This might be the most hipster thing I’ll ever say: I liked Harley Quinn before she was cool. I was an early convert to her character on Batman the Animated Series (and by early I mean “I didn’t have that whole “reading” thing down quite yet but dang, I knew it would be cool when I did”). She stood out on the show, not just for her almost-overwpowering NYC accent but because of her choices. In a rogue’s gallery largely populated by the victims of lab accidents, artificial and natural disfigurements, and tragic back stories, Harley Quinn was a pretty normal doctor with a pretty terrible name until she fell for the Joker and decided to be evil. She was almost as cool as Catwoman, who did basically the same thing, only to save animals, making her what PETA wishes it could be when it grows up.
The relationship between Harley Quinn and the Joker can be described in a lot of ways: intense, complex, abusive, codependent… the list goes on. A word that’s not on that list? Aspirational. So why in the name of spandex do I keep seeing memes like this?
…no. Just no.
Say it with me again: no. No one should want a relationship like Harley and Joker have. Almost every episode of the animated series that featured Harley Quinn also featured how seriously messed up her relationship with the Joker is. The Joker is mentally, emotionally, and physically abusive. He preys on her insecurities, warps her mind, and even rats on her to the police. (Not cool, man.) Yes, Harley Quinn goes back to him every time, but — oh hey article talking about how domestic abuse survivors leave their partner roughly seven times before leaving for good, what are you doing here?
Their abusive dynamic gets worse in other iterations of their backstory, with my least favorite being her New 52 origin, where the Joker forcibly throws Harley into a vat of chemicals, which apparently simultaneously bleaches her skin, makes her super sexy, and makes her (more) crazy. This origin entirely defeats the purpose of Harley Quinn and her agency, but we’ll set that aside for now and instead mark it down as more evidence in the “abusive as hell” category for Harley and Joker’s relationship.
The relationship between Harley Quinn and Joker makes for great storytelling, and a really good fictional example of the complexities of an abusive relationship. But that doesn’t mean that they have a good relationship. “Interesting narrative” and “relationship goals” are frequently not the same thing, and being intrigued by a character’s relationship doesn’t mean you should want to imitate it.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not reminding us that maybe we should set higher standards for ourselves, she studies gender in popular culture.
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