worldwide in just two weeks, “Birds of Prey” is guaranteed to surpass the Oscar-bait racing movie. Yet despite better performance on either a slightly or significantly lesser budget, “Birds of Prey” is defined as the failure and “Ford v Ferrari” as a success.
What makes “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” different from similarly performing films? It’s written by, directed by, and stars women.
“Kingsman” is a movie about men that uses women as rewards. It’s co-written by Jane Goldman, but the women in the film are fetishized, need to be saved, and one is presented as an unfeeling sidekick.
Comic Book points out “Ford v Ferrari” is a film written by, directed by, and starring men. These films get a pass when they perform just like “Birds of Prey” did. They’re hailed nonetheless as successes.
That films like this would perform almost the exact same – or worse than – “Birds of Prey” and yet receive the exact opposite narrative assessing that performance is a double-standard, plain and simple.
I’d go even further and say that while progress has been made, there’s also a misogynist bridgehead that’s taking shape in criticism due to 4chan style brigading of review sites. The numbers that get reported about box office are accurate. The narratives derived from them aren’t. They’re neither based on accuracy nor consistency, and they’re too often influenced by what narrative will frenzy male followers into perceiving they’re victims of women and diversity.
As Harley Quinn reminds us, “Behind every successful man is a badass broad”. She just doesn’t get the credit for doing more with less.
I didn’t think I’d be writing this, but “Birds of Prey” is in that elite category of best superhero movies we’ve got. So you know where I’m coming from, I’m a bit exhausted on superhero films. I still go see them, and I think they’re better than they’ve ever been…so why are they sometimes tiring? There’s always the potential that I’ll be walking into something that feels extremely similar to what I’ve seen before.
That happened quickly with the Zack Snyder-directed Superman, Batman, and Justice League films. Everything began to feel blue, black, grim, and strangely plastic. Characters got less and less time to simply be themselves.
It’s taken Marvel longer to get there, but it’s found its own pitfalls. Fulfilling as it was as I watched it, I left “Avengers: Endgame” feeling like it was a largely empty experience. That was a strange feeling. I’d just cried at the sacrifice made at the end; I was excited by the fights; I laughed when expected to.
That’s the thing. As solo superhero movies increasingly get to extend into other genres and make more blatant social and political statements, the most bankable core films color by the numbers more and more. They often do so extremely well, even artfully – but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re doing what I’ve seen before. I was excited, laughed, and cried when the filmmakers expected – and when I expected. I miss being surprised by those things.
When watching superhero films, sometimes I feel like I’m having more of a Pavlovian response than an honest emotion. What’s worse is that it becomes difficult to tell the difference.
Enter “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”. It’s thematically blunt and wants you to know it. It’s also wacky, violent, slapstick fun. The story is told out of order, sometimes under various influences, by villain-as-antihero Harley Quinn.
It boils down to finding a gemstone everyone’s after, which means capturing the young pickpocket who stole it. Gotham City’s criminal underworld has just become aware that Quinn is no longer protected by the Joker, so they’re after both Quinn and the gemstone. Of course, it becomes much more complicated than that, but let’s not spoil a good thing.
Something I am thankful for is that the Joker is passingly referenced, but never seen. This is a wonderful way to acknowledge Jared Leto’s Joker while hopefully never having to see that version on screen again.
Quinn ends up alternately running from and working with the pickpocket Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco), under-appreciated police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a singer trying to hide a superpower in Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and vengeful assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead at her Winsteadiest).
I found myself thinking chiefly of two films as I watched, and they aren’t what I’d call similar. “The Usual Suspects” came to mind because of the out-of-order storytelling. Quinn is an inherently untrustworthy narrator, though for our purposes we can believe what she’s telling us. She’s more importantly a narrator who wants to tell the audience the thought she’s most excited about before filling in its context. This creates moments where we take guesses why she’s doing something, but we have to wait to be proven right or wrong. Essentially, events are strung together in a way that makes sense to her, and we pick up on how they fit together as we listen and watch. It feels conversational.
The other film that came to mind is “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Despite some problems I have with that film, it still may be the best example of fusing traditional animation into live action. The comparison isn’t because “Birds of Prey” incorporates a ton of animation. It opens with an animated sequence. When they’re introduced, new characters get a freeze-frame that’s sometimes drawn all over like the cover of a Trapper Keeper.
Other than that, there’s not a great deal of animation used in the film. “Roger Rabbit” comes to mind more because of the way Quinn herself exists in her story. She’s all but a cartoon character at times, and in terms of actors emulating past portrayals, her performance is as close to the 1990s “Batman: The Animated Series” as anyone will ever get in live action.
The work Robbie’s doing here is complicated, and it requires comedic and dramatic performances that fit a range of different genres to function. Beyond that, she’s doing most of her own stunts and fight choreography. The same praise we once gave to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean” should be finding its way to Robbie in “Birds of Prey”. (It won’t, but that’s another conversation.)
