Since her debut in the early 1990s, Harley Quinn has been a wildly popular comic book character because she felt like no one else who had come before. She was wild, irreverent, and joyful in her brutality. But unlike her peers in Suicide Squad, which hits theaters today, she didn’t get her start in comics. She was created by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini as a one-off character for the mid ’90s cartoon Batman: The Animated Series. But Harley proved too intoxicating a creation for a single appearance. She quickly gained immense popularity as the Joker’s sidekick and tortured love interest. Watch just one episode of that series, and it’s easy to see why. She rises above a traditional take on a gangster’s moll, and her warped joyfulness, distinctive high-pitched voice, sharp dialogue out of a mid-century noir, along with an undercurrent of sadness, makes her feel fresh and new. She’s also self-aware and self-deprecating when it comes to how people view her. And it’s that last trait that makes the character work. She knows how people underestimate her and often uses it to her advantage. And yet, when I walked out of a screening of Suicide Squad earlier this week, I was left perplexed by her depiction and worried about her future.
Suicide Squad is already facing heat from critics for incoherent plotting and nonsensical storytelling, and more than one has pointed out the sexist approach taken with Harley Quinn. Her revamped look shirks the signature full-bodied black and red jumpsuit popularized on Batman: The Animated Series for sequined hot pants, a ripped up shirt, smeared lipstick, and a glare that wavers between “screw you” and a come-on. The camera lingers on her body, more concerned with showing it off than creating any sort of arc for the character. These are valid criticisms, but they miss a larger point—the problems with Harley Quinn have been with the character since the very beginning.
Charting the course of her history—from her cartoon origins to the splashy pages of DC Comics to the renewed interested sparked by the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game, and finally to Margot Robbie’s bright-eyed performance—a troubling truth becomes clear. The treatment of Harley embodies the most toxic aspects of the movie and comic book industry. Even the best portrayals of Harley in Batman: The Animated Series are underscored by troubling issues like her lack of agency and her abusive relationship with the Joker. Suicide Squad puts a spotlight on the exploitative contradictions of the character that have never fully been reckoned with.
In Batman: The Animated Series, we learn that Quinn was once Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a skilled psychiatrist at the infamous Arkham Asylum, who gets tasked with treating the Joker, Gotham City’s most nihilistic criminal. Through his manipulation and mind games, she eventually falls in love with him, is driven insane, and devotes her life to him, completing her transformation into villainous sidekick. Their relationship was erratic to say the least. She’s hopelessly in love with him one minute and wants to wring his neck the next. He can’t live without her, yet he’s often verbally and physically abusive. Since the cartoon series was meant for kids, the violence felt exaggerated and played for laughs. In the episode “Mad Love,” the Joker backhands Harley for trying to kill Batman on her own, and she goes flying across the room. The same thing happens in episodes throughout DC’s animated universe like Justice League: Unlimited’s “Wild Card” making Joker’s abuse seem not only exceedingly cruel, but casual and commonplace. Over the course of the next few years the show explored her acrobatic skills, humor, violence, and relationship with the Joker.
Batman: The Animated Series and the more recent The New Adventures of Batman are aimed at children, but some episodes showed a surprising maturity in how they handled Harley’s cycle of abuse. The episode“Mad Love” from The New Adventures of Batman was unflinching in how it tracked the past and present of Harley’s relationship with the Joker. “I finally realized this isn’t funny anymore,” she says on a videotape to Batman, removing her mask and costume. It’s a ploy to pull off a murderous joke and kill Batman in order to prove her worth to the Joker. And it almost works. “Wake up, Harleen,” Batman says to her. “He had you pegged for hired help the moment you walk into Arkham.” It’s almost enough to shatter her delusions. But she can’t help stay committed to the relationship that has come to define to her. Even after the Joker nearly kills her minutes later by pushing her out a window, she’s still apologetic and hoping for his approval. Even though Batman: The Animated Series does surprisingly well in not glorifying this relationship, one of the main issues with Harley is that we learn little about she is as a person before falling in love with the Joker or even what she wants in life outside of pleasing him.
But when DC finally introduced Harley Quinn to the comic books, they didn’t seem to know what to do with her, struggling to find the right tone in a more adult medium. Part of this is an issue between the mediums. In a worthwhile and in-depth essay on the character on Vulture, writer Abraham Riesman makes a good point: Batman: The Animated Series was a children’s show, which meant that while the Joker is still criminally insane, he’s not the mass-murdering, ultra-violent sociopath we see in the comics (or even as played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight). Harley being in love with the Joker of the comics changes the tenor of her character and how we view her. “On the other hand, if you move her away from the Joker, you remove her defining relationship. It would be like writing years’ worth of Joker stories that didn’t involve Batman: empty and confusing,” Riesman writes. I disagree with Riesman here. If anything, moving Harley away from this relationship (and any she uses as a crutch) is tantamount to the evolution the character desperately needs. Characters can evolve quite dramatically in the comics—it’s the nature of medium. So, why can’t Harley?
