January 21, 2016

The Harley Quinn Problem



The thing the Suicide Squad trailer really highlights for me is what I’ll call the Harley Quinn Problem.

Harley Quinn was created for Batman: The Animated Series as basically a throw-away character, simply a single piece in a much larger plan against Batman. Joker’s had a ton of henchmen in the past who dressed as clown-types so I don’t think they ever intended her to be a reoccurring or even a series character. Unlike those other henchman, however, Harley became really popular, really quick. Essentially turning into the Joker’s Robin. Here’s the thing though: the meat of her character, the whole point of her character, the whole reason you really liked her was due to the fact that pretty much everyone can identify with being hopelessly and stupidly in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, someone who is bad for you. So stupidly in love that the whole thing, I won’t use the word relationship, becomes this unhealthy obsession.

That’s Harley.

And the tragedy of her character is that the Joker can never love her back. That’s where our sympathy comes from. The Joker is a remorseless psychopath. He’s incapable of loving her back. Ever. (Besides his obsession is and will always be Batman, which also adds fuel to the fire of loving someone you shouldn’t—Harley “loves” the Joker, Joker “loves” the Batman.) I mean, we’ve all been there, right? Only with Harley and Joker, the bad love is taken to the extreme and written large and big and bold because we’re talking about comic book/animated characters. It’s not just any old relationship that’s bad for you, it’s not just a relationship that’s abusive—it’s a bad, abusive relationship with an utterly insane supervillain. So, we feel sorry for Harley Quinn which is why we like her. You can’t change that without making both characters into something they’re clearly not.

Make sense?

I’ve never gotten the people who hold Harley/Joker as a relationship goal or talk about it wistfully. And that's not to say you can't find something appealing in that sort of power dynamic and translate into something more healthy to use in your own bedroom, but then it's not really Harley/Joker, right? It's something else. I mean, honestly, if you read comics with Harley and you finish them and you wonder when you’re going to find your Joker, in all seriousness, then first you should go back and read your comics again because you’ve missed the point. Harley is in a one-way, codependent relationship with an abusive and manipulative psychopath. If you read it again and you still want your Joker, then you should maybe think about therapy. Seriously, they’re not two lost people fighting against a cruel world or tragic lovers trying to make it work, they’re just abuser and abused.

Unfortunately, Harley was so popular DC decided to make her a main character in comic books. And here’s where things get really messy. In order to make her a main character, you have to give her agency of her own but to do that you have to remove her from the Joker. And if you remove her from the Joker, then you essentially strip the character of her entire raison d'etre and she stops being Harley Quinn. When she stops being Harley Quinn, she loses our sympathy.

The only reason why Harley paired with Poison Ivy works is because it plays on our desire to see Harley escape from that abusive relationship. It teases us with what we want for her. Poison Ivy functions as us. Like us, she gets it. She sees what we see. She sees what Harley can’t. The Joker is BAD FOR YOU, GIRL...you should leave him.

When Harley loses our sympathy, then she’s neither interesting nor appealing. We’re not really left with much other than a crazy lady psychopath who’s not really likeable and she becomes a pale imitation of the Joker without the benefit of decades of backstory molding her into one of the greatest comic villains ever. Harley Quinn does not work on her own and cannot work on her own, despite them trying to tweak her backstory in the New 52 so that the Joker “awakens” her desire to be more herself rather than just pushing her crazy button and triggering her romantic obsession. That’s always felt bullshit and hollow to me anyway. First, extensive mental gymnastics cannot truly make a life of crime and murder liberating and certainly cannot make it sympathetic except to the insane and psychotic. And, secondly, that sort of narrative is itself the kind of rationalization people use in abusive relationships. That’s why Harley's solo adventures have been all over the place and kind of just terrible, one second full of blood and mayhem, then suddenly tweaked to feature chuckles and cute puppies and roller skates and cartoon hammers.

I suspect despite the first Suicide Squad trailer trying it’s best to make it seem fun and look like DC's version of Guardians of The Galaxy and the most recent trailer trying to play up the action/comedy aspects and show us as much of Batman as they can, for everyone who can see past Margot Robbie’s nice legs and her tight panties, we are going to end up with a particularly troublesome portrayal of Harley Quinn with that abusive relationship up front. This IS a film by David Ayer who writes dark, gritty, and depressing stuff. I have a hard time believing that the film that will be on screen will be very much like any of the trailers, even with the expensive reshoots.

Then we have Jared Leto’s portrayal of the Joker. His Joker looks like a Juggalo Pimp. If you can think back to that first footage and images we saw released, it doesn’t seem like a nuanced way to handle a delicate subject like abuse:



That is not the sort of health relationship a strong woman allows herself to remain in. That is an abusive and unhealthy relationship. And who knows what else we're in for if Leto thought it was appropriate to get into character by sending his co-stars used condoms.

And of course, there’s Robbie’s outfit. I get why her outfit changed with New 52. The smart reason is it’s supposed to compliment the Joker. That’s what her original outfit did. It complimented and represented her obsession—my puddin’ likes clowns, so I’m gonna dress like one! So, if the Joker becomes more extreme, then her outfit needs to change. But the much more truthful answer is that they wanted a girl in her panties and fishnets on the front of her solo book. So, I’m not surprised they dressed Robbie in the sexier New 52 outfit and that they've put her right out front in every single trailer. What troubles me and makes me iffy on how this film is going to handle the Harley/Joker relationship are the little additions, like “Property of Joker” on the back of her jacket.

Now, I agree that a woman should not be afraid to dress however she wants to dress. I also agree that a woman can and should chose to dress in a way that she feels is sexy as way to claim her sexuality. However, that is not what we have here. What we have with Harley Quinn is a hyper-sexualized manner of dress chosen from a character standpoint to please her abuser and a hyper-sexualized manner of dress chosen from a marketing standpoint to sell movie tickets. I don't think that's helpful to female empowerment.

Here's the thing though, that's not to say you can't like Harley Quinn. You can and you should like Harley Quinn. But be honest about why you like her. Once you are honest, I think not only will you get more out of her character but you'll learn something about yourself. There's no reason to church up your like or dislike with some forced justification of agency or female power. It's okay to like things just because you like them. I mean, I like Harley. She's a great character. But she is not a strong female character, she is not a role model, and her relationship with Joker is not something to aspire to.
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