Here’s to Strong Women

When I was thirteen years old, I started to get into comic books. At the time, I was particularly partial to superhero comics. And as a young girl, I heard all the jokes about how, of course I was so absorbed in a genre that followed traditionally handsome, muscular men dressed in skin-tight clothing. It didn’t seem to matter much if I said that that wasn’t what drew me to the genre; everyone was simply convinced that that must be what it was.

I had a hard time convincing people that, when I opened a Batman comic, I didn’t do it for the sad, rich boy with abs; I was there for the tragic cat burglar who wanted love, but never at the expense of her freedom or independence. I wanted to read about the clown girl who fell head-over-heels for the wrong man, and then learned to recognize the abuse, and, with the help of her best friend (another woman who had faced mistreatment from an entitled and careless man) she got herself out of that situation.

I am, of course, talking about Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy, respectively. Three fictional characters who are not only strong, capable, and fiercely independent – they are, quite simply, unapologetically female.

When I was thirteen years old, these were the sorts of fictional characters that I was attracted to, in all forms of media: power fantasies. More specifically, feminine power fantasies. I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because she was allowed to (un-ironically) love shopping and make-up and gossiping, while still being able to kick some demon ass and stand up for herself. I loved Wonder Woman, because she was fierce and strong, but nurturing and loving all at once. I loved Xena, because she could be both warrior and princess without question.

When I was sixteen years old, my attention began to turn a little bit more toward celebrities, because I suppose that’s what you do when you’re a teenager (or, it was what me and my friends did, at least). The celebrities that I sought out were much the same.

I loved rocker chicks, like P!nk and Joan Jett, women who weren’t afraid to challenge what was expected of women. I loved celebrities like Lady Gaga, who insisted on expressing themselves in the way that they saw fit. I loved Emma Watson, and any woman who was willing to brand themselves a feminist or stand up for women’s issues.

I loved female celebrities who will go unnamed here, simply because there is not time and space to mention all of them.

When I was eighteen years old, I became more aware of the women in my own life, in my family (as you tend to do when you’re facing the possibility of moving out and moving on).

I heard stories about my maternal grandmother, and how much of a firecracker she had always been. I heard about this five-foot-tall woman, growing up with nothing to call her own and having to build her own life from scratch. I heard about the time that her own brother made fun of her until she could stand it no longer, and she stabbed him in the hand with a fork.

I remembered growing up with my mother, who was covered almost head-to-toe in tattoos and dyed her hair a new colour every week. I remember her pictures being published in tattoo magazines, her name being made as a small-time tattoo model, even when she had two fully grown daughters. I remember her telling me that the people who thought she shouldn’t be who she was at her age didn’t matter. I remember her telling me how important it was to be true to yourself, and to be proud of who you are, no matter what that means.

I remember growing up with my sister, who has never once considered not speaking her mind. No matter what, even if what she says is considered rude or incorrect, she will say it. If others tell her that she should be humble, then she will climb to the highest rooftop just to scream out how much of a gift she is to the world. If someone tries to hurt or slight her, then she will do precisely what she needs to do to protect herself, because that is precisely the sort of strong, independent woman she is.

Now, I am twenty-two years old, and I am more aware now than ever that strong women are a gift upon this world.

As women, we are too often told to be something very particular; we are told to be soft, humble, passive, sweet, whatever – my point is, whenever a woman does not subscribe to this limited definition of what a woman can be, the effect can be truly inspiring.

Because the fact of the matter is, women don’t have to be one thing. Women shouldn’t be one thing; there are millions and millions of us, and we are all different. We all look different, act different, think different, love different, and we should reflect all that in how we live our lives.

A woman who does not perfectly reflect society’s definition of beauty, and yet still loves herself and owns what she has, is a rare and beautiful thing – specifically because society tells women that they shouldn’t do that.

A woman who unapologetically owns her quote-unquote ‘unfeminine’ traits, like ambition or assertiveness, is, again, a rare and beautiful thing.

A woman who is, quite simply, herself, regardless of what that might mean, is a rare and beautiful thing.

And the reason why am I writing this, more important than simply reminding the world that strong women are a gift, is because we need to remind the strong women in our lives that they are strong, that they are amazing, that they inspire us. We need to support our fellow women, to encourage them to continue being themselves. Because we exist in a society that sometimes seems intent on tearing them down, but if we can remind them that what they do is important, then maybe they can find the strength to continue.

