‘’Love is patient, love is kind…’’ that’s what the bible says. It goes on to list the many other things that love is too and it’s right love has many forms:
A myriad of angles that many have felt but few can articulate. It is usually thought of with a fondness, a positivity it is one of our most prized values but love can also be twisted. There are forms of twisted love too:
To my mind there has never been a finer example of love’s darker side than that shared by the Joker and Harley Quinn. They have exemplified the chaotic nature of love for the last 25 years, often making a mockery of it. This sinister parody of romance first came to the attention of audiences in the episodes of Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS). Harley Quinn was introduced as a female sidekick of the Joker and his lover. When looking at their history, Love might be too strong a term. Throughout her time with him Harley is consistently shown to take the brunt of all the Joker’s frustration, being beaten, abused and left for dead with alarming frequency.
When I was younger I would laugh at the way Harley would always return to her man’s side, assuming that nothing was really wrong as there was always a smile on her face. This changed as I grew older. My understanding of the world began to temper my viewing, what was once comedic and lighthearted had turned to something that was undeniably tragic. Harley Quinn was, in every sense of the word, hopelessly in love with the Joker. No matter how many times he would knock her down she would always come back to him. She had to come back to him. Their exaggerated relationship was an analogy for the abusive relationships that can be quite common in the real world.
The simple, elegant animation of the Batman: The Animated Series seems ill-suited to the task of exploring such a complex issue, but any fan of the show knows that most of it’s themes are equally dark. The shows creators usually relished the opportunity to do something more mature with the show. Through the masterful storytelling of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, it managed to do so in sophisticated in depth manner. Using the clown and his loving counterpart the pair showed the prison that an abusive relationship can be for the victim.
All too often advice regarding abusive relationships is simply; ‘’Leave him/her.’’ . Sympathy is often found wanting if they don’t. There is a notion that if they don’t want to help themselves there’s no point trying.
This logic is often given a voice by Poison Ivy within BTAS:
Ivy herself is a very traditional model of a strong woman. She has power, fears little and takes what she wants. She is the femme fatale of Noir fiction. Harley as a character represents a very different type of strong woman. She is possibly one of the fleshed out women portrayed on screen. She has a great deal of agency in her ability to make her own decisions (flawed as they are), she is physically capable of holding her own but most importantly she makes mistakes. She is not some infallible creature on a pedestal but a living, breathing human.
This certainly aided her rise to cult status among fans. The paradox of her own agency leading her to a trap helped to raise her from the mire of being a simplistic ‘’victim’’ character to one that fans felt themselves rooting for (Schedeen, 2014). Here was proof that strength does not always indicate perfection.
The creators of BTAS had given an analogy to audiences on how not to love and exactly how cycles of abuse can be so punishing for those involved in them. More importantly they showed this without seeming overly moralistic or preachy. Despite this characters are always open to interpretation and perhaps the layers of their analogy were a little too nuanced and subtle.
In recent years damage has become something of a trend, no doubt in conjunction with sites like tumblr, and with it Harley’s dysfunctional relationship has found new fans for an entirely different reason:
She has become some kind of bizzarre champion for dysfunction, a kind of paragon for devotion for many people. Posts like these can frequently be found on social media as well as posts about the couple accompanied by #relationshipgoals. Her (misplaced) loyalty has been turned into an aspirational virtue. DC has faced issues for this kind of thing before, occasionally they use Harley’s problems as a way of moving merchandise.(Dickens,2016)
It may seem to be a slight overreaction to claim that a cartoon comic romance could inspire the emulation of abusive relationships, they are after all works of fiction and yet posts like the one above are all too common in online communities. While they may not be directly copying the actions of two psychotic clowns they are glamourising the notion of ‘’standing by’’ your partner no matter what. The risk of emulation increases when you give a character like Harley Quinn a flesh and blood counterpart.
Margot Robbie is the woman who has been given that particular honour in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. To her credit she is easily one of the better things about the film, as is Jared Leto’s Joker. Many liberties have been taken with both characters, a rejuvenated aesthetic that is fresh and exceptionally modern (perhaps to it’s detriment, there is something mockable about the Jokers grill and love of all things shiny. It occasionally detracts from his more sinister nature ).There is one slight problem though.
