Harley Quinn: Feminist Icon or Sexist Stereotype

Harley Quinn is a villainess from the DC Comic universe who was first developed in the ’90s, initially for an appearance in a singular episode. Her popularity has grown so rapidly over the past decades that her character is still ever-changing and evolving today, most recently being featured in 2016 film ‘Suicide Squad’. Many love Harley for being a feminist icon, though others would argue she is a sexist stereotype and follows classic tropes of women in the superhero universe. In preparation for my constellation essay, which I have chosen to write on an image of Harley Quinn, played by Margot Robbie in the most recent film, I decided to conduct in depth research on the backstory and creation of the character in order to have a better understanding of how she came to be who she is.

Many would argue that Quinn is a feminist icon for her independence in the comic series’, television programmes and films, based on the fact that she is of equal violent ability to her male counterparts. Harley Quinn is no less or more evil than her fellow villains, and this is seen as an achievement for women in this genre. On this point, I would agree. Harley Quinn has been an essential character in achieving equality in this category of entertainment across the board, as it is true that monsters and villains are more commonly seen to be men, as are superheroes. There has previously only been one role for women in this type of film (in particular) – this being the damsel in distress. Comic books and graphic novels have always been one step ahead of the film industry in terms of creating and generating female counterparts for their male villains, featuring much more equality than other branches of the DC franchise (one example being ‘Birds of Prey’; a miniseries based on female characters which is amazing, despite the completely sexualised outfits).

The film industry has much more frequently followed the pattern of using male heroes and villains and using female characters to stand around, cry and wait to be saved before repaying the hero most often with a kiss or something of this nature. Harley Quinn is unapologetically as violent and crazed as the men in her industry and for this, is seen as an icon of independence, strength and equality. She is a woman to be feared and fits the bill of a woman aware of her own sexuality and how to use it, as she does in one scene with Batman, in which she says “I know, you’re thinking ‘what a shame! A poor, innocent, little thing like her, led astray by bad companions!” all the while whilst grabbing a knife and lunging to attempt to kill Batman. She knows what people will assume of her and she uses it to her advantage. She understands the mould she should fit and how she has broken it. She is aware of her capabilities and knows she will be doubted – something which she can always use her to advantage. As the years have gone on, Harley Quinn is said to have become sexier, but also more powerful and independent. In Batman: The Animated Series, Quinn pulls the trigger on a machine gun she has aimed at her beloved Joker. The gun is a trick, firing a flag which reads ‘rat tat tat’, though her motivation to actually go through with the murder of her abuser is apparently a turn on to the Joker and the pair reunite, almost seeming to defeat the point but being in tune with the domestic relationship both are invested in to some degree.

Despite these points which lead many to believe she is a feminist icon, Harley Quinn also has many traits of a sexist stereotype. Quinn is the only female in the Joker’s entourage – and she is hopelessly in love with him. This is in line with the idea that women’s main focus on life is love and only interested in finding and pursuing it. It also suggests that there can’t be a female character around without her being a love interest or falling for the main male character. This shows Harley’s dependence on the Joker and eludes to him being her main reason for doing what she does; to be around the Joker and impress him in the hope of winning his affections. The change in direction of Harley Quinn’s appearance in 2009, bringing the character back and ultimately leading to the success that the character is having now, meant that the character became much more sexualised and, though was still a strong and villainous character, is now a character that is lusted after by those who know her and wears outfits which resembled underwear and fetishwear. In the most recent DC film ‘Suicide Squad’, Harley Quinn is often alone after being allowed to leave Arkham on the condition she help the government defeat a larger enemy. While she always matches or even goes beyond her male colleagues in terms of violence and destruction, Quinn is constantly waiting for the Joker to come and save her, restoring her as the damsel in distress who needs to be saved. It is as if the Joker is her weakness, and she is able to put on a strong front but only if she can have the Joker around, almost as a source of power and happiness.

