“Don’t forget about The Joker’s girlfriend”: An open letter to Harley Quinn’s critics

Harley Quinn

Artwork by Chloe Leeson

We get it. Suicide Squad is not a good film. You can read about it here and here. However, we are not concerned with the variety of critics’ disses to the film, but rather, with critics’ and viewers’ disservice to roller derby bad bitch and heavy-hitter, Harley Quinn. It’s archetypal gatekeeping to read her as used-and-abused fetish fuck doll. Yeah, she’s in an abusive, co-dependent relationship with The Joker, but that very fact in and of itself does not mean that she’s just some crazy chick too stupid to leave her man. We aren’t here to glorify their Stockholm syndrome setup but, rather, to do the important work of recognizing the strength and personhood Quinn has outside of her relationship. Stockholm syndrome is an easy reading anyway; it’s an element, for sure, but not the only thing shaping Quinn’s identity. Hips and tits pushed (gently) aside, the main allure of Quinn is her “wild card” status. Her power lies not in her loyalty to her puddin’ but, rather, in the gray area between where her madness ends and her agency begins. Quinn is not a victim. Beneath the makeup and the fishnets is a doctor making calculated decisions with strength, skills, and sex. She may be The Joker’s “queen” but she has her own keys to the clown car. Quinn is not a “dolly jerk-off;” she’s a feminist’s wet dream.

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Unsurprisingly for the fanboy gaze, perhaps, Quinn is the only Squad member whose imprisonment is overtly and explicitly put on display. Her male counterparts get to be torturously snug in their variety of private prison rooms. When we first meet Quinn in prison, she dangles off the ground from her torn and re-purposed prison garbs like a circus performer. But, she’s no fool, we assure you. This is not just some synopticon with the many guards watching Quinn. She can see them too. Each cackle and each metal bar licked is a coyish nod to that fact. Rather than Quinn’s body being put on display, it’s her performance of “a whole lot of pretty and a whole lot of crazy” that’s up for applause.

2

Seeing Quinn’s two main traits, sexuality and lunacy, as mere character shticks puts her into the problematic rhetoric we continually seem to frame domestic abuse victims/survivors with: before, during, and after. Doing so suggests that Quinn is a different or weaker person than Dr. Harleen Quinzel and strips away her agency in the process. One of us has been there personally and can understand where others see the “switch” with Quinn—meaning where her personhood seems to end and where what Mistah J “made” of her begins. The reality of a toxic relationship, however, is that it feels and functions the exact same way as reality outside of a toxic relationship. Consider the first glimpse of her origin story: a doe-eyed blonde Ph.D. ruling Gotham Asylum in six-inch heels. The moment of her “turning” into Harley Quinn is demarcated by her sitting across from a straight-jacketed Mistah J questioning, “a machine gun?” with her Quinn-tessential New Jersey doll voice. Then, only a few frames later, The Joker’s “I’m not gonna kill ya, I’m just gonna hurt ya real, real bad” shock-therapy threat fits their doctor/patient dynamic—this time with Quinn being restrained. Her “you think so? Well, I can take it” response codes their interaction with radical passivity: she’s going to take it lying down but she’s not going to let him control the meaning. Inside a toxic frisson with BDSM manifestations love can look a whole lot like hate—a sentiment Quinn’s LOVE/ HATE handgun chambers seem to fire home.

Beyond the asylum walls, Quinn’s performance as The Joker’s “queen” is a ballsy power move—made even more powerful when critics and DC Universe men alike forget that the doctor is still always in. Mr. and Mrs. Co-dependent establish their two-way marriage with the oath: “Desire becomes surrender, surrender becomes power.” They seal the mantra together starting with Quinn’s “I do” followed by Mistah J’s “Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty…” into Quinn’s final “…please.” Quinn’s surrender becomes sexual power immediately as Mistah J chooses to jump into the ACME Poison after the “fire of his loins” instead of bolting. Pulling out of the memory, Quinn exercises her power again—this time of the brainy variety—as she throws the textbook definition of “sociopath” in Deadshot’s face. The sexual prowess and intelligence Quinn had “before” are still fully functional behind a slutty bimbo veneer. This is the persona that lets chief prison guard Griggs treat her like a drunk party girl in the disturbing force-feeding scene. His rapey taunts and degrading selfies with her are framed as revenge because he’s “six-foot-four and she’s just a tiny girl” who took out five of his guys all on her own. Quinn comes out on top, however, with a “you’re so screwed” on deployment day to remind Griggs that she’s still got a Joker up her sleeve. In fact, The Joker’s entire motivation throughout the film is retribution for his baby doll. Her jacket and puddin’ collar signal that she’s “Property of The Joker” but her ability to put them on and take them off reminds us that that ownership is all on Harley Quinn’s terms. Playing the part of The Joker’s queen keeps Quinn in a raw, yet unobtainable and powerful space—she can be one of the guys without belonging to any of them.

