Harley Quinn Shouldn’t Be Defined As A Domestic Abuse Victim
By Cameron Glover
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an unabashed comics fangirl. I’ve bought and devoured original comic book material, created cosplay around some of my favorite characters, attended conventions where I could meet and interact with other fans, and otherwise steeped myself in the magical world of comics make-believe.
In the ’90s, animated adaptations of popular comics served as my entry point into this fandom, entrancing me with their stories of heroes and villains in fantastical worlds. In particular, I was drawn to Batman: The Animated Series. I loved the titular hero’s endless arsenal of gadgets, his double life, and of course, the Rogue’s Gallery of classic villains who are still central to comics culture today.
But what really drew me to Batman was the way that darkness played a key role in the story. This bleakness not only helped me deal with the rejection and violence that existed in my own life, but also provided cathartic escapism by revealing a world in which — in just 30 minutes — justice and righteousness could triumph.
But my ardor for Batman really intensified when I first met Harley Quinn.
Unlike the rest of the popular characters within the Batman series, Harley was created specifically for the television show, and wasn’t present in the original comics (she wouldn’t appear in the books until 1993, in The Batman Adventures #12). Her first appearance was in the episode “Joker’s Favor,” in which she causes mayhem across Gotham in order to show her love and devotion to the Joker. I can still remember watching her for the first time, immediately wanting to know more about who this strong, villainous woman was.
Initially, the creators made it difficult to see beyond Harley’s character-defining relationship with a certain mayhem-loving villain. In this Complex article chronicling the origins and oral history of her character, co-creator Paul Dini says:
“When I was coming up with an idea for the Joker’s gang of hench people, I thought, I’d like to put a female character in there. I was going back and forth in my head about what kind of character she should be. ‘What if she’s funny? What if there is a little bit of a throwback to the henchmen from Batman in the ‘60s? What if she gets laughs from the henchmen sometimes when the Joker doesn’t?’ He would get angry at her. She could be a little sprite around him. I’d never seen the Joker really in that dynamic.”
This depiction established Harley early on as a character of somewhat limited depth or agency — a secondary “henchman” to the real star of the show, designed to provide levity in a darkly patriarchal and toxically masculine world.
This narrative was further cemented in the 1994 spin-off comic, Batman Adventures: Mad Love, which revealed Harley’s full backstory: Once known as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, she worked as a psychiatrist who wanted to study the Joker; during their sessions together, he manipulated her to fall in love with him, leading her to abandon her life as a psychiatrist and become his partner in chaotic crime.
If this portrayal of Harley — as lover and foil to a powerful villain — is the one you know, that’s understandable; to this day, it’s how many see the character. Promotional materials surrounding Harley in Suicide Squad have alternatively described her as the Joker’s “sidekick,” “love,” and “girlfriend,” and even a recent LA Times article ostensibly devoted to exploring her character in more depth described her as “[more than] the average henchman” and a “great device to lighten things up.”
More complex still is the fact that the relationship Harley has become defined by is indisputably a problematic one, with episodes of physical and emotional abuse. At times, this has raised valid questions about her character; in the lead-up to the release of Suicide Squad, an MTV News article quoted Dr. Wind Goodfriend, principal researcher for the Institute for the Prevention of Relationship Violence at Buena Vista University, who said:
“If she’s going to be portrayed as a victim of abuse who continues to embrace that abuse and continues to go back to that abusive perpetrator, I think that viewers who are currently or former victims themselves could be re-traumatized by that because they are going to personally respond to the abuse that they see on the screen.”
But while concerns like these are very valid, there can also be a tendency to forget that there’s more to Harley than her status as a victim of domestic violence. Reducing her to a “symbol of domestic abuse,” as she’s been called, is indicative of how victims are often treated . . . as a tragic trope rather than a complex, autonomous individual.
These conceptualizations are all the more frustrating when you consider how nuanced the character of Harley actually is, especially in more recent depictions. From that first moment I saw her on TV to now, Harley has evolved into one of the most interesting and important comic-book characters this fangirl has ever come to love; a woman who, like all abuse victims, is so much more than that one descriptor.
After Harley’s success on the small screen, she began appearing in her own comic books — and in more recent years, depictions of her character have changed in dramatic ways. In newer comics, she’s become more independent from the Joker, establishing relationships with other villains and eventually forming the Gang of Harleys, a crew she recruited to help clean up Brooklyn. She also took on new hobbies, like roller derby, and became a therapist again, serving a role somewhere between villain and hero.
She has also been depicted as one of the few openly polyamorous and queer women in the DC universe, engaging in a relationship with the Joker that was re-cast as lesbian, and flirting with fellow Gotham princess Poison Ivy, culminating in a kiss earlier this year. (AfterEllen has an excellent piece exploring more of Harley’s “crypto-queer history.”)
In light of this more nuanced characterization, it was in some ways disheartening to watch the depiction of Harley in Suicide Squad. The film relied heavily on romanticizing her relationship with the Joker, even going so far as trying to make him sympathetic (there are moments when the film pushes an agenda of making you think “he just really cares about her”), while simultaneously erasing most of her backstory pre-Joker.
But there are also flashes of the qualities that made fans like me fall for her in the first place — like her loyalty to her friends, the complex moral code that dictates her penchant for chaos, and her fully owned sexuality. Moreover, in some ways the film helped to challenge damaging stereotypes about victims; as Mic put it, “Quinn is not weak, malleable or oblivious, per most stereotypes of domestic abuse victims — she’s the opposite. She’s goofy, playful, athletic, confident in her sex appeal and highly skilled in all kinds of combat.”
The Suicide Squad depiction of Harley was by no means perfect, but it reinvigorated the need to familiarize ourselves with this powerful character. She can’t be solely defined by her relationship with the Joker. Nor can she be defined solely as a domestic violence victim — no one can, or should.
At her core, Harley Quinn continues to grow and adapt into a woman who cannot be easily defined, be it through her past life as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, her new relationship with Poison Ivy, or anything else — and that’s okay, perhaps even far more than okay. She works on her own terms, straddling the line between villain and anti-hero, all the while maintaining the freedom of self-expression. In this way, she encourages others to do the same — either on the fictional pages of a comic book with her, or in the real world.
We owe it to ourselves and the Harley Quinns of the world to push past the limitations of her character. We owe it to ourselves to challenge our collective expectations of women who have experienced violence or hardship or marginalization.
Most importantly, we owe it to ourselves to crave to be defined by something more.
Lead image: deviantart/nightangel5431