The difficult thing about the DC universe and attempting to understand Harley Quinn is that there is not just one Harley Quinn. I have come across multiple origin stories, multiple theories and stories of her relationship with the Joker, many different interpretations of her motivations of becoming who she is and doing what she does. Even the slightest of details differ, becoming essential when analysing her character. This is because of the variety of platforms that the stories bleed across; film, comics, graphic novels, TV series, fan theories and more. Though some of the differentiations are small and may seem insignificant, they are essential to deciding whether Quinn is a feminist icon or sexist stereotype. In one story of how Harleen Quinzel became Harley Quinn, it is told that Quinn dives into a vat of acid willingly to prove her love and dedication to the Joker and to becoming his accomplice. The acid is meant to dye her skin, like his, and alter her mindset somehow, almost driving her to the insane state she is as Harley Quinn. In another origin story, it says the Joker throws Harley, as she struggles and cries against him, from a height and into the vat of acid, changing her to become how he would like her to be and match his desires. In this story, the Joker is Pygmalion, having an ideal image of his perfect woman in his head and creating her for his own use and pleasure. Like the marble, the Joker sees his psychologist, Quinzel as a blank canvas for the creation of his own monster, who he will simultaneously manipulate, abuse and show affection to for the remainder of their lives. This tiny detail of whether she jumped or was pushed into the acid says a lot about who she is when she emerges from the vat and her mindset. Is she depressed and destructive about the person she has been made to become? Is she strong and proud, finally becoming the person she has been dying to become? This detail is the difference between placing Harley Quinn at either end of the scale. Is she a character equal to her male counterparts who is driven by her own motivations to become who she wants to be of her own accord therefore being a feminist icon? Or is she a puppet on a string, weak and feeble, being manipulated and blinded by love and adoration for the Joker, being just another female character in the role of a damsel?

Quinn did not start out in a costume which was revealing and sexual. Her first costume was a full body female Jester costume with only her pale, white face not covered by material. This is a far cry from the outfits seen above, and the outfit she has been more recently cast to wear. In 2009, Harley’s look was given a revamp. The next time she was seen, she was considerably bustier and wearing a revealing corset and short skirt with blonde pigtails. Her character now completely sexualised and Harley aware of it, she appears to use it to aid her in her crimes as seen the clip below from Batman: Arkham Asylum, in which she appears to drape herself over a victim who is tied to a chair.

I believe there are arguments for both the idea that Harley Quinn is a feminist icon and a sexist stereotype. She seems to simultaneously give the illusion of both at the same time, across all platforms of DC entertainment. This makes it difficult to label her as one. I believe Quinn puts on a feminist icon-esque front and is strong when she needs to be, though in her head she is constantly wondering where the Joker is and when he is going to come to find her, assuming she is the top of his priorities. Harley Quinn comes across in ‘Suicide Squad’ as distracted and a typical ‘dumb blonde’ at times, perhaps eluding to the fact her brain is full of ideas about where the Joker could be, what he is doing and how she can get back to him. She enjoys being the villain that she is, but it is difficult to tell whether she actually enjoys it or has been conditioned to enjoy it by her creator. As for her origin story, I have no idea. I don’t believe it is particularly important, however, because Harley Quinn appears to be a completely separate person to Harleen Quinn and cannot snap out of the being the villain to return to who she was before. She seems to be a completely different brain in the same, slightly altered body, and so I feel that how she ended up being Harley Quinn is not entirely important in understanding Harley Quinn, because she may well not remember. As for her relationship with the Joker, it is clear that it is toxic and abusive, and she is completely blinded by her love and adoration for him. This relationship is something I would like to look further into. I believe DC has made a good start in introducing female characters to their universe, but it is taking too long. The film and television industry need to match the comic books in generating films and programmes featuring both female heroes and villains to give audiences female role models and also female characters to hate (or love to hate). It is essential in the fight to achieving equality that there is female representation in superhero/super villain films which break the moulds which have been reused too many times in the history of this genre of entertainment. We need more strong, independent female superheroes, more men being saved from burning buildings and far more evil, crazed women who are realistically dressed in more than fishnet tights and a leather body suit.

You can do it DC, nearly there!









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