Belonging to no one but herself, Quinn refuses to be predictable, routine, and most importantly, domesticated. She continually owns up to her villainy with pride, consistently situating herself outside the Machine, saying with disdain “normal is just a setting on a dryer.” Instead of buying into the heteronormative, Quinn smashes through the patriarchal-capitalistic glass window for a purse that she likes and wants for herself, reminding viewers that she’s the bad guy. She extracts certain objects from that reality and places them within the liberating one she manufactures for herself and Mistah J. Cue the tumble dry fantasy reality conjured up by Enchantress. Everything is so bright and white like set pieces from American Beauty (but without all the dark parts). Quinn’s got her curlers in and the coffee on, holding a couple of blonde babies, with her hubby Mistah J all cleaned, starched, and ironed in their suburban kitchen. Moments earlier, Enchantress confidently muses that she knows what Quinn wants. That’s the problem for Quinn, though; she can take the domestic out of the heteronormative, but you can’t permanently press her into the domestic.

3

At every turn, Quinn slips out from underneath toxic masculinity’s patriarchal thumb while remaining just out of reach of its deadly grip. Unlike the rest of the deranged Scoobies, Quinn can neither be leveraged by Amanda Waller nor the film’s utter object and plot device, June Moone/Enchantress (who is more like a dud charm than a hex). When Waller confidently says, “everyone can be leveraged,” she actually just means the men: Deadshot’s paternal failure, Capture-the-Flag’s undying love for June, El Diablo’s wife-and-kids-murdering-guilt, etc. Quinn is the only Squad member neither of these female baddies can get to. Even when Enchantress offers to resurrect Quinn’s puddin’ in exchange for their servitude, Quinn easily refuses. With a campy bow of her own, she cuts the witch’s heart out, reminding viewers that all of her gestures, words, and ploys belong to her and her alone. Instead of accepting the domestic fantasy that Enchantress offers her, Quinn returns to prison at the close of the film, but not without a few stolen goods along the way. She waits, curlers in and espresso on, for her honey to come home and bust her out of the big house.

Many of Quinn’s scenes read as off-kilter or teetering on the edge of a cliff. She so closely resembles most men’s fantasy fuck doll with her porno-like taunts to the guards: “Come on. I’m bored. Play with me.” Or, she’s viewed as being disappointingly drawn as patriarchal crazy bitch with her over-the-top reminders of her distorted psyche: “What was that? I should kill them all and escape?…I’m kidding. That’s not what they really said.” In fact, most critics and viewers fail to realize what they are actually saying: Quinn is “sexualized to such an extreme that she feels like she wandered out of the film’s XXX parody” with her bit of “bubblegum savagery” (emphasis added). They’re saying Quinn is too over-the-top with her performance of femininity and dripping with too much sexuality. Her very ability to perform such a cartoonish exaggeration of the archetypal fuck doll requires on her part (and on Margot Robbie’s acting chops) an awareness. Rather than spending this essay circumnavigating theories of camp, there is a poignant aspect to Susan Sontag’s seminal “Notes on Camp” that feels very fitting in regards to Quinn’s character: “A sensibility is almost, but not quite, ineffable.” Sontag cannot quite put her finger on Camp but continues to chase its essence with writing. Likewise, every attempt to contain Quinn (literally or rhetorically) fails because her over-performance keeps her one step ahead—just out of reach. Camp is Quinn’s lube of choice. Furthermore, by failing to recognize the intricacies of Quinn’s performance we’re suggesting that there isn’t anything more to her than her fucked up, co-dependent relationship. In listing the cohorts of Waller’s team, one FBI guy says “don’t forget about The Joker’s girlfriend.” Ironically, his words do forget who they’re dealing with and with every bullet—LOVE or HATE—Quinn reminds us she’s the one pulling the trigger.

By Camille J. Brown and Margaret A. Miller


MargaretMargaret A. Miller is a 26-year-old butch lesbian feminist living in Davis, California with her partner, Camille J. Brown and their one-eyed Maine Coon, Bippity. She is currently starting her Ph.D. at UC Davis in English Literature. Her three favorite films are Kill Bill, Mulholland Dr., and Road House. If you want to help on her hunt to locate queerness in the British 19th century and our current American pop culture imaginary, you can tweet her @Margicorn.

CamilleCamille J. Brown is a 23-year-old lesbian feminist who, in her time as a literature MA at Mills College, has found the courage to come out and be herself through the mediums she does best: literary scholarship, theory, and nonfiction. Her work aims to return scholarly focus onto female characters like herself–ones who’ve been passed over, written off, or misread via misogynistic and heteronormative gazes. You can follow @Cahbillionaire‘s obsessions with her pirate cat, cooking, Star Wars, and her adorable partner, Margaret A. Miller, on Instagram and Twitter.

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