Dr Harley Quinn-Geek Culture & Feminism
Last night my Sooterkin®, my ‘nephew’ BabyH© and myself went to see Suicide Squad; Sooterkin and I are big geekazoids and BabyH has the makings of one given that he is an avid gamer. We all enjoyed it. There are flaws; too many characters with too little back story due to the running time, massive jumps in shot meaning occasionally it was hard to tell where in the story we were, over-egging the smoke/rain/wind/fire so the action could not be seen, and I was angered by the killing of Slipknot, the only indigenous US-American character, very early on as the example to the Squaddies of what would happen if they defied Amanda Waller, and think if they were going to do that Captain Boomerang was way more annoying and pointless, but at least the male gender was very well represented. Viola Davis as Amanda Waller was very truthful to the graphic novel, and I wanted to see and know a lot more about Katana but Enchantress was really not the scary evil that was needed to make us feel the Suicide Squad’s evilness was balanced out. Overall, a good film but not a great one.
You could be forgiven for thinking this was the Harley Quinn film though, so much emphasis has been made about what is a tour de force performance by Margot Robbie. She has perfectly captured the Harley Quinn complexity even in such an ensemble piece (props to Will Smith as Deadshot too, loved the scenes with his daughter).
Such a furore has there been about the character of Harley that I have been asked my opinion as a trustworthy feminist (why, thank you, kind person). Talk of her overt sexualisation and the potential romanticizing of what is a blatantly and very dysfunctional relationship between Harley and the Joker has been everywhere, and both are valid points to be made. Harley has worn many different outfits over the years, but this outfit was definitely the least covering of them all. Those shorts – bumfloss! My vagina winced (sorry parents, if you read this).
She also spends much of the film covered in bruises, blood, smeared make-up and quite disheveled, so if a person can’t see past the outfit to the person then I question them, not the character.
Harley is a sexual character. Her background is touched on in the film, but not in depth and I believe there are vital pieces to her story missing. She was Dr Harleen Quinzel, Psychiatrist to the in-mates of Arkham Asylum. She was Joker’s psychiatrist. She and he fell into what has been described as love. The assumption is always that the Joker seduced and broke her down mentally, and he did. He was very abusive and cruel, narcissistic and psychotic. But you know what? Harley KNEW that. She was his appointed Psychiatrist. She had cruelty, madness and badness within her. They brought the worst out of each other. She is as much a part of the relationship and the insanity of the pair as he is, and to assume she is ‘the victim’ at all times is to ignore the agency of her as a woman, and abuse of her position as his treating Psychiatrist that she chose to undertake.
I’m not excusing Joker. But I refuse to excuse Harley too. They are a killer couple, as responsible as each other.
Harley is not a feminist icon, and I am getting a little tired of every single female character newly introduced into the comics world being expected to be one. Yes, new characters and new stories for existing characters should be written with the complex nuances of the modern world in mind, and it is not good enough simply to introduce female characters, we need female writers, artists, inkers, colourists, storyliners, editors, publishers and publicists in the mix too (also for all intersectional identities too). I asked the Manager in my nearest comic store why all his books, even new female characters, were written by men. The Manager had no answer apart from “I don’t know… they don’t sell?” Yes, he actually put it to me as a question. They don’t sell because you don’t offer them! There are female writers etc. out there but the industry is still one with a massive gender bias so more needs to be done.
Harley is a very sexualized character, but is it a sexuality in which she is in control. She is using and twisting the patriarchal views of sexuality against men in particular, but she is not specific to gender and has an open sexuality (would be nice if heroes could be more open with sexuality too). Harley is empowered in her choice of clothing, her awareness of her attractiveness and her use of it, and her refusal to be defined by it. This was not made clear in the film, and is one of the main shortcomings of Harley’s character. The costume in the film made me feel the same way I did when I saw Wonder Woman in Batman -v- Superman; that sinking feeling of “here we go again, take a strong female good or bad, and reduce her to an object for the male viewer”. Cover your legs, it provides more protection! Unnecessary crotch shot in the fighting scene in BvS too, but I digress…
The one thing that comes through very strongly, for me, with Harley’s character is that in the screwed-up situation that is the Suicide Squad, she is very much in control. She makes her own decisions, she is an intelligent woman (let’s not forget she is a doctor of Psychiatry, and as the film shows is fully aware of who she is surrounded by and what their particular diagnoses are). Joker is her kryptonite, but equally she is his. They really are not a romance story.
She is not a feminist icon. She is a well-rounded villain. She is not a hero. She is a very flawed human being. She is not an object, well, not only an object, but ALL women are objectified simply by being women in our society. All female characters are going to be put under a microscope, and if a person objects to what someone is wearing because they find it overtly sexual and presumes that is objectification, they really need to look at why they are having that reaction. In the context of the story and the character, is that true? In Harley’s case, I don’t think so, not in the film, not in the graphic novels and not in the character.
Oh, and for all those pathetic little geekazoids who are making idiot memes about how all these girls are suddenly going to come out as comic fans because of Harley and they are going to take over geek worlds and it’s SO UNFAIR and it’s political correctness gone mad and other such bullshit – were you born knowledgeable about your favourite characters? Who did you first identify with? Why? Did they reflect your own gender? How lucky for you that there were so many male characters around for you to identify with. How did people react when you expressed your interest? Were you questioned and denied the right to love the character because you couldn’t answer the detailed and intimate questions about what he did in comic #54 page 3 in 1973? Get off your fear-created privilege pole and get over yourself.
In that way, yes, Harley will prove a mighty step forward, if she does inspire women and girls get into the fantasy world of comics and graphic novels, and maybe that will mean more women and girls writing, drawing etc. If that does happen, BRILLIANT! But as a feminist icon, Harley is as flawed and dangerous as any really evil villain should be.