As women, we need to build one another up. We need to be there for one another, to make one another better, instead of constantly trying to prove that we are better than them. On top of telling women what they should be, society has also tried to trap us in a constant cycle of competition with one another: we must be the pretty-est, the most loved, the best mother, but the truth is, we don’t need any to accept any of this. We have the option of supporting our fellow women, of helping them to become stronger. Because we all deserve to be and feel strong.

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Harley Quinn and the Stigma We Have About Abuse Victims

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 PhD, 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 by them again. You hear this kind of language all the time, and about real women as well: “If that was me, I wouldn’t stay.” “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, they are worthless, they are ugly, they can’t do any better than them. 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”.

Abusers will make their victims feel as though the abuse is somehow their fault – that they earned this by being stupid, by pushing the abuser’s limits.

So between the two methods that I’ve discussed, we should already see that there are two huge, glaring problems here: the victim knows the abuser, they love them, they don’t want to hurt them. They see them for a vulnerable, hurt person already, someone who will be broken to see their victim leave – and this is an image that the abuser will most certainly perpetuate, telling their victim again and again that, if they leave, they will never get over it, they might even kill themselves, or disappear forever. It’s really hard to condemn someone you love to that, especially if you actually believe that they will go through with it.

And then, on top of that, the victim already has a low self-esteem, something that they might have come into the relationship with already, but which most certainly hasn’t been helped by the abuser. They don’t think that they can live on their own. They think that they’re too stupid, too worthless. If it wasn’t for their abuser, then where would they be?

But sometimes, abuse victims do manage to work through all of this, and sometimes they do manage to leave their abuser. And sometimes, when they leave, they go back.

This is something that happens to Harley Quinn as well. It is a running theme throughout many of her narratives – her recognizing her abuse, starting to leave, and then being pulled back in. As I’ve talked about the “Mad Love” episode a few times already, I might as well continue with that, because this is a theme in that storyline as well. After the aforementioned throwing-Harley-out-a-window scene, we later see her in the hospital, bandaged up from head to toe with her arm in a sling. During this scene, we as the viewer hear her inner monologue about how she’s decided that she’s done with the Joker, that this was the last straw – she is not going to go back to him. She then takes note of a flower by her bedside with a note reading “get well soon – J”, and upon seeing it, she starts to swoon, and the viewer knows that she will be going back to the Joker after all.

And why? Because he made an attempt to reach out to her. He did what he could to show that he cared about her, that he wasn’t going to hold a grudge or end the relationship. And as long as he is still willing to try to make it work, she still wants to try as well.

In real life, different abusers will try different tactics to the same result. They might promise that things will be different. They might apologize profusely, say that that “wasn’t them”. They might deny that what they did was abuse and claim that the victim is being cruel and unfair. And especially if the abuser and the victim have children together, they might try to use them as a reason for why they should stay together, why they shouldn’t “give up” now.

And in many cases, the victim wants to believe the abuser because the victim does love them and want to help them, or they don’t want their children to have to live in a “broken home”, or they might still be afraid of what life without their abuser might look like, especially if they continue to see themselves in the way that their abuser has described them.

There are many, many reasons why an abuse victim would choose to stay with their abuser, and it is cruel and belittling to refer to them as ‘stupid’ or ‘useless’ for doing so.

But despite these reasons, despite what rationalizations victims come up with at the time, they should not stay with their abusers. There are no reasons good enough to keep yourself in that sort of situation. If you find that you are in a situation similar to the one I have described, if you are being abused either physically, sexually, or emotionally (and the latter can hurt just as much as the two former – it is just as important to address here), then you need to get help. Try to talk to either a friend or family member if you can, but if you can’t, there are plenty of resources for you out there: if you are Canadian, here are a list of resources for victims of crime (including domestic abuse), and here are a list of resources if you live in the United States.

And, as I hinted at before, part of the reason why I love Harley Quinn’s character is because she discusses these issues so openly, in a way that not everyone is always comfortable with. Some people might say that she’s stupid and useless because she has a hard time leaving the Joker, but I say just the opposite: she is a necessary character in our media because she shows just how hard it is to leave an abusive scenario.

