The other day I read an article lamenting the over-sexualization of Harley Quinn, first in the comics, and now in the Suicide Squad movie. Just to be clear, I haven't seen Suicide Squad, and I have no intention of seeing the Suicide Squad movie because all that I've read and seen about it has put me off. So this isn't a criticism of it specifically (because I have no right to criticize something I haven't seen), but rather a criticism of Harley Quinn's character trends since the '90s. While I agree that Harley has been over-sexualized, particularly in recent years, I disagreed with the argument that Harley was intended to be a victim of domestic abuse, and a terrible warning. It's that sort of language that I take issue with, and hopefully Harley fans do as well.
Harley Quinn Is No Victim
She frequently makes terrible, terrible decisions, but she's an incredibly strong character. She has literally no one on her side — not even her best friend Poison Ivy — to defend her relationship with the Joker. It's just her against the world, the world that condemns her and brutalizes her as much as the Joker does. However, Harley Quinn never stops smiling.
As a character, her layers of complexity are as rich as any in the DC Universe. She's a mess of contradictions — a strong-willed woman who dreams of becoming a submissive housewife to a murdering psychopath who, apparently contrary to the portrayal in the film, doesn't actually appreciate her most of the time. She's happy to kill people for her love, but also totally sweet and loyal to the people she does love. She's badass and sarcastic, but also weak and vulnerable, particularly around her trump card, the Joker. She's objectively a bad person, unworthy of sympathy, and yet we do sympathize with her because she's so darn cute. She lives a life of darkness and violence, and yet she's always happy about it.
The more recent comics have tried to make her more antihero than villain. They've tried to have her break away from the Joker and become a strong, independent female character like every other female character in comics at the moment (because all female characters must be role models, because bad women cannot exist in fiction, judging by the reception to things like Gone Girl). Harley Quinn doesn't feel like herself at all in the new comics. This is because the character was never meant to be a role model. She's adorable, sure, but that doesn't mean you want to emulate her, in the same way you can like Batman but don't want to actually dress up in a bat costume and fight crime. She's just a character, extremely flawed and incredibly interesting because of those flaws. And if we relate to her, we relate to those flawed parts of her.
Harley Quinn Is Only Human
Harley Quinn is neither a role model nor a terrible warning; She's just human.
Even villains should be human, I've always thought. They can be evil to the core, but we should understand how they get that way, often through human flaws and frailties, and poor responses to bad situations. If the Joker is a larger-than-life character (which he is, but still has ticks and quirks that make him human), Harley is the one who keeps him grounded. That's why their relationship works so darn well, even though it's objectively terrible. We can enjoy a lot of things that are objectively terrible for you without having to emulate them — we can enjoy the thrill of being scared in a horror film, we can enjoy the rampant violence of an action movie, we can even enjoy a burger at a fast food restaurant while knowing that it's unhealthy. So why can't we enjoy a fictional, violent relationship between two comic book characters without people screaming domestic abuse?
It's because Harley's so sweet and lovable that we find watching her abuse difficult (the end of "Mad Love" is so hard to watch, even for a fan). But if you just take "Mad Love" as the be-all and end-all of the relationship, then you really don't understand it. Harley abuses Joker too. Contrary to popular belief, she's not just his doormat who takes everything he throws at her and comes crawling back. Over the animated series, their dynamic changes: There are times when Joker is scared of upsetting Harley (In "Trial," he's desperate for her not to know he ratted her out and seems afraid of her wrath; in "Joker's Millions," when Joker hires a new Harley, Harley is furious, and beats him hard at the end with Joker quivering in fear of her fury).
Abuse is a two-way street for them, and while it's harder to watch Harley being hurt than Joker (because he usually deserves it, while Harley doesn't) they do have a mutual love of pain and violence that makes you suspect that the abuse more often than not ends happily for them. It's a weird idea, and not one that works in real relationships, but that's because these people aren't real. They should seem that way as people, but the world they inhabit is pure fiction. And if you have a character like the Joker who gets off on violence and abuse, why can't you have a female character who also does? Sadomasochistic relationships are fairly common, and while this is an over-the-top version of that, it's not so unbelievable.
If you look closely at "Mad Love," for instance, Harley's fantasy as a suburban housewife has her kids breaking toys and setting things on fire and chasing each other around with weapons, while Joker reads a newspaper about a sanitation explosion killing thousands (that is implied he caused). Batman's severed head hangs over the mantelpiece, along with some hanging dead bunnies. Her second fantasy involves Joker giving doctors exploding cigars at his children's birth, while her other children look on and cry, "Cool!" These are Harley's FANTASIES, her dream of a perfect future. It's not without violence and mayhem — that's central to her dream, and to her relationship.
