When I first saw the Suicide Squad movie with its August release in theatres, I’m not going to lie, I was sort of conflicted. There was plenty about it to like, and Margot Robbie’s performance of my favourite character Harley Quinn was no small part of that, but there was also a lot that left me confused – like their odd choice to write out any direct reference to abuse between the Joker and Harley. Ultimately, however, I really wanted to like the movie, and I had remembered wishing in the past that the Joker and Harley were a bit more like other villainous couples where their love stands as a direct contrast to their cruelty (I’m thinking about Spike and Drusilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer in particular). And that was what Suicide Squad gave me: a quirky narrative where the main couple both adored each other and wanted to watch the world burn. So, really, what did I have to complain about?
When I got home that night, however, I began to read about how much of the movie had been cut out by Warner Brothers, and how initially, the abuse was supposed to be addressed, but the studio hadn’t wanted to deal with the controversy of it. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I know everything about what went on there, but I am going to say this: upon my second viewing of the movie, it became blatantly clear to me that the lack of abuse was a huge problem.
Now, there are a few reasons for this. One of the biggest ones is the simple fact that so much of Harley’s character revolves around her experience with abuse. In the comics, her main arc revolves around coming to recognize that she has been abused, deciding that she doesn’t want to let that happen to her anymore, and finding a way to build a life of her own separate from the abuser that she sometimes still loves. Now, this story has been done exceptionally well and it has been done terribly, but the fact remains that it is a huge part of Harley’s character. Not the only part, of course, and I’m sure that the movies can proceed without ever addressing it, but it’s still a huge chunk of her story being ripped out – kind of like doing a Spiderman movie where Uncle Ben never gets killed.
But that isn’t the only reason why Warner Brothers’ decision to rid the movie of abuse is a bad one. The main one that bothers me is that, as much as they took out scenes of the Joker punching Harley across the face, they still kept in subtle hints of the abuse. Things like Harley having ‘Property of Joker’ written in large, gold letters across her back. Things like the Joker crashing the car into the lake while Harley screams “I can’t swim”, followed by him then leaving his unconscious girlfriend to drown. Things like the Joker inexplicably torturing Dr. Harleen Quinzel, and then never having it addressed again.
Now, I’ve heard the argument that “of course there’s still abuse between them – you can’t write that out entirely. They’re a villainous couple who murders people, for crying out loud!” And I’ve also heard it said that people who worry about their relationship being romanticized are “taking it too seriously”, because the general audience knows right from wrong, and when they say that they want a relationship like Joker and Harley, what they are saying is that they want someone to accept them despite their crazy, not that they want to be abused. And I wish that I could believe that, I do, but we’re taking about the same general audience that made Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight famous, and when I look at the way that the Joker and Harley are written in the Suicide Squad movie, that’s what I see – abuse that is so watered down, made so digestible, that it can’t even be recognized for what it is.
In the comics, there is no way to deny that the Joker and Harley’s relationship is abusive. You see him push her out a window, you see her cower before him, case closed. And before the release of the Suicide Squad movie, whenever anyone said that they wanted a relationship like Harley and the Joker, I figured that they really knew very little about the comics and they just liked the image of them together. But now we have the movie, and the movie is so much more subtle in the way that they approach it that I am actually concerned that people might look at their relationship and think that it’s okay, that just because the Joker isn’t actively punching her across the face, then it isn’t abuse.
Now the thing that set me off on this whole rant was just an image that I saw on the internet, of Harley and the Joker with the famous quote “find what you love and let it kill you”. And that was probably the most disturbing thing that I have ever seen in terms of their relationship. I have heard Harley excuse the Joker’s violence by saying that it was “her fault”, I have read comics where the Joker actively decides to murder Harley, and none of that disturbed me nearly as much, because at least the reader was supposed to understand that that wasn’t okay. This image from the internet wasn’t supposed to be disturbing – it was supposed to be romantic. And that isn’t okay.
I can’t believe it even needs to be said, but when it comes to people, don’t find one you love and let them kill you. If you feel like a person in your life is killing you, physically or mentally, get the fuck away from them now. Reach out and talk to someone, get help, please. That advice might be good for a passion or a career, but not for a person. Never for a person.
As I hope has been implied by this whole post, I am a huge fan of Harley Quinn, and I have never taken offence to the abuse narrative in the past. Abusive relationships are an unfortunate part of society, and their inner workings should be explored by our writing. We should see the perspective of the abuse victim and we should see the perspective of the abuser, because, with a little bit of luck, that might be the only way that some of us will ever be able to experience or understand that perspective. It is a very important narrative, and one that I believe whole-heartedly should be shared. That isn’t what I take issue with in the Suicide Squad movie. What I take issue with is the romanticization of abuse – the way that the movie presents aspects of their relationship that just linger on the line of ‘not okay’, but never fully crosses that line, making it totally acceptable for the audience to say that they want a relationship like that, when they don’t. They shouldn’t. Just because he isn’t actively striking her and just because the movie refuses to address it, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still abuse.