In 2011, when DC rolled out its New 52 line—a short-lived reboot of all their comics and history—Harley Quinn joined the Suicide Squad, a group of incarcerated supervillains and anti-heroes tasked with near-impossible black ops missions in hopes of getting their prison sentences reduced. Through it, she gained a new crop of fans, which came at a price. She evolved into something meaner and more violent. In the comics writers struggle with the fact that even when trying to get out of the Joker’s shadow Harley doesn’t have much of an identity of her own. So, she attaches herself to others to find one: Poison Ivy, Power Girl, Deadshot. In doing so she becomes such an overcooked mix of conflicting personalities—anti-hero, outright villain, sex kitten, pale approximation of feminism—that means she ends up being no one at all. She also became so over-sexualized that she looked almost unrecognizable from her earlier versions. The last few years have seen the character without her trademark black and red harlequin jumpsuit. Instead, she shows skin and cleavage from every angle in precariously held together corsets and short skirts. It borders on a parody of what people expect of hyper-sexualized female characters. Did DC forget how much of her fanbase is female? Or did they not care?
And yet Harley has only become more popular. Since 2014, her solo series and other appearances have outsold those of more long-running icons like Wonder Woman and Superman. And I’ve often wondered why. It’s easy to see why Harley Quinn is popular with men, especially as she’s become more sexualized. But as male writers continue to struggle with her inherent contradictions, her popularity among women—she’s a cosplay staple at comic conventions—is more complicated.
Harley gets praised for being flawed in ways a lot of other female characters don’t, like that paragon of feminist perfection, Wonder Woman. You can find many pieces online arguing how her character is nuanced and even empowered, many of which are written by female fans.
Maybe that explains why Harley has become a better selling character than Wonder Woman, who is a feminist and often the smartest and strongest person in the room. She’s the hero you aspire to be, while Harley is a more imperfect reflection of oneself. So it should come as no surprise that the character’s live-action debut in Suicide Squad is a much bigger deal than Wonder Woman’s debut in last March’s in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Full disclosure here: Suicide Squad is a total mess that even a few great performances can’t save. Margot Robbie does the best with what she’s given, but the movie would rather concentrate on her sex appeal than explore a real character arc. Director David Ayer, who also wrote the script, seems unable to see a Harley Quinn that exists beyond being the typical hot but crazy chick archetype.
Margot Robbie does have fun with the character. When the film gives her room to breathe she nails Harley’s acrobatic and madcap personality. But the movie refuses to reckon with the clearly abusive nature of her relationship with the Joker (played by Jared Leto), who spends the film trying to save her. It instead frames them as a love story—a deranged, hyped up Bonnie and Clyde ruling over Gotham City’s criminals with terror and a Hot Topic obsession. Ayer can’t help gazing at her body and having characters remark on how hot she is. The film splices and dices her origins and motivations with several nods to her past history in the comics. But Robbie —despite her considerable skills as an actress—can’t sell the fact that Suicide Squad forgot to make her a human being outside of the Joker. In a hallucination triggered by the witchy antagonist the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), we learn her greatest goal in life is a childish rendition of a nuclear family with the Joker, where they’re married with kids. It doesn’t make any sense.
What’s sad is that there could easily be a great Harley story about a woman shifting from passionate, abused love interest to an anti-hero who breaks her own cycle of abuse and finally becomes her own person. Perhaps that’s too audacious an expectation for a Hollywood blockbuster aimed at teenage boys. Instead, Suicide Squad is more content to ogle her and have her shoot off one liners that act as paltry representations of agency and humanity. “I sleep where I want, when I want, with who I want,” Harley says to a guard early on in the film before licking the bar as a come-on. It’s a frat boy’s idea of empowerment.
We’re going to be seeing a lot more of Harley thanks to the new Suicide Squad comic coming out and her continued popularity. Especially if Robbie’s planned Harley film which sees the character alongside DC’s great roster of female heroes and villains she pitched to the WB takes off. But for that to work the writers and creatives behind Harley need to answer the question: “Who is Harley Quinn?” in a way that honors her humanity outside of being the Joker’s plaything. Comics like Mad Love and Batman: The Animated Series come closest in making Harley work as a character in her own right who feels like more than just a joyfully violent sidekick and victim of domestic violence. But even those stories struggle to make her feel like a fleshed out character with her own desires and identity, making the abuse she faces even more disturbing. That’s the problem with Suicide Squad, and every other incarnation of Harley Quinn. Before answering the question of who she really is, you need to ask it.