"Harley deserves better!" the internet cries, echoing Poison Ivy's sentiments. Perhaps she objectively does, but Harley as a character doesn't want that. It's objectively crazy to dream of a happy/violent future with a homicidal maniac, but so is Harley.
"Mad Love" illustrates her descent into madness and obsessive love, with the Joker as her patient lying to her about his tragic backstory to gain her sympathy. This is also a problem for people who haven't read anything else but "Mad Love," since at the end Joker is revealed to be a liar and Harley still stays with him. Some would question why, but as you read more about Harley you suspect that her sympathy for Joker's fictional backstory is just one of the reasons she fell for him.
In the comic "Mad Love," Batman declares that "Even before she met the Joker, Harley Quinn was no angel." In sepia flashback, in his own words, he says she seduced her teachers to get good grades — basically that she's not smart enough to be a real doctor, and used her sexuality to get ahead instead.
This version of Harley's backstory is contradicted by a later instance in the comic where the Joker is psychoanalyzing Harley and says, "As a dedicated, career-oriented young woman, you felt the need to abstain from all amusement and fun. It's only natural you'd be attracted to a man who can make you laugh again." To which Harley replies, "I knew you'd understand!"
Now we have two different backstories set up in the same comic, and depending on which narrator you want to believe depends on how you see Harley. It also depends on how Harley's behavior fits in with those interpretations. For instance, if Harley was used to seducing men to manipulate them, wouldn't she be aware when the Joker tried the same trick on her? You also get the feeling that Batman NEEDS to see his enemies as bad people. If he thought Harley was actually a smart woman who got her doctorate fair and square, that would mean there had to be some understandable reason for her attraction to the Joker, as well as following his lifestyle. Batman can't understand that, and so he dismisses it. And how would Batman have proof that Harley slept with her teachers anyway? She's not about to brag about it, and it's not like the teachers would either, or they'd be fired. It's speculation on Batman's part, without any proof.
Harley And The Joker
The same could be said for Joker's analysis of Harley; he's seeing what he wants to see — himself as the savior of this poor, workaholic woman who's never had any fun before. But couldn't this also be WHY Harley finds herself so devoted to the Joker? Not just because she pities him, but because he (in her mind) freed her from her restrictive life of repression. He made her happy, and Harley is not going back to her previously unhappy life without him. She'll put up with whatever she has to to stay happy, to avoid that weary, workaholic routine again. If she truly is a good psychiatrist — which the comics has shown she is — she knows how damaging repression can be, both objectively and firsthand. So, she doesn't repress anything anymore. She's freed, and she's eternally grateful to the Joker for freeing her. So of course he's the target of her obsessive madness.
All this talk of freedom works in very nicely with the second part of this, the sexualization of Harley Quinn. As discussed above, if you choose to go with the seduction of her teachers backstory, she's always used her sexuality to get her way. But what if you go for the other one (as I and many others do)? After all, in the animated series, the only times Harley tries to be sexy are privately, for the Joker, using comedy, and failing miserably. Her infamous "Rev up your Harley" joke is more funny than titillating, and her "Happy Anniversary, Mr. J." song while coming out of a pie in "Beware the Creeper" is another private joke between the two. True, we as the audience get to witness this, but that doesn't mean Harley displays her sexuality for anyone else but the Joker. And again, when she does, it's always met with rejection. In the same episode, Harley elicits an unwanted admirer in the form of the Creeper, and repeatedly tries to run away from him back to Joker. She doesn't have any interest in other men.
A series of pictures drawn by Harley co-creator Bruce Timm show Harley and Joker explicitly having sex, but again, these are drawn for laughs rather than titillation. Harley is seen riding reverse cowgirl, and popping open a can of snakes by her crotch as both she and Joker reach orgasm, and in another, Joker is using a whoopie cushion as a sex toy on her. (Google it if you want, but don't say I didn't warn you.) These are not pictures to masturbate to; they're sick and wrong, but hilarious. Sex between them is a joke, and that's the only way Harley uses her sexuality. Her attempts to seduce Joker are based on a puns ("Doncha wanna rev up your Harley?" and "Wanna try some of my pie?") because she knows jokes about sex are probably the only things that lead to actual sex with Joker. This is the only way she's ever used her sexuality, and it comes across as much more goofy than sexy.
