For those of you that don’t know, Harley Quinn is one of the most popular supervillains in DC’s Batman franchise. Originally a licensed psychiatrist named Harleen Quinzel (hey, this is comics), she was driven mad by her obsessive love for Batman’s nemesis, The Joker, and became his accomplice. She’s been a feature of the Batman universe for over twenty years – albeit in various different forms – and has become a real fan favourite. While critics have certainly had their fair share of complaints, Harley remains popular, with her own comic series and a starring role in the upcoming film, Suicide Squad – and has also been hailed as one of the most complex and sympathetic villains in the whole extended universe.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
NOTE: I’ll be focusing my review on the version of Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series, as that’s the one I’m most familiar with. I’ll probably end up referencing other versions of her from time to time, but they won’t be the main focus of this post.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
A huge part of Harley’s life has been influenced by The Joker. Quick backstory: she met him when she was working in Arkham Asylum and he was a patient. She became fascinated with his criminal mind and wanted to psycho-analyse him, but over the course of their sessions he seduced her (and manipulated her insecurities like, A TON) until she fell in love with him, and packed in psychiatry to become his partner in life, and in crime.
So Harley wouldn’t be the character she is without The Joker. She spends most of her appearances working on his plans – so usually, she does what he tells her to do and goes where he tells her to go. She’s happy to do it, because she’s crazy in love with him (literally), even though he treats her terribly.
Where she starts having more control over her life is when she gets fed up with him. This happens pretty regularly in the Batman universe. It’s pretty widely acknowledged that The Joker and Harley have an abusive relationship – although this is taken to very different lengths depending on which Batman you look at. She usually accepts his frankly appalling behaviour and tries to be better to prevent it, but occasionally she has enough and leaves him, and that’s where she comes into her own. When she’s away from The Joker she’s in control of her own life – still a crazy supervillain robbing banks and such, but she’s doing it because she wants to and she comes up with the plans herself.
Unfortunately, this rarely lasts. Harley usually ends up going back to The Joker and getting back under his thumb, but in some of her more recent incarnations she ditches him altogether and is a much more independent character as a result. However, given that he was the one who basically turned her into a supervillain in pretty much every version of the story, it’s hard to separate Harley from The Joker. I’ll give her half a point, and talk about this more later on.
SCORE SO FAR: 0.5
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Harley doesn’t really have a specific hobby, but she tends to indulge in a lot of weird and ‘quirky’ pastimes (such as pogoing all over the place), which are usually used to show how ‘crazy’ she is. Her goals are pretty simple – she wants to live happily with The Joker, steal things, and not get caught by Batman. Her beliefs tend to vary pretty wildly depending on her various incarnation, but in Batman: The Animated Series she clearly has something of a moral code. She doesn’t betray her friends, hates the thought of leaving them behind and clearly thinks that The Joker should be faithful to her and put her above everyone else. It can be a little patchy, but she’s got something for every category, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
For the most part, Harley is a pretty consistent character. She’s quirky, fun-loving, immature, a hopeless romantic, and a borderline homicidal maniac. She’s intelligent enough to come up with her own criminal schemes, but also has a desperate need to be loved that often bypasses intelligence altogether. As far as her skills go, she’s an accomplished acrobat, thief, and is comfortable with a wide range of weapons. This does pretty much materialise out of nowhere the second she becomes a supervillain – we don’t see much of her straight-laced psychiatrist self backflipping about the place – but as this isn’t the main focus of her story, I’ll allow it.
SCORE SO FAR: 2.5
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A quirky, fun-loving and psychotic villain with an affinity for practical jokes and serious dependency issues.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Harley’s love life really underpins her character – it’s a very important part of who she is. As I mentioned earlier, she falls in love with The Joker and becomes his criminal accomplice, sacking off psychiatry for kleptomania and elaborate plots to murder Batman. She spends the majority of her appearances doing whatever The Joker tells her to, and she does it all out of love.
However, it’s made incredibly clear that The Joker and Harley’s relationship is very far from healthy. Part of the reason she fell for him – aside from her fascination with his criminal mind – is that The Joker exploited her insecurities and manipulated her until she saw him as the real victim. Leaving that aside, their relationship is textbook abuse: he screams at her, belittles her, thinks it’s funny to make her uncomfortable and is often physically violent.
Most of the time, Harley puts up with this, and it’s difficult to tell whether she’s doing this out of genuine love or self-preservation. Honestly, it’s probably both. But it is made very clear that Harley is not a mentally stable woman: her obsessive love for The Joker has quite literally driven her crazy. Much like V and Evey, The Joker made Harley in his own image – and that’s a terrifying, psychotic, killer-clown image that comes with a whole range of mental health issues.
The upshot of all this is that Harley’s motivations are often pretty tangled. It’s difficult to say for certain if her decisions are motivated by her feelings for The Joker, her own mental instability, or a sense of self-preservation that has come about as a result of the climate of fear their very violent relationship has produced. It’s probably a mix of all three. I can’t even begin to untangle that mess, so I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Most of the time Harley is a pretty static character. After her one big character change she doesn’t really develop. She stays in her terrible relationship with The Joker, she stays a psychotic, clownish criminal, and she stays unstable. She occasionally has episodes (or issues) where she appears to have reformed and is released back into society – but almost all of these end with her going back to her old ways and going on a massive crime spree. In other media she does get a chance at development – becoming slightly more well-adjusted in some of the later issues – but as those aren’t the main focus of this review, I’ve got to draw the line somewhere. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she have a weakness?
Harley has plenty of weaknesses, and that’s what makes her such a compelling character. She’s impulsive and has a desperate need to please, but the biggest one is definitely her inability to break out of her abusive relationship with The Joker. She romanticises everything he does, no matter how terrible it is – when it comes to him, she can’t see him for what he really is. She’s firmly trapped in the cycle of abuse, to the point where no matter what he does to her, she’ll always end up going back to him. She simply can’t conceive of a life without him – even though she’d be much better off.
