When Does a Fantasy Become Harmful?

Although I love video games and although I love Greek mythology, the God of War series never really crossed my path until recently. Now, I still haven’t played it, so I can’t say anything about the quality of the game or the plot or anything like that. All that I’ve seen is one scene, but as this scene wasn’t overly complicated or difficult to interpret, I feel fairly confident discussing at least it.

In God of War 3, your protagonist Kratos – a Spartan demigod with more muscles than Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime – enters into Aphrodite’s chambers (Aphrodite, for those of you who aren’t aware, being the Greek goddess of love and sexuality). He finds her almost naked, laying in a bed with her handmaidens and having some sexy-fun-time with them (because lesbians). Upon seeing Kratos, Aphrodite banishes her sexy handmaidens to the other side of the room so that she can have a conversation with him, during which she is lounging out on the bed, rolling around, and very clearly trying to seduce Kratos (because boobs). After the conversation is over, the player then has the option to give into Aphrodite’s seduction. If the player does this, we see Kratos descend upon the bed, before the camera pans off of them and onto Aphrodite’s handmaidens across the room, who then proceed to watch the bed and swoon and sigh over Kratos’s supposedly exceptional lovemaking, making comments about how jealous they are of their mistress while simultaneously groping each other.

Now, the critiques of this scene are obvious. It is both objectifying to women and fetishizing bisexual women. But that being said, I can already hear the defence against this critique: that it isn’t supposed to be taken at face value. It’s all a fantasy, intended to make Kratos look like the manliest manly man that ever lived, not only exceptional at fighting and looking awesome, but also at pleasing the ladies.

And trust me, I get that argument. I love fantasies in the media. In fact, some of my favourite story lines are power fantasies, intended to make the viewer feel like they are strong and capable by making you relate to the all-powerful, impossibly strong hero. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, these are all power fantasies.

But at the same time, they are different from what we see happening in the scene from God of War 3.

The thing about Spider-Man that makes him and his story arch very different from this scene is, well, content. Spider-Man is awesome because he fights crime, he has super powers, he looks like an average teenager but is actually secretly awesome. And at the same time, Spider-Man is awesome in a way that most young people know isn’t real. When it comes to things like superheroes, parents tend to be quick to remind their kids that, yes, Spider-Man is awesome, but in real life, people don’t have super powers and they don’t fight crime in quite the same way. When it comes to discussions of sexuality, parents don’t tend to be quite so quick to talk to their children.

When I saw this scene from God of War 3, the first thing that it reminded me of was… well, pornography. Not because it foregrounded sexuality, but because of how unrealistically it depicted sexuality. Let’s all just agree: Aphrodite did not act like a real woman would. Neither does she or Kratos look the way that the average man or woman does; they are both idealized versions of what society thinks their gender should look like. And nobody in the history of the universe has made comments like the ones that the handmaidens made about Kratos’s lovemaking. This is all fake, and it is fake with the intention of pandering to the man and his ego, while most pornography is similarly made with a male viewer in mind.

And for many children in the western world, pornography is their introduction to sexuality. According to a report made by the BBC in 2016, 53% of children aged eleven to sixteen have seen pornography online, and of these children, 53% of boys and 39% of girls saw it as a realistic depiction of sex. And, look – I’m not trying to shame you if you watch pornography, all that I am saying is that pornography is not only unrealistic, it is centred around catering to a male gaze and a male ego. Like this scene from God of War 3, it is a fantasy, but when no one is talking to young people about this topic or offering them an alternative way of looking at it, it becomes easier to accept it as truth.

To put it in perspective, it would sort of be like if every single movie made for young boys was Spider-Man, and every single young boy knew that super powers existed, but they weren’t allowed to see it or talk about or hear about it ever; after a while, they’d start to question why they don’t have web-swinging powers, and why some girls look and act differently from Mary Jane.

But let’s talk about another issue that this scene discusses; female bisexuality. Like sex, bisexuality isn’t really talked about or represented in our media. The only bisexual characters that I can think of off the top of my head in mainstream media is Maureen Johnson from Rent and Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black (both of whom are despicable human beings, but anyway…). In fact, probably the greatest representation of female bisexuality is, again, in pornography, meaning that you are more likely to see bisexual women having sex in our media than you are to see them going about their day or doing their jobs or anything like that.

