Hell, if you’re a friend on my personal Facebook account, you’ve been seeing me in that costume above as my profile pic since last Halloween.
As a writer as outspoken as I am on gender equality issues, I know this particular fascination of mine has garnered more than a little confusion and a few raised eyebrows, so I suppose I should explain.
Do I love Harley because of some obscure logical analysis of why she should qualify as a feminist icon?
I love her because no one’s pretending she is one.
Harley’s no icon. She’s not the symbol this generation of women needs. She’s something just as important.
She’s a good character.
To those who don't know, Harley Quinn is The Joker's on-again-off-again girlfriend/lieutenant.
Lieutenant, not partner. He makes that abundantly clear.
She’s an ex-psychiatrist, formerly Dr. Harleen Quinzel, who got through med school mostly thanks to an athletic scholarship and sleeping with the faculty, interned at Arkham Asylum, and soon got assigned to The Joker's case presumably through some wildly irresponsible administrative error. Joker promptly talked his way out of his cell and into her pants, and so a new supervillain was born.
I considered a picture to illustrate, but… he's the f**king Joker, use your imagination.
Yet Harley follows him out of love, not fear, lives for his approval, falls for his every ploy, and when he's not around, amuses herself by playing dress up.
But guess what? There's more to good storytelling (yes, even responsible storytelling, which must also be good storytelling in order to touch people deeply enough to matter) than characters who are good role models.
There are plenty of tough, independent, "strong" female characters in today's fiction. Current tokenism standards almost require it. This is a step forward from the days when the average one-woman-per-story did nothing but cry, be rescued, and get married, but that’s all it is, a step, toward the equality which remains a blip on the horizon.
A few of these "strong" female characters are actually well-written, and I dance for joy every time I find one,
For example, let's have a look at the most famous feminist icon in Gotham, Catwoman.
Okay. But who the hell is she? Why is she a thief?
Because she... uh... likes shiny things?
What's with the dangerously high heels? What's with doing everything in the most sexual manner possible, like she's working a stripper pole every moment of every day? Sure, it sometimes helps by throwing her male adversaries off their game, but she acts exactly the same when she’s alone.
Nobody can be sexy all the time. There's absolutely no reason for that to be her sole constant and defining quality except as an effort to keep teenage boys turning pages.
Batman gets to sleep around too and that’s all well and good, but that doesn't mean he has to risk broken ankles and bullets to vital exposed areas every night to prove it. How does doing so help elevate her to his level?
And speaking of Batman, why does Catwoman keep chasing after possibly the most emotionally unavailable character in fiction who isn't actually a robot if she's so damn smart, independent and confident? I could accept him being her one weakness, the exception to the rule, but first I'd have to get the rule.
Nothing about the whole Catwoman equation rings true.
And she's not alone. Why/how/by what definition does Talia Al Ghul "love" Batman while opposing everything he stands for and remaining perpetually ready to sell him out to her genocidal, megalomaniacal father?
She's just foreign and exotic and therefore functions according to quaint and mysterious rules that don’t have to make sense, and of course she's obsessed with Batman, because she's female and inconvenient to get involved with.
Nice sexist/racist twofer there, DC.
This is where Harley is a breath of fresh air.
Why does she follow The Joker? Because she's stuck in an abusive relationship. Because she can't stand to stop believing in the story she's told herself and staked all her hopes on, that he loves her, that they can be happy, that things will get better.
She follows him because going about life the right way was hard, so she quit. She wants to live for fun and mischief and sex without responsibilities. She wants to screw a charismatic badboy (literally) without getting screwed by him (figuratively), and she refuses to accept that life doesn't work that way.
And why does she do everything in the smallest, most fetishized costumes she can come up with?
I buy all of that. I buy her when she swears she’ll never go back to Joker and hides out with Poison Ivy, enjoying the freedom of being herself without him, the relief of a healthier friendship (yes, and quite possibly a healthier something more), trying and failing to absorb some of Ivy’s very-slightly-more-explained-than-Catwoman dominatrix-esque man-eating attitude.
And I buy her when Joker snaps his fingers and she's back in his arms.
Harley is the way she is because it's the way she is, not because someone dozed off at the writer's desk and filled in the blanks with some half-formed notions of what women are or should be like.
And that is what is missing from the majority of women in today's fiction, far more than strength, intelligence, and independence:
Honesty. Thought. Depth.
That is how we will know when we've achieved equality in fiction. Not only by the number of female characters or even by what they do but by why they do it. Or rather, whether there really is a why, beyond a few perfunctory excuses and the demands of the story.
We'll know when there are equal numbers of male and female characters of equal prominence and when those female characters, to the same extent as the male ones, explore the best and the worst of human nature, our strengths and our weaknesses, with equal care and insight.
After all, what is it that makes or breaks potentially great characters if not their flaws?
So do I think female characters in general should be more like Harley?
No. Just like male characters, female characters in general shouldn't be any one way.
Am I satisfied with DC or comics as a whole because of her?
No. Just like male characters, one instance of doing something well with a female character doesn't cancel out all wrongs.
I still dream of the day when half of all well-written characters, good and bad, weak and strong, will be female simply because half of all people are, without that quality having to be a gimmick and a primary if not sole character trait.
But as things stand, Harley Quinn is one of- no, I'll come out and say it, she is my favorite female comic book character. Not because I admire her, but because I understand her.
Weak or not, the simple fact that there's enough to her to understand makes her ahead of her time. By which I mean, that's right, our time.
1: Comic characters are shared by many authors and are written with varying quality at different times, so I’m analyzing the most common and well known versions of each character. Harley has been handled less carefully at times, and there may well be Catwoman stories I’m unfamiliar with that come closer to salvaging her. Due to the vast amount of material in the DC universe, I just don’t know.
2: I actually despise the word “feminist.” I use it above because it’s the only term that fits in a headline and is instantly recognizable as something close to what I mean. I’m an antisexist (a word that doesn’t exist but should), not a feminist. I stand for the advancement of equality, not the simple advancement of women to the greatest extent possible over all else, as the etymology of “feminist” implies. The fact that women have historically gotten the short end of almost all inequalities makes these two goals coincide frequently enough that they’re very easy to confuse, but they are not the same.
So to the guys out there, no disrespect intended.
Agree? Disagree? Comments are always welcome! Or keep up with my fictional musings by joining me on Facebook, on Twitter, or by signing up for email updates in the panel on the right!