Harley Quinn and the Joker
Opening up honest conversations about abusive relationships
"Sometimes we need fantasy to survive the reality" (From TheMindJournal. You never know what you might find as you scroll.)
Stories and fantasy put ideas into make-believe scenarios. They examine extremes and help us look at problems in the real world from a fresh angle. Harley Quinn's story is one of falling in love with an abusive man, while simultaneously experiencing a psychotic break. But what if this story was put in an outrageous context? What if that abusive man was also a homicidal clown who was in constant rivalry with a superhero who dressed like a bat? And what if it all took place in a city where crime coupled with mental illness took on odd forms and brightly-colored costumes? That sort of story would make it easier to talk about and objectively examine the problem of intimate partner violence.
History of Harley Quinn
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Harley Quinn, the alias of Dr. Harleen Quinzel was first introduced into the world of Batman in Batman the Animated Series in 1992. In 1994, a graphic novel, The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, told her origin story.
Since her debut, her character has seen depth and development in both comics and in film. Harley Quinn appears most often in cameos and in animated series, but she has played a bigger part in some live action films such as Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey.
Most recent portrayals of her character have involved discussing what happens after she cuts ties with the Joker, such as in the Harley Quinn adult animated series (CBR.com)
Harley Quinn's Origin Story
With slight alterations, such as in the Batman New 52 Comics, Harley Quinn's origins remain roughly the same. One retell is in the book Harley Quinn: Mad Love by Paul Dini and Pat Cadigan. This full-length novel speculates how the transformation of Dr. Harleen Quinzel into Harley Quinn occurred. This version created a plausible series of events and let the reader into the inner thoughts of Harleen. It was carefully researched and brought up problems faced in the medical community, when it comes to treating people with mental illnesses.
When Harleen was seven-years-old, her father was arrested for theft and experienced cruel treatment by the police. On the same night, Harleen almost becomes a victim of human trafficking, and her mother is almost killed. This backstory helped with the plausibility of Harleen's turn to crime years later. From this night on, she has distrust for the police and sees her father and other criminals as victims in a brutal power system.
With this childhood experience in place, the reader learns about Harleen's gymnastic background that leads to her obtaining a full scholarship at Gotham University. She becomes a psychiatrist and applies for a job at Arkham Asylum, a place that is desperate for the help and understaffed. Harleen has ambition and confidence that she can make a difference in the lives of the inmates, but soon find out that her ideals do not match reality. This is shown when Harleen attempts to lead a group therapy session for some of the female inmates, and ends up getting drugged and almost beaten up.
Meeting the Joker
After the failed group therapy session, Harleen comes back to her office to find a single rose and a joker playing card. Written on the card is a message from the Joker, welcoming her to Arkham and asking Harleen to visit him sometime.
Harleen is no-nonsense when she first meets the Joker and is determined to help him. Staff and physicians see the Joker as a lost cause. However, the head physician of Arkham, Dr. Leland, does agree to let Harleen do one-on-one therapy sessions with the Joker. Over the course of their sessions, Harleen becomes convinced that the Joker is a victim who has been treated cruelly by the system. Harleen believes she is the only one who can truly understand and help the Joker. She ends up falling in love with him.
Dr. Harleen Quinzel adopts the persona of Harley Quinn, breaks the Joker out of Arkham, and joins the Joker's gang. As Batman is trying to understand Harleen's story, Dr. Leland notes some of the possible mental problems that are occurring. While clear that Harleen is being manipulated by the Joker, Dr. Leland suggests that Harleen also experienced some kind of psychotic break during her sessions with the Joker. Harleen is also still at the age where an onset of Schizophrenia is possible.
Harley Quinn now finds herself outside of her power position as the physician. The Joker takes back all authority and ends what had initially brought them together: his vulnerability with her and affirmations that she is only one who understands him. The Joker becomes both verbally and physically abusive. Rather than blame the Joker for this abuse, Harley convinces herself that Batman is to blame, because Batman is constantly getting in the way of her being with her "Puddin."
After her failed attempt to kill Batman and some time in Arkham, Harleen returns. Readers are optimistic that she will get a happy ending and a normal life. But her sanity and motives are still in question, when she leaves the half-way house to get revenge on the man who almost killed her mother. The positive note is that she does see the Joker as caring about himself and breaks her ties with him, something that is being explored in newer comics.
