Why is it so hard to write Harley Quinn?

Contributed by
Sep 6, 2017

Ever since Superman was first brought to the screen in 1941, superhero fans have always faced new adaptations of their favorite characters with both hope and trepidation. It’s part and parcel of being a fan of something whose canon is simply too big and sprawling to be directly adapted. What’s going to be included? What’s the tone? Will this new creative team do the character justice? Questions like these have generated good, clean nerd rage ever since Michael Keaton was cast as Batman.

But for fans of Batman villainess/antiheroine Harley Quinn, there’s one more question to be asked when a new incarnation of the character looms—will this new project feature the Harley Quinn we know and love or will she only get to be the Joker’s “hot and crazy” girlfriend?

I’ve been a fan of Harley Quinn since her debut in Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. I found her Bugs Bunny meets Lucille Ball chaotic neutral daffiness fascinating, laughed at her penchant for broad comedy, and loved her “friendship” with Poison Ivy. (I was a very confused and closeted kid, cut me a break.) Harley (as Dr. Quinzel) was the first comic book character I ever cosplayed as. I devoured her 2001 to 2003 self-titled series. I even bought every issue of Gotham City Sirens, Paul Dini’s perfectly serviceable book about Harley, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman often ruined by artist’s Guillem March’s inability to draw more than one kind of face on women.

But ever since the New 52 came into our lives screaming “THIS AIN’T YOUR DADDY’S DC UNIVERSE!” at top volume in 2011, experience has worn me down when it comes to my beloved Harleen. I’d been excited to see what new adventures Harley would embark on after Gotham City Sirens. Seeing her pin the skinned face of her abusive ex-boyfriend to a coworker’s face and kissing it wasn’t exactly the sort of thing I’d been hoping for. And when Suicide Squad was announced, even though I thought Margot Robbie would make a fantastic Harley (just see her dry-as-a-bone parody of American Psycho for Vogue and her daffily cute interviews to promote Focus), my hackles were immediately raised at the idea of the brain trust behind the DC Extended Universe handling her. And, it turns out, said hackles were right on the money.

This, of course, is not to say that there’s not quality Harley Quinn content out there. I still recommend her self-titled early aughts series to anyone remotely interested in her, even though it goes off the rails a bit after she gets back from Hell. (Long story.) Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s ongoing Harley Quinn series sees Harley, now based in Coney Island, go on a variety of wacky adventures. It’s been successful enough to warrant spin-offs like Harley Quinn and Power Girl and Harley Quinn’s Little Black Book. And she’s an integral part of DC Super Hero Girls, the high school AU turned best-seller. But in the wake of one poorly received Harley Quinn-centric film in Batman and Harley Quinn and ahead of potentially another poorly received Harley Quinn-centric film in the upcoming Joker and Harley Quinn movie described as “a criminal love story,” I’m left scratching my head and wondering—why is it apparently so hard to write Harley Quinn?

I love Harley Quinn because she’s evolved past her origins as an aesthetically pleasing extra in Batman: The Animated Series into an engaging and complex character all her own. She’s a mentally ill queer Jewish antiheroine whose origin story is surviving the abuse she suffered at the Joker’s hands. She’s funny, fiercely loyal to her friends, and comfortable with her unique moral code and personal contradictions. Focusing only on her relationship with the Joker is the equivalent of taking the first sentence off of the “Early Life” section of someone’s Wikipedia page and pretending that’s the most interesting and important thing about them. “In 1832, at age 23, Lincoln and a partner bought a small generation store on credit in New Salem, Illinois” is a true and maybe even an influential part of Abraham Lincoln’s life, but you can see how it misses the highlights.

But a surprising amount of creatives, especially those involved in the DC Extended Universe, overlook the Harley Quinn of the current comics, fully realized survivor and antiheroine, to focus on the woman she was when she was trapped in her abusive relationship with the Joker. It can be tempting to see this as nostalgia for Batman: The Animated Series. But it’s not. The real culprit is one of the more insidious elements of the male gaze—an inability to see a woman as a whole human being outside of her relationship with a man.

That’s always a problem for female characters, but for Harley, this means that she’s literally defined by her abuser. Characterizing her as just the Joker’s main squeeze and centering the narratives with the biggest reach—such as her first onscreen debut—around him at best ignores and at worst romanticizes the toxicity of their relationship. It also ignores the wonderful character development she’s undergone ever since she debuted in “Joker’s Favor”. This myopic focus on her relationship with the Joker and, therefore, on her sexual desirability to straight men, becomes a case of missing the forest for the trees. Like downplaying the astonishing physical training Margot Robbie did to prepare for her role in Suicide Squad by putting her in stilettos. Like undermining Harley complaining that she gets treated like a whore by animating her with two butt cracks.

Like overvaluing stories where Harley is hot, crazy, and just yearning for her puddin’ to take her away into domestic bliss over stories where she overcomes that abusive relationship to become an antiheroine all her own.

Ultimately, writing Harley Quinn as a whole human being isn’t actually hard. Karl Kesel, Amanda Conner, and Marguerite Bennett, among many others, have proven time and again that you can. All you have to do is be cognizant and move past the male gaze that subtly implies that women aren’t whole human beings if they’re not being defined by a man, no matter how toxic that definition. 

There’s hope for Harley in the DC Extended Universe—despite rumors that the upcoming Joker and Harley movie will be replacing the upcoming Gotham City Sirens movie, Warner Brothers has confirmed that the latter remains in production. And maybe the upcoming Joker and Harley film will end with her kicking him to the curb. But you won't catch me holding my breath. To me, it’s very telling that Harley Quinn’s first two feature films have and will romanticize her relationship with the Joker before she even gets a chance to strike out on her own.

So I’ll approach both the upcoming Joker and Harley movie and Gotham City Sirens the same way I do any Harley Quinn news—as the living embodiment of the yikes emoji.