What Harley Quinn can teach us about abusive relationships


In the latest issue of Harley Quinn’s eponymous solo series, the one time Gotham criminal returns to her old stomping grounds Arkham Asylum in search of her new boyfriend Mason. As luck would have it, Mason’s cell just so happens to be located right next to the one occupied by Harley’s ex-boyfriend and long-time abuser, the Joker.

The two come face to face and, for the first time in DC’s current mainstream universe, they finally discuss (read: duke it out over) the years of violence and psychological torture that the Joker put Harley through back when they were a crime duo.

The scene is as brutal and twisted as you might expect from an exchange between two psychopaths, but it taps into a larger conversation about abusive relationships that Harley’s character has not too subtly represented for the better part of 24 years.

Though Harley Quinn’s become a fixture in DC and is set to be one of the lead characters in the Suicide Squad film, she began as a side character originally introduced in Batman: The Animated Series.

Harleen Quinzel, then a gymnast and psychiatry student working in Arkham, volunteered to analyze the Joker in a number of one-on-one sessions meant to help rehabilitate him and give her fodder for a book.

Over the course of their conversations, however, Quinzel finds herself charmed by the Joker and swayed by his story of being a misunderstood outcast constantly being harassed by Batman. In time, Quinzel becomes sympathetic to the Joker’s causes, decides to break him out of the asylum, and joins in his life of crime as the newly minted Harley Quinn.

In addition to being one of the most fascinating origin stories in modern comics, Harley is also a textbook example of the sort of emotional manipulation that’s a hallmark of abusive relationships.

Throughout their many murdering and crime sprees, it was all too common that Harley would blindly, lovingly follow the Joker into danger only to have him risk her life instead of his or even go so far as to physically hurt her himself.

For many years, Harley’s devotion to the Joker was chalked up to both of them being deeply mentally unstable, but as her popularity as an individual character grew, writers explored the idea that maybe, on some level, Harley was a character struggling to deal with a toxic relationship.

In a candid moment during a fight with Black Canary in issue #13 of Injustice: Gods Among Us: Year Two, Harley reveals that she and the Joker have a daughter named Lucy who inspired her to leave her life of crime behind. The Joker, Harley explains, never even questioned her year-long absence that she took to take care of their daughter, something that hurt Harley deeply.

Depending on which universe you’re reading in (you know how comics are), Harley and the Joker’s relationship is at different stages. Sometimes they’ve got a kid, sometimes they’re estranged, but up until now, they’ve always been romantically tied to one another in a way that suggests that they’re probably going to get back together and lapse back into old habits.

By the end of Harley Quinn #25, though, it’s clear that at even if Harley and the Joker encounter one another again (they will) she’s fully aware of what kind of relationship they had (a shitty one) and how she feels about him now (she thinks he’s a fuckboy). And for comics, that’s a powerful thing. While characters may die and come back to life at the drop of the hat, a character’s perspective is one of the few things that most writers tend to leave intact as they grow.

Going forward, Harley will definitely deal with the Joker, but she’ll know exactly where they’ve been and where they stand now.

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