Harley Quinn has become a household name thanks to the new Suicide Squad film. Her rise to popularity has been growing for a while through her ‘rebirth’ in the Arkham console games to her standalone comic book series. It may surprise some to know that Harley, real name Harleen Quinzel, originated in Batman: The animated series and has only been part of the DC universe since 1992. Her character has been dissected, analysed and discussed at great length but I want to focus on two specific aspects of her: her sexual appeal and her relationship with the Joker.
The picture shown above perfectly sums up a common cry of some Harley Quinn fans; it is only now that she is sexualised in the films/games that people know who she is. However, I think this conclusion is unfair both to new, and old fans, of Harley.
Sexuality can be used as a weapon and is Harley’s weapon of choice. Her ditzy attitude, acrobatics, tight or skimpy clothes and flirtatious nature are all used to push her enemies into lowering their defences around her. The oldest trick in the book (and one every female knows) is to flutter her eyelashes, make her voice sound childish/feminine and act a bit dumb. A father figure will want to protect her and other men may under estimate her allowing her to get her way. This isn’t done to attract male (or female) attention. Harley owns this in a way no other superhero or villain out there does; this is part of her armour and her arsenal.
The second, and more controversial, part of Harley is her relationship with the Joker. It can only be described as abusive, both mentally and physically, with Harley being manipulated again and again by the Joker for his own ends. She gave up who she was previously (a psychiatrist in Arkham Asylum) and walked away from her normal life to become exactly what Joker wanted her to be. This is a highly intelligent character who repeatedly returns to her abuser, an issue many people criticise her writers for.
Harley’s love of her ‘puddin’ is one-sided, obsessive and violent. However, it shows that people are different depending on who they surround themselves with. In her standalone comics, Harley is more of an anti-hero, helping people and channelling her violent nature through roller derby. It is only when she is with the Joker that she maims, tortures and kills in an attempt to impress him and win his love. Many accuse the writers of making Harley another weak woman in this relationship but it is showing a flawed character, who made bad choices and is trying to justify them so she remains. Her displays of vulnerability are a break from the norm in terms of female villains and move the reader/watcher to feel sympathy for her. It also evolves her character past a simple ‘bad guy’.
In the New 52 standalone Harley comics she has moved cities, put Joker behind her and is trying to define herself without him. There is even a couple of comics where she faces the abuse she endured from the Joker and finds some closure. This is an inspirational character that has continued to be strong despite recovering from an abusive relationship. To downplay the abuse she faced or to ignore it is to diminish the complexity and strength of her character.
Harley Quinn is an imperfect woman with more complex flaws than most comic book characters. She embraces her sexuality, her flaws and her past to continue to be strong, vulnerable, intelligent and, most important of all, crazy.
If you want a more all-encompassing analysis on Harley I would recommend: