I became a Batman fan roughly five years ago, when a passing interest in the cultural icon that was the Joker prompted me to pick up a couple of comic books and to watch the old Batman the Animated Series show. It wasn’t very long before I was hooked – not on Batman in particular, to be totally honest, but on the villains. I fell in love with the Riddler, both a massive dork in his own right and a very interesting man plagued by a plethora of mental illnesses. I fell in love with Poison Ivy, a woman with an entirely unique perspective, having been human at one point but now existing just beyond that boundary, on the outside of society looking in. I fell in love with Scarecrow, just because he was a fucking jerk who enjoyed tormenting people with their worst fears.
But above all, my favourite character in the Batman universe was Harley Quinn.
I found her to be a very fun and unique character, full of contradictions. She was strong, but also hyper-feminine, with her blonde pigtails and her bubbly personality. She’s one of the very few people who Riddler has confessed to being (nearly) as intelligent as he is, but she dumbs herself down, either for the sake of the Joker’s ego or for her performance – it’s never really been explained either way. And then there was her relationship with the Joker – something that I found highly intriguing.
On the one hand, their relationship could be fun – almost sweet, even. They could be the dangerous lovers, holding hands and dancing through the death and destruction around them. They could torture children for the sake of making them their own. They could celebrate the end of Gotham with a kiss. I liked this side of their relationship, the contrast between romance and death. I’ve always been a sucker for villainous couples, and this one certainly had its moments.
But then there was the other side of their relationship – the abusive side. The side that made me, as a Harley fan, want to hunt the Joker down and punch him in his stupid grinning face and then pull her into my arms and tell her that she deserved better. It was the side that humanized a woman guilty of murder, the side that made readers everywhere see her as a fragile, complex individual who needed help. I liked this side of their relationship too, but for entirely different reasons. I liked it because of what it did for Harley’s character, how it fleshed her out and made her more than just a cut-and-dry bad guy. She was a woman in a situation that many before her have experienced – a lost, desperate lover who wanted only to find her happiness through any means and any sacrifice.
Because of the complex nature of their relationship, my personal feelings about it shifted often. Depending on the comic I had most recently read, I could either be looking up goofy fan art of them, or I could be fantasizing about the Joker’s brutal and totally justified death. Sometimes, I liked them together. Sometimes I didn’t. But even when I liked them together, it was never with the assumption that they were an admirable or even healthy relationship.
Because here’s the thing: I love Harley Quinn. If she were a real woman (and wasn’t guilty of quite so many murders) I would want to seek her out, give her a good, long hug, and then spend all night explaining to her how she needs to get herself help, and that I will be there for her through it all. But she isn’t a real woman. She is a character in a fictional universe, and in order for me to keep on enjoying her, she needs to keep on having a story. And in order for her to have a story, she needs to have conflicts, demons, suffering. If there isn’t anything wrong with her life, then there isn’t really a story there. So when I say that I enjoy the storyline of Harley and the Joker as a couple, it isn’t because I think that any real woman deserves to be treated that way, or even because I think that their relationship should be emulated by real couples. It is because Harley and the Joker exist in a contained, fictional universe where these issues that I find intriguing can be explored to their fullest extent without anyone actually getting hurt.
And when I started to notice other people being interested in Harley and the Joker’s relationship, I assumed that this was the case for them too. They had to know about the abuse between them – how could they not? It was Harley’s primary story arch, for pete’s sake! And if they didn’t know about it, well, then they couldn’t possibly have known their characters, and they just liked the image of them together. They weren’t actually ignoring the most important part of their relationship in order to praise the other, less substantial side, were they?
It was around the time that the Suicide Squad movie was released that I began to see it more and more often, however: fully grown, socially competent people who were actually holding the Joker and Harley Quinn up as a relationship to emulated. The pictures were all over my Facebook feed, tagged with phrases like ‘relationship goals’.
I almost couldn’t believe it. It seemed impossible that so many intelligent, critically-thinking adults could look at Harley and the Joker and forget the time that he pushed her out of a window because she dared try to do his job better. Or the time that he shot her just because he was tired of her being around. Or, hell, even just all the times that he yelled at her until she cowered beneath him. I mean, sure, there have been times where I liked their relationship, particularly in the moments where they were sweet and in love, but I never forgot the other side of their relationship. I never held them up as an image to be emulated.
And as much as I tried to tell myself that these people who ‘wanted a relationship like theirs’ were fully aware that there was a whole other side to it that they didn’t want, that they were just holding the more endearing side up as something desirable, I saw no evidence of that. In all the pictures of couples dressed up as Harley and the Joker, marked with countless people describing them as ‘cute’ and ‘relationship goals’, I never once saw someone even mention the abuse. In all the fan art that called them the perfect couple, I never noticed anyone pointing out their flaws. So as much as it might be harsh to say that these people are condoning violence against women, I will say that it doesn’t seem like they care all that much about it. Somehow, Harley being punched in the face and endlessly manipulated for years doesn’t stop them from being ‘relationship goals’.
So I’m still a fan of Harley Quinn. I’m still going to actively seek out comic books and video games and movies/TV with her in it, because she and her story are still incredibly intriguing to me. I still think that her story has value, being a reflection of issues that real women unfortunately go through in our society. But the side of her and the Joker’s relationship that I used to like, the side that everyone praises as being ‘sweet’ and ‘perfect’, has been tainted for me. This side exists for a reason – it is what keeps Harley from leaving. These are the good times that she always remembers when she’s wiping the blood and the tears away, telling herself that it’s her fault and that he’s a good guy, honestly, he just gets a little carried away sometimes. This side is just as ugly as its reflection, and we need to stop praising it. Because, no, Harley is not a real woman, but there are plenty of real women (and men) like her, and they are just as present as anyone else when you point to an abusive relationship and call it ideal. You normalize their abuse – you tell them that the other side of their relationship, the happy side that keeps them there, is totally worth everything else. And that most certainly is not the case. It isn’t the case in the fictional example of Harley and the Joker, and it isn’t the case in real life.
This needs to stop. The normalizing of abusive relationships through Harley and the Joker needs to stop. And if you are in an abusive relationship currently, you need to get help, please. You need to reach out to someone and get yourself out of that situation, through whatever means necessary. Your health and your happiness is so much more important than that.