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Harley Quinn’s abuse: Why telling the story matters

In case you haven’t heard, they’re doing a movie about Harley Quinn and the Joker.

OK, well it’s about Harley and Joker and a few other supervillains. The movie is called ‘Suicide Squad’ and it’s due to be released in 2016.

Well, some on set photos and videos have leaked, including a scene where we see Joker give Harley a backhand that sends her flying to the ground.

Some reactions to this have been less than thrilled. I have seen suggestions that abuse should never be used as a plot device, that the Joker in the cartoons might have been abusive but he was never that abusive, and that there’s no need to make Joker and Harley’s relationship abusive in the upcoming movie because writers are in charge of their stories and therefore can write the abuse out.

None of this sits well with me. I cannot agree that Harley’s abuse has no place in the upcoming movie.

First of all, there is a reason why a messed up character like Harley is so beloved by so many women

I’ve been a fan of Harley Quinn since I was little. As a child, I thought it was because she was so damn funny and cute. As an adult, I realize it’s because Harley was something extraordinary: a female character whose story isn’t boringly near perfect and safe.

In this article, Juliet Kahn talks about how ugliness is treasured in male characters, while female characters are more often than not simply written to be Good Role Models for Girls, and she mentions how Harley Quinn is an exception to this rule:

“She’s goofy and tragic and full of story potential. Her heart is bruised and patched and too big to manage, but she simply cannot shelve it away. It’s ugly. It’s melodramatic. And there’s no character I hear women cite more often as their favorite.”

It’s true. I loved Batman instead of Superman because Batman was an obsessed, brooding, damaged, hated, feared, and broken man who drove all his energy into getting revenge and could barely function at being a human, never-mind a human in any sort of real relationships. And I loved Harley instead of Batgirl because Harley was an obsessed, insane, damaged, abused, over-looked, and sometimes broken woman who made horribly bad decisions and yet who you felt never lost her humanity or value because of that.

I loved these characters because, despite the fact that they were super-powered, fantasy, and living in a dramatic world where unrealistic things happen on a constant, non-stop basis, they felt real.

Of course, it’s entirely possible to write a real female character with real ugliness without having to include the fact that she’s abused, so why am I defending the existence of a scene in which Joker hits Harley?

Because you can’t fix abuse by just hiding it away and pretending it’s not there, and trying to do that would only send a devastating message to girls and women around the world.

If you have a problem with the fact that Harley has been written to be a character who was abused by Joker at all, then you’re going to have to take that up with her original creators. What you cannot do is claim that there has ever been a Joker that hasn’t abused Harley, or that the abuse “wasn’t so bad”. Right from the cartoon series, Harley was abused, and it was bad. It just wasn’t so blatantly obvious.

Now, you can claim that domestic violence and abuse are too serious subjects to ever be used as a plot element, or that they should only be spoken about in appropriately “adult” material. I disagree, and this is why:

When I came to have to deal with abuse, both seeing it and experiencing it, it was the Joker / Harley relationship that helped me to unpack and understand.

The Joker / Harley relationship taught me so much about abusive relationships: It taught me that they can appear attractive from the outside. It taught me about how an abuser controls his or her victim, and how a victim often forgives and defends his or her abuser. It taught me that an abuse victim is not some pathetic, valueless creature who is really the only person to blame for her own abuse.

It is often all too easy to dismiss faceless, nameless abuse victims that way, but it’s impossible to hate or dismiss Harley like that. And while Harley certainly should (and eventually does) leave Joker, you can understand why it’s so difficult for her – that it’s not a simple case of “why doesn’t she just leave him”.

And now that I’m seeing people express a desire that Harley’s abuse isn’t so in our face in the upcoming movie, because it didn’t seem so bad in the cartoon series, it’s reminding me of how often people’s reaction to abuse is to try pretend it’s not there.

We love to love the Joker. We love to love the Joker and Harley’s relationship. “So his abuse of her can’t be that bad, surely? Not that bad. Maybe he’s a little emotionally abusive but he’s not that bad.”

There are so many cases where people find out that a relationship is abusive, but the relationship seemed fine from the outside, or they really like the abuser, so they struggle to believe the abuse is that bad. They want to rather believe it wasn’t, to rewrite things, to change the story.

