There is no doubt that the character of Harley Quinn has become a major fan favorite. It’s not hard to see why. Harley is a very layered character.
I should probably start off with the fact that I neither am, nor do I desire to be, familiar with DC’s New 52. This is probably a relief to many Harley fans who have been critical of the New 52 take on Dr. Quinzel.
Harley Quinn was created for Joker’s Favor, an episode of Batman: The Animated Series (referred to by fans as Batman TAS). I find it interesting that she was originally intended to be a disposable character, much like her beloved Mistah J (The Joker). Given that the Joker is very much involved with Harley’s origin, he and his relationship to Batman bear a detailed overview in this article.
The Joker is undoubtedly Batman’s opposite number. Batman was created to be a lasting follow-up to the success of Superman, the Joker was meant to be a disposable villain du jour. Batman’s origin and mission are clear cut, the Joker has many pre-acid origin stories and his mission known only to himself. Many of these origins include tragedy, particularly the fan-favorite presented in The Killing Joke. For the purposes of this article, The Killing Joke shall be the Joker’s true origin given that it was confirmed pre-New 52 by the Riddler in Batman: Gotham Knights # 54. In The Killing Joke, we find out that the Joker was widowed in his defining tragedy. Please note that his late wife bears some resemblance to Harley. Approximate height, approx. weight, both are blonde, etc. This will come up later. Both men have opposite responses to their respective tragedies. Batman becomes a dark, grim, and serious protector in almost demonic garb. The Joker becomes a bright, happy, and seemingly flippant criminal mastermind. Batman won’t kill, the Joker is a mass murderer. The difference in these approaches could lie in the details of their circumstances.
Batman was a child who saw his parents die in a senseless and random crime. The Joker is a father who lost his wife and unborn child in a series of events resulting from his own bad choices (provided we take the Riddler’s account over the baby bottle warmer incident). We even see in the Flashpoint series what Batman would be if Thomas Wayne saw Bruce die instead. Batman had the leavening influence of Alfred, a surrogate father figure. The Joker had no uplifting figure to guide him.
Batman took in Dick Grayson to become the first Robin. In doing so, he becomes a father figure. He essentially takes his late father’s role as his own. Robin was created, like Batman, to be an enduring character. Harley Quinn was created as the disposable sidekick to the Joker, who was also supposed to be a one-shot wonder. Like the Joker, Harley endured anyway. The Joker may have consciously meant to manipulate Harley, but he really seems to have taken her in as a surrogate for his late wife.
This is where the appearance note from earlier comes in. The Joker sometimes can be genuinely loving toward Harley. In these moments, the Joker sees her like he did his late wife. But then, like a flipped switch, the Joker beats and berates Harley. It seems as though the transference of his feelings from his late wife to Harley cannot be maintained due to the simple fact that they are two separate people. When this reality can no longer be ignored, the Joker punishes Harley for not being his late wife. The absence of a child who should have been born long ago makes the separation from reality even shorter-lived.
I can personally guarantee that I have many Harley fans up in arms right now. Mention anything about the abusive nature of Harley’s relationship with the Joker, and her hardcore fans will immediately go into denial. “You just don’t understand their relationship.” “Their love is just different, that’s all.” “He loves her, really. He’s just a little rough sometimes.” These fans often spout the same rationalizations that Harley does herself. Yet, the Joker is unquestionably abusive toward Harley.
I base my observations on the Harley/Joker relationship on my own experience with battered women. My mother has taught women’s self-defense classes often attended by the residents of battered shelters. During some of these classes, I was mom’s yuki (throwing dummy). We have had the occasional relative/family friend who has been abused. And being on work-for-welfare programs myself, I have had working relationships with many battered women. This is not to say that abuse is related to income or lack thereof, or even that all or most women on welfare are abused. What I am saying is that it comes to the surface more often among those with no appearances to keep.
I don’t believe that the Joker really loves Harley. I believe that he loves the idea of her, of having that surrogate for what he lost. Even if the Joker does love Harley, that fact alone would not preclude abuse, nor would it make the abuse okay. The Joker would need to confront the issues behind his abusive behavior BEFORE attempting to form a romantic relationship of any sort. He would be best off doing this through therapy as a single adult. An abuse victim cannot change their abuser from within the relationship. Their best bet is to leave, seek help, and once they reach a certain point in their own recovery they can form an intimate relationship with someone new. A former victim may forgive their former abuser, but they should never return to that abuser. At the very least, not in a romantic setting. In short, permanently breaking up the Joker/Harley relationship would be the healthiest thing for both of them as people (though it may not be the best character move for storytelling purposes).
We see Harley go through a battered spouse cycle quite often. According to the Batman TAS episode, Mad Love, the Joker was charming at first. The devolving of the relationship into an abusive state was gradual and easily rationalized away. He beats her and puts her down verbally on a regular basis. She claims to deserve it. She gets fed up. She leaves. She forms friendships that serve as a support network, i.e. Poison Ivy. She misses him. He acts sweet. She goes back. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. Either a defining moment will have to occur where she breaks this cycle and leaves him permanently, she will kill him, he will kill her, a suicide-homicide situation occurs to kill them both, or a freak accident kills one of them before any of the other options occur. There is no other possibility. If they were real people, they would not die of old age. They would no reconcile and live happily ever after.
This is where Harley becomes as important of a character to our current social landscape as Wonder Woman was in the 60’s, if not more. There are far too many misconceptions in our society regarding abuse and those who have endured it. A series in any media regarding Harley could address them all. We would see her in the abuse cycle, how she got into it, who she was before, who she is during, who she becomes after, who her abuser was before, who he is during, and how she can eventually break the cycle. Through her connections with others we could also see how men are also abused (an oft under-reported issue) and what happens to those who don’t break the cycle. The world needs that story.