Although I’ve never truly been a comic book fan, Batman was my first love. I fell hard for the brooding superhero while watching “Batman the Animated Series” as a child. My crush was real and deep – no matter how sharp his too-square jaw was.
[bctt tweet=”Batman was my first love” username=”wearethetempest”]
The 90s cartoon was required viewing for me, and although Bruce Wayne’s vigilantism was still thrilling, I soon began to realize that the Gotham villains he brought to justice (or tossed into Arkham Asylum) were even more interesting than the Bat, himself.
It was a revelation that I remembered after watching the first trailer for the upcoming “Suicide Squad” film. Originally, I was excited about seeing Viola Davis kill it as Amanda Waller, and Jared Leto was basically born to play this version of The Joker, but I found myself scrolling back to catch another glimpse of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, dressed in white and swinging from the top bars of a literal cage.
Somehow, in the years between “BTAS” going off the air and Christopher Nolan’s gritty retelling hitting theaters, I managed to forget about the psychiatric doctor-turned-villainous sidekick. However, I remembered loving her as a child. That quickly sent me down a YouTube rabbit hole of Harley Quinn clips. And the one thing that really struck me was how deeply sad her storyline was.
[bctt tweet=”Harley Quinn’s story is deeply sad” username=”wearethetempest”]
Between the acrobatics, the wonderfully thick New York accent and the greasepaint makeup, I’d somehow managed to forget about one of the most defining aspects of the character: Harley’s horribly abusive relationship with the Joker.
First, let me recount a little comic book history, for anyone else who has forgotten. Harley Quinn was born Harleen Frances Quinzel. When she met the Joker, she was working as a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, where the Joker was being treated. The Joker took a liking to her, partially because her name reminded him of the commedia dell’arte stock character, Harlequin.
In the clip below, you can see how the Joker drew her in, arousing her scientific curiosity by giving her the chance to get inside his head and learn his secrets.
For months, she begged her superiors to allow her to treat the Joker and studied him closely, hoping to become immune to his tricks. However, once she met with him, things quickly spun out of control. His stories of growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father lead her to believe that he was a “tortured soul, searching for acceptance.” Over time, she grew to love him and helped him escape from the asylum on multiple occasions. Eventually, her license was revoked and she ended up in one of the asylum’s cells, herself. She was later able to escape, finally swapping out her lab coat for her red-and-black jester costume.
Harley was completely devoted to the Joker and went to extreme lengths to try to make “Mr. J” happy. It was an aspect of her character that I remembered well. What I’d managed to forget was how violently the abusive Joker often responded to Harley’s advances. He was so focused on his “act,” “his jokes” and his mission to defeat Batman, that he felt like Harley was nothing more than a nuisance. Just look what he does when she tries to give him a sexy surprise on their seventh anniversary. (Trigger warning for this clip and those to come. It’s a kid’s show, but my goodness.)
Many of the commenters pointed out that this scene was awfully sexual for a children’s cartoon, but the part that caught me off guard was the Joker turning so violent, so quickly. I mean, just look at what he does when she forgets that he “gives the punchlines around here,” or tries to seduce the Joker by asking him to “rev up [his] Harley.”
It’s all about his plans and his jokes. In fact, around the 1:20 mark there’s a clip of Harley accomplishing what the Joker never could: coming close to defeating Batman. Does he thank her for helping him to reach his ultimate goal? He literally smacks her across the room. She has Bruce Wayne dangling above a tank full of piranhas, and all Mr. J can do is rage at her because getting rid of the Batman is only satisfying if he does it.
Somehow, despite the fact that Harley successfully pulled off a scheme that he undoubtedly would have bungled, she’s the idiot. She’s the one that has to cower in fear and apologize. She’s the one he literally pushes out of a window for doing EXACTLY WHAT HE WANTED TO DO ALL ALONG. And she does it by following the plan that HE LAID OUT.
Not to mention there’s the fact that the Batman manages to shatter all of the intimacy she’d built with the Joker RIGHT BEFORE THIS. Of course, he does it to buy himself some time to figure out how to get out of Harley’s piranha trap, but deep down, it all rings so true that Harley’s devotion momentarily wavers. The Joker did seem to plan to make her his sidekick from the very beginning, and he obviously doesn’t care about her. She’s his punching bag and servant (hence the Harlequin reference) and any connection fostered between them was manufactured by the Joker for the sole purpose of manipulating her.
Watching this cycle of abuse and heartbreak is just exhausting. In fact, Harley eventually tires of it, too, trying to shoot the Joker IN THE HEAD at one point. I’m not usually one to condone violence, but honestly, can you blame her?
Their relationship is so completely dysfunctional that the Joker seems to actually admire her and respect her more for trying to murder him in cold blood. It’s the first moment of tenderness I’ve ever seen the characters share, and thanks to the reaction from Batman and Robin, it’s played up for laughs.
But aside from realizing that about half of the cartoons I enjoyed during the 1990s would never actually air today, this little trip down YouTube’s memory lane left me thinking about something else. Harley Quinn’s character is actually one of the most intriguing figures in Batman’s corner of the DC universe.
Her descent into the Joker’s world of madness and villainy is, obviously heartbreaking, but she’s also one of the only “bad” characters whose origin story I’ve seen explained in this much detail. While I hate the ways that rape and domestic violence are casually tossed into female characters’ storylines in many popular TV shows in order to quickly “humanize” them, I sympathize for Harley in a way that I haven’t with any other character in quite some time.
There’s a moment during BTAS where she’s released from Arkham Asylum and decides to lead a normal life. No more stealing, no more wacky costumes and of course, no more Mr. J. Unfortunately, everything seems to go wrong for Harley and she’s been on the fringes of society so long that she doesn’t know what to do about it. My heart actually ached for her while I watched her try, and ultimately fail, to live life on the outside.
Yes, Harley is a silly cartoon character, but she’s also a domestic violence victim who has been recently released from prison and cannot adjust to freedom. Her story is just too…real. The fact that this was in a show that I watched because of the gadgets and outlandishly dressed Big Bads is just unfathomable now. Her life and future were stolen from her by someone who wanted to use her for their own selfish ends. And the worst part? It takes her years to begin to see this for what it is.
[bctt tweet=”Her story is all too real” username=”wearethetempest”]
This problem leads me to one of the other aspects of the character that ring so true for me: her deep friendship with Poison Ivy. The two women meet each other while trying to pull off separate heists at the same Gotham museum. They are almost caught by the police, but manage to escape together, laying the foundation for a lasting friendship. (Kind of like how I’ve broken the ice with most of my new friends by talking about natural hair care. Yeah, just like that.)
Ivy loves Harley, a fact that is made clear after Harley is freed from Arkham (again). Ivy invites her to move in and tries her best to help Harley adjust to her freedom. She also tries to convince her that the Joker is no good, because that’s what good friends do.
It’s their genuine connection, with its silly shopping trips (one of which comes at the expense of a hypnotized Bruce Wayne), extreme reactions to street harassment and tough love that further help make me root for Harley. I want her to finally be rid of the Joker. To adjust to life outside of an Arkham cell.
That’s the film that I hope to see one day. Harlene Quinzell, getting her life and back and vowing to no longer compromise her happiness or health for a person who does not care about her. Don’t say a single word to me about any reboots or tie-ins until I get a Harley Quinn feature. Or at least an online petition for one. Harley Quinn deserves to have her story told, and despite whatever evils she committed while working with the Joker, she deserves to be victorious in it.
[bctt tweet=”Harley Quinn deserves to have her story told” username=”wearethetempest”]