DC Comics celebrated the 25th anniversary of Harley Quinn earlier this month. Compared to other characters, this is a short time yet Harley made such a monumental impact on women and society in a short time.
I have been an avid fan of comics for most of my life. It started with watching superhero cartoons as a kid. (Shout out to my parents who thought I’d grow out of it!)
Harley was always my favorite but it was upsetting to see she was only popular for being the Joker’s unstable girlfriend.
Harley debuted in “Batman: The Animated Series.” Thinking back, I realize how much of a dark show it was, especially for kids.
Her character was a psychologist who fell in love with the Joker during their therapy sessions. Picture the most unhealthy relationship in your mind and then multiply it by a thousand. That was the relationship between the two.
“Suicide Squad” movie critics accused the film of romanticizing the abusive relationship between Harley and the Joker. That criticism is partially valid.
I remember one episode of “The New Batman Adventures” that really disturbed me. In that episode, Harley recalls how she crossed paths with the Clown Prince of Crime. He manipulates her into breaking him out of the asylum. She sticks by his side, even though he often ignores and berates her. In an effort to impress him, Harley successfully captures Batman which causes The Joker to slap her and throw her out of a window.
Something else in the episode resonated with me. Batman tells the Joker that Harley got a lot closer to killing him than he ever did. She is way smarter than him – she is a doctor after all. The Joker ends up ruining the plan because of his pride. This shows that Harley would be a more efficient villain all on her own.
Why does she stay with him?
When she moved into comics, Harley’s character grew beyond the Joker. She joins the Suicide Squad, teams up with Power Girl, and officially starts dating Poison Ivy. (I’m pretty sure they were always dating and DC just finally acknowledged it).
She even comes to realize how terrible the Joker is and finally cuts ties with him.
In her solo series, she lives on Coney Island in New York. She is a therapist by day and a roller derby racer at night. Instead of terrorizing the area, she actually protects them from danger. And she assembles a cast of misfits and outcasts as her friends.
In the many debates over female representation in comics, I generally see two perspectives on Harley. One hails her as some sort of badass, feminist icon. The other derides her as an oversexualized doormat.
I find that such conversations try to oversimplify things. People always want to either label a female character as “good representation” or “bad representation.” Both sides have valid points, but neither describes her fully. I think the reason she resonates with so many fans is that she is complex and that makes her relatable. Most female superheroes tend to be one-dimensional. For instance, I love Wonder Woman but she is not exactly relatable. She is pretty much put together most of the time.
Harley, on the other hand, is flawed. She is messy. There are levels to her and many different ways to interpret her character. She is not always swinging her mallet and making sassy comments. There are moments when she breaks down and we can see through the persona and see the human side of her.
Like many female characters in comics, Harley started off as being nothing more than a female counterpart to an existing male character. Now, she is one of the best-selling female characters in comics.
Ultimately I think it is pretty great that over the last 25 years, Harley has grown from a subservient sidekick to an independent character of her own. Whether she is playing the role of a villain, antihero, or is just off having zany adventures, she always keeps it interesting.
And I cannot wait to see what the next 25 years have in store for her.