Psycho Killers and the Women Who Love Them: Harley Quinn, Abuse, and Cosplay Pt 3

You can find the first and second part of this series here.

In today’s installment, we collect our thoughts and round up the final remarks in our series on fictional abuse and it’s significance for real cosplayers. Last week, we asked about the health of Harley Quinn’s relationship.

“I’d say it’s unhealthy that she used to keep going back even though Joker would do these terrible things to her, but it’s not just that she’s the victim, every now and then she’ll take a shot at him for whatever reason, and I think that it adds a lot of character to them both because at the end of the day they’re both bats**t crazy,” said James Longstaff, also known as Love That Joker. Manipulation, something Harley is no stranger to, is a reoccurring theme in domestic abuse; many abusers convince their partners to stay through promises of violence not happening again. The likelihood that violence will continue is extremely high: between 30 -40% of abusers will do so again, regardless of incarceration or counseling. Becca Payne said, “Why do we do that? Because we have hope.” Offenders also will attempt to keep their significant others close by threatening self-harm, a stunt the Joker is no stranger to.

To many, that’s the appeal of the character: she is a normal person. She has no powers, no super origin, no scars, mental or physical ,that made her choose to become what she is (at least not prior to the New 52). Harleen was a woman who chose to become Harley Quinn to appeal to the man she loved and that real turn in her character is what makes her more relatable to many when compared to other female characters like Wonder Woman or Zatanna, people who harness the power of Gods and other worlds.

This has brought criticism so specific that it is difficult to counter due to it’s extreme nature.

In no unclear words, if you don’t have experience personally with abuse from a partner, this relationship is not something you can enjoy. Of our interviews who do have a history of abuse on some level, here are some reactions:

“And I think their relationship can be enjoyed by anyone,” said Longstaff.

“You don’t have to be abused to enjoy observing a fictional abusive relationship that leads to rich storytelling,” said Andrew Arkham Cosplay.

“I’d say, that’s your opinion. But they also have to realize that it’s a fictional relationship in a controlled environment. Yes, these kinds of things do happen in real life, but this isn’t real life. People are allowed to enjoy whatever they choose and others can mind their own business. The comics and characters can be appreciated by everyone, but I don’t think that people who haven’t been through the situations that the characters have can fully grasp the concept or gravity of what they’re going through,” said Anderson.

“That just seems foolish to me? It’s not a matter of privilege,” said Harley Quinnsane.

So, if someone feels that Joker and Harley are “cute,” despite their well-documented groundings in violence and poor treatment, how can you counter that? Is someone misjudging that relationship or are these fans simply imbalanced themselves? Are they teenagers who don’t understand relationships? The answers we received were somewhere between.

Andrew Arkham Cosplay feels these readers are either misguided, or not readers at all. “The kids don’t acknowledge the abuse, they just like the visual of a not-so-normal relationship like Jack and Sally, Morticia and Gomez, and let’s face it: in the cartoon/comic world, there aren’t a lot like that besides those two. They are very misinformed on what’s truly going on between the characters and/or refuse to acknowledge the abusive undertones and are simply enamored by just the visual.” He feels this also isn’t the first time young readers have misrepresented the toxicity of a relationship and turned it into something desirable. “Twilight can also be seen as a manipulative relationship, yet it is still desired just because of one thing: it’s different.”

Harley Quinnsane connected the romanticization of the relationship to 50 Shades of Grey, which has had a very established backlash from the BDSM community for it’s depiction of what is supposed to be a safe environment for would-be questionable activity. “It’s a complete misunderstanding. Joker is abusive. That’s it, that’s all. And Harley has her episodes too. It’s not a kink – it’s dangerous and unhealthy. But we, especially cosplayers, have to remember that these are cartoon super-villains and their relationship should be in no way mimicked or accepted in real life.”

Shauna Lynn may have the best connection to the young audience that is usually both marketed to and worried about when it comes to making this sick relationship seem ideal. It didn’t work on her. “I feel that girls now are looking at her as an icon and thinking that her and the Joker are so cute together because of physical appearance having no knowledge of their past. I feel that some young people are a bit uneducated on them.”

“Read a Joker/Harley comic book,” said Longstaff.

All of this discussion of the abuse from Joker is currently moot in DC’s current stories. Crazy Clover Cosplay says, “Harley is her own person now and has her own comic series without the Joker! Her character found the strength to leave and that can encourage others who might be in a bad situation to leave as well. In the end though, it is all make believe and fun.” Most fans will tell you that the Joker doesn’t stay dead for long, though, and if the majority of readers do enjoy stories of Joker and Harley, they probably won’t stay divided for long, either. However, Quinn is currently shacked up and in an open relationship with an old friend. “Well, Poison Ivy and Harley are pretty cute,” said Shauna Lynn.

While stories of abuse can be important, stories of progress, with it’s struggles, are what draw many to these grounded characters. “In a silly sort of way, seeing Harley doing her own thing in her current comic story lines, gives me a sense of hope and inspiration. Sure, she still has her own issues to sort out, like PTSD, anger, and being bats**t bonkers, but she’s getting by,” says Taka. “Harley is a sort of a bleeding heart and has a soft spot for animals and those who can’t help themselves.” Fiction is often the help that those who believe they can’t help themselves need to motivate them to do so.

The future of the character’s status as a role model and sort of “patron saint” of women struggling with a cycle of abuse is up for debate. Her current comics solo run by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti has been lauded by many like Taka, who see her as a character getting by and making her own way from day-to-day amid slapstick adventures and has been very successful with several spin-off titles including Harley Quinn and her Gang of Harleys and Harley Quinn’s Little Black Book. But the title also shows Harley participating in acts of violence that are almost brutal in nature. She is more consistently violent in this comic than any other portrayal, including the violence towards her former partner, Joker, from whom she is estranged in the story. There is also the critique that she appears to be more unbalanced and at times “dumbed down” for comedic value. She is also featured as a player in the well-received DC Comics Bombshells title, recently applauded for openly featuring a kiss between Poison Ivy and Harley amid a large cast of female leads taking place during WWII. The Suicide Squad film is also likely to have a huge impact on the character, with rumors of future solo films or female team-ups flying in every direction. The film dials back the abuse presumably for the purpose of marketing: no one can complain about romanticizing abuse through selling cute merch if the abuse isn’t in the film. However, some still complain about the abuse even when it isn’t presented, especially fans who so strongly relate to her metamorphosis. There is a heavy focus on the male gaze pointed towards Harley, which may only contribute to further over sexualization and romanticization of the character and pairing as a whole in the future considering the success of the movie.

With the popularity of Suicide Squad, fans will be flocking to the girl in motley. Whether fans of her classic Dini and Timm-era antics beside her Mistah J or finding inspiration through her more modern comic incarnations like the series mentioned above, it’s clear that people are drawn to her as a tragic figure, as a source of inspiration, or simply as a smart and sassy clown with the on-again, off-again gangster beau. There is just something about Harley, but maybe the joke’s on us.

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