People say these are fictional characters so it doesn’t matter if we change their story. I call bullshit on that. Joker abuses Harley. That’s a fact. You can’t just write that out. It is cannon and we have to deal with it now.

I’m glad the writers of ‘Suicide Squad’ aren’t writing out the abuse in Harley and Joker’s relationship or, worse, to make it seem “not that bad” just so that we can feel comfortable.

If it bothers you to see one of your favourite characters hitting another one of your favourite characters across the face, maybe that’s a good thing. If it bothers you to see that sometimes even the relationships you love, even your favourite people, can be horribly abusive, maybe that’s a good thing too. Maybe it can help open some eyes a little. Maybe it’s time we realize that Joker and Harley’s relationship isn’t romantic or a good thing at all.

Finally, women need stories where bad things happen to women

I understand that we need escapism as well, but we also need stories where bad things happen to women so that, if and when those things happen to us, we don’t feel like we’re unusual freaks who are entirely alone in our experiences.

I love happy stories as much as the next person, but every time I’ve struggled with something really serious in my life, it’s been stories in which bad things happen that help me get through it every time. Those are stories that remind me that I’m not alone, that I’m not less human because of my experience, that I am still valuable and have worth, and that my story is still a story worth telling.

It has been customary to treat female pain as taboo. For example, miscarriages are such a taboo subject that, when a woman falls pregnant, it’s customary to keep the pregnancy a secret until its “safe”. That way, if she loses the baby, nobody needs to know. It was only when I had a friend who had a miscarriage and who struggled a lot because she wasn’t allowed to express her pain that I realized how fucked up this is.

And because female pain is treated as taboo, it’s often used as a cheap shock tactic. Want to make your story seem edgy? Just write in a scene where a woman gets hurt. I know this is a problem, but never allowing female pain to be mentioned at all, demanding that women are never hurt in stories ever, is not the solution.

So yes, a Harley’s abuse shouldn’t be some gimmick, some quirk to Joker’s character that’s there but is barely dealt with. But it also shouldn’t just be written out. Harley’s abuse is something we need to face, understand, and deal with.

We need stories where bad, sometimes horrible things happen. Not for shock value, but because that helps give us a way to deal with those things in the fairly safe space that is a fictional setting.

We especially need stories like these for women, because right now we tend to be told that our pain is either something we mustn’t talk about or only mention only if we want to be vulgar and shock, while men get entire stories dedicated to dealing with their problems and pain.

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2 thoughts on “Harley Quinn’s abuse: Why telling the story matters

  1. Harley, as Harley and not the doctor, was created to be abused, the abuse keeps her in line and running back to the Joker. Joker made her to be his toy essentially, his punching bag and his sex slave and everything in between. We should definitely see that side of her and the abuse that has made her the way she is, it helps to flesh out why she is doing what she does, but it also helps flesh out just how demented the Joker is.

    What I am hoping though is that Batman is as compassionate to her as he was in the comic. Yes he has always been compassionate to the people he put away, but with Harley there was something different with how he treated her, almost like he was sorry he couldn’t do to Joker what he knows should be done, that because of it he is just as much to blame for how she is as the Joker is.

    To tell it as anything different would be a disservice to great characters.

  2. I agree completely. A lot of people view Harley Quinn now as a sexy villain that is just Jokers girl. I won’t say I don’t like Joker because he has realism sometimes, but showing a side where he will hurt this woman who is so devoted to him shows what real life is. Harley was written as a tragic character but her tragedy was always overlooked to show her as just a henchman and love interest. They still don’t want to go deeper into their relationship, where it shoes the abuse behind the scenes with Joker. I would love to see that side of her, not because it’s interesting but because a beloved character who was never supposed to be popular so much has such a horrible tragic history. Now they made Harley leave Joker over the many years of abuse which is good, but I want to see the past. Where she finally saw everything in a flash where despite the good small moments her and Joker had there were always horrible moments. Where she realized the bad moments over weighed the good by so much. I don’t want them to lose that in future movies with her. They have to show her past no matter how abusive it was to show how she has changed and why women look up to her now. I love her and the story she has. I don’t want her to be just a sex symbol, I want to see her as a woman who survived.

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