With Suicide Squad opening this Friday and The Killing Joke having been released in theaters last week, there’s been a lot of talk surrounding the quintessential Batman villain The Joker and the depths of his character’s depravity around women. In The Killing Joke, the beloved Batman baddie cripples and rapes Barbara Gordon, the former-Batgirl. In Suicide Squad (and many other stories), he engages in a relationship with Dr. Harleen Quinzel (aka Harley Quinn) that many, if not most, consider abusive.
And that’s where a lot of DC fans draw the line — at Harley Quinn being in an abusive relationship. Which she is. The trend in refusing to accept that is fairly new and mostly due to the latest wave of feminism and how it has impacted the perspectives of the millennial generation. In the eyes of feminist DC fans, Harley Quinn is a villain — but she’s also a victim who is trying to better herself. And apparently that victimhood and the desire for some sort of betterment trumps having partaken in murders and ruining the lives of many.
Why is Harley Quinn, a villain who has–again–killed people and been corrupt since the start, being held to a different standard and put on a pedestal? Like Harvey Dent, Quinn is a character who occasionally undergoes brief periods of clarity where she wants to escape her own toxic behavior and surroundings — but ultimately caves to a criminal and often macabre lifestyle, as that is what comes natural. By concentrating on that element over her own misdeeds, the character loses her status as an ‘antagonist’ and is reduced to a shell.
One of the major complaints among critics that I cited in my review for The Killing Joke was that Batgirl’s prologue in the film removes her of her agency because she is written to have complicated, romantic feelings for someone who has been viewed as a surrogate father to her. Once she engages in sexual intercourse with him, she is considered a lesser, hollower character. Again, these complaints are coming from feminist fans who claim to oppose slut-shaming. Yet here we see it in under the guise of critique. They’re not shaming a female character for having natural human feelings and confused emotions, they’re judging the screenwriters’ abilities to come up with an original story. Which, even though I wasn’t fan of the opening to that film, I think they did. It just so happens that both love and hate tunnel their way into every single story created. Imagine that.
These same fans, who are being vocally critical about Harley and the portrayal of her relationship with The Joker, are essentially asking for a watered down version of what we’ve seen in the animated series most comic books, something removed from the character itself. There is a passive and not so passive insisting that, instead of being characterized as a violent criminal, she be viewed as a happy-go-lucky victim who has endured a trauma and is trying to move on.
However, this is not a Gender Studies course, it’s a work of fiction. And Harley Quinn isn’t a scrappy, underdog feminist hero – she’s Myra Hindley.
The Joker was a victim once, too. So was Doctor Doom. And Jason Voorhees. And almost every villain in the history of media, ever. But that doesn’t mean that’s all we should focus on when discussing their characters.
Jayme Karales is the author of DISORDERLY, the director of WIZARD, and the producer of TRUANT. His work has been published by Thought Catalog, The Rebel, Underground Books, and many others.