I'm going to begin this by saying I'm writing about something I feel passionate about and given the general fandom rudeness, disrespect and aggressiveness I see on this subject, I'm not going to mince words. I'm going to say what I think forcefully and without apology or concession to people's "feelings". I still hope to be reasonably polite about it, but I feel very strongly that there is an attitude out there about Harley that is "wrong" and I want to address it and I am therefore addressing it on the presumption that it IS wrong.
Well, this journal is dedicated to all things Joker and that must, inevitably, include the character of Harley Quinn.
She's a character who, whilst insanely popular, also causes a lot of division within the Batman fandom in general and the Joker fandom especially. Some people simply hate her to death. Some think she detracts from the ultimate feud between Batman and Joker. Interestingly enough, these people often argue for a more emotional, less one-dimensional portrayal of Joker, missing completely how Harley provides this - but then again, can you blame them when the writers themselves so often miss this opportunity, content to write a one-dimensional, shallow depiction of the relationship? That's a much larger problem with both characters though, which includes shameful overuse and poor attention to quality consequently.
Or some think, simply, she's not worthy of the Joker. She's too silly, too playful, too childish, too daffy, lacks self-respect, is stupid, too much of a doormat and so on and so forth.
There's others, of course, who don't like the fact she simply "proves" Joker's heterosexuality. Which is patently untrue. Just because you bump uglies with the opposite gender does not make you heterosexual and I think only those with a very limited realm of experience think so. But yes, she interferes with their ultimate fantasy of Joker and Batman confessing their undying love and having beautiful, pure, holy butt sex in the Batcave while Joker cries and apologises about Jason and Babara and Sarah and so on and so forth.
ALL of these differing camps ultimately reflect a different faction of misogyny, funnily enough, to varying extents. And I could fill a thesis fapping on about all of them.
But today I'd just like to focus on one and that is the overwhelming attitude from a particular group of female fans (primarily those who have become fans in the wake of TDK) who think Harley is not "good enough" for Joker.
I have raved on about this before, in this little rant about the phenomenon of new fans writing Nolanverse fic in which they "improve" Harley - make her "more suited" to the Joker. And what I have been noticing more and more in this attitude is a particular brand of subversive misogyny, all the more distasteful because it comes from those who proclaim that Harley is a victim and she needs to be a stronger character, one that the Joker can respect.
I just have to stop wanking for a moment to say that I'm listening to Madonna's album, Like A Prayer, and dagnabit, it's still one of the greatest albums EVER! OMG! Early Madonna FTW!!!
Invariably, these fans then write an interpretation of Harley, or a whole new OC, who fits the typical "strong, assertive, independent femme fatale" mold of classic villainesses. Interestingly, they also often posit that "Harley" is attracted to Joker's dangerousness, his mania, how beyond normality he is, that she's turned on by risk and danger - well, DUH GUYS, THAT'S ACTUALLY CANON TOO. Which just demonstrates, more than ever, that these fans are missing so much about Harley's character, so determined are they to see only the superificial. The concept there could be more to a daffy blonde with a squeaky voice doesn't fit with their socialisation. And fair enough, that's what it is - we've been force fed particular tropes in movies and books for years and characters that defy the stereotypes are rare. But, much like Violet in Bound was so much more than anyone expected a gangster's curvy, sexy moll to be, so is Harley. Violet was the smartest character in that movie and Harley is at least as smart as Selina and Ivy. Someone can choose not to see that, but that doesn't make them right - just oblivious.
So, in their eyes, Harley is disempowered. Stupid. Victimised. Passive. She doesn't conform to what we've been told to see female empowerment is, and female empowerment is all the rage these days, no less so than amongst girl geeks, who are invariably feminist leaning when they're not outright misogynists.
The problem is that we are so conditioned to view female empowerment as only manifesting in one particular, strictly defined way, that other forms of it are not only unseen, but actively denied.
This is true of none more so than Harley.
Harley is a character in an abusive relationship. She's sickeningly obsessed with someone who can never give her the same level of attention and affection and need as she gives him. Yes, he needs her, even loves her, but his capacity for that is severely handicapped in comparison to "normal" people's. And he doesn't want to change. She can be puppy-dog like, too eager to please, fawning, clingy, dependent and delusional. She does not always do what is best for her.