The only other times she tries to be sexy are in "Harlequinade" when she distracts a bunch of gangsters with a song and dance routine (about domestic abuse, and in order to give Robin time to arrive to rescue them, so again, not sexy for sexy's sake) and in "Harley's Holiday," where she kisses both a rival gangster, and Batman. "Harley's Holiday," to me, always feel like a bit of an off episode, even though it's written by the legendary Paul Dini, who created Harley Quinn and writes her better than anyone alive. But it does still make sense with Harley's character - she kisses the gangster to get him not to kill her, and Batman because she's grateful to him for retrieving her dress that she wanted. I guess kissing someone so they don't kill you is the PG version of using your sexuality to your advantage, but there's still a purpose to it. Earlier in the episode, Harley is out shopping with her hyenas wearing very short shorts and a crop top. As people run screaming away from the hyenas, Harley is perplexed, and looks at her reflection in the store window going, "I knew I shouldn't have worn this outfit - it's so outta style, it's growing mold." Again, she's not using her sexuality for anything - it's a punchline to a joke.
It's also the fact that these scenes are so rare with animated Harley that they can get away with it. She's not flashing her butt every time she's on camera, like in Suicide Squad, or wearing nothing as a standard costume, like in Suicide Squad. People lay the blame on over-sexualized Harley on the Arkham Asylum game, but even then, her outfit was a one-off nurse's costume, which you suspect is not her usual getup. She's very flirty with Batman in this, but then so is Joker, so that seems fair. I love Arkham Asylum beyond reason, but it is notable that Harley's bio in it describes her as a dangerous "victim" of the Joker, as opposed to a bio of her from the 90s which equates her as equal to him in love of chaos. Harley has gone from partner in crime to victim since her inception, and surely that's a step backward. Although again, to defend Arkham Asylum, you suspect that these bios are written by Batman who, as mentioned previously, has to see her a victim. The following Arkham games change her costumes to something more modest, but even then there are flashes of fan-service (In "Arkham Knight," you as Batman carry her over your shoulder, which gives you full view of her butt in leggings). I have no objection to these kinds of fan-service for an attractive character (I may or may not have a folder on my computer labeled "Shirtless Joker Pictures"), as long as they are fairly rare, and not the core focus of the character. Less is more, in this case. My sense is that's not the case in Suicide Squad.
It's the same with the Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy relationship - less is more. To me, their relationship always has been and always will be completely innocent. Harley's defining character trait is her obsessive love for the Joker - she's unlikely to be cheating on him with her best friend. And when questioned about it, by Batgirl in "Batgirl Adventures 1," Harley looks really confused, finally finishing with, "You mean what people think about you and Supergirl?" That's classic Harley - sweetly innocent, but with a mean comeback. The Harley and Ivy comic collection has plenty of "for the fanboys" style scenes of them showering together in Arkham, fighting off women in prison in their underwear, and other titillating situations for fans to fantasize about, but to confirm these as anything more than that ruins that relationship for me. And again, doesn't make a huge amount of sense. Ivy might be up for it, but Harley has eyes for no one else, man or woman, but the Joker.
So it's sad to see her paired with Deadshot or whoever the hell else in the comics. It's sad to see her in Suicide Squad licking the bars of her cell suggestively, and not wearing pants. Because the sweet and innocent Harley wouldn't do that, unless there was some joke to it. Fans love that aspect of her, the fact that she can be crazy and violent, but sweet and innocent at the same time. They also love her loyalty to the Joker. At least, I do. I find their relationship completely twisted, and therefore perfect for these completely twisted people. No, it's not a relationship goal for anyone real, but surely that doesn't need to be said. Surely we are at the point where we can have stories and characters who are not role models or terrible warnings, who are not completely good guys or bad guys, but who just are people. Over-the-top, clown-costumed, but ultimately human people. Just as all good versions of Batman are, or Superman are, or any other superhero in any other franchise. And what makes people human are their choices.