But let’s go back to the scene from God of War 3, and let’s talk about the issue of desire here. Because, yes, Aphrodite starts out making out with her handmaidens, and yes, when Kratos is in bed with Aphrodite, the handmaidens are groping each other. But throughout all of this, the primary object of their desire is always Kratos, a man. Aphrodite sends her handmaidens away so that she can seduce Kratos instead. When the handmaidens are groping each other, their eyes are constantly on Kratos and they are going on about how hot he is. In fact, I am almost hesitant to describe them as bisexual, because outside of a few small sexual acts, they express nearly no desire for women; it always goes back to the man. And I have absolutely no doubt that the reason why the animators included these small sexual acts into the game was not because they wanted to represent Aphrodite as a strong, bisexual woman, but because they thought that it would be a nice treat for the presumed straight male player to see.

As I discussed before, this scene is harmful toward women in general because it perpetuates these unrealistic expectations that men have about how women should look and how they should behave sexually. But in some ways, it is almost more harmful toward bisexual women, because it perpetuates a very harmful stereotype that we all live with from the moment we come out of the closet: that we aren’t actually bisexual, we’re just trying to get attention from men.

This stereotype is one that hinges on dismissing the existence of bisexual women (and bisexual people in general). It portrays them, not as their own sexual orientation, but as promiscuous straight women – and as much as it is not okay to treat women differently depending on how many sexual partners they have had, it is an unfortunate fact in our society that that frequently happens, and it happens to bisexual women from the moment that we come out of the closet. Because of this stereotype, bisexual women are frequently dismissed, by straight men and lesbians alike, as ‘dirty’, a good, quick fuck but not actually worthy of love. Because of this stereotype, bisexual women are seen as ‘owing’ sex to men, because they obviously went to all the work of seducing them by being bisexual, and as a result, 61.1% of bisexual women are raped by an intimate partner, while 46% of bisexual women report being raped at any point in their lives, compared to 17% of straight women and 13% of lesbians. And don’t even get me started on the emotional side-effects of being consistently told, by both straight people and the LGBT community, that you aren’t enough, you’re too dirty, too promiscuous, to be accepted.

But, hey, maybe this stereotype would be less frequently relied upon if our media would just give us alternative representations of bisexuality.

So to sum this all up: when is a fantasy harmful? Well, my answer would be that a fantasy becomes harmful when it’s the only narrative we’re given. Sex is nothing like the way that it is represented in either pornography or God of War 3, but you wouldn’t exactly know that as an inexperienced young person who knows that sex exists but has never seen it for themselves, because the vast majority of our depictions of sex come through a heavy lens of fantasy, and a very male-oriented fantasy at that, resulting in some unhealthy ideas of what sex is and what women in sexual situations should be. And actual bisexual women are not lounging in their beds, making out with their handmaidens until a man shows up to sex them up properly, but if that’s the only image of bisexual women that we are given, then how are we ever going to know that?

So maybe my issue is less with God of War 3, which is nothing more than a stupid fantasy for young straight boys who like the idea of being a super powerful, super masculine lady-pleaser, and more with a society that doesn’t really give us much else than that. Where are my depictions of sex from a woman’s perspective? My bisexual women who don’t care if a man shows up or not, they’re perfectly satisfied with the woman they’ve got right here? If we had more of those, not only would this scene be much less harmful, it would be easier to recognize it as silly and unrealistic by comparison.

There Is Nothing Wrong With How You Feel

Very frequently, we will feel the need to hide the way that we truly feel.

This can be in a very small way, like pretending that something that someone else said didn’t hurt you just to avoid unnecessary confrontation, or it can happen in a much larger way, like spending years of your life pretending that you’re straight, or that you aren’t severely depressed and considering taking your own life.

And, similarly, this can happen for several different reasons. Maybe we’ve been told in the past that other people aren’t interested in hearing how we feel. Maybe we feel like the way that we feel is inappropriate, that we’re simply exaggerating to ourselves or seeking attention, even if we haven’t even told anyone yet – we’ve just internalized this idea that the way we’re feeling is always associated with attention seeking. Or maybe we don’t want to burden someone else with our honesty, we don’t want to make them worry about us or angry with us or look down upon us. We want to maintain a certain image before them – a strong, healthy, normal image, even if we don’t feel like we match it.