And more than that, especially in recent comic book or video game adaptions, she has managed to separate herself from her abusive past. In her comic book solo series (Harley Quinn #25, for those of you who are curious), Harley actually confronts the Joker and decides, once and for all, that she is absolutely done with him, that she will never have anything to do with him again. And in the recently released video game Injustice 2, Harley Quinn not only has her own gang and her own independence, but she actually reveals (through an encounter with Scarecrow, a villain who is capable of forcing people to experience their worst fears), that her greatest fear in life would be returning to the state that she was in when she was with the Joker. As time goes on, the writers of Harley Quinn are becoming more interested in developing her strength, helping her to overcome her insecurities and move passed being a victim of abuse. And that is such an important image for us to have in our media, because too often, victims of abuse feel as though they can’t stand on their own, as though they aren’t strong enough. And Harley Quinn is proof that you can do it – you can pull through, you can build yourself back up again, and you can look fabulous doing it too.

The Sexist Writing of Poison Ivy on Gotham

Poison Ivy has always been one of my favourite characters in the Batman universe.

In a lot of ways, she is everything that the patriarchy demands a woman shouldn’t be – intelligent, independent, in charge of her own sexuality while simultaneously lacking any real interest in men. She can be written very, very badly, of course, but she can also be written very interestingly, as a woman who defies categorization and who demands to be her own woman.

Poison Ivy is also a very interesting example of a sympathetic villain, because while she does kill often and unapologetically, she does so because of a traumatic event that changed her forever. For those of you unaware of her backstory, Poison Ivy was held hostage by her trusted friend and employer, who then proceeded to experiment on her and biologically alter her, turning her into something that is more plant than human. Afterwards, Poison Ivy has a very difficult time relating to other human beings and grows to hate them because of what they do to what is now her own kind – plants. She vows to protect the earth from man kind, and she does so, frequently, by killing them. In her story, it is very easy to see her as a victim, someone who is coming to terms with a violent attack but doing so poorly. And although her attack was not a literal rape, there are many elements in it that resemble one – the fact that it was done to her by a close friend but also someone in a position of power over her, the way that it left her feeling changed afterwards, and if one thinks about her in this way, it might explain why her hatred towards mankind seems to have a special emphasis on the word ‘man’.

The reason why I explain this is just to set up the character that I am discussing here, as well as part of the reason why I love her so much, and why it was such a disappointment to see the FOX series Gotham butcher her so terribly.

And I’m not even talking about a mere poor writing of her character – I’ve seen that before, and as much as I don’t like it, neither am I going to dwell on it all that much. I’m talking about a television show that takes a character who can be interpreted in very interesting but highly gendered ways and reduces her to walking boobs without even the semblance of a brain.

And where am I going to start with this? How about I start at the very moment where she became an active character on the show.

For those of you who have not watched Gotham, what I am about to explain might sound somewhat strange, but this is the backstory that she is given on the show. When Ivy is first introduced, she is a child – around fifteen years old. She hangs around on the show for a while, never really placed in the foreground until about season three, when Ivy is grabbed by a man who has the ability to increase a person’s age by touching them. The next time that we see her, she is played by twenty-nine year old actress Maggie Geha. So why did the show decide to age her up by about fourteen years? Because they wanted to sex her up, of course! According to Gotham executive producer Ken Woodruff in his interview with the Hollywood Report, the writers wanted to explore Ivy’s sexuality, something that has always been an aspect of her character, and they didn’t feel comfortable exploring the sexuality of a child.

And on the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea: it is uncomfortable to sexualize a child. Except for one thing: Gotham is about the characters of the Batman universe growing into their adult personas. It is a sort of coming of age story on one level, about Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, and Pamela Isley (or, in this case, Ivy Pepper) growing up to become Batman, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy. And as uncomfortable as this is going to make the parents of many teenagers, I have something to point out: fifteen year olds have sexuality, they are just learning about what that means and how they can explore it. To turn Ivy into an adult with her sexuality fully formed seems less like the show wants to explore how she grows into her sexuality and more like they want the men in the audience to drool over her. Imagine how different the show could have been if they instead decided to focus on a fifteen year old Ivy learning about the power in her sexuality, exploring that and what it means. It would have been less about how sexy she is and more about her learning to take charge of her body. Or, in other words, it would have been less about her as an object that men want to fuck and more about her taking charge of her own body and her own sexual power.

But Gotham is not interested in Ivy as a human being. They do not want to give her any real power. They just want to make her as sexy to the audience as possible, and a fifteen year old isn’t sexy.

