One of the many things I wanted to address was being linked back to by an individual’s blog who was rightfully critical of the depictions of the iconic comic book character Harley Quinn. Notably was how this person was skeptical of how such a depiction could possibly be seen as empowering, while citing examples of the abuse and torture this character has suffered at the hands of the writers. These are completely valid criticisms. I am not here to argue with this individual, but rather to clarify what it is I find about Harley Quinn to be empowering.
When it comes down to it, straight male authors seem to have a difficult time depicting abuse in ways that are tactful or respectful, especially when it comes to female characters. There’s an element of taste that comes into question whenever a female character is raped on screen, violated, and humiliated by male characters. There’s a sexual air that creeps into their depictions that is both unsettling and uncomfortable. Some of the more recent depictions of Harley Quinn are unfortunately in this line of tasteless misogyny.
Recently DC Comics had a contest where they asked for depictions of Harley Quinn looking to kill herself while in various states of undress. The erotic nature they were looking to display her mental illness as well as the topic of suicide was offensive to both suicidal people and women everywhere. As a long time fan of the character, I was equally horrified.
Now, as a cis man, I’m not qualified to call anything particularly feminist. I can’t say what is and is not empowering to women. That is not my call to judge.
As an abuse victim though? Harley Quinn empowers me. Just a little over two years ago, I was not only raped by a man I was dating, but also locked into a similarly verbally abusive headgame that I’ve seen Harley thrown into over the years. More modern “edgy” depictions of her relationship with the Joker have sensationalized the physically violent aspects of the abuse, but I recall the early days, before she left the animated series and into the comics.
Many like to remember Harley and the Joker’s relationship fondly, seeing it as a lovestruck cartoon couple that did wacky things but I recall the relationship being a horror show even then. For the sake of the family-intended nature of the show, the abuse had to be limited to verbal exchanges, manipulations, power play. I’m not even certain if the creators intended to create the disturbing parallels to unhealthy manipulative relationships that they did, but even still, it was enough to set the standards for what was to become a canonically toxic relationship.
Repeatedly over the years, Joker has played head-games with Harley just as much as he plays with his victims. He bears no love for her as some would suggest. He only loves himself. Harley is another toy for him to play with, something to kick around whenever he is bored. He can’t stand to watch her succeed. He hates it when she strikes out on her own and does well. Even in the animated series he is never happy unless she is completely dependent upon him, but is always quick to sell her out.
The fact that Harley has survived all this. That she still goes out and smiles, and kicks ass, schemes and does whatever she likes despite having been beaten mentally and physically into the ground? That’s empowering. I don’t like seeing her abused. I want her to leave the Joker. I want her to create her own crime gang. I want her to bring Gotham to its knees.
Why? Because that’s what I want for myself. I see so much of myself in Harley Quinn. I see the person with big dreams in their eyes brought under the foot of a megalomaniac sadist. I see the struggle to escape those chains over and over and over again. Every time she smiles though, every time she wins. It’s a victory for me.
For some of us, a character doesn’t become empowering to us just because they are always on top. For some of us, we don’t get to live up there, at the top of our game, never making mistakes, never down-trodden. We’re still just trying to climb out of our own hell’s. Personally speaking, I am glad there are characters like this. Characters I can relate to who are right there in the dark places with me.
Again, I cannot speak for whether or not Harley Quinn is feminist or not, or properly be critical of her depictions over the years. I can only speak from where I’m at right now, and what she means to me.