Since Harley Quinn’s first appearance in 1992 on Batman: The Animated Series, Batfans have been attached to the Joker’s whimsical sidekick/lovesick puppy. Initially, the character merely provided a humorous means to exhibit the Joker’s sociopathic traits. Her eager attempts to please her “puddin’” were consistently met with verbal and physical abuse from the Clown Prince, often played out for comic effect.
I recently caught up on some Harley Quinn reading, breezing through her recent 100-Page Spectacular, as well as the first four issues of her new standalone title. While her carefree attitude and outlandish antics are entertaining, I realized that her overarching narrative is a tragic, cautionary tale about the dangers of compromising one’s personal identity for a toxic relationship.
Eager to impress, she attempted to psychoanalyze the notorious Joker, eventually falling madly in love with his charm and the freedom presented in his mad proposals. She aided his escape and, desperately trying to please him, abandoned her own identity, assuming the Harley Quinn character. Much like the Joker, she adopted the costume of a clown-like character, the harlequin.
Despite minor alterations in canon over the years, the relationship has consistently remained one-sided and toxic to the core. Her identity and antics are merely responses to his madcap actions. He physically and psychologically abuses her, manipulating her into doing horrific and life-threatening crimes. Yet, after committing an assortment of heinous abuses, he exhibits brief moments of affection and she forgives him. When they aren’t together, her reactions can be related to those of an addict, desperately doing anything to seek out his companionship. She’s traditionally an object, a pawn in his sick narrative
Since this cycle of abuse plays out for comic affect, and Quinn isn’t portrayed as an inherently stable person, I was willing to permit the narrative’s representation of love. Unfortunately, another (possibly more popular) narrative is presenting the same depiction of toxic love, but framing it as romantic. I’m referring to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, featuring the tragically-abused Bella Swan.
Many have analyzed the dynamics of Edward and Bella’s relationship, and most have addressed that it meets the fifteen essential criteria for a domestic violence (Feel free to check out this old post from IO9). I’ll just hit you with some of the basics: Much like the Joker, Mr. Sparkles (Vampire Edward) is dark, dangerous, and compelling (well…compelling to flat, one-note characters like Bella). She falls for him and is absorbed into his lifestyle. He makes most of the decisions, often planting her in life-threatening situations.
When Sparkles temporarily leaves, Ms. Mopey (Bella) responds to his absence like a junky enduring the pains of withdrawals. Most importantly, she eventually abandons her identity in order to assume his, willingly offering her humanity in order to become a vampire. (I won’t even discuss why I see the vampire as a metaphor for rape). Like the relationship between Harley and the Joker, this relationship is one-sided. She’s simply an object to be moved around by her male counterpart (or multiple counterparts, if you include Jacob “Abs” Wolfboy).
Despite their similarities, the intent is different and there’s a certain inherent danger for young female readers. The exploits of Harley are meant to inspire laughter, or possibly pity, as we see the tragic consequences of her actions. Even though Harley Quinn is a common cosplay feature, very few girls seriously admit wanting to be Harley Quinn in that particular relationship. Unfortunately, the unfolding of Twilight is intended to inspire swooning, as the couple ends up together living happily ever after. Young female readers see this toxic relationship as mature love, to which they should aspire. Women of all ages wish for an Edward…a “traditional,” abusive, controlling, identity-consuming Edward.
In order to counterbalance these twisted desires, I believe anyone who reads the Twilight “Saga” should be exposed to the tales of Harley Quinn. Both present the same representation of “love”; yet Harley’s journey through passion, violence, and despair presents a more realistic path of domestic abuse. Her recent story lines in Suicide Squad and Harley Quinn have provided fantastic portraits of the character untethered from the Joker, and yet, not truly free.
In both series, she’s no longer his sidekick; yet, she can’t detach from his addictive grip. In Suicide Squad, for example, she even goes so far to strap the Joker’s detached face onto Deadshot in order to simulate being back in the relationship. The Joker later returns, angry that she’s attempted to live her own life. He assaults her and chains her up over a pile of bones, which represent earlier “Harley’s,” early sidekick/lovers. She escapes by twisting and tearing into her wrists, and claims to be done with Mistah J. The Joker, impressed by her violent escape, holds up the bloody manacles and states, “You just might be my Harley, yet.” This seems to imply the continuation of this violent domestic abuse cycle.
In Harley Quinn, the character moves to Coney Island, assuming multiple unique roles: landlord, roller derby bad-ass, geriatric psychiatrist, animal savior, etc. She isn’t merely the sidekick; she’s creating her own identity.
More importantly, the series consistently passes the bechdel test, a way of assessing gender bias in narratives. It simply asks for multiple female characters to talk to each other about something other than men. If the narrative fails, it usually means the female characters are used as subjects for the active males. In the past, Harley would have failed this test 99% of the time, as Mr. J always found his way into the conversation. Her progression exposes her attempt to move away from her addictive, toxic past.
Sadly, she still exposes an attachment to the Clown Prince, especially in the Valentine’s Day issue, when she admits, “I miss my puddin’ is all.”
We never see this level of complexity in Twilight; instead, we’re served happily subservient Bella bullshit. Bella never takes an active role in her own progression as a character. She never attempts to gain her own identity, anchored down by the man who she allows to obsessively control her. While Harley’s attempts to move forward will be fraught with complication, she’s working toward becoming a fully-developed human being, someone who isn’t defined by a man.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to compare the Joker with Edward Cullen, and maybe their representation of violence isn’t the same. Yet, when talking about domestic violence and mature love, the topic of power dynamics always arises. If one individual in the relationship holds all the power and demands conformity from their partner, it isn’t an equal partnership composed of two happy, whole individuals.
If you catch your daughter reading Twilight, don’t be angry. Simply balance this terrible role model with a character who is working her way through a toxic relationship. Expose your daughters to the exploits of Harley Quinn. Show them the consequences of following dark strangers down shady paths. And, if you’re worried that a murderous clown is too creepy for your innocent daughters, keep in mind that they’re reading about a ninety-year-old vampire who trolls for teenage girls at a high school. They can handle it.