The Clown Prince of Crime’s greatest joke of all.
When you think about strong female characters in comics, you tend to think about the big names, like Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel (now Captain Marvel), Storm, Rogue and Jean Grey. You might even consider Batgirl/Oracle and Supergirl. So, with all these powerful, independent, heroic women, how did Harley Quinn become the most prominent feminist powerhouse in comics? Surely, it’s a gag.
As most people know, Harley was created specifically for Batman: The Animated Series, although many similarly named characters had existed in the comics before. But none had been the lovesick girlfriend of the Joker.
Although originally intended to appear in just a single episode, the fan reaction to Harley was so strong she was brought back time and time again, and quickly became a mainstay of Batman lore. Only a year after her first appearance, she was inducted into the comics in Batman Adventures #12.
But as a character frequently abused and/or neglected by Mistah J, you’d think Harley Quinn would have been a target of women’s rights advocates. Yet somehow, Harley survived long enough as Joker’s punching bag to have some sense knocked into her, and goes her own way.
She became one of the four main characters in the spin-off show, Gotham Girls, and teamed up with Poison Ivy and Catwoman for criminal capers and the occasional heroic act, leaving Joker far behind – for a time, at least. Soon enough, she was a poster girl for women dealing with, and trying to move on from, abusive relationships.
In the comics world, Harley has become more of an anti-hero, starting with her stint in the Suicide Squad, and leading to her team-up with an amnesiac Power Girl (I wonder if we’ll ever see that in the DCCU?). With her zany antics and fourth-wall breaking exploits – much like Deadpool – she found a place in the hearts of many a comics fan, and is now making her way to the silver screen.
But not everyone is happy about the upcoming portrayal.
And there it is: the staunch defence of a figure of femininity and girl-power, and the backlash against turning her into a piece of meat. Except, here comes the punchline: that’s exactly what she is. None of the ‘complexities’ of Harleen’s character are all that deep. So, like Joker did Quinzel, let’s break them down one by one.
Sympathy for Motherhood
Yes, Harley threw a fight against a pregnant Black Canary and later visited her. But this had nothing to do with morality or kindness. It was revealed in those same panels that Harley had left Joker – who hadn’t even noticed her absence – to give birth to a child in secret. Her actions here merely reflect her newly developed maternal instincts, not a wider respect for human life.
After all, this is the woman who dated a psychopath responsible for blowing up a school full of children, kidnapping all the newborns in Gotham before shooting new mother Sarah Essen, and beating young Jason Todd with a crowbar. In the DC animated universe, she also kidnapped Tim Drake to turn him into Joker’s mini-me.
Even ignoring all that, are we really trying to say that having the smallest grain of common decency it requires not to kick a pregnant woman in the gut is somehow a sign of her ‘complex character’. Or is it the gifts that makes this a worthwhile example?
Great at Jailbreaks
I don’t know where this ‘fact’ comes from, but with the revolving door that is Arkham Asylum, I’m not sure how it could possibly be true. Joker breaks in and out as he likes, Zsasz has been said to have secret tunnels out – and presumably in – to his cell, and James Gordon Jr. broke in to free Joker once, if I’m not mistaken. The only reason this list isn’t longer is because most villains have no need to break in. They’re only concerned with getting out.
I’m guessing it’s the “handful of objects” part that makes this somehow impressive, but again, what are we really celebrating here? Do you really expect me to think of a character as complex because she is able to break into prisons? Even if she really is the only person capable of this in the entire DC Multiverse, I don’t think that makes her any less of a ‘shooting sex toy’. In fact, the Suicide Squad comics and the animated movie, Assault on Arkham, meld the two pretty seamlessly.
Escaped an Abusive Relationship
“She’s a woman who knows she’s been abused and is working past it.”
Sure, by killing people. Even if a fictional character working through her issues was in any way inspirational, doing so by throwing cartoon-style bombs and wielding a gigantic mallet isn’t exactly ‘working past’ anything. She’s as messed up now as she ever was, which is great for the character, but bad for a role model of female strength and independence.
It’s worse when you realize that moving on meant becoming a lesbian and a vegan, just to keep her new beau Poison Ivy happy. She clearly has a thing for pale complexions. Watching the ‘Holiday Knights’ episode of The New Batman Adventures, or reading the comic it was adapted from, you can hardly say she’s moved on. While she wants fun and Christmas trees and good food, Ivy keeps the comedy queen under her green thumb, even shutting her up with a pillow.