And quite apart from the simplicity with which people view abusive relationships which is often reflected in discussions about this relationship - which, oh my god, is a whole other HUGE topic I plan to go on about one of these days - all of this stuff? Makes Harley HUMAN. People don't always act in idealised ways. Because people don't always want the things they're told they "should". They want the things that make them feel happy and fulfilled and that is as vairable as a fingerprint.
Harley behaves in ways we are told we shouldn't, that are unhealthy and undesirable - and therefore it is easy for people to say she is simply stupid. That she's just a dumb victim. The concept that she is exercising free will and agency, that she has any sort of consciousness about her behaviour, is even making active choices about what she does, consequently becomes impossible for these people to believe.
This whole rant was spurred by one final comment in a long list of insulting comments levelled at Harley since the release of the Dark Knight.
My Harley is not a bubble headed masochist who screwed her way through college. She is an intelligent but emotionally screwed up woman who is attracted to Joker for deeper psychological reasons.
You see, the implication is that being a masochist is a terrible thing to be. Unnatural, undesirable, only the domain of the damaged. That screwing her way through college was an uncomplicated matter with no further story/motivation behind it (nice healthy dose of "slut-hating" misogyny in there as a bonus!). As though being bubble-headed is just awful and precludes any possibility of intelligence. That the way Harley is prevents her interest in Joker being based on "deeper psychological reasons", when an interest in Joker on the level of Harley's could only EVER be based on deeper psychological reasons. Let's face it.
Okay, so maybe this person is particularly sheltered. God knows society 'others' masochists and the kinkily inclined enough for anyone with interests in that direction to be viewed as utterly deviant when it's actually a very common feature of peoples psyche. And no one, anywhere, ever manipulates certain aspects of their personality to trick others into underestimating them. No, that scenewith Boxy Bennet in Harlequinade when Harley's voice pitched even higher, her mannerisms became even more flirty and 'bimbo-ish' and she slunk around singing a torch song were not Harley playing off her 'bubble-head' persona to distract the crooks AT ALL.
... on that, anyone who eally thinks Harley is a one-note character really needs to watch that episode. There is so much going on there, so many angles Harley plays at so many moments. In her own way, in that episode, Harley is just as manipulative, seductive, cunning and assertive as Catwoman has ever been. I may just write an analysis, if anyone is interested.
Anyway, the common refrain is that Harley is a bad role-model, or just a bad character, because she's not a typically "strong, female character".
Hilariously, in these people who cry out for "strong, female characters" they are falling victim to one of the biggest crimes of a sexist society: JUDGING SOMEONE BASED ON SUPERFICIAL TRAITS.
You know the ones I mean. Oh, she's pretty so she can't be smart. She's smart so she can't be athletic. She's a housewife so she must be oppressed. She has a career so she doesn't love her children.
Making stereotypes of people, in other words. And who better to do that with than the fictional character who has captured the heart of the fictional character you want to bang?
Poor Harley cops it a LOT. A complex, interesting, unique and tragi-comic character with bucketloads of potential - for pity's sake, she's THE JOKER'S GIRLFRIEND, this is not a title held by *just anyone* - is constantly dismissed by certain groups of fans as simply "stupid" and "pathetic". She acts a certain way and looks a certain way, so there simply can't be any more to her than that.
Harley is a particularly strong female character. Maybe not in the way we've been trained to see "strong female characters" but she most certainly is. She's a strong female character in that she's a rounded out character with a compelling story, a human and complicated psyche, flaws and foibles, vivid personality, twisted motivations, conflict, desire, needs that aren't always "right" but that ARE "real" in a way female characters are often denied. Characters do not exist simply to prove a moral point and the ones that do, do not last long. Because they're uninteresting. They fail to intrigute. They're not "real" and so they cannot resonate. Harley defies this and it's a big part of why she remains so popular.
In addition, while Harley is submissive and needy and hopelessly obsessed, she has proven time and again she will assert herself when she views herself as truly betrayed by her Puddin', that she will manipulate him for what she wants, that she is capable of planning and conducting crimes and that, while she has moments of heartbreak and despair and longing for "normalcy" (which I posit is largely a result of everyone telling her she is 'wrong' as she is - a situation all too many women continue to suffer for being true to themselves), she is largely extremely happy in her life with the Joker, a happiness that increases over time and her persistence begins to pay off. See my Evolution essay here.
