Abuse is Not Our Whole Story: Harley Quinn as an Empowerment Fantasy

Harley-Quinn

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.]

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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!”

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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.

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Yes, Your “Harmless Greetings” are a Form of Street Harassment

“10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman”, a video released by the anti-street harassment organization hollaback!, went instantly viral after being posted to YouTube on Tuesday. (watch it here)

As the video started to flood social media newsfeeds, a wealth of (necessary) criticism began to pour in: writers and social justice advocates pointed out that the complete lack of white men depicted in the video (which the video’s director later admitted was done intentionally), inciting concerns that the video was doing more to justify racism than shed light on street harassment. It was also noted (by hollaback!, as well as others) that the harassment experienced by women of color and LGBTQ individuals (especially transwomen) is different than the harassment experienced by white women (like the actress in the video), arguing for closer attention to these experiences of harassment, which often escalate to physical violence and murder.

I am glad all of these criticisms exist, and encourage everyone to read them and keep an eye out for further conversations surrounding the intersections of race/class/gender and street harassment. This is the kind of criticism we need for movements to push forward, unlike the critiques on the opposite end of the spectrum, which, unsurprisingly, have come from men (and some women) completely denying that street harassment is a problem, or that it even exists.

Such gross denial of the reality of street harassment has come from the usual, expected sources like Rush Limbaugh, as well as unexpected ones, like men and even women from my own social circles. Aside from the so-overplayed-it’s-now-a-cliche “not all men” choir, the most common response on this end has been to criticize the woman for being “rude” to men who “were just trying to be nice”.

“You can’t even say ‘good morning’ anymore!”
“I just won’t say ‘hello’ to a woman ever again. That’s the only way not to be considered a harasser, it seems.”
“Women complain when we don’t talk to them, then complain when we do! They were just trying to compliment her. Men can’t win!”
“All I saw were a bunch of harmless greetings. Women need to get over themselves.”

These are all things I have seen or heard in response to this video, and all of them miss the point at the center of distinguishing street harassment from normal conversation. Street harassment isn’t defined by what is said, but the fact that the words are uninvited and delivered in a way that is not meant to initiate conversation, but to call out and draw unsolicited attention to the individual they are directed towards.

Put as simply as possible, here is what happens: You are a man who sees a woman walking down the street. The two of you don’t know each other. You also do not know whether or not the woman wants to be bothered or spoken to, but you speak anyway. In doing so, you are acting on the belief that it doesn’t matter what she wants, and that your desire to say something completely trumps her desire to be left alone.

You may not be yelling “hey, sexy” or “nice ass”, but your uninvited “hello” cuts through the same space to reinforce the dismal reality that a woman cannot walk down the street without being watched and gazed upon by men. Your seemingly “harmless” greeting is painful because it speaks to the fear that women cannot go anywhere without our bodies, motions, and presence becoming the subject of someone else’s gaze.

That is why the “they were just trying to be nice” defense is not only misguided but so, so dangerous. Calling out to random women on the sidewalk enacts and reinforces oppressive power dynamics that tell men they have the right to impose themselves on women’s spaces. It is NOT the same as “approaching” a woman you are interested in. It is NOT the same as giving a woman a “compliment”. It is NOT the same as “simply saying hello”. It is a violation of her personal space, an imposition justified by violent notions that normalize the objectification of women. And, yes – it is harassment.

If men really want to “be nice”, they need to learn to recognize when their voices are unwelcome, and leave women alone.

For an alternative to the “10 Hours” project, check out Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere, by Jessica Williams of the Daily Show.

Somaly’s Lies: On Romanticized Victimhood and the Erasure of Human Life

In case you missed it, Somaly Mam resigned this week from her
positions with Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Precaire (Afesip) and the Somaly Mam Foundation, organizations she co-founded in 1996 and 2007, respectively, to combat sex-trafficking and violence against women and girls in Southeast Asia.

The resignation came after a series of accusations targeting the legitimacy of Somaly’s narrative, accusations that claimed her entire human rights platform to be built on blatant lies and fabrications. Inconsistencies in Mam’s story have been reported on for years, but such claims began to gain momentum in October 2013 when The Cambodia Daily published the story of a young woman named Meas Ratha. As a teenaged student enrolled in Afesip’s secondary school program, Ratha was coaxed by Mam into appearing on French television to share her experience as a child prostitute. In reality, Ratha had never once stepped foot inside a brothel. The whole story was a lie, Ratha revealed, a lie carefully scripted, rehearsed, and performed for the camera as a means of conjuring support for the organization. Ratha went through with the interview at the time, she explains, because she was grateful for the education Afesip afforded her and her sister. Sixteen years later, however, Ratha felt it was time the world knew the truth.

In the months following the news of Ratha’s story, the number of investigations into the legitimacy of Mam’s platform skyrocketed, with pieces published by The Cambodia Daily and other journalistic publications revealing an overwhelmingly disproportionate distribution of funds within the organizations, that Ratha was now being urged by the foundation to ‘keep quiet’, and that there had in fact been suspicion over Somaly’s honesty for years, as confirmed by ex-Afesip worker Pierre Fallavier. The last straw, however, seemed to have been a Newsweek expose written by Simon Marks, the Cambodia Daily journalist at the forefront of uncovering the truth about Somaly Mam from the start. Published on May 21, exactly one week before Mam’s official resignation, the expose detailed every instance in which Mam had been suspected of and/or caught fabricating stories about the girls under the ‘care’ of her foundation, including seriously questioning, with thorough evidence, the legitimacy of Mam’s own story of being trafficked into sex slavery as a child. 

