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Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Harley Quinn: The Emancipated, Queer Fangirl?

By Elise Sanbach

The newest incarnation of Harley Quinn is presented in the new movie ‘Birds of Prey: And The fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.’ (2020) She is emancipated in that she is finally recognised on the big screen as her own character and free from her abusive relationship with the Joker. However, the emancipation of Harley Quinn has already been celebrated in the comics. She has her own successful best-selling series and a new relationship with Poison Ivy. Harley Quinn has moved from an objectified and abused character in the male gaze to an emancipated, queer fan favourite. This move can be credited to her fans who wrote their own interpretations of Harley Quinn and influenced comic book creators to move their version into the mainstream. However, the extent of this emancipation can be questioned. For example, has Harley fallen to further objectification in queerbaiting and lesbian fetishization in her relationship with Poison Ivy? Moreover, has she been fully liberated from the male gaze? Or is the need for male approval still evident in her comics? This blogpost discusses the extent of Harley Quinn’s emancipation in the comic book world from her origins with the Joker to her recent incarnations and relationship with Poison Ivy. Harley Quinn was introduced as a character in the 1992 animated Batman series as the Joker’s slightly unstable but entirely devoted sidekick. She premiered in the comics in Mad Love (1994) written by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. The Joker did not treat Harley well, often physically or verballing abusing her and even on occasion attempting to kill her. Throughout Mad Love and the comics that followed, Harley still worshipped the Joker despite the abuse. Their relationship was complicated and problematic from the start. Moreover, their relationship relied on heteronormative norms. This means that the only reason we understand them to be a couple is due to the traditional male and female pairing that we are accustomed to seeing.  They are not developed romantically and rarely act in a romantic way toward one another as we would expect a couple to. Heteronormative norms also lead us to dismiss queer relationships that have romantic developments because they are not male and female.

Image accessed from https://www.sideshow.com/geek/match-made-in-hell-the-history-of-harley-quinn-and-the-joker/ 19/05/2020

The above panel from Mad Love highlights the abusive and problematic relationship the Joker and Harley shared. The Joker calls Harley ‘cupcake’ and himself ‘daddy’ as he gently holds her chin. In the next panel however he is holding her threateningly and shouting at her, calling her ‘stupid.’ Harley’s expression is alarmed but not surprised, she accepts his anger and does not fight back.

Furthermore, in the panel below Harley is asked how it felt to be, “so dependent on a man that you’d give up everything for him, gaining nothing in return?” To which Harley replies that it, “felt like a kiss.” She does this because she sees the rose he’s left her on the hospital nightstand. It is important to note that the Joker is the reason she’s in hospital, but she forgives his abuse due to this one romantic gesture of sending the rose. Despite their problematic relationship, the Joker and Harley Quinn were initially a popular couple among some fans. On the other hand, a lot of female fans wanted better for Harley Quinn and they began to support her separately from the Joker. They began to write ‘fanfiction’ about Harley to right the wrongs they believed the comics were guilty of. [1]

Furthermore, in the panel below Harley is asked how it felt to be, “so dependent on a man that you’d give up everything for him, gaining nothing in return?” To which Harley replies that it, “felt like a kiss.” She does this because she sees the rose he’s left her on the hospital nightstand. It is important to note that the Joker is the reason she’s in hospital, but she forgives his abuse due to this one romantic gesture of sending the rose. Despite their problematic relationship, the Joker and Harley Quinn were initially a popular couple among some fans. On the other hand, a lot of female fans wanted better for Harley Quinn and they began to support her separately from the Joker. They began to write ‘fanfiction’ about Harley to right the wrongs they believed the comics were guilty of. [1]

The relationship between comic books and fans has always been unique. By writing fanfiction, fans have the power to shift comic book narratives and influence their favourite characters. However, female fans weren’t always welcomed into the comic book world and therefore their influence has not always been significant. This was exceptionally true of the superhero genre as, “superheroes were, in essence about celebrating masculinity.”[2] Gradually superhero powerhouses such as DC comics started investing more in female characters, creators, and audiences. Now, in 2020, some of the most popular and best-selling superhero characters are female. This has certainly attracted more female fans but the motive for including female characters is debated. Mike Madrid suggests that comics introduce female partners for their male characters for two reasons: sex appeal for male readers and romantic storylines to entice female readers.[3]  Harley, in her origins, certainly encapsulates this description but Madrid’s statement is debatable. Yes, Harley enticed female readers but they also took issue with her portrayal as a sex symbol. Moreover, due to the unique relationship of fans and comics, fangirls were able to engage with the medium and ultimately move her from the male gaze into the female gaze.

