Harley Quinn and the Joker’s relationship is abusive. It has been from the beginning, way back in Batman the Animated Series. In her second appearance ever, Joker force-feeds her fish after she tells him she can’t eat it and she throws up. Later in the series Joker gets mad at her for stepping on his joke and he throws her out a window. There is no way to read this any other way. This relationship appears equally toxic in the comics and video games that feature the couple. Joker hits Harley, tries to kill her, insults her and dehumanizes her constantly, then says something sweet the next minute and she believes she’s in love. It’s one of the most honest artistic portrayals of the dynamics of an abusive relationship I’ve ever seen.
In the dumpster fire that is the new Suicide Squad movie, Harley and Joker’s relationship has been edited to appear more progressive and mutually respectful. I say edited because apparently the film was originally written and shot in line with the canon abusive narrative and then because of the studio’s fear of coming across too dark, the movie was re-edited to make Joker seem not so bad. He looks out for her. He tries to save her. He doesn’t try to kill her on camera at any point.
As someone who spent my younger years in several abusive relationships, this retcon is deeply troubling. All I can think is this type of “editing” is exactly what I did. I rewrote narratives in my head so they didn’t seem so dark. So my partner didn’t seem so bad. If Joker threw Harley out of the helicopter after it was shot, he wasn’t trying to hurt her, he was trying to save her. No matter that in what was written and filmed he threw her off first out of anger, or that that fits with how he’s treated her in every other iteration. I must be remembering wrong. He wouldn’t try to hurt her right?
He would. He always has. Abuse is the core of their relationship. In fact Harley’s relationship with Joker has several parallels to the overtly abusive one between Jessica Jones and Kilgrave. A sociopathic super-genius supervillian manipulates an exceptional and complex woman into acting as his accomplice. She does some heinous shit with him. Eventually she breaks free and does her own thing.
Of course, Jessica Jones has hyperbolized abuse – literal mind-control – to shield her from victim-blaming while Harley only has standard-issue emotional manipulation to point to. We don’t take that seriously in real life, so why would we in comics, right? Excuse me while I scream for hours.
This choice by the filmmakers is in effect saying “Look how appealing this couple could be if he didn’t try to kill her all the time – let’s just show those parts, okay?” It doesn’t work that way. The hardest reality I had to learn was that just because you want a relationship to be healthy doesn’t mean it is or can be. Re-narrativizing can’t fix it.
I fear that future incarnations of Harley and Joker will follow Suicide Squad’s lead, toning down the dark parts of their relationship in order to be more digestible (and to sell t-shirts, let’s be real). This will continue to perpetuate the harmful mindset that you can wish away abuse.
On the hopeful side, the New 52 comic version of Harley Quinn has left Joker far behind. She recognizes she was abused and is working through the fallout while creating her own identity. She also has a hot girlfriend with a green thumb who treats her with affection and respect. I want to hold up this version of Harley. We need more characters like her and Jessica Jones. We need to know it’s okay to have been abused – that it doesn’t make us monsters. But in order to do that we have to name the abuse, not edit it out.