Frankly, the typical "strong female character" is a damned cliche and very few have the capacity to endure. "Stong female characters" tend to be incredibly dull and even offensive in the way they're manifested, always in the most trite and cliche of ways. They're one-dimensional and simplistic. Even those like Ivy, Talia and Selina have a host of elements that set them apart from the cliche "strong female character" trope.
And you know what? Wouldn't it just be SO DAMN BORING if every female character was exactly the same?
Isn't it nice to have a Rogues Gallery of remarkable female villains who are all so astoudingly different from each other?
And therein we see why this particular assortment of villainesses are so enduring and so revered, as the entirety of Batman's Rogues Gallery is.
Too many people judge Harley by what a restrictive and very subjective definition of "empowerment" is.
We throw words like "empowerment" around like they are ultimately definable, but just like people they are not.
Empowerment is a highly personal and subjective thing. What makes each of us as individuals feel empowered depends on so much of who we are, what we believe in, what our convictions are. A career driven professional woman may not comprehend that keeping a perfect home makes a housewife feel empowered, but that does not mean the housewife does not experience immense satisfaction and a sense of personal power in her chosen lifestyle.
Many of us who choose to live an atypical lifestyle to what we are told is "empowering" know intimately what it is like to be told the way we choose to live is oppressive and victimising which is a direct contradiction to our experience of it. I am the subject of such accusations myself for various reasons and the experience of being told I have a "false consciousness" about my identity is thoroughly belittling, insulting and, yes - dehumanising.
And Harley cops the same. I actually feel she experiences a great sense of empowerment and freedom in her chosen life, certainly much more so than she did before she became a criminal. And I'm not going to try and claim her relationship with Joker is always healthy and happy and fulfilling - but guess what? NO RELATIONSHIP EVER IS.
That is the brutal reality.
I think it is happy and fulfilling enough - if not ever healthy - for her to find empowerment and satisfaction in it.
As my friend hexyhex just said to me: Mad love, baby. If you can't be sane, find someone who compliments your crazy
But now we move onto another aspect of this unfortunate Harley-being-unworthy subculture in the fandom, one that you'd think such hardcore Joker fans would be perceptive enough to acknowledge, because it's actually about a misinterpretation of the Joker.
I see it a lot: how can Joker respect someone like Harley? I'm going to change Harley to be more suited to him. I'm going to make her more intelligent, more independent, more ferocious, darker, scarier, etc.
The hypothesis being that Harley needs to be someone Joker can respect.
Quite apart from the incredibly insulting angle inherent to that attitude being that women who are a little daffy, unpretentious and flawed are not worthy of respect, the problem with that theory is not actually with Harley but the Joker:
HE DOESN'T RESPECT ANYONE EXCEPT HIMSELF.
Okay, and Batman and Lex Luthor. Seriously, those are the only two exceptions. In the World of Joker, there are only three people who deserve respect and one of them is himself. He does not respect the classisally 'strong, independent, confident' women like Catwoman and Poison Ivy. He is AWARE of their abilities, certainly. He KNOWS what they are capable of. But he still sees them as inferior to himself. He has no real regard for them, as he doesn't for just about everyone. It's not within his capacity. He only barely views them as actual people.
There are times when he has a grudging respect for Harley, or she surprises respect out of him, but the idea that if Harley stops the bimbo shtick, conducts herself with a more serious demeanour and gives up her submissive, masochists tendencies is going to magically make Joker respect and treasure and love her more simply demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of who Joker is.
Of interest too, is the way the Joker is actually adjusted for these fictions. Oftentimes, a process of "taming" and "healing" takes place. He becomes unrecognisable as who he really is, and this is true even more so of Ledjoker who, despite being just as psychotic, detached and remorseless as any of his other counterparts, is thoroughly woobified, turned into a aching little boy beneath it all who just needs the love of a good woman to get better. Of course, he remains a 'bad boy' of sorts, but it's only because HE'S MISUNDERSTOOD!
Now, Joker actually does feel he is misunderstood. But these fans put another twist on it. In their fics, he really IS just misunderstood, and love will conquer all.
I was pondering this the other day, wondering why anyone would be a fan of this character only to utterly and completely change everything about him and make him unrecognisable. Turn him into this heart-aching, poetry-spouting, love-making Joker impersonator. The very wise gladrial gave me the answer: these fiction writers are attracted to the idea of the bad boy, but they don't want the actual consequences of a relationship with one. They don't have to face what true mental illness really means. To quote her: They want to be so overwhelming that the 'bad boy' finds they can not resist their charms and ends up changing for them. They can only feel this empowered and beautiful if this person is entirely unreachable for anyone else.
These fans don't want to accept Joker is a murdering, remorseless, abusive jerk. So they blame Harley. If only HARLEY were better, Joker would treat her differently.
It's a particularly cruel and unusual brand of misogyny, isn't it?
Also, remember this: Joker is a clown. And he is a clown partly because he despises mundanity, ordinariness and tradition. He sees traditional society as false, deceptive and life to be meaningless. The clown is intended to hold up a mirror to society, to expose what we truly are, to ridicule us and point out how silly and futile so much of what we struggle for is.
OF COURSE HE IS GOING TO BE ATTRACTED TO SOMEONE LIKE HARLEY.
I mean, apart from her struggling to be an imminent psychiatrist only to go crashing into insanity is a beautiful demonstration of life's meaninglessness, Harley is just so clownish. She contradicts "appropriate conduct" and "propriety" and, though very girlish, standard convictions about how women "should" behave. She's goofy, silly, spontaneous and fairly unrefined. She's inappropriately effusive and can even be trashy. In polite society, someone like Harley would be considered vulgar.
OF COURSE HE LOVES THIS.
This doesn't mean he doesn't expect her to make him proud, to behave in a way HE deems appropriate, but his definitions of that are very different to typical society. Harley is a clownish, over the top, larger than life and even sometimes slightly ridiculous character. She's all this and yet doesn't threaten his ego, despite her usefulness and skills, because she adores him. She's got spunk and attitude, but she isn't going to talk back the way a Catwoman would, or take herself too seriously like a Poison Ivy would. She's smart and sharp, but also very daffy and immature so she doesn't overshadow him. She's playful, earnest and yes, quite tragic.
The idea that Joker could tolerate someone more his "equal" again points to lack of awareness about what makes up the Joker. Harley is funny, fun loving, mischievous and devious, smart enough to be an asset to his schemes and assertive enough to challenge him - in fact, even if she didn't lash back at him on those sporadic occasions he really offends her, she challenges him simply because through her he is forced to acknowledge his remaining particles of humanity, to adjust to feelings of love and caring. I think that's more than enough of a challenge to the Clown Prince.
Yet despite all this, he is the centre of her universe. His narcissism and ego is fed through her and whether at times deliberately or simply because she doesn't have the same skills she does not challenge his brilliance and his perception of himself as the ultimate genius, she does not threaten him or his status.
The Joker is too damaged a person for any relationship with him to be truly egalitarian. Even if he wasn't the narcissist he is, he'd almost definitely be abusive because he is sick and his perception of these things is severely different to most people's. Yet Harley and he have carved out a little niche of sorts, worked their relationship into one as equitable and mutually gratifying as it can be given the way they both are.
And the fact that she remains alive is enough of a testament he considers her worthy.
(Which reminds me - I do need to write a little disputation of the 'always trying to kill her' claim so many people make. Because that's patently untrue and deserves rebuttal.)
Also, consider how vital it is that Joker be the flipside of Batman; it's an incredibly important element of their characterisation and enduring battle. Of course Joker is going to have the clownish, quirky, silly little child-woman who's more girl-next-door than super-model gorgeous, mysterious, sophisticated and elegant. In fact, if this were the only reason for Harley to be the way she is, it would be enough. She's the complete opposite of everything Batman finds most attractive and therefore it simply fits that Joker would be attracted to her. Not as conscious opposition, but simply because that's the way Bats and Joker ARE.
Finally, with all of these elements combined, at the end of the day?
SHE MAKES HIM LAUGH.
Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. But the end result is the same.
And this makes her perfect for him.