It’s tragic, but it’s part of what makes Harley a compelling character. She has very human problems, which is unusual for a world where you see space aliens and villains made out of living rock on a regular basis. She makes mistakes regularly, and they’re mistakes that hurt her, but she’s allowed to make them. When you compare her to, for example, Wonder Woman – who rarely makes mistakes at all – she’s far more relatable. She’s not idealised, she’s not superpowered, and she’s very far from perfect. She’s just human. I’ll talk about this more later, but for now I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Harley’s usually a pretty big influence on the plot. She commits a lot of the crimes that Batman investigates, so without her there wouldn’t always be a plot. She’s very active in the story – even if a lot of the time, she is following The Joker’s orders – so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Harley is a very complicated character when it comes to gender stereotypes. On the one hand, it’s easy to draw certain parallels to very old clichés: she’s a brilliant young woman who packed in her career for love, she’s completely blind to the flaws of her boyfriend, and can never stay away from him despite what he does to her. The idea that a woman will do terrible things if she’s in love with a man that does them too is as old as the hills, and Harley falls right into that trap.
However, that’s not all there is to her character. Harley’s relationship with The Joker – which is unequivocally abusive – is presented as such, in pretty much every single medium. This is usually explored in a pretty realistic way, complete with showing the highs and lows of the cycle of abuse. It’s implied quite strongly that even despite the abuse she goes through, Harley gets a lot out of their relationship – namely, an escape from the pressure she gets put under. Even though it is a terribly abusive relationship which leaves her hospitalised, Harley isn’t painted as a victim, or a broken woman who needs to be rescued, but as someone who chooses to stay.
This is part of what makes her and her story so compelling. She’s a far cry from the type of woman you usually see in abuse stories, but that doesn’t make what she’s going through any less appalling. Her quirky, bubbly personality makes her entertaining to watch, but that also makes the abuse she goes through seem that much worse. She does terrible things and has terrible things done to her at the same time, and she doesn’t always know how she feels about them.
When this is handled properly, it can be very engaging. Done right, Harley’s story illustrates the dangerous of abusive relationships, and that no-one is really immune to them. It can be a real insight into why people stay in these situations, as opposed to the more traditional stories we usually see. Done wrong, Harley’s story can romanticise abusive relationships, fetishise the idea of two people hurting each other and provide excuses for real-life abusive behaviour.
It’s a fine line to walk. For the most part, Batman: The Animated Series handles it well – Harley is allowed to be fun and quirky, but she still makes some truly terrible choices and her relationship with The Joker is just all-round terrible. But there’s a lot of different versions of Harley’s story, and some of them handle it much better than others.
I can’t say I’m fully behind all the choices the creative team made. Some of them work, some of them don’t. Whether Harley is a genuinely tragic character or just generically ‘edgy’ really depends on the adaptation, but I think for the most part, Batman: The Animated Series tried hard to work with some difficult material. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
We don’t see Harley interact with female characters a lot in Batman: The Animated Series, as most of the time she’s hanging around with The Joker. However, she does still have a few interesting relationships. She hates Mercy Graves, Lex Luthor’s assistant, and tries to kill her frequently. She runs into Catwoman a few times and oscillates between trying to kill her and working with her, but doesn’t seem to bear her any grudge. We occasionally see her interact with The Joker’s other female henchmen – who don’t usually last long, because Harley gets jealous. But her most interesting relationship by far is with her fellow supervillain, Poison Ivy.
Poison Ivy and Harley start working together and eventually become good friends – although Ivy can’t understand Harley’s obsession with The Joker at all. Ivy often gets frustrated with Harley running back to The Joker all the time, as she sees right through him, but is still there for Harley despite all of this. It’s strongly implied – and later confirmed in other Batman media – that this is because Ivy actually has feelings for her, and in other versions of Harley’s story they do actually start dating. That’s a wide range of different relationships, so I’ll give her the point.
FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10
Harley is an interesting and well-developed character, but she still hasn’t passed my test. She has a range of relationships with other female characters, she’s very active, she has clear goals and beliefs and weaknesses that actively hold her back – but what really hampers her as an independent character is her relationship with The Joker.
You simply can’t look at Harley in isolation, because so much of who she is and what she does is dictated by what The Joker wants her to do. She is the way she is because he made her that way. He has such influence over her that it’s extremely difficult to see exactly which parts of her personality are really hers, and which parts are there for The Joker’s benefit. Everything she does, she does because of him – whether that’s breaking him out of Arkham or just breaking and entering. Their relationship is the defining element of her personality, and it’s super unhealthy.
Of course, other versions of her story have tried to address this. Some romanticise this twisted ‘us against the world’ dynamic and remove her agency entirely, some take The Joker out of the picture entirely and allow Harley to develop on her own. It really depends on who’s writing the story, and who they’re trying to cater to. It certainly doesn’t help that Harley is one of those characters who are a) routinely used for fanservice and b) often used to ‘push boundaries’. Just look at the worst PR stunt ever, where DC encouraged the fans to draw Harley in various suicide scenarios – tactfully timed so that the announcement was made right before National Suicide Prevention Week. When that’s how the parent company treats a character, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to get a nuanced, well-thought out development of her agency and personality as a human being.
But that’s not the only version of Harley. From what I understand, more recent versions of Harley’s story have really done a lot to let her character develop on its own, and put her relationship with The Joker way in the background, and perhaps that version of Harley would have done better on my test. But that’s a post for when I have way more time on my hands.
Next week, I’ll be looking at a character from one of my favourite childhood books – The BFG. Sophie, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.