TW: Discussion of abuse/abusive relationships.
Harley Queen has been a staple in the DC universe for over twenty years. I would definitely consider her to be one of my favorite DC characters and probably one of my favorite comic book characters, overall. I’m not alone in this, and it was the overwhelmingly enthusiastic fan reaction to the character’s first appearance in Batman: The Animated Series that took Harley from one-joke-wonder to one of the most beloved DC villains today.
I’m also not alone in my discomfort surrounding parts of her story, and for a long time I’ve grappled with my adoration for a character whose various arcs have so heavily focused on her devotion to and obsession with a man who abuses her, both emotionally and physically. As disturbing as her relationship with the Joker is, there was always something about Harley I really, really enjoyed. She was funny, she had a great costume (in the original design, at least), and I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was even something empowering about her.
I’m slightly more alone in this. Whenever I express the idea of Harley Quinn as an empowering character, I don’t always find people who agree with me. They agree she’s a great character and they enjoy her, sure, but empowering? More often than not, they cite how deeply entrenched in abuse she and her story are, and how, despite the abuse, she continues pining over and returning to the Joker time and time again. Therefore, the argument goes, she can’t be (or shouldn’t be) empowering.
Harley Quinn was introduced to us in the midst of her obsessive, abusive relationship with the Joker, it’s true, and their disturbing dynamic has been reproduced in canon many times since the original storyline. But it’s not her whole storyline, and it’s entirely misguided to suggest that 1) a woman character whose story includes abuse can never exist in other contexts, and 2) victimhood disqualifies her from being considered a symbol of empowerment for other women.
Women are abused, harassed, and mistreated physically and/or emotionally by men every day — on the street, in the workplace, at school, and at home by boyfriends/husbands or male relatives — so when we see these stories in our media it hits home. It is common for women to love, remain devoted to, and keep returning to their abuser for years and years, just like Harley did. Harley’s story is not one of disempowerment, but an emotionally realistic portrayal of how so many women live and deal with abuse. The long character arc surrounding the Joker only makes her more relatable, more real to those of us who have been there and know what it’s like. What turns these abused women characters into empowerment fantasies is how we understand them as people before, during, and after the abuse occurs.
Abuse doesn’t override all of the accomplishments and experiences that have come before it, and it doesn’t prohibit us from having accomplishments and good experiences afterwards. This is not to discount the significance of what happened, as abusive experiences have an enormous impact on the victim’s life for a long, long time. But having been abused doesn’t erase who we are as people; what was done to us by others is not. who. we. are.
And it’s not who Harley is, either.
Harley Quinn has so far appeared in over 700 comic book issues. Over 50 of those appearances are her own titles, many of those issues not including the Joker at all. She’s appeared in over 20 issues of Gotham City Sirens alongside Catwoman and Poison Ivy, and has had her own series with Poison Ivy, as well. She has her own issues in the Convergence series, spent time as a member of the Secret Six, and is now a member of the Suicide Squad. Not to mention she has an extensive backstory, which goes back even further than her stint as a doctor at Arkham Asylum.
That’s just a brief overview; there’s more! Clearly, if you’re looking for a good Harley Quinn adventure sans/in spite of the Joker, you have plenty to choose from. And if you’re one of those arguing that her defining character trait is woman-giving-into-abuse, you’ll want to rethink that idea after checking out some of the above titles.
Even in her original appearances in the 90s Batman cartoons, we see her question, challenge, and have experiences outside of her relationship with the Joker. Don’t even get me started on the hilarious and super well-done “Harley’s Holiday” episode, which only mentions the Joker once, and so briefly that I just had to think really, really hard about whether he featured at all. The scene in “Trial” where Harley finds out the Joker gave her up the last time she escaped from Arkham in exchange for a lesser sentence for himself is great, too, because she gives him the ear-full he’s deserved for a long time (though not quite to the extent that I would have liked her to!).
