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.