Why We Love Harley Quinn: Dissecting the Nature of DC’s Most Complicated Woman

Harley Quinn and the Joker (DC)
Harley Quinn and the Joker (DC)

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 kicks the Joker in one of her early incarnations
Harley kicks the Joker in one of her early incarnations

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

Harley on the Suicide Squad cover
Harley on the Suicide Squad cover

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.

Harley's current New 52 incarnation
Harley’s current New 52 incarnation

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.

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36 Comments

  1. dsubject

    I think female villains are just as much of a mystery as female superheroes – I feel as though nobody really understands what, exactly, they want in a female character; she is either too sexy, too strong, too broken, too crazy, too boring, too tame, or too loose. It will be interesting to see how Harley Quinn plays out next year in Suicide Squad – it will also be interesting to see how the new Wonder Woman film will play out. With the backlash that Marvel has seen with Black Widow, it seems as though it can go either way.

    I feel that women have been misrepresented so much in the media, that we still don’t understand how we want to see women represented in the spotlight, and I feel that this becomes more clear as female protagonists continue to make their way through TV and Film.

    Great article!

  2. I’m being harley quinn for Halloween.

  3. Ai Wilkinson
    0

    Harley is easily one of my favorite villains. She`s so quirky.

  4. Why people are sympathizing for Harley when they don’t realize she is just as psychotic as the Joker himself. She killed lots of people, too.

  5. I have always enjoyed female villains. I think that there’s always supposed to be this underlying theme of sexiness within their character, because they hold a sort of power that isn’t easy accessed. And I think a lot of men find it sexy for a woman to be headstrong and powerful.
    I think that Harley adds an interesting mix to this, because she comes across as ditzy, but in some cases she also clearly has brains and very obviously has some sort of power. She’s a nice play on the stereotype, where she’s sexy and powerful but also funny and a bit derpy. I think that works well, especially given the way her male counterpart operates.

  6. Really interesting points. I mean, Harley Quinn is just a compelling character. She isn’t one-dimensionally “evil.” Her character has a lot of different and interesting aspects built into it, rather than starting as a cardboard cutout and then getting characterization tacked on over time, unlike so many other female heroes and villains. And in a weird way, her psychological dependence on the Joker doesn’t make her *character* dependent on him, if that makes sense. She’s psychotically obsessed with the Joker, but she isn’t simply defined by that and that alone.

  7. Coming coming from a weird childhood where the villains were my favorite, Harley Quinn has always been my favorite character. I think many women who love comics can relate to Harley in ways in regards to her relationship to Joker. If you’re feeling trapped and don’t feel like you fit in the box of what people view a woman is, she’s an icon definitely. Though I haven’t read the comics, I definitely have it on my list.

  8. joncarlos3rd

    I have a lot of feelings about Harley Quinn. It’s important for us to remember that she is a Batman villain and that all of the Batman villains are deeply flawed in some psychological (and often physical way). Harley Quinn is no exception. She embodies the issues that someone can face when in an abusive relationship, she was manipulated, used, and often forgotten and left to be sent back to Arkham Asylum.
    While this is often played for laughs this is an important part of her character and her development into a more full-fledged independent villain. Her growth and realization that her relationship with the Joker was unhealthy is empowering. She is more well rounded and gives good female representation in a medium often starved for it.

  9. First off let me bow my hat to you, great article! I do acknowledge your deep admiration on Harley Quinn.

    Taking a standpoint by saying that, “she [Harley Quinn] is a psychopath” you make a light in female characters both villain and non-villain, DC or Marvel, as though there inception into the comic world both deflates and inflates the voluptuous attractiveness the readers get upon reading them.

    I do praise your insights on Quinn, however I feel as though the imbalance of regards to and away from Quinn really stuck out. Overall once again great article to read!

  10. If Harley became an solo villain she’d kick ass. She’s way more intelligent than the Joker and far more resourceful. She’s also come closer to beating Batman than he ever has. Too bad she’s such a train-wreck.

    • Well in the new 52 she actually does go solo, and takes a small change of heart, after joker tried to kill her with, HER BABIES, forcing her to kill the babies. This is tragic and sad, but she eventually got used to society and lived a life as a normal, but still a little “different” than most. But I always thought she should have gone solo a long time ago

  11. suMcrae
    0

    Harley Quinn, proof that the Joker was right when he said the whole world is just one bad day away from being like him.

  12. Harley Quinn makes me question my sexuality…

  13. Marcie Waters

    Often (and especially in the world of superheroes) female characters are not as developed and complex as Harley Quinn is. Maybe that is why she is so popular.

  14. Personally I have always been a fan of Harley Quinn. Before reading this article, I never questioned why I was so intrigued in her character. Yet now I agree with what this article has to say, and it justifies why I admire Harley Quinn so much. The DC writers and artists have done a very impressive job with her characters story line over the years. She has transformed the ideals for women villains. As well, created a strong empowerment for feminism in the world of comic books. Although artist still likes to put her in small to a little amount of clothing, I believe we (the readers) should appreciate that Harley Quinn is an independent woman.

