Why We Love Harley Quinn: Dissecting the Nature of DC’s Most Complicated Woman
Homicidal, unstable, and somehow adorable, Harley Quinn (a.k.a Harleen Quinzel) is a pop culture enigma, her secret to popularity as vague and undefinable as her morality. Created as a love interest for the Joker in Batman the Animated Series, Harley Quinn has rocketed from a one-time appearance to one of the most beloved women of the DC universe. At a glance, Harley seems problematic. Her origin story details the misadventures of a young psychiatrist that becomes fascinated with the Joker while evaluating him. Joker picks up on her interest, manipulating and romancing her until she becomes a pawn in his escape. Early stories of Quinn detail their relationship, specifically telling a tale of neglect and abuse when she tries to earn the Joker’s affections. In our socially and morally aware society, why hasn’t this relationship disgusted audiences, and more importantly, what has given Quinn such longevity beyond the animated series? The upcoming release of The Suicide Squad movie makes these questions even more pressing. As a member of the squad, Harley Quinn is about to become a household name tenfold. Now more than ever it is important to take a closer look at the woman who will soon become the cinematic face of DC.
Perhaps the magic of Harley lies in her attitude. From screen to page she is a woman that won’t quit. Quinn is every bit as capable and forceful as the super powered heroines of the Justice League, and fixated on living life by terms that will make her happy. She may not be able to lift a car or fly, but with her trick guns, acrobatic skill, and enormous hammer Harley is well armed for anything, hero or villain. No matter how many times the Joker tosses Harley aside, she is not a victim. This is a crucial piece in deciding whether or not her attachment to the Joker makes her weak. Readers don’t feel inclined to worry about Harley; we know she’ll be okay, we know she’ll save herself. As invested as she is in a psychopath, she has proven herself to be one of the few people he can’t break. She comes back time and time again, matching his whims tit for tat with an unbridled enthusiasm that gains both the Joker and audience’s admiration. She may tear up, but she will always bounce back. In Vol. 1 of her New 52 title readers watch Quinn handle an onslaught of hit men that have been hired to kill her. She deals with them almost effortlessly, treating their attempts on her life the way many would treat a delayed train or missing luggage. Far from cowering, she is slightly inconvenienced at best. These triumphs make her endearing, suggesting that it is Harley and Harley alone that can handle the Joker so closely and come out on top. Nothing scares her, at least not to the point of being unable to face it.
Harley vs. Refrigerators
In this way Harley excels above many comic love interests. She pointedly avoids the trap of Gail Simone’s “Women in Refrigerators” trope. As a writer for Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Birds of Prey, and a menagerie of other titles, Simone is somewhat of an expert of female comic book characters. In the late 90’s she created a list of what she saw as problematic female character portrayals. The list detailed comic women that were killed or otherwise brutalized for the advancement of the male characters plot; specifically with no mind for the well being of the female characters’ advancement. Harley, despite her abusive relationship with the Joker, does not apply. We don’t see her raped, harmed, or killed off to advance the Joker or Batman’s characterization. Instead we see Quinn quite literally take on a life of her own. From her animated origins she was written as someone dimensional; a woman with complex interests and ongoing will. In one of her first appearances Quinn is abandoned by the Joker, and attracts the attention of another psychotic villain. Harley does not return the interest, and makes a point of ditching her new stalker without the Joker’s help. Interestingly, Harley’s rejection of this new man is not for the sake of the Joker, but for Harley’s own preferences. Viewers are lead away from scenes of the Joker’s lamenting to follow Harley as she fights her way through Gotham’s underground. This is just one example of an episode in which Harley becomes more interesting than her male counterparts, effectively taking center stage in Gotham’s crime scene.
She has a sort of characterization that lends itself effortlessly to translation. At one glance readers hunger for more of her story; demanding to get to know this colorful crazy girl. DC has responded, layering Quinn with beloved pets, a friendship (and eventually relationship) with Poison Ivy, and page after page of tongue-in-cheek adventures full of comically bizarre violence. She is one of the few characters that is not made interesting by the story, but by the character. We want to see Harley do things- go on road trips, dates, visit museums- just to see what the Harley take on these mundane activities is. We’re intrigued by activities we would not necessarily buy a book to watch Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman do. Her presence in any book guarantees a good time, whether she’s a full blown story arc or there to sling a few one liners. Harley is a rich character, with or without her psychotic lover.
The New Current Harley
The past decade has been good to Quinn. Aside from appearances in Gotham City Sirens and The Suicide Squad she stars in two successful titles of her own. Fans can’t seem to get enough, and it’s become clear Harley has a life outside of being the Joker’s girl that is more interesting and vivid than ever expected. We love her not for her looks, nor for her relationships. Harley is rounded out; freely embodying everything that makes villains interesting. She’s a screw up, a psychopath, a lover, and a fighter; too big and too complex to fit in anyone’s box. She reminds us of what it means to be resilient, a lesson that has earned her the love and admiration of a generation of comic fans.
Simply put, Harley Quinn is the answer to a call for dimensional, complex, and complicated female characters; characters that represent both our desire for freedom and the unsteady line between right and wrong. She’s a personification of human extremes; drawing us into our deepest lows and highest highs with a steady comedic backdrop. Furthermore she is proof that female characters do not have to be perfect pictures or strength or virtue to be great, her wavering conscience and impulsive whims are part of what makes her so human; and ultimately a readable and lovable edition to the DC rogues gallery.
What do you think? Leave a comment.