“Birds of Prey” navigates a ludicrous range of influences and genres while doing all this. Director Cathy Yan starts by essentially taking Zack Snyder’s midnight blue-and-black DCEU and exploding bright colors all over it. What follows pulls from blaxploitation cinema, kung fu films, Michael Mann cop montages, Marilyn Monroe dance numbers, fashion magazines, “Trainspotting”, and Mel Brooks comedies.
Do you want a film that draws its set design influences equally from “A Clockwork Orange” and the 1960s “Batman” TV show? You have found it and it somehow works really well.
This isn’t just pulling from previous cinema, though. It’s also drawing from ultra-modern influences. Quinn’s meta interaction with the story means she occasionally interrupts herself to look at the camera and talk to the audience. It isn’t new for those who grew up watching “Saved by the Bell” and “Wayne’s World”, and it isn’t overdone, but the specific presentation here often recalls Twitch streamers and YouTube influencers.
It should all be a mess. It may be to some people. Yet while Yan is willing to spill utter chaos on us, it never gets in the way of presenting Quinn and her story. That’s what’s most impressive. A ridiculously complicated bit of interwoven choreography and cinematography will cut to a joke at the drop of a hat. Both Robbie and the editing need to be utterly on point to make it work. They both need to be so perfectly timed that they seem completely relaxed in the delivery. Yan’s broad comedy and action set-ups fuse with an editing and lead performance so exact and in rhythm they seem off-the-cuff.
In other words, that chaos holds together because that rhythm and relationship between Yan as director and Robbie as actor can veer from the broad to the precise with such control that it all seems easy. “Birds of Prey” is what happens when you watch masters of their craft who synchronize with each other perfectly.
This same sensibility shapes the action, too. The set-pieces here are as good as you can get, in large part because Yan makes the job so much more complicated than it has to be.
The action scenes live off their props and set design elements. Yan’s set pieces are often immensely complicated, yet they flow naturally. There’s a cartoon logic at play in a more dramatic live-action presentation. Robbie constantly makes you wonder why all the people trying to kill Quinn brought guns to her baseball bat fight.
There’s also a consistent feel despite Yan regularly switching filmmaking tools in these fights. Pastel smoke grenades and sandbag bullets that explode in glitter get slow-motion cause they’re so colorful, while Robbie plays the fight slapstick for the camera.
You expect that to be the way fights happen in this movie, yet a few scenes later the fight is hard hitting and plays at full speed. The comedy comes instead from reaction shots cut in for Robbie to deliver dialogue.
A fairly straightforward fight beneath drenching water gets choreography movements edited in isolation – one or two movements per edit, a few seconds per shot.
A later fight involving dozens of characters, roller skates, guns, shifting elements on a rotating set, mirrors, all while swapping fight partners, props, and weapons features some shockingly long takes.
The minute you think you understand how the film wants to present its fight scenes, it’s turned that approach on its head. At the same time, they all feel part of a whole. That constant change in presentation makes sense. Yan is a director at the absolute top of her game, in complete control of what she wants to do, working with an actor who can essentially enable her to do anything she wants – in part because Robbie’s that good of an actor, and in part because she’s also the producer and can give Yan the cover to do it.
This film, Yan’s direction, and Robbie’s performance are all elements I’m fairly certain I’ll be talking about at the end of the year.
This doesn’t even get to the themes and elements at play: a refreshingly aggressive, unhidden feminism and extensive commentary on white male privilege and toxic masculinity – often through Ewan McGregor’s villain Black Mask.
The cast is diverse, which makes the world feel inhabited, more realistic, and more consequential.
This is a movie that treats subversion as something that you shove in the audience’s face and use to confront them, rather than an option you politely offer and hope they one day notice. In that way, Quinn might be the hero we need, not just the one we deserve.
Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “Birds of Prey” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Margot Robbie plays Harley Quinn. Rosie Perez plays Renee Montoya. Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays Black Canary. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Huntress. Ella Jay Basco plays Cassandra Cain. Ali Wong plays Ellen Yee. There are various other women with brief speaking parts.
2. Do they talk to each other?
Yes. I’d say that it’s possible the majority of the dialogue is between women, but studies show that men are incredibly bad at assessing this ratio, so I could very easily be wrong.
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. They often talk about their plans, their frustrations, plot developments, and each other.
When they do talk about men, it’s often about men standing in their way or taking credit for their accomplishments.
Quinn’s narrative monologue makes up a lot of the film, so it’s also worth addressing. It starts off revolving around her break-up with the Joker, but quickly moves along to the plot, and discussions of the other characters – mostly, but not exclusively women.
This section is a way to talk about whether a film meets some excruciatingly basic expectations. It’s not a measure of whether something is feminist or not. “Birds of Prey” is far more confrontational about feminist aspects than a lot of films, but I also recognize the character in some ways serves a very male gaze. That isn’t quite toned down in the sense that 190 is less than 200 but still a lot. More what’s communicated is that Quinn embraces her own sense of style for herself – because it’s who she wants to be – and less for the male gaze. That it still serves that gaze is complicated.
