Harley Quinn's premise, IMO, was sloppy to begin with
There’s no doubt about it: Harley Quinn, née Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, is having a moment. Thanks to a splashy, Margot Robbie–focused ad campaign for the upcoming film Suicide Squad, people who’ve never picked up a comic book, video-game controller, or watched a single animated Batman property now know her name. But do they know all the baggage that comes with it?If they did, they'd should know I for one find the whole setup ludicrous: she was brainwashed by the Joker, and became a criminal. In the comics proper, she's even more murderous than her cartoon counterpart, and what's mind-boggling is that we're supposed to sympathize with her even after she commits a violent crime?
In the nearly 25 years since she was created, Harley has become a beloved figure in the comic-book world. She worked her way up from a would-be cameo in a cartoon to a character so valuable that DC Comics dedicated an entire month of the year to her. (There are only 12 of those, you know.) Her books are popular; cosplayers find her various looks irresistible. But wherever she goes, Harley seems to court controversy. Her latest incarnation in Suicide Squad is no exception—and speaks to greater issues with female characters in comics. To understand how the clown princess of crime became a pop-culture lightning rod is to understand how the role of women in comics has changed over the last quarter century.If it changed so that being a villainess is considered better and allegedly more impressive than being a heroine, I find that stupefying. And just how popular are her books, really? It goes without saying that any book not selling in the millions and not lasting beyond a month or two in huge receipts is not something "popular". The first official series Quinn had ran barely 3 years circa 2000. That certainly wasn't the most popular IMO.
“We didn’t want to give Joker a girlfriend because it humanizes him,” artist Bruce Timm, who helped create Harley’s iconic, first look, told The New York Times. “We were really trying to stress how bizarre and creepy he could be.”Does it really "humanize" the Joker? There have been stories in showbiz of Bonnie and Clyde style couples who were pretty grimy and loathsome. Even worse, there's been horrid couples even in real life, and neither boyfriend nor girlfriend were particularly human. If Harley's portrayed as demented and lethal, then she doesn't humanize the Joker any more than Bonnie humanized Clyde.
And because Sorkin, Dini, and Timm did such a fantastic job, Harley became a fixture of the series—though she was also immediately problematic. The Joker was abusive to lovesick Harley from the jump, and keeping them together meant trapping her in a cycle of domestic abuse. This isn’t something that only becomes apparent by viewing the series through a modern eye; the series itself made the dysfunction of their relationship obvious.What's equally obvious is that any violent crime pulled by Harley can put one between a rock and a hard place, making us feel awkward about sympathizing with her.
During the post-Flashpoint reboot, she got quite the nasty origin:
When DC rebooted all of its characters in 2011, the video-game version of Harley paved the way for a new comic-book incarnation. Along with her new, revealing costume, two-toned hair, and bleached skin, Harley got a more victimized backstory. In this new version (not written by Dini or designed by Timm), the Joker threw his unwilling, struggling psychiatrist, Dr. Quinzel, into a vat of acid, dying her skin and warping her mind. For this Harley, love for the Joker wasn’t something she chose.But the background was apparently what the editors saw fit. Wow, what pure disgust, all reflective of the violence-obsessed mindset prevalent in today's superhero industry.
Quinn courted controversy yet again when DC launched a new comic from married creative team Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti. The new series started with a regrettable contest that asked fans to draw Harley naked in a bathtub, contemplating suicide by electrocution with “toasters, blow dryers, blenders, [and] appliances all dangling above the bathtub.” The creators said that they were going for a wacky, Wile E. Coyote vibe, but launching the contest during National Suicide Prevention Week didn’t do them any favors. The concept was so widely reviled that DC was forced to apologize publicly.How come they never apologized for several other obnoxious products since the turn of the century like Identity Crisis? On which note, I've never heard of any abuse victims who had anything positive to say about such a work of sickness. If they're not sorry about slighting the dignity of abuse victims, why should we believe they're really sorry for that Quinn stunt?
But not every Harley fan saw this new version as a step in the right direction. What strikes some as a hopeful story of escape from an abusive relationship looks to others, to paraphrase Quinn herself, like a departure from the character they fell in love with. Once again, Harley found herself in the crossfire of a debate. Is this Harley, with her skimpy outfits and disconnect from the Joker dynamic that made her famous, a betrayal of everything Quinn? Or is she a feminist icon, a symbol of how the roles for women in comics has taken a significant step forward? In other words, a deep schism in the world of Quinn fandom had opened. Vanity Fair witnessed an old-school costumed Harley snarl (yes, snarl) at a modern Harley this year at Comic-Con. Will this fractured fandom ever become whole again?I don't even get why there is a fandom for villains; it's taking a terrible risk. The heroes are who should matter. On which note, how fascinating they fail to consider some of the lower-ranking superheroes and superheroines of the DCU for a history readout, and suggest why they could use some building up in terms of story merit. When spotlights on the villains come at the heroes' expense, something is terribly wrong.