Harley Quinn: Kick-Ass Bi Super Villain Since 1993
To be honest, I feel like a bit of a poser writing about Harley Quinn. I was never a big DC fan (sorry) and so my Batman experiences were largely limited to the animated series of the early ‘90s and of course the Batman TV Series starring Adam West. Although I love both deeply, I know that these are not the most acclaimed pieces of DC canon. The animated series is near and dear to me for many reasons. One thing that I came to love about it much later is that it also introduced me to my first bi hero. Back in 1993, Batman: The Animated Series gave us Harley Quinn. Initially Harley was the Joker’s lover, but later she finds her way into the arms of the lovely Poison Ivy.
Harley’s first appearance was in the animated series. She was given a remarkable story arc for any character of the time, let alone an animated female villain in a children’s TV show. She starts out as the acrobatic, witty cheerleader/lover of the Joker. In “The Trial,” Harley learns that the Joker betrayed her and she is legitimately angry. She loves him, but her love is never unconditional. In “Harliquinade” Harley actually works with Batman and Robin to thwart the Joker. He wants to destroy the entire city including her friends and pet hyenas. This is something that she will not stand for, because she loves people and things other than the Joker. Her whole universe doesn’t actually revolve around him.
Harley and Ivy as no pants roomies
Throughout the animated series, she grows and moves away from the Joker. In “Harley Meets Ivy,” the Joker kicks her out and she is forced to fend for herself. Harley runs into Poison Ivy and soon they have set up house together. Before you know it, they are going on a crime spree, lounging around with no pants, and cooking together. When they outwit Batman, they tie him up to a kitchen table with various appliances calling them “the symbols of male oppression.” Although they are never shown kissing (it was a children’s TV show in 1993), it is clear that they have a more than platonic relationship. Even though she is often defined by her relationship with Joker, my favorite moments of hers are when she’s without the Joker and allowed to shine as more than a henchman. Later, in the comic books, she has more adventures both solo and with Poison Ivy (and their relationship is confirmed).
The character of Harley Quinn is relatively new to the Suicide Squad, not appearing in that group until 2011 and I was delighted that she was going to be a part of the film. Who doesn’t want to watch a kick ass, bisexual, sexy, funny lady super villain/anti hero?
As a long time comic book reader, I am totally comfortable with the fact the canon is malleable. Part of what I love about comic book universes is that the stories can always be retold, reshaped, and revamped. These characters have been with us for decades growing and changing. Each evolution is just as valid as every previous iteration and somehow they all coexist without the universe exploding. Certain characters see a rise in popularity and they suddenly have the ability to live on multiple timelines, a character’s star fades and they get a makeover. Characters die, come back and die again, and I love it.
Suicide Squad (2016)
That being said, I was a little disappointed to see that Suicide Squad chose to create a Harley Quinn that was so pathetically dependent on her Puddin’. In the film, her greatest wish is to be married in the suburbs living a “normal” life with Joker. She is only motivated by her desire to be near the Joker. Whereas the Harley I fell in love with is always armed with a one liner, pun, or quip, much of the new Harley’s humor revolves around her sexuality. The juxtaposition of her violence and sexuality are played for humor; men ogling her as she changes is meant to make us laugh; her desire for a normal life contrasted with her skimpy clothes and overt sexuality must be funny. Rather than laughing at her jokes, I feel like the audience is asked to spend much of the time laughing at her.
What was more disappointing was the erasure of her bisexuality. In 1993, a children’s cartoon managed to show us a woman who could be attracted to men and women. The character’s enthusiasm for everything made it utterly charming. She went from enthusiastically being the Joker’s side kick to enthusiastically being Ivy’s partner in crime. Her status as super villain wasn’t simply due to her debilitating love of Joker; it was also because of her quirky sense of humor, free spirit, and commitment to whatever is exciting to her in the moment. Sometimes the Joker excites her, sometimes crime excites her, and sometimes Poison Ivy excites her.
In the Suicide Squad film, she lives and dies for the Joker. She will flirt with men to manipulate them and the film shows that Deadshot feels a tenderness for her. But at no point does she show the ability to joyously embrace another person like she embraces the Joker.
On top of this, she was one of only three women on the squad. One turns out to be the villain and spends much of the time mostly naked, possessed by an angry witch swaying in front of an orb trying to end the world. Happily, her very manly lover kills the witch and saves her, and they get to live happily ever after. The other woman on the squad is largely silent and avenging the death of her husband. She literally doesn’t speak for much of the film, because she doesn’t speak English.
I am thrilled to see more women in super hero and comic book movies. and I am thrilled that they are sort of a part of the action. However, I am a little sad that the most compelling woman of the new Suicide Squad is motivated only by her love of a lunatic. It makes me especially sad when I watch the vivacious, independent, bisexual Harley Quinn of Batman: The Animated Series. I’m left to wonder what happened to her.