  15. I don’t think people get how amazing of character Harley Quinn really is. Her relationship with Joker is so dynamic and negative that it creates such an interesting story But it really makes her seem as if she’s nothing more than a pawn. Yet she’s so much more. Batman even admitted to Joker that Harley came closer to killing him than Joker ever had. In fact that only reason she didn’t kill Batman was because he reminded her that Joker would be upset. Joker’s ego would have been crushed if his manipulated girlfriend done something he had been trying to do for years.
    -HiCkle

  16. It’s really too bad that Harley is nothing without the Joker.

    • SomeOtherAmazon
      SomeOtherAmazon
      1

      I think the number of titles she’s in without him would disagree with that. In fact she’s probably more interesting without him

  17. mattdoylemedia

    An enjoyable article. Harley I’ve found to be very polarising with fans: they either love her or find her to be horribly over-rated. personally, I think she’s great.

  18. Luis Stark
    1

    I love Harley.

  19. scole

    And it just was said by DC that she is in a relationship with Poison Ivy, so there’s so much depth to Harley and that’s why I enjoy her so much because of this article, she’s honestly so great and her venture into villain and anti-hero tropes is also so interesting to me.

  20. Since I am alway always a big villain fan, I really love Harley Quinn she, even though she is lonely as a bat in a bell tower, I really love her personality and her insaine ways…I am really looking forward to see her in Suicide Squad to see her character is betrayed in that insaine, crazy, way that I love so much….

  21. DClarke

    Great article! I especially love your conclusion. I think that you really nail it on the head and come through with an amazing analysis.

  22. A well-expressed commentary on one of my favorite characters. Thanks for this!

  23. I think one of the most important part of making a compelling villain, is making them sympathetic to the reader. The villains I’ve loved the most are the ones that I almost want to root for, the ones I almost want to win. Harley Quinn easily makes the cut on this. She’s definitely one of the most three-dimensional comics characters around.

  24. Great piece. In addition, Harley has not only stepped out from underneath the Joker’s shadow but, in my opinion, far surpassed him as a quality character. For all the press, attention, and outright love he gets, the Joker is in actuality pretty flat and one-note. The excitement is in seeing what craziness he comes up with, but his motivations remain the same – he has none. And therefore he has no depth. And, to me, he’s pretty boring.

    Harley is constantly waging a war with herself – an internal struggle. Her instincts are to be bad. Very, very bad. But she wants to be oh-so-good; she wants to be a hero. And she tries desperately to be one. In the end, she often ends up doing the right thing in the absolute worst way imaginable, often to exaggerated comedic effect. She’s endearing, she’s relatable, she’s fun, and she’s easy both to root for and empathize with. Who doesn’t occasionally feel the pull of their darker side? And if Harley can ultimately overcome that call, can’t any one of us?

    Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti have truly found and perfected her voice. I hope they get to write her adventures for as long as they desire and I hope they desire to write them until I’m no longer around to be an active participant.

  25. As someone who loves Harley Quinn, this analysis of her character and why she’s so lovable is great. I feel that her relationship with the Joker is very suspect as some Harley Quinn comics have implied that it was an abusive relationship and, as such, both agree and disagree with your analysis of their relationship. I wish that you went a bit further into her relationship with Poison Ivy and the effect it has on queer representation in comics!

  26. larissacouto

    Great article! Harley is very interesting because of her complexity, something that, by the way, is largely explored within Batman’s universe. Her abusive relationship, even being a “smart girl”, is something that make her so real, so complex, in my point of view. She can be a lot of things being one. But, the most important thing is that she is an amazing queer character. She is not definable, and this is great, especially for a villain.

  27. Harley is great. She earned getting her own comic series.

  28. I think that he reaso Harley Quinn is so loved is the same reason why people enjoy the joker so much; because they do not have identifiable motives for any of there actions. They take nothing seriously and do things purely because they want to which I think a lot of people wish they had the ability to act as they please and have fun without worrying about societal restrictions.

  29. ADenkyirah

    I loved this article! Harley Quinn has been one of my favorite female DC characters since I first saw her in the Batman animated series. She has a rep of being silly, love sick, and kind of crazy. What am I kidding, she is crazy. But, I like her origin story. I liked how she was a talented psychologist that was daring enough to work with the worst of worst in Arkham Asylum, and unfortunately, the worst of the worst got to her.

  30. Reese2341

    The only problem I have ever had with Harley is the misguided romantic idol she has become for young women and men. A lot of guys will say they want a “Harley to their Joker” which overlooks the abusive relationship they share and many girls think that the unwavering devotion Harley has for the Joker despite the abuse is romantic. I think DC needs to consider dealing with Harley’s trauma in a more effective way and quit romanticizing an abusive relationship. Harley and Joker should not be relationship goals.

  31. This article is awesome! I absolutely love Harley Quinn, she’s probably one of my favorite DC comic characters of all time. Her story is extremely interesting, from her origins, to her abusive relationship and fall out with Joker, her adventures with the Gotham Sirens, then Supergirl, all the way to where she is now, being considered to be in the Justice League! I always love to see and read more about her. I’m especially interested in her relationship with Dick Grayson, although that went sour because of Joker. Overall, this article is extremely well written!

  32. Emily Deibler

    I love Harley Quinn! She’s a lot of fun. Great work, and I also like how you mention how Harley averts the toxic Women in Refrigerators trope.

  33. Part of the appeal of Harley is that she sprung forth so fully-formed from the page to the screen by transferring Arleen Sorkin’s harlequin character from ‘Days of Our Lives’ to the Batman animated series.

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