And if you want more proof that Gotham doesn’t care about Ivy as a person, let’s look at the way that they characterize her after she becomes a foregrounded character on the show. Remember how I described her earlier – as an intelligent, independent woman with a hatred for all things male? Well, after Ivy becomes an adult and a walking set of boobs, she is then nonsensically made to take care of an injured Penguin (who openly and verbally abuses her constantly), and her defining characteristic seems to be how stupid she is. She is constantly bumbling idiotically into mistakes, not even realizing when she’s being manipulated by others. Now, I can forget the fact that Poison Ivy in the comics is a botanist with a PhD, because I know that she isn’t (yet) in the Gotham universe, but one of her defining characteristics in every previous adaption is the fact that she is manipulative. She knows how to get into people’s heads, and yes, part of that is because she employs the use of pheromones, but nonetheless, she is consistently smooth and seductive and charming. How is she supposed to do all of that if she doesn’t even have the wherewithal to know when someone is very blatantly lying to her?

Although I have no confirmation on this, my theory for this characterization of Ivy is very similar to the confirmed reason for why she was aged up: because the show only sees her as a sexual object. From the comics, they saw a character who was very open about her sexuality and they interpreted that character as stupid, as a doormat that can be easily abused and taken advantage of, when that is the furthest thing from true. Poison Ivy is a strong, independent woman. She is the woman who encourages Harley Quinn again and again to leave the Joker because he isn’t good for her, and yet here she is, allowing Penguin to yell at her and call her stupid. This isn’t just a case of the writers not understanding the character – this is a case of the writers taking a sexist and objectifying stance on a character who is so much more than the tits they reduced her to.

In Defence of Superman

I’ve been noticing this pattern lately, not necessarily in the hardcore DC fandom but in the much less committed pop culture, of people who seem to brush aside the character of Superman. I’ve heard people say that he can’t be interesting anymore because he’s too powerful. I’ve heard people say that he’s, plain and simple, a terrible character. And I’ve heard time and time again that Batman is the far superior superhero.

And while I’ll agree that Superman hasn’t exactly been represented well in the recent media (I’m looking at you, Snyder), I can’t help but wonder about this mutual dismissal of what was once an extremely popular character.

Personally speaking, I still like Superman. I think Superman needs to exist. In the entire spectrum of the DC universe, I think Superman fills a void that other heroes (like Batman) don’t.

And the thing that I like about him is not his incredible power – there are many superheroes that possess god-like abilities (there are even some superheroes who are, literally, gods). No, the thing that I like best about Superman is actually when he is put on a much smaller scale.

I can pinpoint the exact moment where I fell in love with his character – and you can find it easily if you just Google ‘Superman and the jumper’. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the comic shows Superman fly to a rooftop where a woman is planning to commit suicide. Rather than pull her off the roof, he commits to talking to her, trying to understand and help her, to convince her that life is worth living. And, of course, just like with all superhero stories, he wins in the end. The first time that I saw this comic, I cried. I cried because the writers could have chosen any superhero to have this conversation with the suicidal girl, and they chose Superman. They chose the hero with god-like abilities, the one who, out of any of them, should be the most detached from problems smaller than aliens trying to destroy the planet, and yet he wasn’t. He was still there, taking time out of his day to talk to this girl who wasn’t a danger to anyone but herself, because she mattered. Because in the eyes of this incredibly powerful being, every last person matters.

Superman truly is a figure of hope – more than any other superhero I can think of. He represents the hope of a better future. The hope that a man can possess unlimited power and yet still use it for good. The hope that, in the grand scheme of things, we all matter, and that sometimes, things don’t turn out for the worst.

And I get it – that hope is hard to find in times such as these, because lately, it just seems like the world is getting worse and worse. And with such abundant pessimism in the air, we find it easier to turn to heroes such as Batman, heroes who exist within a world of corruption and greed, where things just keep getting worse and worse and worse without any hope for an end. Even Superman has become a darker figure in recent years, killing Zod at the end of 2013’s Man of Steel and even turning into a villainous figure in stories like Injustice: Gods Among Us. But at the end of the day, the way in which Superman is always strongest for me is when he’s a symbol of hope. When he isn’t so much a God, but a man who’s just trying his best to make things right.

And maybe that isn’t what we need right now. Maybe we need the darkness, just for a bit. But I hope we never lose sight of the idea that we can always bring back the light.