Debating Harley Quinn, 'Suicide Squad' And Sexism
Blazing onto the scene like a Batmobile out of hell, Suicide Squad has finally kicked summer cinema into high gear, spurring polarizing reviews, record-breaking box office numbers, and plenty of debate about its most iconic anti-hero, Harley Quinn.
As the oft-battered sidekick to the villainous Joker, Harley’s long been a #problematic figure in the DC canon. Fans love her mischievous and devil-may-care attitude, but many cringe over her willful dedication to her Puddin’, an abuser whose devotion to her is called into question with every backhand. Wedging Harley—and her complicated backstory—into an ensemble pic was a risky move. So how did Suicide Squad writer/director pull it off? The Overlords weigh in below.
SPOILERS for Suicide Squad ahead.
Kristy Puchko: What did we make of this interpretation of Harley, her costume and her backstory?
Jodi Clager: Her backstory was less upsetting to me than I thought it would be since she chose to jump in the vat of acid. [Editor’s Note: In the 52 reboot Harley is pitched in by Joker.] She was broken in the brain and clearly would have done anything for Joker at that point, but she still made the choice. The same with her costumes. I wish she had been in pants or something that wasn’t so revealing, but she chose that outfit from her stuff. She was buttoned-up and stuffy as a doctor, so after her original run with the original Harley costume, she may have decided she was done being completely covered. I don’t know. I feel like I’m not as outraged as other people were with this movie and the choices in it and I don’t know why that is.
Kristy: The scene where Harley selects her costume sold it to me, because we watch her choose it. And it’s sort of tomboy-ish, but with an inappropriate edge—both in its tactical ability and booty-baringness—that seems to fit with Harley’s societal norms bucking behavior. But the way Ayer leers at her, the camera tilting up her bare abdomen to her bra, and later lingers on low angles to include her ass, it undercuts personhood by relegating her to overt eye candy. Like Diablo and Joker are shirtless repeatedly, but the Male Gaze of the camera never shoots them as if this is alluring. It’s just matter-of-fact. But Harley—and Enchantress—have shots that ogle.
Jodi: Very true.
Kristy: Online debate is raging about Harley and the Joker’s relationship, with some saying Suicide Squad makes their abusive relationship seem too romantic. Thoughts?
Brian Richards: On one hand: their relationship did seem a little too much like Clarence and Alabama in True Romance, which makes me even more upset about Warner Bros./DC editing out the scenes of Harley being hit by Joker because test audiences got really upset at seeing that. Like…that’s the point of Harley being hit by Joker, how else are you supposed to feel? That’s like complaining that a horror movie is too scary.
Brian: On the other hand: everyone knows that Joker and Harley are villains, much like Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers. We never see them get abusive with each other in that film, but we still know that neither their lives or their relationship is something that anyone should aspire to.
Kristy: I think both True Romance and Natural Born Killers are solid comparisons. And I get people complaining about the “romance,” but I think that’s meant to show Harley’s perspective on things (which is twisted), because it’s pretty clear Joker abuses her. For one thing, he breaks her brain by forcing her into electroshock—though I’ve seen some argue her line about being able to “take it” implies consent. Even if we discount that violence, what about the fact that he pushed her to a loyalty test that had her dive (notably by her choice, an important distinction from the 52 storyline) into a toxic vat of chemicals. AND THEN HE NEARLY LEFT HER TO DROWN IN IT.
Kristy: But that’s not all. Because of course when Batman interrupts “date night,” (a great Harley line) Joker bails on her again, leaving her in a sinking car to drown. It’s actually Batman who saves her, after punching her unconscious. So, while their shared scenes don’t boast the kind of blatant abuse the Batman animated series made such a major part of their dynamic, I don’t think the abuse is absent or unclear.
Brian: Absolutely, and people complaining about how Enchantress seeing what Harley really wants and it turns out to be Harley wanting to be a housewife married to Joker and raising kids with him … well, of course that’s what she wants because she’s deeply in love with her abuser and has been long before he hurt her really, really badly with the electroshock therapy. (As for her saying she can “take it,” I didn’t see that as consent, I just saw her being defiant and refusing to be scared.) I also thought that Harley’s chemical bath was going to be another form of Joker abusing and breaking her in order to complete her transformation. But as it turned out, she made that choice herself and chose to dive right in. Granted, she had just been electroshocked and most likely wasn’t thinking clearly, but she chose to show how much she loved and wanted Joker in her own way.
Kristy: I don’t think the dream sequence is sexist, because every character’s dream sequence was family-focused. But it was weird to me that she wanted SUCH a standard life, down to the Joker as some slick-haired businessman. In one version of the comics, she had a similar scene, but the babies were Joker white, and yowling, and she and Mr. J looked like themselves. It was a bit disappointing to me that her fantasies are so far from her reality. But that’s less a politics thing, and more that it undercuts Harley’s seeming contentment with her weird path.
Brian: The dream sequence you described would’ve been a very nice touch if added to the film.
Jodi: If anyone sees their psychotic mooning and obsession with each other as romantic, then that says more about them than the movie. Harley has always seen their relationship as romantic. It is obviously not.
Rebecca Pahle: It definitely doesn’t seem clear in the movie that their relationship is abusive, though. It’s presented much more as a relationship of equals, of “soulmates in crazy.” I don’t know whether that’s what Ayer and the screenwriters believe about the relationship, or it’s just a side effect of most of the Joker’s screentime (reportedly) being chopped. I wouldn’t say it’s romantic, but I can see “romanticized.” Within the context of the movie, him coming back at the end to rescue her is very “yay, her puddin’ came back to her!” and not “oh no, this woman who’s finally found some friends is going back into the clutches of her abuser.”