And then there’s Harley’s relationship with Poison Ivy. Let’s talk about the “Harley & Ivy” Animated Series episode for a moment, because I think that story is even more quintessential to understanding the character of Harley Quinn than “Mad Love”, her original origin story in the comics, is.
[Note: Below I’m discussing Harley and Ivy’s first meeting in The Animated Series, not the comic book. The comic book tells a different story but the tone is similar and the overall point and purpose of the relationship is the same. The Animated Series episode came first, anyway.]
After the Joker throws Harley out of their hideout in yet another rage, she decides to try to make it on her own in the great, big world of crime. The next time we see her, she’s gone to the Gotham Museum to steal the Harlequin diamond (a heist she originally planned to carry out with the Joker). Harley skillfully avoids setting off the security alarms with a series of backflips, and stops in front of the diamond case to express out loud how happy “Mistah J” is going to be with her when she brings him the prize. Her face drops. “No,” she says, picking herself up again. “I’m keeping it for myself!”
Just as she’s about to remove the diamond, the security alarms go off, so she smashes the case, grabs the jewel, and runs for the exit. The cops are already there, but so is Poison Ivy, who tripped the alarms while stealing plant toxins (because what else?) from the museum laboratory. The two meet, combine skills and resources to evade the police, and get away in Ivy’s car. Their partnership takes off from there.
Throughout the episode, Ivy actively challenges Harley’s devotion to the Joker, tells her she deserves better, and introduces her to a way of life without her abuser. Ivy takes Harley under her wing and they do awesome villain-y things together like terrorize a men’s club and shoot a bazooka at a car of obnoxious cat-callers. It’s a super fun episode to watch, and it’s the first time we see Harley Quinn really, truly happy, and being treated well. That is, until she starts to miss the Joker. Despite how much she’s enjoying time with her new friend, Harley calls her abuser on the phone and the Joker — furious that Harley didn’t come right back to him as he expected and, instead, is overshadowing him in the headlines for the crimes she’s committing with Ivy — tracks her down and shows up at Ivy’s home.
This narrative is so familiar it’s painful: victim leaves the relationship but still holds onto the hope that her abuser really cares for her, and abuser becomes furious when his victim leaves, so he stalks her and violently tries to get her back. This episode single-handedly defines Harley’s early character arc not as woman-giving-into-abuse, but as woman-struggling-to-leave-abusive-relationship.
This episode isn’t the end of Harley’s relationship with the Joker, and she continues to struggle with his abuse for a long time afterwards. But “Harley & Ivy” became a huge turning point that not only gave Harley a friend and ally, but framed Harley’s struggle in a relatable and even hopeful way — “Harley has someone (Ivy) who cares about her now. She can get there! She can be okay! She’s not there yet, but she can be!”
Harley Quinn is still thriving, sometimes with but often without the Joker at her side. And, as recently confirmed by DC Comics, Harley and Ivy’s relationship is a lot more than friend-love: they’ve been having sex this whole time! Of course, this is no surprise to the fans, who have speculated the sexual nature of their relationship for years, but confirming the relationship as canon only strengthens the argument that Harley Quinn is, in fact, an empowerment fantasy for women, especially those who have been abused. Abuse is really good at making the victim feel like she is nothing. Survivors of abuse are often traumatized into thinking that they are wholly undeserving of love or being treated well by other people — sexually, romantically, or otherwise. But Ivy loves Harley, and Ivy treats Harley well. To Ivy, Harley is not nothing, and it shows all of us that there can be life, and love, after abuse.
When we’re talking about a fictional character, convincing personhood is key to how we as readers and viewers relate to that character, and Harley (outlandish costumes and body count aside) is as relatable as they come. She is a victim of abuse, but she’s also a survivor, and most importantly, she’s a whole person — her own person — outside of what has happened to her. Abuse is not her whole story.
Harley Quinn keeps on keeping on and keeps on kicking ass, and those traits, more than anything else, are what define the character for me.