To say that Harley Quinn is currently a very popular character is an understatement at best. That said, there are a lot of versions that depict her as just some crazy sexy clown woman. This is a simplification of her that is actually quite damaging to the character she was in Batman: The Animated Series, of which she originated. At that point, she was a quirky and impulsive bisexual animal lover with a doctorate who happened to fall for a guy who made her feel special. He seduced her to be sure, but she chose to put on that makeup regardless of how misguided that decision was. Every time we saw her without her makeup, we were reminded that she was still her own person and that she could indeed leave him behind. She just didn’t know how. Yet. This is what I connected with. This is why I love her. Harley Quinn is an empowering character who represents abused women and their journey moving past that experience; she shows us that abuse is not the end of the story.
Now, I know that many people will disagree with me on this assertion because Harley Quinn showed a pattern of doting on and returning to the abusive Joker for a long time. We are currently seeing several storylines that replicate this; however, this pattern is something that those who have been abused can quickly identify with. The victim may try to leave many times, but there is still this little piece of them that holds on to the hope that the abuser really does care for them. The anger the abuser expresses in these moments only solidifies these feelings as the victim sees it as confirmation of the abuser’s love and attachment. Anger can feel like fear and obsession can feel like loyalty. When coupled with the way that an abuser breaks down their victim and makes them feel like nothing, it can become really hard for them to see themselves as deserving of anything more than what they are currently getting. This is even further complicated by the fact that Harley Quinn built her whole life around the Joker. Every time that he was nice to her, she fell for it because wanted to believe that she made the right decision. In other words, a woman’s reasons for staying are very complex and so were Harley Quinn’s. Instead of being a reason to dismiss the character, the fact that she doesn’t just leave Joker makes her a more relatable character. Superheroes are often figures that represent power fantasies and seeing her finally find the strength to leave him for good can easily be seen as empowering for those in similar situations.
This subject is directly explored in the second season episode titled, “Harley & Ivy.” This episode features Harley leaving Joker and meeting up with Ivy for the first time. The relationship that these two forge is immediate and strong because they are both highly educated women who have experienced trauma caused by men they trusted. Ivy simply has had more years to process and move on. Ivy sees what Harley is going through, and does assertively interject her concerns, but she knows that the decision to leave him has to come from Harley herself or it will not last. Ivy knows how to help things grow. She is a non-conditional support system for Harley and they become so much more than just friends. The lack of conditions placed on their relationship is extremely important here as their non-monogamous romantic relationship is based on trust and love. Ivy shows Harley that love doesn’t have to be controlling and all consuming. This is a huge step for the character, but the end of this episode does end with her going back to Joker. A journey never ends after the first step.
Another episode that is key to understanding the character of Harley Quinn is “Harley’s Holiday” from season three. This episode is almost completely Joker free and opens with her getting out of Arkham and trying to go straight. It is everything that Batman and Harley Quinn should have been. One of the moments that most resonated with me was when she runs into Veronica Vreeland while shopping. Harley recognizes her and excitedly asks: “Hey remember me? That big charity bash a few years back? The one the Joker robbed? I was the clown girl holding the gun on yah!” This shows that she may be “over the crime thing” but she still owns that part of her life. She doesn’t feel ashamed. Her past is a part of her that she embraces because it has led her to where she is now. This enables her to wear the Harley Quinn moniker without a connection to Joker. The episode also shows the relationship she has built with Batman. After she inevitably goes back to the asylum because of her impulsive tendencies, he tells her, “I know what it’s like to try and rebuilt a life. I had a bad day too… once.” Batman sees exactly what Ivy sees in Harley. They both see a woman learning to survive. Interestingly, like in Batman and Harley Quinn, the episode ends with a kiss. While Harley’s kiss could be seen as sexualized, as the music suggests it should, the hyperbolic kissing sound that she makes and the smile she gives him at the end of it tells a different tale. Furthermore, both Batman and Ivy give a knowing smile showing that they see it as her being her playful self in this moment. There was no need for it to be made into more than that and I would like to point out that it is particularly problematic to objectify a figure who is a representation of abused women like they did in that horrible misrepresentative movie.
I would like to believe that regardless of the depiction, including those that wear a completely disempowering “Property of Joker” jacket, there is still some part of her popularity that is related to what women experience in their daily lives. As a woman, even walking to school or work can be dangerous and many women have unfortunately been abused by the men around them. I would like to believe that her fans are able to see how she represents a realistic portrayal of a journey beyond trauma and abuse. More than anything, I would like all women to realize that have it in them to be survivors too. Comics are a medium based on these types fantasies after all. My Harley Quinn is compassionate, quirky, and smart. She shows us that we can face down the nightmares of our past, with or without Scarecrow’s fear toxin, and come out even more ourselves at the end. She reminds us that, sometimes, it is ok to just focus on the right now. The past doesn’t limit us and the future is unknown. Why not try using a cannoli to take down a helicopter? This September 23rd was going to be Batman Day, but this year Harley Quinn is taking it over. Let’s make sure we show everybody that she deserves that honor by celebrating and appreciating not just the character, but what she means to the women who look up to her.
“Harley & Ivy.” Batman: The Animated Series, written by Paul Dini, Warner Brothers, 1993.
“Harley’s Holiday.” Batman: The Animated Series, written by Paul Dini, Warner Brothers, 1994.