Also, Hot Topic sells this:
Jodi: I thought Joker leaving her to drown in the car was a clear indicator of an abusive relationship. And his using her to procure a machine gun. And using electroshock on her. And telling her to jump in acid for him. And telling her she belongs to Common now (although I felt like that was just Joker punishing Common for eyeballing Harley and he never really wanted him to touch her).
Rebecca: That’s fair. I just feel like…. ugh, I dislike this movie so much. I feel like the aesthetics overpowered the substance of it, if that makes sense. Like, “look at these people doing awful things, but it looks soooooo coooooool.” Which is the point of the Suicide Squad - they’re antiheroes. But, you’re seeing the Joker mostly through Harley’s eyes, and she totally forgives him for everything. I wish we’d had SOME outside perspective on their relationship, because as-is, the movie wants to have it both way - the Joker is a terrible abusive asshole, but OMG he and Harley love each other so much, they’re so perfect for one another! The same thing with Harley as a whole - she’s a strong, independent, sex-positive woman, but at the same time the camera spends a ton of time ogling her ass. Not that I want more Joker in this movie, but I’d have liked SOMETHING where we see Harley realize he’s bad for her. Just from a character growth perspective, for her. It would go along with her getting this new set of friends. Her wondering about him leaving her to be arrested or SOMETHING.
Jodi: Harley takes a very, very long time to realize Joker is bad for her. Throwing that into this movie would have been overkill, I think. If DC continues with Harley in other movies, it would then make sense for her to realize that she doesn’t need to keep running back to The Joker. In the show, in the comics, it takes her quite a while to realize she’s worth more.
Kristy: Jodi: I’m hoping that will be an element of the Harley spinoff, her recognizing Joker is toxic and GTFO.
Jodi: I’m also hoping Lou and Bud show up. When they pull her around on her roller skates, I lose it laughing every time.
Kristy: I think there are intentionally romantic elements to their story. I was personally stunned at my slight swoon reaction when Joker dove into the chemicals after Harley. Because in that moment, you see he does care about her beyond her utility. And I actually think you need that element to their relationship.
Kristy: Yes, it is absolutely toxic and abusive. But to see why Harley stays with him, you need to see him have that moment. I understand the wish that Harley would reject Joker in this movie, so we could all shed her most problematic character flaw and embrace her unreservedly. But 1) This movie isn’t her movie, so wedging in all that would never have made sense, and would have only cheapened her arc. And 2) Just because Harley undergoes abuse doesn’t mean there’s not something admirable about her. It totally makes me cringe that so many fans are turning a blind eye and claiming Joker and Harley as #relationshipgoals, because their dynamic is too damaged to ever be admirable. But Harley herself, she’s got an incredible will, resilience, and confidence that I adore. That’s one thing I think Ayer’s Suicide Squad got right, even amid so much wrong.
Kristy: Another point of online outrage is that Harley gets punched in the face by Batman. Is that sexist?
TK: It’s not sexist, but I’m not crazy about the fact that most of the audience laughed when it happened.
Kristy: Yeah. I’ve seen multiple tweets about audiences laughing at this and when Slipknot punched a female guard because “she has a mouth.” I’m not sure Harley’s punch is meant to be funny. I thought it was shocking, and meant to be. But also, she got punched because she tried to stab Batman. So, it’s not a gendered “hitting the lippy bitch” moment, like Slipknot’s. And if we want more representation in superhero movies, we will see men and women fighting each other.
TK: Exactly. And god knows Harley fucks up pretty much every other man she goes up against. So in that sense, it’s good in terms of representation.
Brian: As for Harley getting punched in the face by Batman: He did it in self-defense, much like he would when defending himself against any other armed combatant. He didn’t do it for shits and giggles like what Slipknot did to the female agent. Batman punching Harley was no different than him defending himself against Catwoman in Batman Returns. (Of course, when Catwoman pulled the “How could you hit me? I’m a woman” card on Batman, she immediately made him regret it when he fell for it). That’s my perspective, whereas with others, like who Kurt saw Suicide Squad with, they probably laughed just because seeing “Heh heh, Batman punched that chick in the face” is funny and that is uncomfortable. I once saw Spider-Man 3 in theaters and when Peter accidentally pushed MJ to the ground, way too many guys laughed even though it wasn’t at all funny and even I was wondering, “What the hell are you all laughing about?” I’ve also seen this defense of Batman punching Harley appearing on Twitter a lot.
Brian: The likelihood of Batfleck saying this in all seriousness is pretty damn slim.
Rebecca: Agreed. Not sexist — though the subsequent sexualization of the CPR weirded me out a little bit, b/c come on, do we REALLY need to go there — but the fact that people laughed at the punch made me despair for humanity. He finds her in the water, punches her, then pulls her to land and gives her CPR, right? Except it looks an AWFUL lot like he’s just macking on her. She wakes up fairly quickly.
TK: I feel like the movie’s greatest struggle was trying to reconcile her sexual and emotional agency with her relationship with the Joker. I think it worked sorta by actually separating those two things — meaning, she was actually a fiercely independent individual whenever Joker was NOT in the picture. But his presence broke down her barriers and emotional vulnerabilities, which honestly is probably the right way to perceive her. I just wish Leto hadn’t fucking sucked so much.