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The danger of referring to Harley Quinn as nothing more then a “cautionary tale”

Trigger Warning: abuse (physical and mental), and mentions of rape.


With the Suicide Squad movie coming out, there has been a lot of talk about Harley Quinn. To be honest, a lot of it hasn’t been positive. There has been a lot of criticism about everything from her costume to her relationship with the Joker. Now, her relationship with the Joker should be criticized. It should be shown as what it is: an abusive, manipulative and unhealthy relationship. The problem that I have with a lot of articles that I have been reading is the victim blaming. It happens a lot in our society. Instead of addressing the fact that abusers should not abuse the people who survive the abuse are used as a “cautionary tale.”

First, though, a little background on Harley should be given for those of you, my gentle readers, who may not know much about her. She first appeared on Batman: the Animated Series in 1992 as the Joker’s sidekick and girlfriend. Well, at least, she was in love with him. He beat her, verbally abused her and tore her down at almost every turn. Of course, like all good abusers, he gives her just enough attempts at affection every now and then to keep her around, but more on the Joker later.

Harley, we find out in an episode and a comic called Mad Love, was actually Doctor Harleen Quinzel. She was a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. She takes the Joker on as a patient to gain accreditation and fame. Unfortunately for Doctor Quinzel, the Joker seems to be the one who is better at psychology. She falls in love with him and becomes Harley Quinn, a play on her name that the Joker gives her.

So, how does a doctor become the cautionary tale that everyone is warning you about? Why did fans latch on to her if she is something that should be so loathed and avoided? I will answer the second question first: because she is not something to be loathed. Harley started off as a character in an animated series to add laughs. Harley has since gotten her own comics and has been heavily featured in other characters’ comics. Harley cartwheels and jokes her way into our hearts. She is smart and also surprisingly kind at times, for a villain. In short, Harley is complex. She is a human being with layers and flaws.


That was an arc in the comics where Black Canary, a hero and often member of the Justice League, is fighting Harley when Harley realizes Black Canary is pregnant. Harley not only stops the fight then and there, but she also sits down with Black Canary to have a heart to heart. Later, when the baby is born, Harley comes in with ton of gifts for the baby. Gifts. For the baby of a women she had been battling with just months prior. In a different comic, a little girl stops Harley and Poison Ivy to tell them that a man is trying to hurt her. Instead of leaving the little girl, Harley defends her. She also loves animals and is upset when they are abused.

I think sometimes people forget all the abuse Harley has gone through at the hands of the Joker. I think sometimes they forget how sadistic he really is. The Joker, as well as Batman, were tamed down after the 1950s due to the Comics Code for a time and it has been hard for people to forget those versions of the characters. The Joker, though, has always been one of Batman’s most dangerous villains. His mind games are truly terrifying. I mean, if you really want to see how smart and insane he is, flip through The Killing Joke. He is also charismatic and, at times, funny. This makes the Joker even more dangerous, as he knows the best ways to break people down.

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That is not a loving relationship. It should not be painted as one. That being said, there are two people in this “relationship,” which brings us back to the question of why is Harley the cautionary tale while we hear so little criticism of the Joker? The honest answer is because she is a woman. As a historian, I can tell you, that with very few exceptions, cautionary tales are meant to scare little girls into behaving a certain way. We also live in a society where people would rather blame the survivor then look into the real problem of why people are committing the abuse.

If this were different, I would be reading articles of outrage about the Joker merchandise at Hot Topic and how people don’t want their children to have an abusive, rapist’s face on their t-shirts; that they don’t want Joker logos on the girls bows. That is not what I am seeing, though. All of the hate is directed at Harley. She is a “slut.” She is “stupid.” We can’t let anyone like her because then they would be “stupid sluts” as well. All this does is continue to allow abuse to happen. Instead of telling little girls not to be like Harley Quinn and fall for the Joker maybe we should focus more on tell our children not to be the Joker. Maybe then our society wouldn’t have to have so many cautionary tales.

In the comics right now, Harley is the one in a loving relationship with Poison Ivy. Actually, in two different comics that are currently in print she is with Ivy. Yes, she’s broken the cycle for now. Harley is the one moving on. Harley is the one growing and being loved.

That is the story you should tell your kids if you are worried about them seeing Harley Quinn. Let them know you can come back from a big mistake. Let them know that you can find love and friendship again. That you can save yourself and others.
Harley Quinn is not just a “cautionary tale.” She is a survivor.

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  1. Quinn says:

    You are a very well written person, but I don’t totally agree with all you have to say as someone getting over an abusive relationship. Harley should be a cautionary tale, don’t throw your career, your sanity, or your freedom (in most if not all ways) away for anyone. It took countless consistent beatings, and verbal abuse for her to walk away and stay away fromt he joker. Yes she’s a role model for survivors, and she is an amazing person. She goes out of her way to help kids and people. Yet at the same time she constantly made attempts on the life of Batman and Robin. She is still a cautionary tale for “normal” people. Never love someone more than you value yourself and your beliefs.

  2. Meg says:

    I don’t follow Batman and knew nothing about this controversy, but this is an enlightening blog post. As the writer points out, most importantly, this can be a jumping off point for conversations with sons and daughters about our own values.

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