The Plath Poetics of Harley Quinn

by Kendra Cooper

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn and Sylvia Plath

“I desire the things that will destroy me in the end.” -Sylvia Plath

I could see Harley Quinn with Sylvia Plath’s poetry tattooed on her skin. She would have every word of Mad Girl’s Love Song carved down her back. They float in the same realm of incredible genius, intense love, and instability. Harley Quinn is immortalized in a fictional reality, and Sylvia Plath lived a reality that influenced her fiction.

They both have a massive following of fans, and if you ask any Plath or Quinn fan why they love them, most of the time you’ll hear the word “relatable.” They represent imperfection, lost identity, and feeling incomplete with raw honesty. They may not be the typical feminist icons, but they give us something real.

I see Quinn in Plath’s “Dirge for a Joker.” Wrapped up in the Joker’s world and abuse as she struggles with her own sense of identity, she weaves in and out of obsessions and wanting what she can’t have as if she’s “flying back and forth from one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of (her) days.

Quinn also has had moments of clarity in the new 52 origins as her former self, Harleen Quinzel, as if she “took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of her heart, I am, I am, I am. In that moment, she has a brief sense of control much like Ester (in Plath’s Bell Jar) did while finding a sense of stability at Joan’s funeral.

Sylvia doesn’t shy away from violence in her poetry, handling even the most disturbing beautifully. Harley is graceful in her comic brutality. They both blur the lines of strength and weakness, giving us the much needed anti-hero. They resist tokenism. In both poetry and story, they ask us to question if there is a “right way” to live.

All too often, though, their representations and reputations are problematic, like most depictions of mental illness in most mass media and popular culture. Quinn is oversimplified as being the sexy “crazy girl” (as in this YouTube compilation and this BroBible article). Similarly troubling, Plath’s struggle with depression has been romanticized since the day she died. In a world that tries to render the narrative of mental illness one-dimensional, the complexities of these multi-dimensional women are too often ignored or — worse — commodified.

Despite how sexist the new Suicide Squad might be (according to critics), the history of Harley Quinn, former psychiatrist, is more about what’s in her head than what’s on her body. We can see her asking the same question Plath did: “Is there no way out of the mind?” While Quinn certainly looks good in her most recent form (we see you, Margot Robbie!), it’s the relatability of her mind—just like Sylvia’s — that we admire.

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