And so we keep silent.

We say nothing, but we keep on suffering. We keep on feeling.

And we keep on feeling alone.

So let me take this opportunity to say this: you need to say how you feel.

Now, maybe you need to be selective about who you say this to. For example, if are currently closeted, I am not advocating coming out to people who you know are not going to accept you, but rather will try to hurt you, either physically or mentally. If sharing the way that you feel is guaranteed to cause you harm of some sort, then I am very sorry for you, because you do not deserve that. You deserve the opportunity to be open and honest about how you feel without fear, and if you can’t be, then that is not your fault. That is the fault of the other who is causing you harm, whether they are doing it intentionally or not.

But regardless, in every single situation, it is important for people to not shoulder their burdens alone. We as the human species need people; we need to open up, to communicate. And once you do that, whether you’re talking about a mental illness, your identity, or a mere fear or anxiety that has been plaguing you, a miraculous thing happens – the burden becomes easier to bare. All of a sudden, you are not alone in this world. There is someone else out there who knows how you feel, who understands you and shares in your experience.

And furthermore – when you talk to someone else about how you feel, it can either validate it, or help you to work through it. Too often, our own minds become toxic places to hold thoughts, especially if they hold them for a long time. The longer they’re in there, the more that they sour, becoming something that doesn’t even reflect reality, and sometimes, the only way to recognize what they have become is by getting them out there in the real world to be discussed. Maybe you’ll realize that the way that you’ve been feeling is ridiculous, and maybe you’ll realize that the only ridiculous thing about all this was holding onto it for so long, or thinking that you were wrong to think it in the first place.

Too often, I hear from people who have been holding onto thoughts and feelings for years and haven’t opened up, haven’t even explored them. We as a society tend to encourage others to bottle up their emotions, to buck up and be strong and go through it alone. But going through life alone is incredibly lonely, and sometimes we need to talk to others.

So let’s talk.

Let’s offer people in need our ears.

Let’s refuse to bottle up our emotions and leave them to fester.

Let’s stop promoting this idea that reaching out is weak, or that naturally occurring emotions can be wrong.

We all need to talk, and we should all have the opportunity to talk. Because there is nothing wrong with you or how you feel; there is something wrong with a society that keeps us all silent.

Why “My Girl/Boyfriend Won’t Let Me” is Problematic

In many relationships, two things tend to happen: 1) you will change over the course of the relationship, and 2) you will find that you need to respect the opinion of your partner. This is just the nature of life in partnerships, and I am not going to argue that either of these things are a bad thing. Really, they don’t have to be. Change can very well be a good thing, it can be a sign of growth and development, while respect is absolutely necessary in creating a happy and harmonious social environment.

But that being said, I do have a growing pet peeve when it comes to relationships that involves both of these things.

These pet peeves show up most often in the form of little comments, things like: “I wish I could change my hair, but my boyfriend won’t let me”, or “I can’t go out tonight, my boyfriend won’t let me”, or “I don’t really hang out with that person anymore, my boyfriend doesn’t like them”. These sorts of comments usually earn from me one of two responses, either “dump him” or “he’s your boyfriend, not your father”, but to be honest, these comments trouble me a bit more than I tend to let on. Not because I think of it as a sign that the relationship is abusive or that either party in this relationship are inherently bad people or anything like that, but it does reflect an attitude that I find somewhat troubling: this idea that one partner in a relationship can and should control the other.

And although I focused primarily on women in the given examples, this can happen to men as well. And I’m sure that this happens in many different ways, taking several different forms depending on who is involved, but the way that we tend to think about most often, stereotypically speaking, is an intentional attempt from the female partner to ‘change him’ – to make him spend less time playing Dungeons and Dragons with his buddies and more time being suave and cool or whatever it is that she intends for him to do now. I can’t personally speak to how accurate this stereotype is, but I’m sure it does happen. I think we’ve all heard the tropes that when it comes to women, they ‘like a project’, they want a ‘fixer-upper’.

