Harley Quinn, Domestic Violence and Social Responsibility

All summer (and the one before) there has been talk of Suicide Squad and the many colorful characters it features. The most colorful and most talked about these being Harley Quinn. Her costume, the actress who portrays her, and her backstory have been covered extensively. The latter topic takes us through the sordid beginnings of Harley Quinn and her relationship with the Joker, a demented boyfriend who ensnares the brilliant psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel through manipulation, abuse and a vat of acid. Hooray.

What I found odd in much of this coverage was how many of them seemed to think the abusive relationship was glossed over in the movie. One fan writes about her over-sexualization, but notes we must remember her dark and abusive roots. For me, I couldn’t forget them. And not just because she was one of my favorites from Batman: the Animated Series, but because I could see the very apparent scars throughout Suicide Squad.

Time talks how Ayers “refrained from showing The Joker abuse Quinn onscreen and allowed the Margot Robbie character to shine brighter (and get more minutes) onscreen than her boyfriend.”  But, god damn. Harley Quinn was anything but shining bright. Sure, she had funny lines and badass moments. But, she’s not walking “the fine line between dependent and independent.” She’s showing exactly what domestic violence looks like on the outside.

Domestic violence victims aren’t always meek individuals, often they are the exact opposite. That’s what makes it so insidious. But the signs of abuse are clear with Harley Quinn. She spends much of the film pining for The Joker. Not just because he can free her from the grips of the Squad’s constraints, but because a heavy codependent element within their relationship.

You can see it in the way she watches The Joker watch her, you can see it in his jealous reaction to Common’s “compliment,” you can see it in the moments following each reunion between the two. These reunions very obviously have nothing to do with the passion between some twisted power couple. They have everything to do with a return to the power balance between an abuser and his victim.

These relationships almost always have a heightened sense of passion because the stakes are alarmingly high. There's this sense of "You and me against the world, babe. No one understands our love."

The abuser creates this dynamic with his over-the-top charm and intense mea culpas each time he escalates the violence. Mea culpas that are often filled with empty promises of a normal life of love in the suburbs with a happy family, which is clearly a life Harley Quinn was promised if her daydreams are any indication.

The thought that Suicide Squad ignores the abuse is not only patently false, it’s irresponsible. It’s irresponsible to not acknowledge the invisible side of abuse. That line of thinking is what leads to articles like this that admonish the movie Harley Quinn for never realizing she’s being abused, which is ridiculous. Victims seldom realize they’re being abused and even if they do, it’s incredibly difficult to unwind the twisted web and victim-blaming those who can’t, real or otherwise, is despicable.

Sure, we can argue that Harley Quinn is overly sexualized blah blah blah. But that very well could be a symptom of loving a man who views her as an object. We can complain about her fetishized quirks and her lack of agency, but that is reality. Victims of abuse come in all different shapes, personalities and archetypes. Some of them are super hot and use their sexuality to cope. And some may need to see a beautiful woman portray a victim of abuse to know that they, too, might very well be a beautiful and strong woman in the wrong situation.