Let’s talk about Harley Quinn for a second. By now, you’ve read and heard the negative reviews surrounding the new Suicide Squad film. The Atlantic rails on about “…the senseless, lackadaisical killing; the desperate, maudlin attempts at emotional connection; the risibly silly climax…” among other issues the reviewer had with the film. Although the film has taken quite a critical hit, none of the characters has been bashed as much as Harley Quinn’s character, played by Margot Robbie. Director and writer David Ayer seemed to do a terrific job, in my opinion, capturing the complexity and inhumanity of the character.
However, the criticism of such a strong feminine comic icon has worth to methodically undermine and erase any strength the character can garner, using words of feminine weakness to describe her in every review. Yes, almost every review of the movie and the subsequent deviations into the relationship between her and joker seem to include words meant to devalue that character. Here’s a few:
- MTV says “Harley’s not a saint, sure, but her story is one inexorably tied to relationship abuse, mental illness, and psychopathy, which ultimately makes her a much more tragic and relatable character than the Joker.”
- Time calls her “Joker’s plaything”, a victim and a pawn. Their relationship is domestic abuse.
- Vanity Fair describes her as “lovesick” “self-destructive” with “daddy issues” And their relationship one 25-year long abusive relationship.
The list is much longer, but you get the picture. So much work has gone into culling this character into a cowering mess too weak to form a thought much less hold her own in a fight.
That’s not the Harley Quinn that fans know.
Our Harley has an independent mind and marches to the beat of her own drummer. She loves hard and with a heart that defines things her way. She loves playing the submissive to Joker’s dominant persona, but that does not mean she is weakened, “used,” or “abused” by him. No. Read up on nontraditional relationships folks. It takes real courage, trust, and love to carry on such a relationship long term. And that’s just if I am trying to define what they have. What the critics forget is that Joker and Harley Quinn are metahumans—they have lost part of their humanity. This means that their behavior is defined only by their rules and not those of humanity.
Our Harley speaks with no filter and fights her way out always. She never backs down. Before the official release, critics were up in arms upon hearing about the scene where Batman punches Harley Quinn in the face. In fact, it was Harley who jumped into a fight knowing the consequences, but with the courage to take what was given. Sure, in the history of the character, she is tossed around thrown and takes some pretty hard knocks. But, why is that a problem? She is a metahuman supervillain. No one blinks an eye when Robin takes a hard hit as Batman’s sidekick. Why the raucous when Harley Quinn is tossed across a room in the course of a fight?
Because our Harley is also a woman in a world dominated by the masochistic view of what a superhero must be. Seeing a woman in fishnets and stilettos stand up to a body-armored, costumed man and take a hit better than any of the bigger bulker guys around her is disconcerting. They can’t reconcile it. Seeing this “girl” in a complex relationship that follows no one’s rules and cannot be defined. Again, they can’t reconcile it. So what happens?
The words “used,” “abused,” “lovesick,” and “pawn” are trotted out in an attempt to corral this bold, undefined beauty. They can’t reconcile her, so they weaken her. In the reviews, Harley Quinn is often negated to the status of a mouthy trollop when in the actual DC storyworld, the character is methodical, smart, strong, and well, badass! The words work past the contributions of the character to the movie and the story to devalue her and eventually erase her importance altogether.
The words used in these reviews are terms of feminine weakness. They evoke the image of a fragile damsel in need of rescue, or a frightened victim who has no control of herself or her actions. Everything these women do is driven or motivated ultimately by a man who is somehow pushing them, saving them, or manipulating them. The women these words describe have no agency and are not vital to the story.
The use of these identifiers of feminine weakness not only work against the character Harley Quinn, they also undermine the importance of the other strong feminine characters and the film itself. Once you believe that the plot hinges on the exploitation of a domestic abuse victim, the appeal of the story is perversed in the eyes of audiences. Fans may be able to draw on their experience with the fandom to look past the tarnish, but the damage is done. The film is tainted now.
See how that happens? I hope some of the critics who review the movie, as well as the writers who are trying to define Harley Quinn and Joker’s relationship as domestic abuse, see that such a strategy only contributes to the institutionalized sexism that the feminist movement has worked years to destroy. If you don’t like the movie, fine. You are entitled to write your opinion. Just lay off trying to define a character and a story that defies definition.
Stop trying to take our badass Harley’s power.
Jonita Davis is a writer, mom, wife, and proud nerd who is raising her little nerdlets on the shores of Lake Michigan. When she isn’t reading or chasing kids, Jonita teaches writing and studies popular culture. You’ll find her on Twitter @SurviTeensNtots