Part of this move involved fans “shipping” (imagining/writing two characters together romantically) Harley with another DC character, Poison Ivy. They first meet in the comics in Batman: Harley Quinn, when Harley is found by Ivy under rubble from the Joker’s most recent attempt at killing her. Ivy sympathises with Harley and nurses her back to health.[4] Their relationship was clearly developed in a romantic and caring manner, although through a heteronormative lens they were thought of as just friends. Queer interpretations saw them as more than just friends and fangirls used blogs and fan fiction websites to develop this relationship. Comic creators were seemingly influenced by these interpretations and moved this fan-created relationship into the comics. Just as comic creator’s engaged with feminist theories of the ’70s and ’80s in developing characters like Wonder Woman, now it appears comics are engaging with queer theory and fan culture. Thus, fangirls have moved from adoring consumers to active producers of cultural meanings.[5]  A romantic relationship between Harley and Poison Ivy appeared in several spin-off comics until finally the pair had their first canon kiss in Harley Quinn #25 released in 2017.[6] An image from this comic is shown below.[7]

Picture accessed from https://www.autostraddle.com/drawn-to-comics-harley-quinn-and-poison-ivy-finally-have-their-first-in-canon-kiss-390603/ 12/02/2020.

The significance of this comic and the specific panel are paramount. They represent superhero comic books move from a world dominated by men, masculinity, and heteronormativity to inclusion and celebration of female fans and queer perspectives. However, there are still some issues that arise from this source. For example, both Harley and Ivy are dressed in very tight-fitting costumes. Ivy’s hand is placed on Harley’s bum- a sign of affection with explicit sexual connotations never shown in heteronormative comic couples. Lastly, two male characters border this panel. They are looking at the pair adoringly and approvingly. Harley, although emancipated from the Joker, is still highly sexualised. Moreover, the inclusion of male characters bordering this panel suggests that male approval is still important. Of course, a female character can be both sexualized and emancipated. However, if we consider the motivations for including female characters some questions arise: Has this relationship been included because fangirls are now respected members of the audience? Or are these female characters still performing to appeal to the sexuality of men? It seems that Harley and Ivy could still exist for the male gaze, despite the hard work of fangirls to remove them from that.

On the other hand, this comic was indeed a breakthrough for fans who had been “shipping” this romance and who wanted more queer representations in the mainstream comics. The inclusion of the female and queer audiences is undoubtedly a positive step forward for the superhero comic book world. So perhaps my above analysis is a cynical reading of the comic. However, I argue it is right to be cautious. Comics have been famously under scrutiny of ‘queerbaiting’- when they hint at same-sex relationships but never show them- and engaging with queer theory only to maximize profits. The newest film of Harley Quinn mentioned at the start of this blogpost has been criticised of both. Although this is a step in the right direction more engagement and respect of queer perspectives are needed to fully emancipate Harley from heteronormativity and the male gaze.


[1] Fanfiction is when fans take characters from a certain piece of work and write their own events with them. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=fanfiction

[2] Hillary L. Chute and Gary Panter. Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere. (First ed. New York, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2017) p.278.

[3] Mike Madrid, The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. (Ashland, Or. Exterminating Angel Press, 2009) p.57.

[4] Shannon Austin, “Batman’s Female Foes: The Gender War in Gotham City.” The Journal of Popular Culture 48, no. 2 (2015) p.285.

[5] Maguire, Girls, Autobiography, Media. p.107.

[6] Canon meaning in the official story line. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Canon

[7] Picture accessed from https://www.autostraddle.com/drawn-to-comics-harley-quinn-and-poison-ivy-finally-have-their-first-in-canon-kiss-390603/ 12/02/2020.

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