Have you heard? Harley Quinn is getting her own TV show.
It’s impossible to mess that up, right? Harley’s a fun, empathetic character who looks on the bright side of life and ultimately wants to rehabilitate her boyfriend (common law husband by now?) The Joker. She owns a pair of hyenas, is fond of roller skates, is also Poison Ivy’s girlfriend/best friend, and is one of the pillars of the DC Universe. Impossible to mess up one of the most popular modern comic book characters.
Plus Joker (2019) is killing the box office right now and beginning honest dialogue about mental health. Maybe Harley, as a former psychiatrist, will get more development along those lines. Punching the mentally ill doesn’t solve anything, right? She should know.
The internet has been pretty divided about the direction in this show, likening it more to Rick and Morty or Venture Bros. than something befitting Harley Quinn. Check out the trailer for yourself, then come back for some discussion. Because I have thoughts.
Seen it? Good. Can you see why people are conflicted? Yep, same.
So I already tweeted about this, but I want to expand on it. There are some problematic elements in the Harley Quinn trailer that indicate the show may not just bomb, but also have some troubling themes directed at LGBTQ viewers in particular.
Queer-baiting feat. Harley and Ivy
If you’re not familiar, the term queerbaiting refers to setting up a potentially queer situation, but never carrying through, as a tool for advertising misleading claims of inclusion/diversity.
“ [Queerbaiting is] a strategy by which writers and networks attempt to gain the attention of queer viewers via hints, jokes, gestures, and symbolism suggesting a queer relationship between two characters, and then emphatically denying and laughing off the possibility”.qtd. in EMMA NORDIN “From Queer Reading to Queerbaiting The battle over the polysemic text and the power of hermeneutics”
DC has occasionally allowed a kiss between these two powerful super villains, and an alternate universe off-screen marriage, but there are still plenty of people out there who see them as just friends. That’s a good indicator that the relationship isn’t as widely accepted as we fans want. Shows like Steven Universe have made LGBTQ characters acceptable to average audiences, but there are still plenty of people who only accept the femme-on-femme relationships because of the fetishization of women’s bodies and lesbians in particular. Bisexual women contend daily with bisexual erasure, as well as the fetishization of their bodies as though their relationships are merely performative for a straight male gaze. So forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical that DC will go through with it in a kid’s show, giving these two characters the relationship dynamic and development they deserve.
The animated movie Batman and Harley Quinn (2017) is cited over and over as canon confirmation in the DC animated universe of Ivy and Harley’s sexual relationship. However, that interpretation is misleading. Though we see the pair have a deep connection, we don’t see any indication of anything more than a strong friendship, and the queer subtext is simply there as a tidbit for fans. Meanwhile, Harley knocks Nightwing unconscious, ties him to her bed, and seduces him. Batman even walks in on them. So it’s not like the film shies away from showing sexually charged scenes. This is textbook queerbaiting: forcing fans to read between the lines for confirmation of a character’s sexuality, then never confirming or denying their sexuality as a means of baiting audience interest.
BTAS: Straightwashing Queerness
I was a kid when Batman: The Animated Series aired, and the Joker was my favorite character. I soaked up everything involving him. Harley Quinn, who debuted in the episode “Joker’s Favor” was originally just a henchwoman, but she caught fan attention with her enthusiasm. She and Joker seemed to get along well, too. However, descriptions of the time indicated that Joker was supposed to pop out of the cake wearing a dress and makeup , but FOX thought it was potentially too queer. Hence, Joker kept his standard suit and Harley Quinn’s creation: a lady to essentially scream “no homo” for the executives.
I found this cited too on the IMDB page for the episode, though in a more sanitized description: “Originally, the script called for the Joker to appear in drag. The writers decided this was out of character for him and created a one-shot female character to fill this role instead. The character became extremely popular and was soon upgraded from one of Joker’s goons to a major player in the Rogues Gallery: Harley Quinn.”
I’d argue that Joker in drag is less out of character than the above description implies, though any kind of queer representation was verboten in the early 90s.
