Confession: I haven’t seen Suicide Squad yet. I was at a conference last weekend, and work’s been crazy busy. But what I have been is a fan of Harley Quinn since she was introduced in Batman: The Animated Series. So I was not surprised to hear that Harley & Joker are still in an abusive relationship.
However, I am sad, upset and disappointed that so many people are trying to claim that this is a romantic ideal type relationship. Or find ways to excuse abusive behavior as being deviant, not abuse. (I’m not surprised – I stopped being surprised when Hot Topic had their ‘Mad Love’ Valentine’s Sale with their merch)
Some history for non DC fans: In the cartoon, Psychologist Harleen Quinzel was obsessed with Joker and became Harley Quinn. He used that obsession of hers in order to get her to do what he wanted. There was no love there. Not on his end, at least. He used her, he berated her, and he hurt her. It was abuse- physical and emotional.
It’s been that way in the comics since she began appearing there, and only recently did Harley break the cycle. (Which, btw, has led to one of my favorite comic panels of all time – Harley punching Lobo)
So it’s not surprising that Harley in Suicide Squad is in the same position. Why? Because part of Harley’s appeal isn’t just the costume. It’s the underlying strength and brightness. It’s the spark of who she is that Joker can’t stamp out. The part that has her helping little kids, even if she’s a villain. The part that’s always believed she could befriend Poison Ivy (and she did). We just want her to be happy in the end. She can be happy and be a supervillain/anti-hero. Not arguing against that. Also, it takes incredible strength to survive abuse and keep that spark. No amount of reviews calling her a victim or abused diminishes that strength or that spark.
But the real problem comes from either downplaying their abusive relationship or romanticizing it – because there are so many younger fans who simply aren’t taught to recognize abuse until it’s much too late. Media today is filled with relationships that are either outright abusive or portray abusive tendencies as love. (Look at nearly every sitcom in the last decade. Actually… since television began. Couples who love each other gaslight each other for comedic effect. They tear down each other’s self images to make themselves seem better. I mean, I Love Lucy? Not the healthiest relationship. King of Queens? One of the most toxic sitcom marriages of all time. They might not lay a hand on each other, but nothing they do is emotionally healthy)
If we try to saying their relationship isn’t abusive because they’re supervillains who live by different rules, we’re ignoring that even at the core – they’re still humans. It’s their humanity that makes them relatable. Even if this was some elaborate game that they’re playing, it would require some equity. You can argue that the origin story has some equality (Harley chooses to jump into the acid, rather than Joker pushing her in as he did in the rebooted comics), but beyond that – are they on an even playing field at all?
On that note, if we try to portray their relationship as being Dominant/submissive (aka BDSM), then that’s just an irresponsible depiction of BDSM. Even with the power dynamic at work in BDSM, in healthy BDSM there’s equality- the submissive sets the boundaries and the Dominant works within that space. The sub is free to let get go (and submit) because there’s trust that the Dom will know when to stop. That isn’t the case with Harley and Joker. It will always be his rules they’re playing by, so it will never be an actual D/s relationship between them, no matter how much Harley seems to enjoy the game.
(And yes, you can have very healthy relationships that use BDSM – because they’re built on communication, boundaries and trust)
Abuse has been rooted in their relationship from the start. In B:TAS episode and comic named ‘Mad Love’, Harley came the closest that just about anyone has come to killing Batman. Batman has to convince Harley to call Joker to see him die, in order to give him time to escape. When the Joker arrives, he actually slaps her and yells at her – because he wanted to be the one to do kill the Batman. Bruised and heartbroken, she realizes that he doesn’t love her, but is won back over when he sends her a Get Well Soon card and a flower – which is classic behavior from an abuser. Making sure she’ll forgive him so he can continue acting as he always has.
There can be no true cat and mouse game between them, where they one up the other with a trail of crimes and bodies behind them because of the lack of equality in their relationship. She might see it as that, she might be on board, but time and time again – he’ll set Harley up to be the fall guy. To be in harm’s way. That isn’t love. Even a ‘mad love.’
If you’re someone who really wants to think that Harley and Joker aren’t abusive, ask yourself the tough question – why? Or make a clear case as to why in the comments.
(I do plan on seeing Suicide Squad, but feel free to discuss their relationship. If there’s something that somehow changes their dynamic in this movie – that accomplishes making it twisted vs abusive, let me know)