A Cartwheel of Contradictions: Who Is Harley Quinn?
Part Three: Her Middle Name is Welcome
There is one recurring factor common to Harley's working and personal relationships: she's rarely ever in charge.
That's not to say Harley is incapable of leading or of planning and scheming. When the pressure is on, when she has the impetus and the motivation, Harley can plot, scheme and follow-through with the best of them. Consider, for example, her get-out-of-town plan in Harley's Holiday, her diamond heist in Harley & Ivy or how she subtly tugs strings and directs action in Harlequinade.
But Harley's natural inclination is to be directed.
In her most prominent role as the Joker's girlfriend, henchwench and obsessed former doctor, Harley is most visible as a woman in an abusive relationship, her sanity the price she has paid for love. The undesirable aspects of this relationship are often conflated with Harley's inherently submissive nature, leading to criticism of both as though they are the same. Some fans feel it is in Harley's best interests as a character to become independent and march to the beat of her own drum.
But there's the rub: She already does!
This narrative of achieving self-actualisation through “independence” conflates a naturally submissive personality with a state of victimhood. In a society that very rightly associates female servitude with heteropatriarchal control, it is difficult to acknowledge and recognise agency to select submissiveness as the most natural form of self-expression. From some philosophical and political quarters, there is even the argument that such an agency cannot truly exist as it is shaped and formed within the context of a heteropatriarchal culture from birth; that women are groomed to conform to this role and must consciously break free of it in order to live fully realised lives.
A similar narrative informs the criticism of Harley's relationship with the Joker: she cannot truly be consenting to be submissive to him as he groomed her for such a role during her stint as his doctor in Arkham Asylum.
This concept is often referred to as “false-consciousness” and is utilised aggressively wherever people want to limit the perceived agency of a particular demographic in order to create victims that then need rescuing.
Such a position has sometimes noble intention, but is more often than not corrupted along the way in order to exert further control over the subjects. Whilst it is most definitely vital to comprehend how social context can contribute to shaping us, often unconsciously, so that we must undergo a process of recognition and deconstruction, arguing that individuals lack absolute self-awareness and the freedom to choose is not only prescriptive, it's patronising as hell.
The fact of the matter is that Harley has a naturally submissive personality and a desire to serve and be told how to direct her energies that remains constant across the significant relationships she maintains (few as they are). Harley's nature as the perennial number two has been discussed previously in the essay, The Loneliest Number, but how this desired role relates to her sexuality is also significant. As an active and aware submissive, Harley is one of the only examples of her kind in Western comic books.
Now, the argument against that may be that depicting a woman in a subservient role to a man within comic books is not exactly different or radical; but actually harkens back to the old-fashioned gender roles of the Golden Age. And if Harley were not a willing submissive and her dynamic with the Joker was not based in conscious kink traditions, this would be undeniable.
However, Harley's embodiment of her role is active, consenting and enthusiastic.
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