The other hugely objectionable Suicide Squad aspect is the back-story, where Harley is pushed into a vat of acid by Joker. This is completely disastrous to her character, because it takes away any agency she has in becoming Harley Quinn, and any choice she has about staying with Joker. Her actions and choices are not her own anymore, because she's physically been changed, like Joker, by Joker. Even in the film, where Harley chooses to jump (apparently), there's still something permanently altered about her personality from that point that she has no control over. It's much, much more interesting to have Harley choose to change herself into Harley, and choose to stay with Joker for whatever reason. It's much more fun to read and write her like that, as someone who has this one huge weakness, this one major character flaw, this one trump card, why she has it, and how their relationship works. It's a never-ending source of fascination for myself as a writer, and judging from my readers' response, for them as well. It makes her a bizarrely strong character, although she's massively dependent on Joker. And it's that contradiction that makes her so interesting. When you ruin that, when you change her into something she's not, you lose the heart of Harley. Because the heart of Harley is her mad love for the Joker. That's why she became Harley Quinn. Surely if she wanted to distance herself from that completely, she would reinvent herself as someone else, the same way you don't keep pictures of your ex around when you're trying to get over a break-up. But because the character of Harley Quinn is so popular, you can't change the name without losing the bankability of her character. And her character is bankable because of the Joker. Because without him, she wouldn't exist. And a good writer should be able to give her stories without ruining that aspect of her, which to me, is the core of her. Someone who madly loves the Joker, for whatever reason. Someone who defines her whole life in relation to his.
I can't help but feel this is a gender issue. After all, nobody objects to the dependency of Robin on Batman, for example, even though that's a relationship where a man, a child, no less, has completely changed their identity for a man. I think we live in an age where the gender or orientation or race of a character has become more important than the character themselves. People should be allowed to write female characters as widely varied as male ones. We should have strong, independent ones, weak, submissive ones, smart ones, stupid ones, bad ones, good ones, and all the ones in between. I don't like that Harley has fallen victim to this kind of rewriting, that now she can't be who she originally was because she has to subscribe to a certain type of female character, the role model. Harley's not the type who respects restrictions, or should conform. She's a wild card, just like Joker, and she should be able to be written as varied as he is. Better yet, she should be able to have all her contradictions in tact. Because you change those contradictions, and you change the character. The same way Batman wouldn't be Batman without his parents' murder, Harley wouldn't be Harley without the Joker. And if Batman can have a dysfunctional relationship without everyone objecting, why can't Harley?
See, the world of Batman villains is so very interesting. Batman's rogues gallery in particular is made up of very, very smart people. Poison Ivy is a doctor, Scarecrow is a doctor, Mr. Freeze is a doctor, Two-Face was the former district attorney, Riddler's a genius (so he claims), Joker's an insane genius...and Harley is a doctor too. And all of these very smart people, very strong people, have their central flaws. Ivy was hurt by humans, so she's devoted herself to plants. Scarecrow was bullied mercilessly, so he's devoted himself to fear-based revenge. Freeze is obsessed with curing his wife. Two-Face is obsessed with chance. Riddler is obsessed with riddles. Joker is obsessed with Batman. And Harley is obsessed with Joker. There's no need to change her, because she fits perfectly into that world, that comic book world, that fantasy world where everything is over the top and larger than life, but where we still recognize the human aspects of these monsters. Comic books, in my view, are a continuation of the heroic tradition of storytelling from Ancient Greece. You have a mighty hero with a fatal flaw (Achilles' heel, Heracles' anger, Odysseus' pride, etc.) That flaw creates conflicts, which creates stories. It's the same with comic book characters. People shouldn't be looking to erase these flaws, or change them to be more socially acceptable - they should be embracing them. Because that's how you get good stories.
I don't like the trend toward realism in comic books and films at the moment. Realism is all very well for characterization - you should understand why these people do the things they do. It should make sense to an audience. But to try and squeeze an epic tale of a man who dresses up as a bat into reality loses so much of what makes it entertaining. It's particularly important in fantasy works that the people in it are human, because otherwise we have nothing to relate to about these hobbits or aliens or whatever. The same should be true for comic books, in my view. Recognize that it's fantasy, but make the characters feel human. That's what BTAS did so well, but that's what DC is not doing well currently. And reducing Harley to sexpot eye candy is not making her human - it's making her more of an alien to those who have spent almost twenty years loving her.
I'm sure Suicide Squad will make a lot of money. I'm sure there will be plenty of men out there who will love this Harley, and maybe some women too. And I'm sure Margot Robbie did the best with what she was given character-wise - she seems like a nice person, and a decent actress, and none of this is her fault. It's just hugely disappointing to see a beloved character's big-screen debut as something so out of character. It would be like if the first film to ever feature the Joker had Leto's Joker in it. That's not the Joker we know and love, and it's not the Harley they should have started with. But hopefully the original Harley still has enough of a fanbase that they'll bring her to the big screen one day. For now, I'll stick to the small screen, the TV shows and video games and comic books that portray, in mine and many others' opinion, the real Harley Quinn. And now back to Arkham Asylum...