There’s also the conversation that Anita Sarkeesian brings up in relation to many movies where women demonstrate equality by displaying a violence that’s typically understood as male. Sarkeesian has said in the past about similar films (such as “Mad Max: Fury Road”) that embracing and performing male violence as women is an act that solidifies patriarchy rather than dissolving it.
I did think about this because of the extent to which Quinn is a character who plays to the male gaze. I write about fight choreography often, and is her violence equalizing, tantalizing, or both? If it’s equalizing, does the notion that it’s tantalizing undermine it? Or am I reading tantalization where there is none, and introducing that aspect through my own bias?
I can say that the film often delivers feminist ideas in a way that’s more forthright than most, but that it also potentially possesses problematic elements. I try to be careful with this section because it should be informational. This section exists because it’s something all critics should be engaging, not in order to tell someone what to think.
I’m a man, so I’m not qualified to assess the extent to which the feminism works or doesn’t work. What I can do in this section is provide information and be transparent about how it interacts with the biases I bring. I can communicate some of the specific questions that I’m unable to answer because – as a man – I’m not the one qualified to do so. Ideally, that communicates important feminist elements about the film without pretending I’m qualified to then judge or assess those elements.
It’s also important to highlight Black Mask’s embodiment of white male privilege and incel-adjacent toxic masculinity. He becomes excited about all the things he has, showing off supposedly colonialist treasures while talking about the exotic places he got them from. If someone isn’t in his employ, he wonders why they aren’t “his”, as if they’re toys. He abuses those around him, he perceives others’ emotions as targeting him when he’s upset, and he becomes upset when things that were never his to start with are “taken” from him.
McGregor delivers a beautiful lampoon of all these things succinctly, and characters like Quinn and Black Canary criticize this through their reactions and monologues.
Another consistent theme is men taking credit for the work of women. Joker always took credit for Quinn’s achievements. Montoya’s police captain was promoted for her work. Black Canary can be used by Black Mask, but he can’t trust her. Everyone assumes a mysterious “Crossbow Killer” is a man when she’s a woman.
This is also a good section to address the film’s diversity in greater depth. Three of our heroes/anti-heroes are non-white. It’s good to see. The surrounding characters are also very diverse – this includes good guys, bad guys, and bystanders.
Some characters who betray in both large ways and the everyday are non-white. You always want to be careful when presenting people of color as traitorous or self-interested. You threaten to portray all people of that race or ethnicity as being that way because there’s so little other representation for people of color in media – and especially superhero films.
I’m not sure to what extent this is or isn’t stopped off by three of our heroes being Latina, Black, and Korean-Filipino – especially because they’re anti-heroes and not exemplary heroes. Stereotypes are generally avoided, and the film as a whole has an interest in portraying a diverse world. In general, I’m pretty happy with how it comes off. It’s not just for the sake of diversity, though that’s important on its own terms. It’s also because a world that looks like ours feels like it has more consequence, regardless of what genres it’s hopping through.
The Batman universe and its rogues’ gallery has always struggled with portraying mental health. It’s the major Achilles heel that tends to limit its aspects of representation. Criminality in Batman’s world is often associated with mental illness, rather than greed or bigotry.
“Birds of Prey” doesn’t fix this, but it does avoid to some extent presenting Harley Quinn as a criminal due to any mental health issues. Her presentation here is more akin to an outlaw hero. Others call her “crazy” and sometimes she points out the equally ridiculous things they’re doing. They call her dumb and she reminds them she has a PhD. I wouldn’t say “Birds of Prey” avoids further harm along these lines, but it avoids leaning on it the way so many other Batman universe stories have.
One thing in particular that gave me joy is that I never knew how much I wanted to see Rosie Perez beat dudes up. She was an outspoken Latina who broke ground for Latinas in film in the early 90s before seeing declining work and criticism for everything that made her identifiably Puerto Rican and Nuyorican – her skin color, her accent, her presentation. Growing up then, she only ever came up when someone needed to make fun of Latinas. I didn’t know about her indie film history, her awards, any of that. Growing up in a very white suburb, my only understanding of her was that she was someone shameful that reflected aspects of my Latino heritage that I felt I should hide.
So it feels really good to see her beat down villains at 55 years old. It doesn’t just feel redemptive, it also feels like – here’s this person who white peers used to reinforce my otherness. And now she’s the closest thing the film has to a hero, fighting a corrupt system and the people who made it that way with brass knuckles.
I don’t often think of Perez or the way she was talked about back then. It applied to countless Latinx people. Yet when one of them rises and I recall how my white peers focused their antagonism on something they compartmentalized as otherness, it feels freeing to see her still fighting back, as an actor and as a character. She never really stopped as an activist for Puerto Rico, yet that doesn’t get the attention that being in a superhero movie can. It pushes acceptance in an additional way, and I can’t help but be thankful there are other Latinx kids today seeing her be accepted for the roles she once would’ve had no chance at playing.
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