Understanding Harley and the Joker's Abusive Relationship
Mad Love explored the reasons of why Harley Quinn stays with the Joker, even though he is abusive. And it plausibly explains how Harleen ended up in the position in the first place.
It seems initially surprising that Harleen could become the victim of abuse, and the book does acknowledge that abuse is not the only factor at play in Harley Quinn and the Joker's complex relationship.
Harleen makes a distinct choice to break the Joker out of Arkham, before there is abuse in their relationship. She has fallen in love with the Joker and chooses to don the mantle of Harley Quinn. This breakout involves hurting innocent people. The drastic change from psychiatrist to someone who physically beats people while wearing a harlequin costume does indicate some kind of mental imbalance. All that to say: a story of a woman getting into and out of an abusive relationship is not the only story being told.
Intimate partner violence is common. As noted by the CDC, "About 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime."
Anyone can be the victim of abuse. And a relationship doesn't always start out as abusive. As noted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline website, often a partner who becomes abusive will not show abusive characteristics right away. The person might even seem like the "perfect" partner.
The Joker tells Harleen that he was abused as a child and opens up to her about wanting to be loved and accepted. Harleen feels strong pity for him and becomes firmly convinced that she can help restore his sanity. He shows signs of improvement, to the extent that Dr. Leland believes that Harleen's therapy is making a difference. (We do learn later that most of what the Joker told Harleen was a lie or at least that he has lied to other people regarding his history. The origins of the Joker are meant to be left shrouded in mystery to all Batman fans.)
While the Joker at least acts like he wants to change, he does become jealous of Harleen being away from him and ends up isolating her so that he is her only patient. Jealousy and isolating the victim are two early warning signs that a person might become abusive (National Domestic Hotline). Other risk factors for the Joker being a perpetrator include his antisocial personality, personal isolation, and a desire for power and control (CDC).
Harleen displays some common reasons of why victims stay in abusive relationships. According to the STAND for Families Free of Violence, victims will sometimes stay with an abuser because of something called the "savior" complex or a sense of loyalty. Harleen feels she is the only one who can help the Joker and the one who truly understands him.
Other reasons include love, something which Harley Quinn feels strongly for the Joker. She also experiences guilt and denial. The Joker convinces her that everything is her fault, and she sees her situation as a necessity for the Joker to maintain his power position.
It is difficult for victims to leave abusive relationships. For Harley Quinn it takes Batman, a kind police woman, and a fall out a seventh story window for her to begin the long road to getting away and healing. It takes compassionate people like Dr. Leland to help her overcome psychological issues and a safe environment away from the influence of the Joker. She needs a lot of help but comes to a place of making her own choices and finding her own identity again.
In this way, Harley Quinn's story takes on an optimistic voice: that people who are victims of abuse can get out and can heal. Her story examines some extreme examples of someone caught in love with an abusive partner, but the concepts are grounded in real-world examples.
It's a story we can talk about and even feel strongly about, but it still resides in a world of fantasy. It is the story of a person that doesn't actually exist. And somehow, this makes it easier to discuss the abuse that occurs in the relationship and possible risk factors that contributed to it.
Her story is dark and grim. But I am optimistic about where Harley Quinn's character might go in the future. (My favorite story arc about this involves the Harley Quinn of Earth 2 in Injustice, where we see her progression from a villain to a hero.) I am also optimistic that victims of abuse can get out and can heal. I sincerely hope that more and more people will recognize abuse and take steps to help end abuse. While I can't condone many portrayals of her, Harley Quinn's story starts a dialogue, and for that I am grateful.
CBR.com: Batman: Every Film and TV appearance of Harley Quinn, Ranked
CDC: Violence Prevention: Intimate Partner Violence
Harley Quinn: Mad Love by Paul Dini & Pat Cadigan
The Hollywood Reporter: The Story of Harley Quinn
National Domestic Violence Hotline: Warning Signs of Abuse
STAND! For Families of Free of Violence: Barriers to Leaving an Abusive Relationship
Wiki Batman Fandom: Harley Quinn
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