And, personally, I take issue with this idea for two reasons: 1) maybe he liked playing Dungeons and Dragons with his buddies. Maybe that made him happy, and yes, you also make him happy, but differently. You aren’t his entire source of joy in this life, and you aren’t making him a better man by taking the other sources away from him. And 2) chances are, you entered into this relationship knowing who he was; shouldn’t you love him for who he is? I mean, yes, we are all flawed, and he might have some habits and hobbies that are kind of annoying, but asking him to stop doing something that he enjoys is entirely different from asking him to pick up his dirty socks off the floor; one matters to him and the other doesn’t. You don’t have to join him in the hobby; you don’t have to understand it; you just need to respect that it matters to him.

But let’s get back to the little comments that I’ve heard women make about what their boyfriends will and will not let them do. Because while these two examples are similar, both of them getting back to this issue of control, they are also very different. The latter example that I gave about one partner intentionally changing the way that the other lives is very overt, and it does require a bit of consent on the changed partner’s part – how rational and well-informed that consent may be is another matter, as they might be agreeing to go along with everything just because they’re so in love at the moment, but nonetheless, consent must be given to make this very obvious, blatant change. The first example is much more subtle.

The first example is limiting what the other partner can and can’t do in small ways, ways that can easily be ignored or brushed off at first, but that build up over time – making them ask for permission instead of an opinion.

And don’t get me wrong, it is perfectly fine to consult with your partner about making plans or changing your style or hanging out with a specific person. You can ask them if they had any plans, what their opinion is, etc., but at the end of the day, the decision should always be yours. This is your life, your body, your friends – you have the ultimate say in what happens with all of it. And if your partner is actually getting outright angry with you because you have respectfully made plans with someone else or because you got a haircut, then that is a totally separate problem and it isn’t fair to you.

The reason why this is such a pet peeve of mine is because, in relationships, the issue of control seems to come up often, but I am personally of the belief that neither party should be in control of the other. Too often, we romanticize this idea that every couple is two halves of a whole that is only completed when they’re together, but this isn’t true. Every single couple in this world is made up of two completed, totally whole individuals who are just trying to make all their quirks and weirdness mesh well together, and both parties in the relationship should be treated as though they are both whole, both capable of making decisions for themselves.

You do not need your partner to make decisions for you. You should not let them make the decisions for your own life. Because you are a partnership; you need to work together. You need to respect one another, and part of that respect comes from respecting who they are as a person and the fact that they are fully capable of taking care of themselves. And while you’re together, you very well might change, but your partner should not be the one in control of that change.

Don’t Let Someone Else Live Your Life

There’s this issue in society that I’ve seen come up again and again, and I’ve seen it in multiple forms.

When I was in high school, I would always answer the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” with “I want to be a writer”, to which most teachers would respond, “oh, that’s not a practical job, you can’t make much money with that. Why don’t you do something else – you could be a teacher instead.”

The other day, when I was at the gym, I met a woman in her fifties who was enthusing over another woman’s bright red and orange dreadlocks, and she mentioned that she had recently gone to the hairdresser’s asking for a funky haircut herself, to which the hairdresser responded, “oh, you’re much too old for that, I wouldn’t do that to you.”

I recently read an article about a girl who described herself as ‘fat’, and she stated that when she went to the beach in her bikini, she was spotted by a woman who responded to her by saying, “you’re much too big for that bikini, I don’t want to see that. Why don’t you wear something that covers you up a bit more?”

And I very recently watched a video posted on Elle Magazine’s Facebook page discussing an eight year old boy who enjoyed dressing and performing as a drag queen, and in this video he mentioned that he knew other kids who would go to their parents saying that they wanted to be drag queens, to which their parents would respond “you’re too young to even know what that is”.

Now, there’s a lot going on in all of these examples, but the common theme that I notice, the thing that really gets under my skin, is this idea of telling other people what they can and can’t be, the acceptable ways of expressing themselves, based off of your limited understanding of who they are and what they are capable of.

And this happens so often, and in so many different ways. In the above mentioned examples, we see at least three different types of discrimination as well.

