Harley Quinn: Bisexual, Abused, Recovering, and Powerful

There’s two Harley Quinns: the popular idea of Harley Quinn, who is abused and in love with the Joker; and the current comics version of Harley Quinn, who is bisexual, dating Poison Ivy, and healing from the abuse. Should the comics version come to the silver screen? And is bringing a bisexual superhero to a theater near you “pandering”? All this and more after the jump.

I did a call on my Facebook for new essay topics the other day, and a friend relayed a conversation he had recently with a friend of his:

There’s two great conversational subjects in here: the conceit that LGBT characters are inherently pandering to an LGBT or LGBT-friendly audience, and that Harley is exclusively a tragic, abused character.

On Pandering

See pretty much any article on Miles Morales’ Spider-Man to find out why representation is, uh, kinda important.

Better minds than I have have pointed out how vital representation is for every minority. A study in 2012 found that the white male-dominated world of television raised the self-esteem of white boys and lowered the self-esteem of every other demographic. When we don’t see ourselves, or we see ourselves in negative lights, it affects us. Conversely, seeing ourselves, and seeing ourselves positively, positively impacts our lives. This is especially true for teenagers, who make up a large portion of those being catered to with modern media. So the obvious argument is that I, as a bisexual teenager who didn’t know what bisexuality was, would have had my damn mind blown if I’d seen a woman kiss men and women without being labeled as a slut, or indecisive. I might have grown up a more confident woman, and I definitely would’ve been less confused.

But also, logic exists.

Hello! Nice to meet you. I’m a queer.

The Williams Institute estimates that there are 9 million LGBT Americans, about 3.5% of the US. 8.2% of the United States has engaged in same-sex sexual activity (i.e. they kissed a girl and they liked it). So, about three or four of every 100 people you pass on the street, get in line behind at Starbucks, sit with on the bus–they’re card-carrying, out-of-the-closet LGBT individuals willing to report as such on a survey, which means there’s at least one or two more in that crowd who are in the closet. In that same crowd, more than eight total people have held hands, kissed, or boned same-sexily. That’s just eight or nine people who have ever engaged in LGBT activity; in that same crowd are their aunts, uncles, moms, children, friends, and hippie liberals who just plain celebrate love in all its forms and, while not LGBT, might find satisfaction and joy in seeing LGBT people onscreen.

There are more than 100 DC superheroes, and there are definitely more than 100 characters in comics, period. There is….what, probably thirty superheroes being considered for solo movies, or who have already got them? I’m not an insider in the industry, but all things considered, that seems like a good number.

I didn’t know this film existed, which I think is a good sign.

So like…why wouldn’t there be an LGBT superhero of renown? Why wouldn’t there be three, or four? It’s not like there’s some sort of trait in queer people that makes us less likely to be brave, or less likely to be bit by radioactive spiders. We’re certainly not less likely to seek the spotlight. Out of hundreds of superheroes, why wouldn’t at least one in the DC Universe be LGBT? It doesn’t have to be Harley; transgender Batman could work just as well. But I get the feeling that someone who thinks Harley Quinn kissing girls is pandering might object to Bruce Wayne wanting to go by Evelyn.

Of course including LGBT characters caters to LGBT people–statistically, we’re a lot more likely to give a shit if a character is queer. That doesn’t make it pandering, doesn’t make it something extraneous done simply to appeal to our demographic that couldn’t or shouldn’t have existed otherwise. Acting like gayness is an extraneous characteristic that is only issue-based and inherently political just adds to the narrative that LGBT people are making a statement with their sexuality, and they’re not. LGBT people exist, and making a fictional character exist that reflects reality is simply catching up with the times.

Harley as Abused Character

The fact that some people find them romantic is a whole other can of worms.

61.1% of bisexual women have experienced domestic violence, either physical or mental. In some ways I could be considered part of that statistic, and seeing Harley’s story of abuse and tragedy means something big to me. Just like you can be a bisexual teenager and have no word for what you feel, domestic abuse doesn’t feel like anything in particular until it’s pointed out to you. It’s something where you go, “holy shit–I’m not going through this all alone.” Harley’s story, when it debuted in Batman: The Animated Series, was unique to comics and incredibly unique to children’s cartoons. She made an impact, and I won’t deny the power of her story. It’s an important part of her and of comics history that Harley is visible and visibly abused, that her story is told over and over and over again to new audiences who might go, “oh. That’s me.”

But….it has been told. In the movies, even. Suicide Squad didn’t do it well, but it made $745.6 million at the box office, so you can’t even argue the story was told in relative obscurity. Harley Quinn is more popular than ever, and the people buzzing about a possible solo film are buzzing about it because of how well Margot Robbie did in portraying that character. She was funny and empathetic in the middle of a very, very bad movie, and whatever way they do it, I’d love to see her play Harley again. Margot Robbie, and that shitbag Jared Leto, told that story.

So the question is: why not tell a new story? Harley Quinn has been beaten and abused since 1992; hasn’t she earned the right to get rebooted with a new outfit and a new attitude? Spider-Man gets a fresh take on him every six months, it seems like; why not Harley Quinn? Why does she have to remain stagnant? She should get to be able to grow and change, and, like many abused people, walk away from her abuser.

Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, the biggest pioneers of Harley’s new direction as a free woman with a side thing with Ivy, have proposed the idea that Harley can grow and change with the chance to be free from the Joker, and the stories they’ve told with her are fun and enjoyable. It would be great to see a film of Harley smashing monsters with the friends she’s built in those comics, or to see her classic, love-hate-without-abuse relationship with Ivy play out on the screen. It would be so fun to see Harley Quinn have fun, so…why can’t she?

Typically, the comic book characters considered “sacred” who can’t be changed are dead characters; the Waynes and Uncle Ben, characters whose sacrifice is essential to a more important character’s arc. I think many people view Harley and the Joker in this light; The Joker is her dead person, the weight that brings her down and brings dimension to her character. They don’t want to remove him from her stories because he’s seen as her reason d’etre; it would be like Batman in, well, a rainbow costume. But Harley’s current comic incarnation doesn’t ignore that he’s a specter in her shadow, and she doesn’t stop being a compelling person with a good dose of tragic, in the same way that stories about Magneto don’t have to reference his history with the Holocaust. They will reference it, again and again, just to remind you how interesting he is, but Magneto has plenty of stories that aren’t about that as well, and Harley doesn’t seem to be allowed that luxury. Harley’s relationship with the Joker shouldn’t remain static, or at the least, it should be just a backstory for a character who actually progresses.

Harley is cool and fun and so, so refreshingly weird and sunny in the midst of DC’s grim world, and it’s not hard to see why a solo movie is practically considered a done thing. The DC movies have killed off Superman; why can’t Harley Quinn have a chance at happiness–with a woman?

You can talk to the author on Twitter at @yipp33kiyay.

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