In fact, Joker’s sexuality has been up for debate for decades, and that debate has only intensified in recent years. Harley, then, was born to appease Fox who was already iffy about the underlying queerness of Batman in general.
Setting aside the problematic element of queer-coding and villainy being intertwines since the Hayes Code era of cinema, I could list pages and pages of queer-coded Joker moments that indicate his sexuality is somewhere along a spectrum. There’s plenty of debate about how exactly to categorize him — or if anyone should try — but no one seriously thinks Joker is straight-up heterosexual.
In fact, his relationship with Harley does make him more interesting. We see him struggle. We see them try to work it out. We see them become more openly sexual and flirtatious.
But relationships are a two-way street. What happens when you straightwash a character’s queerness by forcing a heterosexual relationship, but still want to prove the characters are villains?
Being The Bad Guy
What’s the best way to demonstrate someone’s a villainous character? Have them punch something defenseless.
In this case, Harley becomes weak to make Joker look more villainous. In other comics, she attacks him to show she’s a Strong Female Character, but only in the very stereotypical sense. Harley suddenly cannot stand up for herself. And when she does, it’s in the style of an action hero battling a mindless foe to vent her own inner turmoil.
She was manipulated by Joker at Arkham into buying a clown costume and helping him escape … then just kept doing it for years for some reason. Her choice to don the costume and escape her life as a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, to cross over from the mundane into chaos, is no longer hers. Giving Joker all the power here strips her character of agency.
And don’t argue she went insane. We all know mental health doesn’t work like that.
Furthermore, since both Joker and Harley are canonically queer, the implication is that queer characters (as usual in media) cannot have positive relationships. Once we get abused!Harley starting in “Harley and Ivy,” she becomes, as Poison Ivy says, “a doormat” instead of the Joker’s sexual and criminal partner. She loses agency, and becomes dependent on her significant other — be it Poison Ivy or Joker — to guide her.
Harley’s bisexuality is important, and the abuse is important to talk about, but we need to do better by these characters. Straight-washing Joker just to turn him into a monster turns Harley into a damsel in distress. It’d be braver to have them work through their problems — he’s mentally ill and she’s a psychiatrist, so you’d think she’d have realized from the moment she donned that costume that the relationship is going to struggle. We all know someone with a serious mental health issue, and working through the tough days is just as important as celebrating the good ones.
Fun fact: You don’t have to choose between love and hate. Humans feel a range of emotions. It’s okay to fluctuate, and it’s okay to lash out sometimes, but it’s strange to see characters do a complete turnaround from their origin. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to see them both actively working on their issues? As a team?
Let’s Do Better
I understand why fans are upset about Harley’s portrayal in her TV show promo. It’s confusing, because Suicide Squad portrayed them as a couple, and suddenly Harley hates him. It looks like Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2019) is going the same route too, and that’s just unfortunate.
Look, I know it’s not easy to write about this stuff, especially for people who haven’t known anyone with or suffered from their own mental illness. But it’s time to recognize that comics can do better by both of these characters. We’re past the 90s mentality that queerness is forbidden. That means representing queer characters thoughtfully.
Let Harley and Ivy kiss and maintain an open, canon relationship. Let Harley be polyamorous as she clearly wants to be. Let Joker and Harley work as a team instead of turning him into a mindless hate-zombie. It’s not that hard.
What do you think?
Let’s have a discussion about this in the comments.
Colaizzi, Tristan. “From Batman’s Nemesis to Transgender Hero.” 14 December 2016.
Dini, Paul. Harley Loves Joker. Dec. 2018
Human Rights Campaign. Sexual Assault and the LGBTQ Community. 2019.
Hutton, Zina. “Queer Coding, Bad Bat-Takes, and Why the Joker Isn’t That Important To Batman.” Stitch’s Media Mix. 4 February 2019.
Make The Joker Gay Again. Petition. Change.org.
Opie, David. “Should DC Make The Joker Gay Again?” IntoMore. 8 October 2018.
Palmiotti, Jimmy and Amanda Conner. Harley Quinn #25. 2016.