Harley still ends up going back to Joker from time to time, and probably always will. As much as people love the character, her dynamic with the Clown Prince is one of the most interesting things about her. Without him, she’s just a psycho in a clown-suit. Which is the first thing that would go if she was really getting any better.
So how exactly is Harley working on her issues?
Earned a Doctorate
Calling out Dr. Fate on his name isn’t brave or clever. Batman isn’t really part bat, Shazam was never a Captain, and Joker isn’t really a Prince of Crime or a pudding. In a world full of code names starting with official titles, this is just a dumb comment to make. And it gets worse.
First of all, Kent Nelson, one of the aliases of Dr. Fate, is in fact a doctor. Twiceover. He became a physician in More Fun Comics #85 in 1942, and became an archaeologist in 1944 (reiterated in 1982). With all the reboots to the DC franchise and the many versions of Earth, it’s impossible to keep track, but there’s a good chance that Doctor Kent Nelson imparted his knowledge to Nabu in whichever reality she called him out in.
There’s also the possibility she was speaking to Khalid Nassour, an Egyptian-American Med student, currently trying to earn his doctorate.
As well as being in the wrong, Harley is being a huge hypocrite for several reasons. Firstly, as a doctor who fell in love with her patient, Harley would have lost her license a long time ago. Secondly, it is shown that Harleen only interviewed the Joker so she could write an award-winning tell-all book about the infamous patient. Being a good doctor never had anything to do with it. Last, but certainly not least, Harleen Francis Quinzel never ‘earned’ her doctorate. She slept her way to the top.
That’s right. As heavily implied by the comic Mad Love, written by character creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Harleen seduced her professor at university in order to get the grades she wanted.
Last but not least, Harley is talking to a Lord of Order. This is a being who knows the arcane arts, who has existed in some form or other for aeons, and has battled with the greatest supernatural threats the world has ever seen. Harley is a sidekick to a psycho clown.
In what world does all that knowledge and experience pale in comparison to a Doctorate in criminal psychology? How has this been overlooked for so long as this image flittered around the internet? Dr. Fate has 1000 times more validity to his claim of being a doctor than Harley ever will.
Shooting Sex Toy
Maybe in her most recent comics series, Harley is beginning to turn over a new leaf. Maybe. But let’s look at the evidence shall we? Harley was created to be the girl who pops out of the cake in an animated episode of Batman. In the end, Joker popped out of the cake, and Harley was only there to wheel it in and look pretty. A showgirl, or magician’s assistant. But it was a one-and-done appearance. Nothing complex about it.
When she came back, due to fan reaction, she was just the Joker’s girlfriend, the butt of his every slapstick joke. Even in a kid’s cartoon, she was drawn sensually, at one point even appearing out of costume, in just a chemise, teasingly asking the infamous question: “Dontcha wanna rev up your Harley?”
Very risque for a cartoon.
When she finally left the Joker, she teamed up with Poison Ivy, and suddenly showed undercurrents of homosexuality. Because what do nerdy comic lovers enjoy more than a sexy female character? Two sexy female characters in a relationship with each other. The comics basically sold themselves.
Later on, Harley’s costume became less and less like the original jester’s outfit, showing ever more skin, and ever more sexuality. In the Suicide Squad comics she flirts openly with Yoyo, and sleeps with Deadshot. When she moves on to her superhero team-up, it’s not surprising that she’s paired with the heroine famous for her boob window.
Now tell me, at what point wasn’t she primarily a sex toy?
The thing that will be most disappointing in the Suicide Squad movie is if they do try to make her a feminist character, standing for women’s rights and equal ability between the genders. I want her to be using her feminine guile, and her oddball humour and her willingness to do anything to get the job done. She should be a stark contrast to the strength and wisdom of Wonder Woman and the optimistic innocence of Supergirl.
She should be crazy and sexy, but never complex.
So how did Harley become the face of female solidarity? I have absolutely no idea. My best guess? A lot of selective reading, misinterpreted signs and overly optimistic hopes for a character that is, was and always will be, the Joker’s plaything.