In the example of the woman in her fifties wanting to get a funky haircut, we see a prime example of ageism, or discrimination against someone based on their age. The woman was deemed to be too old to look good with a funky hairstyle, and so the hairdresser refused to give it to her, but when it really comes down to it – why? Why wouldn’t she look good with a funky hairstyle? And more than that, who is the hairdresser to judge if she would or would not? If the woman in question wants to express herself in that way, and if it would make her feel more comfortable in her own skin, then what is so wrong about it? But we as a society have a very basic understanding of what someone in that age group should be – they should be humble, quiet, non-offensive, ready to wind down and start taking things slow, and so when someone comes along to challenge all that, we don’t like it. We tell them that they can’t do that. Which is really unfair, because it limits the way that they get to express themselves and find comfort in their own skin.

In the example of the larger woman in a bikini, we see one of the most classic examples of fat shaming. I don’t know a whole lot about the woman in her bikini – I don’t know if she felt like she was rocking the bikini or if she was already a little bit self-conscious about it, but the one thing I do know is that she did not deserve to be told that she shouldn’t wear it. Because she should. If she wants to put her body in a bikini, then she should put that body in a bikini, and she should have the opportunity to go out and look fabulous and be her beautiful self. Her body and her bikini was not the problem here. The problem was the other woman’s limited idea of what beauty is. She decided (because she was told this by society) that only thin women look good in bikinis, and therefore, only thin women should wear bikinis. Larger women should spend their lives enrobed by the shame one-piece, forever going to the beach in frumpy tee shirts and acceptably covering shorts.

And lastly, in the example of the children who wanted to dress in drag, we see an example of sexism and/or homophobia. A lot of people see gender as a very two-way street: you are either male or female, and especially when it comes to children, a lot of parents fear that deviating from that two-way street will result in their children becoming ‘other’. Their sons will grow up gay, their daughters will grow up confused, cats will live with dogs, havoc will erupt upon the city, and dear god, will someone please think of the children! There are two major problems with this thinking: 1) we already force children who are LGBT+ to act straight and/or cis-gendered, but that doesn’t cause them to grow up to be straight and/or cis-gendered, and 2) this sort of thinking hinges on the belief that being LGBT+ is wrong and must therefore be avoided. Children must give a very limited, very prescribed performance of gender, or else they risk becoming queer, but even if they did, what would be wrong with that? And, almost worse, by telling children that they shouldn’t know what drag queens or anything similar to that are, you are indirectly telling them that being a drag queen or anything similar is wrong or dirty, which poses one of two risks: either they start treating their fellow LGBT+ children accordingly, or they internalize these opinions about themselves, that they are wrong and they are dirty, because they are LGBT+. We associate being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender-queer, drag queen, etc., as being an ‘adult thing’, but most everyone who falls under those categories as an adult can tell you that it started somewhere in their childhood, or that they knew it all along. So if this is the case, and if children most certainly can be something other than straight or cis-gendered, then why do we force them to act otherwise?

One of our societies many problems is that we are constantly limiting one another. We see each other in very basic, very simple ways, and then we act accordingly: a person is either fat, thin, young, old, child, woman, man, this, or that, and when they start to step outside of those lines, to challenge our ways of seeing them, we tell them, “oh, no, no, don’t you do that – get back into that line where you belong!”

But that isn’t how things works. People are more than the labels we give them, and they should be allowed to express themselves in any way that they see fit.

So if you are a fifty, sixty, ninety year old woman who wants to get a bright green mohawk, do it! If you’re four hundred pounds of pure awesome and you want to wear your stylish new bikini to the beach, then please be the most beautiful, most confident person there! If you want to dress in drag, or express your gender in a way that is sort of unconventional, then you will look all the better for it because you will be expressing who you truly are, and nothing is more beautiful than that!

And to go back to the example of my wanting to be a writer – if you have a dream that other people tell you is unrealistic, but you still need to pursue it, then pursue it for all it’s worth. Trust me, it will make your life so much more fulfilling.

Don’t ever let someone else live your life for you. You are amazing, and you are so incredibly strong and capable. So even if you do face the occasional doubter or nay-sayer, just remember that they’re speaking from a very limited understanding and that they don’t know you. You know you, and at the end of the day, you are the only person who has to be satisfied with your life.

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.