Harley Quinn is one of my all-time favourite characters. Ever since I was a little girl, she’s had a special place in my heart. So I’m sure you’d imagine I’m excited about her part in the upcoming “Suicide Squad” movie.
I really don’t want to be “that guy” who hated Heath Ledger’s Joker and Ben Affleck’s Batman before their movies even came out, so I’m trying my hardest not to judge Suicide Squad too harshly before we even have a chance to see it. I really am. I mean, who knows? Maybe the movie will be good. Maybe it’ll be perfect. Maybe it’ll be my favourite movie of all time.
But more and more, everything about this movie has made increasingly uncomfortable with where it seems to be going, especially with Harley. I’ve been struggling to vocalise this beyond simply stating that the movie doesn’t excite me at all and expressing absolute disdain for Jared Leto’s attempts at being a super deep method actor, but a line from this Mary Sue article defending the movie’s Harley made things click, and I think I can explain my concern about this movie, as well as my problem with a lot of interpretations of Harley generally.
(And if this movie does not portray Harley in a way that I’m increasingly worried it will, I am more than willing to eat my words.)
The Mary Sue article talks about a scene in an episode (one of my favourite episodes of all-time) from the 90s Batman cartoon. The episode is called “Mad Love”, and in the scene, Harley , who is wearing sexy, red lingerie, asks the Joker if he doesn’t want to “rev up his Harley”. The article says, and I quote,
“This suggests Harley uses sex as a weapon to distract others.”
This interpretation of this scene really bothers me, mostly because it’s absolutely, 100%, without a shred of doubt, wrong in probably every single way.
Allow me to step back from my own gasps of horror for a moment to try explain myself.
Let’s go through the scene. Harley is trying desperately to get the Joker’s attention, but he’s too distracted by his obsession with Batman to care. Even when she finally forces him to notice her existence by literally sitting on his desk, he tells her to go away. This is when she asks him if he wants to rev up his Harley, (while making hilarious and adorable dirty gestures to go with her filthy suggestion that delight my very soul, by the way). The Joker absently pushes her off his desk. He doesn’t even look up.
First of all, if this is a case of Harley using her sexuality to distract people, then she’s absolutely terrible at picking a target. The Joker is, in every way, uninterested. She’s not “distracting him” with her sexuality. Literally the opposite. Harley is trying her absolute best to seduce the Joker, because she is craving sex and affection, and Joker is too distracted by something else to care.
Now, let’s examine some of the implications of this scene. For a start, it suggests that Joker and Harley have been intimate before. At the least, it suggests that this isn’t the first time Harley has tried to seduce the Joker, (I think even the Joker would be momentarily distracted if this was Harley’s first ever attempt at a seduction, if only because the novelty would amuse him) and also that Harley believes that her seduction has a chance of working.
OK, so we know Harley wants sex from the Joker. We know that the Joker is uninterested in sex, or, at the least, find other things, like Batman, more interesting. We know she thinks the Joker might give her the sex she wants. We know that the Joker is manipulative, and especially gifted at manipulating Harley. You know what this means?
The Joker is the person in this relationship who uses sex as a weapon.
The idea that women always use sex as a weapon and men are always easily manipulated by sex is so thoroughly part of society’s narrative that some people *cough* not mentioning names *cough* can’t even see a scene in which a horny woman is trying to seduce her indifferent boyfriend because she wants to have sex with him without incorrectly and rather creepily interpreting that as she must use sex as a weapon to distract others!
But the Joker and Harley are, like many people, different. The Joker doesn’t care about sex any more than he cares about Harley. He treats both as tools to be used. Harley’s affection is, on the other hand, genuine. And she wants sex. Not because it’s a way to control people. Not because it’s a way to distract people. She wants sex because she likes sex.
And this is the thing. It’s fine that Harley is sexual. That’s part of her character, I always felt it was. But her sexuality is not about the people around her. It’s not about how much she can use it as a tool or weapon. It’s not something she dangles in front of boys in order to manipulate them. She’s just sexual because she’s a human being with a sex drive, like anyone else. Like me.
Harley was one of the first fictional female characters I ever encountered who actually wanted sex because she likes sex. As a teenage girl with a sex drive I was constantly told I couldn’t or didn’t have, this was important to me.
I don’t mind black widow characters. They’re cliche and boring, but they’re OK. But Batman’s balls, Harley is so much more than that. And now people want to make her just another Poison Ivy. A professional seductress who uses her sexuality manipulatively rather than the genuinely affectionate, flawed but stereotype-shattering character she was, because to them any woman in any sexual context at all must be a black widow that preys on men.
Even when the woman is the only person in the room thinking about or wanting sex. Even when the man in the room is absolutely uninterested in either the woman or sex. The woman being sexy is treated as evidence that she uses sex to distract men.
This sort of regressive attitudes about women, men, and sexuality is exactly the type of thing Harley’s character challenged, and that’s exactly why she meant so much to me as a teenage girl, but now it feels like she’s being reduced to another boring teenage boy’s cliche’d sex fantasy that upholds the status quo rather than challenges it, and that breaks my heart.