Although Mam has been met with consternation by various non-profits and NGOs in Cambodia for years, and vehemently opposed by sex-worker advocacy groups long before these accusations began to surface, Somaly Mam has enjoyed a nearly twenty-year reign as a mainstream media darling, boasting an impressive list of high-profile supporters from all over the world. The reason, Somaly’s defenders would have it, is in the results – Somaly Mam claims to have provided aid and support to thousands of women and girls over the years, an implication of ‘success’ that prompts even Simon Marks in his tell-all expose to ponder, “She has done so much for so many, does it matter that key parts of her story aren’t true?”

The answer, is yes. It does matter.

It matters because after the news of Ratha’s alleged (false) enslavement reached her home-village, she became shunned by everyone she knew. It matters because the kinds of rescue narratives that Somaly has built her legacy on serve to eradicate the distinction between sex trafficking and sex work, posing extraordinary difficulties for sex workers struggling for rights, safety, and autonomy. It matters because, as Anne Elizabeth Moore writes in a brilliant piece for Salon, Cambodian women who are ‘rescued’ in this way are commonly ushered into work in garment factories, a pattern that works to “normalize existent labor opportunities for women, however low the pay, dangerous the conditions, or abusive an environment,” and “shame women who reject such jobs.” It matters because the soaring popularity of ‘pity charity’ campaigns among prospective first-world donors does not require any sort of critical thinking regarding systemic structures of social inequality, and instead creates a market, and thus a demand, for sob-stories and narratives of “glamorized victimhood”.

On this cult of glamorized victimhood, Amanda Marcotte at The Daily Beast writes that it’s not hard to see why such organizations and media outlets continually contribute to the demand for sob-stories. To distant donors, the idea that they can ‘buy’ someone out of a life of poverty with their donations is extraordinarily appealing. It allows these donors to feel like they are the plot twist in a fairytale, the Fairy Godmother come to replace Cinderella’s rags with the life she has always dreamed of. There are many problems with this romanticized narrative of victimhood, however – namely, that in order for the donor to fulfill the fantasy of becoming the Fairy Godmother, there has to be a Cinderella. There always has to be a victim, even if one has to be created, and that says something profoundly disturbing about a first-world thirst for the suffering of others and a preoccupation with ‘saving’ people out of victimhood.

It is this highly romantic ‘rescue narrative’ that solidifies a disturbing appetite for others’ suffering, fueled by the idea that the outcome of the donors’ aid is always “happily ever after”. Somaly Mam understood this – countless organizations, charities, and aid agencies understand this. They understand this and so they supply the sob-stories to meet the demand of not only monetary donations and volunteer labor, but the demand for the more privileged among us to feel good about contributing to a seemingly noble cause.

As Amanda Marcotte also points out in her piece, another key factor in the widespread popularity of ‘victim and rescue narratives’ is that, for donors, supporting such causes is incredibly easy. Getting behind these hard-to-swallow but easy-to-sympathize-with narratives is a way for people to look like, and really believe, they are noble human rights advocates without having to put in much effort. There is no stake in their commitment, and they are able to feel as though they are ‘doing good’ without having to think about the ways they may actually be complicit in the reproduction of a variety of social factors that contribute to widespread poverty, violence, and inequality across the world.

When organizations feed into the cult of romanticized victimhood, it doesn’t require, or encourage, people to think much at all – because the ‘victims’ of these horrific narratives are not to be thought about, they are just to be pitied. It is a profoundly dangerous approach that not only encourages organizations to lie and exaggerate about their respective causes, but strips the very people they claim to help of their own human agency. It erases who they are as people in favor of a carefully crafted facade of helplessness – a doomed and decrepit object of pity.

But pity does not create sustainable, systemic change. It can, in many cases, actually make things worse. When narratives fail to consider people as anything other than charity cases, it erases so much of what actually makes them human, including any implication that maybe – just maybe – they know what they need better than anyone else. Denying someone their humanity is probably the least helpful thing a person (or organization) can do. There is a lot of good to come out of uncovering the truth behind Somaly Mam, I hope some of that good will be to encourage better thought about what ‘rescue narratives’ really mean for people, and what support for such narratives really do.

So to you, those privileged enough to be reading this blog on your computer, smartphone, or tablet – be careful of the kinds of organizations and initiatives you support*. More importantly, be sure to think critically about how you show your support, and whether your contribution (monetary or otherwise) does help, or if it actually does, in fact, work to perpetuate the work of a Big Charity industry fueled by pity as opposed to the dignity of human life.

Because yes – it does matter.

* If you are looking for work to support in Cambodia, the Ponheary Ly Foundation is a fantastic organization committed to creating sustainable social change through education. They are committed to highlighting the strength and exceptionality of their students, not erasing it, and firmly believe that communities are their own greatest resource.

Kristen C. Turner
kristencturner@gmail.com