This is a tough call, but one that has plagued the comic community ever since Joker was given a girlfriend; Harley Quinn. For those unfamiliar with the story, Harley was formerly Dr Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist working at Arhkam Asylum and Joker’s doctor. She very quickly fell in love with him, helped him to escape and has been by his side ever since, re-naming herself Harley Quinn. The comic story was called “Mad Love” and both it, and Harley, became enormously popular with fans. But some have argued that their tale glamourises domestic violence; this post will aim to argue, that actually the opposite is true. Let me explain…
Joker is both extremely intelligent and highly evil. No one would ever deny that. The argument as to whether he is actually insane or not is one that has raged for years, and I’ll leave that one for now. The point here, is that Joker is absolutely willing and able to manipulate an innocent young doctor into falling for him, trick her into helping him, con her into an abusive relationship from which she has no means of escape and have not a shred of remorse about it. We see this is the comics. Joker is frequently verbally and physically abusive toward Harley, including almost succeeding in killing her on one occasion, purely because he’d grown bored of her. The Joker / Harley relationship in the comics is absolutely an example of domestic violence, with most readers feeling pity for Harley more often than not.
Harley Quinn, aside from having somehow apparently obtained a psychiatry degree, has never shown herself to be of particularly high intelligence in the comics. No, I am not saying she is stupid. It is certainly possible that the abuse and manipulation she has suffered at Joker’s hands over the years has impacted her in more ways than we can imagine. And highly intelligent women are certainly capable of being manipulated as we saw in the Mad Love story. However; thinking from a wider perspective. When assigned to treat Joker; Dr Quinzel (as she was known back then), was a young, attractive, inexperienced psychiatrist and new to Arkham. My question is; who would ever put someone like that in charge of the care of probably the most intelligent (sorry Riddler but you know it’s probably true) and dangerous patient in there? The answer is, no one. The very fact she was assigned to him in the first place tells us two things. One, Arkham has some serious management issues. And two, Dr Quinzel had to have somehow manipulated her way into becoming his doctor.
Which brings me to the matter of her psychiatry degree. I can’t help but wonder if Arkham management are so foolish as to let such an inexperienced doctor take Joker’s case, how much background checking did they actually do on her? Is her degree even real? Thinking for a moment that to become a psychiatrist means obtaining an actual medical degree, which even extremely intelligent people struggle with, and what we know of Harley from the comics; does she strike anyone as the kind of person who is really gifted enough to have legitimately achieved such a level of education? I will leave this one to debate, given as far as I’m aware, the question has never been asked until today, let alone answered.
So with all this in mind, it is plausible that it was Harley, not Joker who started the initial manipulation here. She had the advantage going into this “relationship.” She was firstly aware of who he was, things he had done, literal pages and files of information on him that had been gathered for years and years, in addition to what had been reported in the media. When they met; she knew him far better than he knew her. Certainly someone as perceptive as Joker would have figured her out quite quickly, but initially, it was she that had the upper hand and she that likely fought to be assigned his case, on the strength of her (I suspect fake) medical degree.
Having said all of this, the question becomes why. If she did do as I’m suggesting, why did she do it? What kind of beautiful, intelligent young woman fights so hard to get so close to someone like Joker? Some of you may be familiar with the condition hybristophilia, in which a person is only capable of being aroused by partners who they know have committed moral outrages, in particular, violent crimes such as armed robbery, rape and murder. Does Harley have this condition? It’s extremely likely, but, then the question becomes, why Joker? Gotham is swimming with men who engage in the above behaviours, men she could have easily gained access to without needing to go through the ruse of getting a job at Arkham and being in a position to become Joker’s doctor. Does she have a dash of celebriphilia as well? The pathological need to be romantically linked to someone famous? Joker was, after all, extremely well known. But if that is the case, then what of the literal plethora of other extremely violent male super-villains of Gotham? Why Joker? What made her choose him? I would argue that, whether she has either of these conditions or not is irrelevant; what matters is that she saw something in him and was already in the process of falling in love with him long before they met. It’s the only logical explanation that makes even a shred of sense.
So let’s say for now, that’s it. She had a hybristophilic celebrity crush so managed to manipulate her way into Arkham to get close to her poster boy. But this only raises another “why” question. Because, she could have waited until he was free (let’s face it, it wouldn’t have taken long before he’d escaped for the 100th time). So why did she go to all this trouble? The answer is so simple its almost frightening. Because she knew that meeting him under these “safe” conditions, where she would be the one walking in with the upper hand would give her the time she needed to manipulate him into returning her feelings. Meeting him when he was out in the world, she’d never have an opportunity like this and she knew it. Now, keep in mind, this is all my opinion and none of it has been proven factual. But hopefully I’ve got you all doing some really deep thinking into how this relationship really started and that it may not necessarily be as simple as it first appears…
Having said all of that, and assuming Harley did cleverly manipulate her way into becoming his girlfriend, I need to make one point very, very clear. Regardless of how this relationship started; the abuse that Harley has suffered at the hands of Joker is horrific, inexcusable and is not her fault. No woman, real or fictional, deserves it, asks for it or is to blame. Ever. Was she misguided in pursuing such a vicious and dangerous man to become her lover? Absolutely. But that does not mean that she deserves to suffer abuse and violence. No one does.
Coming back to my initial argument and the main topic of this post. The comics have never glamourised the violent relationship between Harley and Joker. Most comic fans roll their eyes and feel a sting every time we read how much Harley loves Joker, knowing how mercurial and cruel he has been to her. Most of us cheered that time she left him and vowed she’d never go back, only to cringe when she did. But the reason this topic has become a debate is simple. Suicide Squad. The movie that showed a very different Joker / Harley relationship. The movie that left out the abuse (aside from her shock treatment scene, before he fell in love with her). What we see is a brutal, vicious, insane man who is totally devoted to the love of his life. A man who killed another man for simply commenting that Harley was attractive. Fiercely protective and loving, willing to do anything to find her and save her. A man who is absolutely nothing like his comic counter-part when it comes to how he treats his girlfriend.
Suicide Squad glamourised their relationship, yes. But it left out the domestic violence of the comics. Perhaps future films featuring these characters will expand on this and ultimately end up glamourising an abusive relationship (I hope not). But for now, no. The argument that Joker and Harley Quinn glamourise domestic violence is flawed, as it is based on the combination of two different story telling mediums which do not necessarily take into account each other’s full suite of factors. I am hopeful that the comic book and film watching communities keep this in mind and are able to recognise that domestic violence is not something that should ever be glamourised, and this was never the intention of the artists who created these characters and stories.