Move Over, Wonder Woman: Harley Quinn Is The Greatest Feminist Symbol In Comics Today
With the character basically starring in her own movie, it’s safe to say that Harley Quinn has broken into the mainstream. It’s more or less on time for a quality comic book character in the modern age. Wolverine first appeared in 1974, but wouldn’t break out in movies until 2000 with Bryan Singer’s X-Men, a quarter of a century later. The New Teen Titans first appeared in 1980, but wouldn’t see their first cartoon until 2003.
And then there’s Wonder Woman. First introduced in 1942 in Sensation Comics #1, the character was one of DC’s Big Three superheroes that survived the the public’s waning interest in superheroes from the late 40’s until comics’ Silver Age starting in the late 50’s. But Diana Prince arguably peaked in the 1970’s, when Gloria Steinem plastered her on the cover of her Ms. Magazine in 1972. Shortly thereafter, the immortal Lynda Carter began portraying the Amazon princess on TV in 1975.
I’m not saying Wonder Woman doesn’t still represent something; she does. It’s just an old something. A kind of outdated something. The archetypal “strong female character” she represents has become a kind of barrier in itself, something which holds female characters back from being interesting just as often as it protects them from being incompetent. As Sophia McDougall breaks down so perfectly in her New Statesman article “I hate Strong Female Characters,” the pop culture obsession with constant physical and mental strength comes at the expense of character. Male heroes, she notes, are at their worst when they fit best into a Strong Male Character box:
The ones that fit in most neatly – are usually the most boring.He-Man, Superman (sorry). The Lone Ranger. Jack Ryan, perhaps. Forgotten square-jawed heroes of forgotten pulp novels and the Boy’s Own Paper. If Strong-Male-Character compatibility was the primary criterion of writing heroes, our fiction would be a lot poorer. But it’s within this claustrophobic little box that we expect our heroines to live out their lives.
Firstly, fie on her for calling the Man of Steel boring! Fie, fie!! But secondly yeah, now that my knee-jerk emotional reaction to reading that sentence is out of the way, I do see where she’s coming from there. As the prototype of all modern superheroes, Superman will always be the most simplistic and straightforward of the lot. It’s not to say he doesn’t mean anything anymore; he absolutely still does. But as the biggest Superman fan I know, as someone who can see at least twenty-five Superman trade paperbacks on the shelf from where he is sitting, let me tell you: if Superman was all I had, I would be desperate for more complex heroes.
And this brings me back to Harley Quinn.
As Bijhan Valibeigi explains in her Black Nerd Girls article “Strong Female Characters Are Rarely Strong And Barely Characters,” so-called strong female characters often justify their bad-assness by having masculine interests. The narrative punishes them for showing feminine qualities by shrinking their relevance in the plot. Harley Quinn, almost uniquely, does not have this problem.
Harley first laughed her way onto the screen in 1992 in the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Joker’s Favor.” The show was about the Clown Prince of Crime popping up in a regular person’s life and twisting it around, and ironically that person was not his future girlfriend. Harley appears only as Joker’s colorful henchwoman, a conscious throwback to the villainous molls of the 1960s Batman series. But Harley landed with a splash right away. While other henches were always stumbling behind in Joker’s gags, Harley established herself as right there with him, cheering and whistling. She was colorful, care free and utterly confident.
But there was no sign at this early time of her tragic origin that would really define her character for so many. Without it, she’d probably be forgotten by now, an interesting choice for hired help in an above average episode of an old cartoon. But she did get that origin, and it came in the comics.
Harley Quinn was originally conceived by the B:TAS head writer, Paul Dini. Dini based the character on his Brooklyn-accented friend Arleen Sorkin, and yes Harleen Quinzel and her original voice actress nearly share a first name, and a particularly bizarre dream sequence appearance of hers in the soap opera Days Of Our Lives. Sorkin had appeared in a clown outfit.
By 1994, though, Dini had a chance to write for the B:TAS-inspired comic book series, Batman Adventures. Largely dismissed at the time by serious comic collectors in favor of more “adult” books like Jim Lee’s X-Men, more and more people today are taking a second look at the serious and discovering some surprisingly strong stories. One of the gems in the crown, though, is undoubtedly “Mad Love” from The Batman Adventures: Mad Love one-shot. Here Dini, along with his co-conspirator, B:TAS showrunner Bruce Timm, finally fleshed out the origin of Joker’s best hench since Bob in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman.
Mad Love tells the story in flashbacks of young psychologist Harleen Quinzel, someone with a lot of ambition, not quite so much ability, and a lot of drive. She cushions her grades by scratching professors’ backs behind closed doors, and on graduating looks to fast track herself to fame by exploiting the damaged minds of Arkham Asylum. She turns out to be little match for Joker’s bizarre charms, however, and before long she’s breaking him out and embarking on a life of crime.
What’s endearing to so many about Harley is that she is a capable and sympathetic person who nonetheless makes bad choices. As opposed to Wonder Woman, Harley is often far from making the best choice. But unlike so many other major female characters, she is allowed to do this and still remain very sympathetic. In other words, we forgive her because we see her vulnerability and her fragility, and this doesn’t detract from her strength.
A lot of ink’s been spilled over whether the DCCU’s typical deference to the New 52 in going with the “modern” origin for Harley Quinn was a wise decision. They keyword getting thrown around is agency, and whether Harley has it. It’s a good question, and an important one. In the New 52 (and now Suicide Squad) origin for Harley, her strange persona of Harley Quinn isn’t something formulated by her but what remains of her after cruel experiments by the Joker. It doesn’t “ruin” her exactly, but it’s definitely a step in the wrong direction for a character who formerly made every step of her ludicrous journey herself.
People make a lot of Harley being “complicated” but she’s really not; she’s simply grey. You don’t get many grey characters in superhero flicks – not female ones, that is. Marvel’s Black Widow makes the barest pretense of moral ambiguity, what with her occasional deception and vaguely spy-ish past, but never causes anything to happen which a mainstream audience wouldn’t approve of.
The superhero cinema landscape is a redwood forest of beefy Y-chromosomers. If the cape-and-tights era ends anytime soon, as many are predicting, it will do so having given a piteous showing for heroines and villainesses. For this reason, despite Harley’s somewhat rocky beginning in Suicide Squad, I hope we continue to see a lot more of her in the DCCU.