The other day, I had a conversation with someone that went something like this:
Person: I really, really hate it when people say that they want a relationship like the Joker and Harley Quinn.
Me: Yeah, I do too.
Person: Don’t they realize that the Joker doesn’t actually like her because she’s stupid and useless?
Me: Well, it’s an abusive relationship.
Person: I never understood why people actually like Harley.
Me: Well, for me, the appeal of her character has always been in the fact that she is an abuse victim, but over time she learns to recognize that and grow into her own strength and independence.
Person: Except she never does grow.
Me: Well, that depends on the version of her that you’re looking at. I’m hopeful for the upcoming Gotham Sirens movie, though, because Poison Ivy’s in it and Harley’s always at her strongest when she’s with Poison Ivy.
Person: Harley has a lady-boner for Poison Ivy.
Me: She does.
Now, I’m not going to say that Harley Quinn is always written as a perfect character; she isn’t. That’s just the nature of comic book characters, when you have so many different writers working with so many different ideas of what the character should be. You have your bad writers of Harley (in my opinion, these are the writers that never allow her to grow into her own strength and just depict her as the Joker’s hilarious punching bag) and then you have your good writers of Harley (in my opinion, the writers that actually allow her to grow and flourish).
But more than any opinion on Harley Quinn’s character, the conversation that I described above made me think about just how much of a misconception there is in our society about abuse victims, particularly about abuse victims who choose to stay with their abusers.
In the conversation that I described above, the person that I was talking to described Harley as being stupid and useless, and while she might occasionally act stupid, it has generally been agreed by many fans and writers alike that this is just that—an act, either for the sake of comedy (something that she has built her whole persona around) or to cater to the Joker’s ego (more on that later).
Outside of her act, she is a registered psychiatrist with a Ph.D., whose backstory hinges on the fact that she was accomplished enough to work with some of Gotham’s most dangerous criminals. In the storyline that first developed Harley Quinn as a character, the “Mad Love” episode of “Batman: the Animated Series,” she not only successfully kidnaps and nearly kills Batman, but she does it better than the Joker could, proving that she is not useless, at least not as a villain. In some storylines, Harley is even established as having a genius level intellect.
So, really, the only reason that I can think for Harley being described as “stupid” or “useless” would be because she chooses to stay with the Joker.
And this is not the only time when an opinion like this has come up in terms of Harley Quinn’s character. When asked what the hardest part about playing Harley in the recent “Suicide Squad” movie, actress Margot Robbie said, “I just didn’t understand how she could be such a badass and then fall to pieces over some guy. I found that really frustrating. Fans seem to really love that about her, that she has this complete devotion to a guy that treats her badly.”
And, yes, the Joker treats her badly. Yes, Harley should leave him, and yes, it is an abusive relationship. But personally speaking, I don’t think that any of this reveals a flaw in the way that Harley Quinn is written (again, by certain writers), but rather, it reveals a flaw in the way that we think about abuse victims.
We think of abuse victims as wrong. We can’t understand how they can be hurt by someone so badly, and then choose to stay, to allow themselves to be hurt again. You hear this kind of language all the time, and about real women as well: “If that was me, I wouldn’t stay.” Or, “I would never tolerate a man hitting me; I’d dump his ass in a second.” We assume that relationships are all black and white: that if one partner hits the other, then it’s a completely evil relationship that not only should but can very easily be ended in a heartbeat. So if an abuse victim chooses to stay with their partner, then they’re stupid and useless. They’re outside of our realm of understanding.
But it isn’t as simple as all that. I mean, it would be nice if it was; if abusers were all horned, grinning monsters that could be easily defeated by our heroine. Trust me, I wish the world was that simple.
But abusers have their ways of making their victims stay with them, and these ways are meant to be difficult to ignore; if they were easy, we wouldn’t have abuse victims. And one of these ways is by making their victim love them. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that abusers specifically lure their victims in with some sort of Dracula-like seduction, all with the intention of turning around and hurting them later; in fact, while I don’t feel like I know enough about the mind of an abuser to speak for all of them, I am fairly certain that many don’t even know that that’s what they’re doing. They just genuinely love their victim, in the mentally-ill way that they do love.
Victims and abusers develop relationships. The victim grows to care for their abuser, to want to be there for them through anything. Maybe they don’t plan to be there for them through pain and abuse, perhaps they don’t see that coming, but they do still grow to love them.
And to return to my discussion of Harley Quinn as an abuse victim, this is a part of her relationship with the Joker that many writers have taken care to establish. In the previously mentioned “Mad Love” episode of “Batman the Animated Series,” she spends time talking to him and getting to know him. She begins to feel sorry for him because of a reported abusive childhood, and then she feels sorry for him because he continues to get beaten and abused by Batman. She begins to love him, and she even develops a desire to protect him along the way.
But this love is not the only method that abusers use to make their victims stay with them. There is a method of abuse known as gaslighting, where an abuser will gradually manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity, their own mind. They will use little tactics over time to make the victim wonder about their own competence, and they will eventually come to feel dependent on the abuser.
For example, an abuser might say something insulting to their victim, and when their victim later confronts them about it, the abuser will deny ever having said it at all. This will effectively make the victim paranoid about whether or not they made it up in the first place, whether or not they can trust their own mind and memory. So later on, when their abuser is again cruel, they find themselves wondering if they were really cruel, or if they made it up in their own mind.
Abusers will tear down their victim’s self-esteem. They will make them feel as though they are stupid, worthless, ugly, and that they can’t do any better than their abuser. A lot of this comes from the abuser’s fear that their victim will leave them, and so they need to make them realize just how much they actually need them, because they’re the only ones who really love them, or who really have their victim’s best interests at heart.
Again, this method is seen in the “Mad Love” episode of “Batman: The Animated Series.” Harley borrows one of the Joker’s plans for killing Batman, and not only that, but she improves on it so that the plan actually succeeds—something it didn’t do when the Joker tried it. When the Joker finds this out, rather than being happy for her and supporting her in all her cleverness and ability, he gets angry, tells her that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, that she ruined the whole plan. He then throws her out a window, and when Harley lands in a bloodied heap on the floor, she chokes out what are, in my opinion, some of the most heartbreaking lines in DC history: “My fault…I didn’t get the joke.”
Author: Ciara Hall
Image: Movie Still
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Danielle Beutell
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman