It's probably most meaingful to those who read fanfic widely but there are things in here said about Harley I'd like to take out to a larger audience. Probably the best thing about it is the awesome fanfic rec list at the end. heh. Well, you might enjoy it!
There's nothing that can add fire to a fandom like a new movie - particularly when that movie is hugely popular and hyped.
The JokerxHarley fandom is extraordinarily lucky in that, while there's a vast number of people who love the pairing beyond the online world and on it, the active and participating fandom is relatively small. Lucky because we are generally not subjected to the internal divisions, flamewars, big name fans and such that larger fandoms are. This is true, really, of pretty much every aspect of Batman fandom in fact, which while it has a thriving online community, lacks the sheer number power of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean and so on (I would also argue that the Batman fandom in general, while being a lovably twisted lot, lacks the same amount of crazy of these larger fandoms).
But The Dark Knight changed this, to some degree. While it's already beginning to die off, the fandom influx in the wake of the film's release definitely altered some dynamics of the fandom overall. There has always been a small, but vocal group of dissenters of our ship and they have largely been motivated by a sense of distaste around the abusiveness of it. (That or they're hardcore BatmanxJoker or HarleyxIvy shippers, but on the whole we've been lucky enough to avoid outright shipping wars too. Harmonians and OBHWFers anyone? Yikes.)
But The Dark Knight brought in a new influx of specifically Joker fans who may have had only very minimal contact with other aspects of the Clown Prince and so either knew nothing, or very little (and notedly superficial) detail on Harley.
This has had a couple of interesting outcomes: the first being a subset of Joker fans who despise and hate Harley because they consider her "unworthy" of him. Yes, difficult as it is to believe, there are people out there who cannot see the wonderful, quirky, beautiful charm of this character and love her utterly! Nevermind about them, we can only hope one day they see the light and are converted! Or you can read my other little rant directed towards them here if you feel like a little righteous debunking.
The second are those who are attracted to this ship and the characters, who love them both dearly, but who are discomfited by the abuse and the inequity and the way that Harley, at least on the surface, seems to be getting the rough end of the stick, all the time.
There's nothing wrong with being discomfited by this relationship - you should be. That's kinda the point of it. It's sick, and twisted and insane.
So yes, it's definitely understandable if people - even fans - feel squicked by it on some levels. And it's also understandable that some people would choose to "amend" this when they write fanfiction by either changing several features of the characters, or shifting them into an alternate universe (AU) setting, in which dramatic character changes are expected and considered more permissable than when writing within canon.
In a way, there's really a whole new subculture to this fandom now and that is Nolanversised JokerxHarley - often times fans are taking the opportunity Ledjoker has provided them to conceive a Harley who is suited to that universe and start the relationship off fresh and far more "equal" - with Harley being a "stronger" character - even a "more insane" character (as stated by the writers, that is) - from the get-go.
If people want to write AU fics where the characters are completely changed from the canon, that is utterly their perogative. Fandom is a hobby, and one that is meant to be enjoyed.
But I twitch when people justify it by criticising other fans or the source material, especially if those criticisms are unfounded. Particularly when it comes to criticising other fans, as this fandom in particular has a wonderful store of very high quality writers presenting a great deal of sophisticated elements in their work - most of whom are in this very community.
I think part of the problem is that people get to the abuse and just. Stop.
They can't get past that to see what else is going on just behind it. He hits her, he yells at her, that reality takes over any other consciousness.
Now most of us here are fans because we've looked beyond that abuse and seen what else there is and it's so fantastic and sophisticated we've been completely seduced into it. But there is also anxiety from some within the fandom, particularly those with feminist leanings, about the perceived inequity of the relationship. People are still attracted to the relationship, but feel discomfort with how they see it manifested because it's too abusive or unequal. This is of interest to me, because I consider myself a strong feminist and yet the relationship doesn't bother me from a feminist perspective. I understand why it would to many, though, but I do also feel this may be based on a few simple misunderstandings about Joker and Harley's roles as clowns and of alternative, kinky dynamics within some relationships (and theirs).
And these roles and dynamics are reflected also in the fanfiction of this fandom: the whole reason I'm writing this is to defend this fanfiction and the canon material it draws inspiration from against some recent comments and trends I've been noticing from the Nolanverse faction of the fandom.
I'm always intrigued by the phenomenons within fandoms of changing and adapting characters to suit a personal ideal. Often it is to get around tricky political sore points like ones that deal with a man beating up a woman. The only problem with that is, in this case, with an egotistical headcase like the Joker and a submissive nutso like Harley, is that it can require complete personality transplants. Joker becomes loving and adoring, Harley becomes fiesty and aggressive, to cite two common examples.
My arguement is both Joker and Harley actually display character traits like this within canon - just not all the time. And, furthermore, the times they're not displaying them in typical ways, they are displaying them in subversive ways. Consider The Bride of the Joker where both of them consider violence on their wedding night to be romantic, and Harley's very aggressive manipulation of Joker to get him to propose to her. Or consider My Boyfriend's Back where Harley is disdainful and insulting to a lovey-dovey, passive Joker, not to mention her very feisty hiring of a hitman to knock some sense into him.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Basically, as a fiesty feminist I understand many fans' concerns about this relationship and as a feminist submissive I see certain elements of the relationship differently. I think one of the biggest problems with the concept of 'girl power' and 'strong female characters' is that they are very limited. A "strong female character" is considered to be one who takes crap from nobody, who always fights back, who cannot be cowed, who smart talks - in other words, a freaking cliche. She can never be vulnerable and never make a mistake and never take flak from someone she loves because she respects herself too much.
But is that really realistic? Really human?
Sometimes, for all our talk of being independent, fierce and strong, we fall sucker to sweet talk, or we don't answer back when someone - not even a lover, maybe just some jerk on the street - pushes us rudely to one side to get into the cab we just hailed. Why? Because we're human. Because we have insecurities and anxieties and self-doubt. Just like Harley.
Yet despite this and despite the very submissive and placatory way she often behaves, Harley IS a strong and very crazy character. Consider the consequences of what she has done for love. She kills. She has given up all sense of reality to live in a fantasy world where life is a game and other people are toys. How can you get crazier than that? The very fact it is all wrapped up in giggles and sparkles and silliness makes it even more creepy, in my view, because it provides a level of deception on just how sick what is being done truly is. There's such open-hearted enjoyment there, it's truly disturbing. She is also strong in that she is very much capable of asserting herself and being truly frightening when she flies off the handle. She also follows her chosen path rather single-mindedly despite a lot of pressure on her from various sources - Ivy, Batman, her doctors - to change. Ultimately, she chooses to continuously leave sanity behind in favour of an unstable and violent life because she finds it more satisfying.
I have seen a few key criticisms against JokerxHarley canon and fanfiction of late that I would like to address - perhaps even dispel - here. I apologise in advance if the imperative is too strong at times; I argue passionately for what I believe in about this ship no less because I am a feminist and these issues are really important to me. I've tried to list as many references as possible and have included a number of fanfictions too. It should be noted that the fanfics referenced are by no means the only excellent examples from the fandom. There are many others and I've provided a longer list at the end of this essay as well as links. No offence is intended to anyone not included in the examples - it's really just to save space and provide a general guide.
Harley Should Be a Complement to the Joker
The comment has been made in favour of an adjustment of Harley's character: she needs to be a complement to the Joker.
Perhaps consider that she already is?
Remembering always that Joker and Harley are clowns and this is an important, significant and integral element of their characterisation, Joker and Harley follow a model of dysfunctional relationships and take it further into parody: She is Gracie to his George. Everything about her, from her costume to her gimmicks to her goofiness acts as both foil and complement to the Joker's. They are both very aware of this and play it up.
For canon examples, for both their comedic exchange and her collaborative contributions, look at Almost Got 'Im, The Laughing Fish, World's Finest, The Man Who Killed Batman, Batman: Harley Quinn, A Clown Goes to Metropolis for starters. In AGM, Harley is sharing an equal role in Joker's pantomime, kickstarting the electric chair with her laughter and inducing the audience to laugh at her reciting from the phonebook. It's Harley who knocks out Catwoman and is left in charge of her. In TLF, it's Harley who sprays Francis and captures Bullock. In TMWKB, it's Harley who plays the kazoo as Batman's coffin is sent into the flames, the perfect coda to Joker's eulogy. She also disguses herself to bail Francis out, in a very convincing and hilarious act. In WF, Harley's arrival on the pogo stick to crush the thugs Joker is taking over, her kidnapping of Lex Luthor, notifying her Puddin' of impending trouble. In B:HQ, it's Harley who tricks Batman. Harley demonstrates, at many turns, her ability to improvise, trick, think on her feet and counter-attack. Mad Love? Harlequinade? Even Harley's Holiday in which I would argue we see Harley at her most vulnerable - without the Joker around. Consider her manipulation of Boxy Bennett, her defeat of him as well as her very much holding her own in a physical sense against Batman.
Furthermore, consider the teamwork that goes on between them - a teamwork that is highly complementary, involving banter, coordinated attacks/defences and visual/audio gags. Joker's Favour, The Laughing Fish, World's Finest, Return of the Joker, The Anniversary Party, Wild Cards... the list here goes on and on. In JF, it's Harley who is in charge of Charlie, Harley who wheels in the cake and charms the crowd. WC, Harley is in charge of not just filming the efforts of the superheroes but keeping an eye on them so Joker is informed at all times. ROTJ, Harley is the bait for Robin and the distraction for Batgirl as well as the comedic partner in their happy families routine. Is Harley still somewhat taking a backseat? Absolutely. But consider then the Joker's ego: he couldn't have it any other way. And from Harley's perspective, this is as it should be: HE'S the star and she's the support act. She's there to serve him and that's what makes her happy. She loves doing that. And he gives her ample opportunity to show what she's got: Almost Got 'Im, The Man Who Killed Batman, Twelve Days of Madness, Trial. Consider the moments you notice her in these appearances. You REALLY notice her. Because she shines. She's got a role that's significant and vital to the action, even if it still makes it seem as though Joker is wholly running the show. But the show would be so much less without her there - and he knows this. That's why she has the part to begin with.
When it comes to fanfiction, you can see the fans working to achieve this same sense of team work, camarderie and comedic routine in fics like Original Sin, in which Harley is sent into a confessional booth in disguise to trick and distract Batman while Joker captures the Priest behind the scenes. Or That's Luck For You, where Harley acts as Joker's silent support, his lucky charm and conspirator in a crooked game of cards. Quality Time, where combined Joker and Harley perform an unconscious and natural comedic routine for every villain they interact with. Or Roadtrip where Joker and Harley conspire to vex Lex Luthor. There's also Hired Help, where Alfred subtly points out to Batman how Harley and Joker interact as a team.
Harley Should be Smart and Capable
Oh wow. If there's a complaint that really saddens me, it's this one. Harley, as she appears in canon and within community fanfiction, is apparently not smart and capable enough.
Let me just rattle off a few examples here: Mad Love, Harley & Ivy, Harlequinade.
Does the Joker abuse her in all three? Oh yes, yes he does. But remember that is simply an element of the relationship, due to the fact he's a narcissistic, violent, impulsive psychopath. It doesn't change the fact that Harley demonstrates an enormous amount of intelligence and competency in all three appearances. Does she still get manipulated by him? Yesiree. But the most intelligent person on earth can be sucked in when love is on the line. And that's partly because we WANT to believe. Love makes us crazy and love makes us hope. Many of us - I even posit most of us - will allow ourselves to be manipulated by love.
It doesn't make us stupid or incompetent. Just HUMAN.
But in all three of the above examples - particularly Harlequinade - Harley demonstrates her ability to perceive, interpret, manipulate, direct, coordinate, carry-out, assert herself, and fight back in various ways. In ML, Harley conceives and sets-up Batman's deathtrap, and then lures him into it. She also breaks Joker successfully out of Arkham in spectacular fashion. In H&I, Harley flawlessly carries out her museum heist - it's Ivy who trips the alarm. In H, the best example, Harley gets out of her cuffs, deceives and distracts a room full of crooks, physically holds her own against them, figures out where the Joker is, gets out of her cuffs again, single-handedly stops Batman and Robin from stopping the Joker, then single-handedly stops Joker's scheme from coming off. The weakest example of her strength was in Mad Love, but remembering that story was set early on in their relationship, with Harlequinade coming in far later, and it is seen how the relationship, and her ability to assert herself within it, progresses. Which could only have happened if Joker had been receptive of such evolution. After all, consider how colossaly Harley deliberately foils his scheme in Harlequinade - and shoots point blank at his head - only to be welcomed into his arms for a loving embrace. The nice thing about this relationship is that it really did evolve over time and is a highly persuasive arguement for its mutuality.
Of course there are other examples - Masks of Love, Joker's Last Laugh to name a couple more, as well as Harley acting either solo or with other characters, like Harley's Holiday, Harley & Ivy (the miniseries), and Joker's Last Laugh in which it is demonstrated she is smart and capable enough to whip up a batch of Joker toxin from memory!
In fanfiction, we have It's The Thought That Counts, in which Harley is resourceful enough to steal the Batmobile, One God Day, where Harley very rationally describes to Joan Leland why she stays in the relationship, Happy Birthday, Dear Commissioner, where Harley pulls off a perfect gag that absolutely delights the Joker, and Faced and Unfaced where she retaliates against a perceived threat. There's also Quick Learner, where she manipulates Joker into giving her what she wants, and Punchline, where she demonstrates an understanding he does not.
Harley Should be the Joker's Equal
In tackling this one, we are sort of obliged to acknowledge one simple fact: the Joker doesn't consider anyone his equal. At best, Batman.
Now, we can look at this objectively and say no, Harley IS his equal in many ways (and I really believe that) but the fact is, he will NEVER acknowledge this. It's not something which exists within his reality. This isn't doing Harley a disservice; it's being true to Joker's characterisation.
So therefore we are faced with doing something that requires a little more work than having Joker simply stand up and say: "gee, Harley, you really are my equal and I respect and love you because of this" but that ultimately makes the quality of a story much, much stronger: We have to show through our narrative that Harley acts as his equal. The Joker will never openly realise that, but we can still see it being done and realise, through inference, on some subconscious level, that he probably is aware of it which is partly why the relationship continues to thrive - if she really was as interchangable as one of his henches, for example, she'd be dead by now.
I can think of lots of fanfictions which demonstrate Harley's capability and skills, benefiting the Joker with them, that remain true to the DC/AU characterisation. Given that Joker and Harley are clowns and part of their purpose therefore is to parody social mores, an integral element to these situations is Joker being largely oblivious to how Harley aids him, off on his ego kick where it's all down to him, and doesn't notice until she's not around.
Canon examples of this are Harley & Ivy, Mad Love (why don'tcha just shoot him offended the Joker to the extreme - and yet he was going to do it himself at the end), The Code, and Joker's Millions. Then there are, again, Harley's solo appearances in which she plots out and carries out crimes of her own.
In H&I, Joker's life falls down around him without Harley and his take-it-for-granted she'll just come back speaks volumes of his need for her - and not just to sort his socks. TC has Harley deliberately and calculatedly manipulating him so he persues her and becomes vexed and confused by her absence. JM has Joker looking for a replacement for her because by then he's so accustomed to her he can't be without her. Additionally, it's doubtful Harley would've bungled the way Fake Harley did.
In examples listed in above sections, like Harlequinade, The Man Who Killed Batman, Trial, The Laughing Fish, World's Finest and many, many more, Harley demonstrates her capacity to keep up with Joker, match his wit and humour and both banter and play with him, indicating she is very much his equal, even if he is incapable of consciously acknolwedging that.
Again consider that he keeps her around at all, without growing bored of her. Since working for the Joker practically defines the term "disposable henchman", Harley's persistent survival alone is quite miraculous. (And no, he's not always trying to kill her. This is a serious misperception debunked by simply GOING BACK TO CANON and gaining some reading/viewing comprehension) While Joker doesn't want someone to be his equal, he does want someone who can keep up with him. Who can entertain him. Who he can enjoy beng around.
I really do feel this is adequately demonstrated by Joker and Harley as they currently are. The relationship can not and will not ever be wholly egalitarian because the Joker's ego couldn't cop it. This doesn't mean you can't write a fanfiction in which you reimagine these characters in a certain way so that they are "equals" but dismissing the ship as a whole and other fans' depiction of it as having no power exchange or equality isn't even offensive so much as it is completely wrong. The equality may not take place in a touchy-feely, openly effused soliloquy of mutual respect and appreciation, but it IS there when you switch your reading lens from 'text only' to 'subtext included'.
YES, writers deliberately insert subtext - fanfiction writers too.
Take, for example It's The Thought That Counts, Je Ne Regrette Rien, where Harley reveals her cruel side, Making Connections, where Joker pegs her as his comedic partner for eternity, Broken Record in which the pattern of them fighting and making up is delightfully explored and Infamous Secrets, where Harley manages Joker's medication and treatment and he allows her to do so.
Harley Should Not be Such a Victim
I have seen this comment made in regards to fanfiction as well and while I will say YES, there are some fanfictions (usually those from ANTI-JokerxHarley fans though) that overdo the whole victim thing, on the whole,much like the whole idea of 'girl power', I think the definition of 'victim' here is being used in both a limiting and prescriptive way and most fans of this ship play with the idea of victimhood very effectively. I know that when I read a fanfiction in which Harley has no role other than to be a punching bag and she's weepy and miserable all the time, I feel annoyed and put-off, even though the physical abuse has a strong current in my own fiction, and that of other fans whose work I most love. The difference is all in how it's being done.
First of all, the term 'victim' is a highly problematic one to begin with. In labelling someone a victim, YOU, the labeller, are actually attempting to disempower them by deciding how they are placed within a particular situation AND THEY MAY NOT AGREE. You are prescribing them their role and they may not feel that way. 'Victim' here becomes insulting, belittling and infantilising. The term 'victim' implies a lack of control, a total disempowerment, a subjection. This is why many rape survivors vehemently reject the term 'victim' because they are determined to NOT be defined by an act that was forced on them and determined to NOT be disempowered by it and they resent the baggage that comes with the word when society uses it to describe them. I mean, think of the word 'victim' and then consider the mental associations you have with the word. Does that really line up with Harley?
I will most definitely not argue that Harley was manipulated into a dangerous lifestyle, that she is in an unhealthy relationship which causes her as much pain as it does happiness, that the Joker absolutely does abuse her at times, and does so without remorse or empathy. But is Harley actually VICTIMISED by this? I would argue no. I think we have seen enough of Harley's free agency AND her ability to retaliate to determine that, while she is abused, she is not a victim of that abuse. I know it can be a difficult concept to grasp, considering society often has all kinds of negative connotations when it comes to such labels and is totally understandable when considering the way we are trained to think on such matters (the same mental training applies to drug addicts, the disabled, sex workers, rape survivors and other marginalised people and I've got arguements against them too!) - therefore the trick lies in looking at the specifics, and not too much the generals. It is one that adds depth and more truthfully reflects the complexity of life.
Also consider Harley's violent retaliations: Mightier Than The Sword, Batman: Harley Quinn, Joker's Millions, Harlequinade, Wild Cards, Trial - they are VIOLENT, aggressive and very assertive. She retaliates when Joker crosses the line - but that line is defined by them. By her, even more so. And when he compensates, she backs down and returns to her "passive" role. BUT HE HAS TO COMPENSATE FIRST.
In MTTS, Harley beats Joker up for hurting her and is ready to brain him with a typewriter, in B:HQ, she again beats him up and is prepared to kill him, JM she beats him with a billy club and in H she shoots at him point blank with a gun she doesn't realise is a trick gun. In WC she returns to act out her fury against him for seeming to favour Ace and in T she slaps him around for dobbing her into the cops. In almost all of these examples, Joker demonstrates fear of her anger or, at the least, a comfort with it rather than offence or becoming indignant.
And again, Harley's assertiveness is something that continues to progress throughout the relationship, once more demonstrating Joker's receptiveness to it.
This is seen in fanfictions like Catch Me When I Fall, in which Joker returns home worried about Harley (though denying it to himself) and she attempts suicide as much to hurt him as because she's being melodramatic, Broken Record in which Harley shows up ready to tear him apart and he rolls with it, accepting it as a part of their relationship, Quality Time where the action culminates with Harley attacking Joker and Hit and Makeup, a delightful twist on the old 'Harley shows up at Ivy's beaten to a pulp' in which Harley's injuries were enjoyably sustained during makeup sex. There's also Bachelorhood, in which Harley storms out after Joker upsets her and Back for More where the worst thing Joker has done to her is told her she's not funny (an element that appears too within canon). Road Trip includes another example of her becoming angry at him and he having to placate her and Feliz Navidad subtly and beautifully shows his need for her and his reluctant loneliness at Christmas time.
Harley is not, and should not be, a thoroughly serious character. People consider is distasteful an abusive relationship is considered comic relief and this is ground enough for it to be re-depicted as wholly serious and tragic. But this is the way that abusive relationships are ALWAYS depicted. We get it already. Harley and Joker are distinguished here because they are clowns.
Remember the purpose of clowns is not simply to make people laugh - it's to hold a mirror up to society and make people laugh even as they feel uncomfortable at what they're witnessing. I feel like tearing my hair out when people say Harley needs to be a more tragic character because she already is, on many levels, and the tragi-comic way this is presented is highly effective all on its own. With a clown you laugh first and think second and this is incredibly true of Harley and her relationship with Joker and with many of Joker's own acts. One of the best things about Joker is he does something hideous, you laugh and then go - oh, eww. Equally, the point of their clownish purpose is missed when the call is made for them to be more serious - particularly Harley. If you laugh at Joker and Harley's slapstick routines of abuse, then feel uncomfortable about that laughter, IT'S HAVING THE RIGHT EFFECT.
When the characters make you do this, they're being done right.
If the characters are always deathly serious and there's nothing but angst and drama and horror surrounding them at all times, then they cease to be unique and cease to be capable of making the point as strongly. They cease to be the Joker and Harley Quinn and lose everything that attracted us to them in the first place.
Remember also: Harley has to work within Joker's ego.
His narcissism can not allow anyone to act as his true equal, to prove themselves as smart (or smarter) than him, to be anything less than enslaved to him and his god-like manipulation of them.
Harley loves him and she wants to be with him. And she recognises in order to achieve this she has to adapt to his ego. She doesn't CHANGE - she's still Harley, and her very, very strong personality is overwhelmingly apparent - she just is careful not to upstage.
And sometimes she does - she can't help it. Fact is, Joker gives her enough reign for her to push these boundaries. And yes, he smacks her down when she does but the space was still allowed to begin with.
So what we see, by and large, is Harley finding ways to be smart, to be strong, to assert her own needs in the relationship, in such a way that he doesn't really notice, or that don't offend him because they complement him and his vision. But she is successful in doing this, and this is why she has become such a beloved character. If she really were the superficial, entirely passive victim she is sometimes dismissed as, she would never have been noteworthy to begin with and could never have earned such a following. Characters like that only ever serve as archetypes and are usually disposed of in short order; they exist simply to 'send a message' about a particular issue and subsequently are the worst of cliche.
If you want to see Harley be a strong character, to not be such a victim, to be smarter and more capable - well you really don't need to look any further than the canon and the fanfiction that encompasses it. Maybe you just need to tilt your head to the side a little or peel back the top layer to see what's beneath. Cos everything you want is there - it's just not typical.
And do you think you would've been attracted to this relationship if it was?
Fanfiction Recommended Reading List
Crazy for You: A huge and varied selection of various awesome fanfictions on this relationship, includes examples listed above and many more.
These have been chosen for their strength in proving the above arguements. Not all of this proof is a bludgeon over the head though so please wear your subtext x-ray specs and keep your awareness of kink and that these characters are both insane and twisted in mind when you read. They're all awesome though!
Dripping in Bruises
Love is An Ability
One Good Day
Catch Me When I Fall
What Day Is It?
It's The Thought That Counts
Insatiable pt 1
Insatiable pt 2
Goor Morning Sweetheart
A Beautiful Friendship
Happy Birthday, Dear Commissioner
Bee in Your Bonnet
Decorations of Blue
Faced and Unfaced
Hit and Makeup
Guys and Dolls
That's Luck For You
The Deadliest Game
Mistah J's Girl
The Game, The Reward
Princess Bee (myself - yep, I include my own because I've worked damn hard to portray the complexity of this ship. Like it or not is subjective, but I have tried)
Back for More
Je Ne Regrette Rien