It’s sexist. The treatment of Harley’s character is sexist of that there can be no doubt. For much of the film she is little more than a sex object. Entire scenes devoted to her objectification. One in particular where the Joker offers her to a colleague to stir up his own feelings of jealousy so he can get off. A comprehensive account of just how sexist the film can be is available at the AV Club.(Zuckerman, 2016)
The main points are that her character is shallow and lacking in any kind of real motivation. Many think that the fact that she wants nothing more than to return to the Joker is exceptionally sexist. I would argue that all the characters in Suicide Squad have no motivation but it’s down to sloppy film-making more than Harley being a woman. Another point is that she spends much of the movie waiting to be ‘’rescued’’. Harley is no damsel in distress in this film and is actively seeking her own way back to the Joker, just as he is to her.
This brings me to the new dynamic of their relationship in the film. For the first time in the couple’s history Joker needs Harley almost more than she needs him. In other media Harley has always been the first thing that the Joker leaves behind. He rarely cares for her and often doesn’t even want her around. This was well established in Bruce Timm’s Mad Love the comic book continuation of the BTAS episode. One page reveals the level of manipulation that the Joker actually uses:
Suicide Squad’s Joker is a polar opposite. In this incarnation he is obsessed with her. His ‘’love’’ is one born of jealousy and possession, it is more an act of control but to him it is love. He is relentless in his pursuit of her. Harley is more of his equal than she has ever been. Amanda Waller acknowledges as much at the beginning of the film; ‘’she’s as crazy as he is and even more fearless.’’
Many people object to the scene in which Harley is ‘’forced’’ into a vat of chemicals. Many people seem to have blanked out the fact that she makes the decision (manipulated but her choice nonetheless) and that it is the Joker who saves her, he can’t walk away. Their relationship is the best it’s ever been.
And that’s exactly the problem I have with Suicide Squad.
The couple have a very glamorous Bonnie and Clyde image bestowed upon them in the film. Their psychotic co-dependence has been glorified to tie in with much of the internet culture that aspires to emulate them. Many reviewers have focused on Leto’s controlling Joker, whilst completely overlooking Margot’s enabling Harley. She delivers a speech in which she proclaims that each member of the squad are ugly on the inside and how they should be proud of that. It is a sharp and jarring moment in the film and Harley becomes a bitter unsympathetic character in an instant. Through all the cries of sexism, many have not focused on the fact that both characters are in an abusive relationship and it appeals to many people. The cold abuse of BTAS made sure that it was understood that inside Harley was suffering. In recent years DC has been taking great strides to distance her from the paradigm started 25 years ago:
The panel above shows Harley’s breakthrough that they always bring out the worst in each other.
Suicide Squad makes no attempt to keep this new Harley in place. They return to the abuse and more than that they revel in it. The underlying message of the film , at least in Harley’s case, is that any atrocity committed in the name of love is fine because it shows you care. The two abusive people are always there for each other. In many ways it is an absolute betrayal of the original intention for the character:
‘’I don’t think of Mad Love as a victim’s tale, but a cautionary one about what happens when someone loves recklessly, obsessively, and for too long.’’(Dini,2011)
Words from Paul Dini’s foreword to the latest edition of Mad Love. He goes on to mention that his hope for the character would be that she would escape the cycle. Comics constantly evolve and Harley Quinn is a character who evolves more than most unfortunately on occasion she is forced to revert to something old and finished. Harley Quinn doesn’t suffer from sexism or weakness Suicide Squad she suffers from the idea that she could possibly be happy in this relationship
GIFS taken from Vanity Fair
Dickens, Donna. “‘Suicide Squad’ Merchandise Romanticizes Joker and Harley’s Abusive Relationship.” HitFix. Accessed August 7. http://www.hitfix.com/harpy/suicide-squad-merchandise-romanticizes-joker-and-harleys-abusive-relationship.
Robinson, Joanna. 2016. “Is Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn the Most Divisive Character in Comic-Book History?” Vanity Fair. August 3. http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/08/harley-quinn-suicide-squad-margot-robbie-domestic-violence.