Hello, friends. I’m glad you’re here. With Valentine’s Day having past, and what with it being 2019, I think we need to have a talk about Harley Quinn and the Joker. Every year we see more and more merchandise with these two on it, and every year we see more and more of this merchandise selling the idea of ‘mad love’ between the two of them. I would like to take this moment to offer a content warning for domestic abuse mention in the context of Harley Quinn and the Joker’s relationship.
As a foreword, I would like to point out and acknowledge this article is fairly heteronormative and allosexual. I recognize the merit in LGBT relationships, and I also know that aromantic and asexual comics fans exist. I completely agree with the need for more representation of non-romantic, and non-heterosexual couples. In the context of Harley Quinn and The Joker’s relationship and the marketing thereof, it is crucial that we consider the heteronormative portrayal and subsequent dismissal of the in-canon bi/pansexual aspect of Harley’s character. Furthermore, as Valentine’s Day has past, and we saw more and more marketing of Joker/Harley as a couple, we need to address this romanticization of this straight pairing (I am loath to call them a couple) and the general heteronormative and anti-asexual/aromantic money-making marketing ploy of Valentine’s Day in general. This is not meant to dismiss the LGBT+ community. This is a conversation that we need to have about the way Harley Quinn and The Joker are packaged, sold and marketed to the public, and specifically, to the heterosexual and romantically involved.
I fully recognize most comic book couples have unstable relationships. I am fully aware that a single retcon can ruin years of continuity and can send us back to square one in the relationship, only to live and read through all the growing pains of a couple getting to know one another. It’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, and in my opinion, there are certain couples who are never meant to be broken apart – Lois and Clark, Reed and Sue Richards, (although there are a few things I could say about the way they’re often portrayed, that’s neither here nor there.) Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, to name a few. A retcon to send them back to square one is often entertaining and can be a new chance to remember why they’re a couple in the first place. It can be wholesome, or smoldering, and without certain restrictions, it can be sexy as hell. And I think those relationships, the lifelong love of Reed and Sue, or the awkward teenage (because yes, he needs to either be a teenager or a 30-something) Peter and MJ, or even Lois and Clark, trying to define their relationship and their love for each other with all the chaos happening around them, is something that should be explored and celebrated.
The issue with the marketing of Harley Quinn and the Joker as an iconic romantic ideal is everything about their relationship is based on imbalances of power, and toxic systems of abuse. Even the origin story of how they met is an unrealistic portrayal of mental health practices and leads the story with mental and emotional manipulation. Harleen Quinzel is a doctor. She went to school to earn a doctorate; some guy in clown makeup is not going to be a better psychologist than she is. And yet he gets into her head. She falls in love with him and begins her own descent into madness. It’s not cute, it’s troubling.
And this doesn’t even touch the fact that he forces her to become Harley by throwing her into a vat of acid. Or whatever the new origin story is. It takes away all of Doctor Harleen Quinzel’s agency as a character. (Which, frankly, is a whole other conversation we need to be having.) It sets a violent tone for the entire relationship. It forces Harley to be in a relationship where she has no power in and of herself, where her partner holds the power over her choices and her bodily autonomy. It also showcases she truly has no idea what is going on with Joker, as he can manipulate her despite her professional aptitude as a psychologist.
If I’m dating someone, and they demand I start changing for them and retaliating with violent behaviors and speaking negatively and making me question my self-worth and loyalty to that person, it’s a red flag. It’s flashing warning lights. It’s not subtle and it’s not cute. Joker reacts violently to Harley. She is threatened and beaten and abused and even the back cover copy of books like Harley Loves Joker hint that his temper is ‘explosive’ and that if Harley makes a mistake she’ll be punished with violence. That’s not something that belongs in a normal, loving, and supportive relationship. Drama should never be created at the expense of one partner holding power over or threatening the other with violence.
The problem then becomes this behavior has been normalized and romanticized. Joker’s violence and Harley’s obsession don’t play off each other as a cute dichotomy it does the opposite. Harley becomes codependent, believing that she is nothing without her “Puddin’” and the Joker constantly dismisses her, talks down to her and generally mistreats her, even when there’s no physical violence present, there is always the negative, there is rarely a moment that Joker praises Harley, or builds her up in any positive way.
If you look at this from the perspective of a normal, functioning, human relationship, no one would allow their partner to treat them this way. (Yes, I realize some people either don’t realize that they are being treated this way or cannot get out of an abusive relationship; not the point I’m talking about and is a discussion for another blog.) And to market this “oh we’re both insane and villainous and look at how in love we are” narrative that glorifies and monetizes this relationship is sending a dangerous message to young girls, boys, enbys, and generally anyone else. This romanticization of the “oh he hurts me but I know he loves me” narrative put forth in Harley is troublesome, to say the least. Not only does it reinforce the idea that girls and women are not valuable unless they are useful to their [man] and follows directions to the letter, but it also diminishes a [woman’s] value by suggesting that they are not worthy of having their own ambitions and goals and that they must always glorify and serve their partner. It further pushes the toxic and dangerous dialogue that suggests a man can treat a woman however he likes, so long as he loves her. That whole narrative dismisses the survivors of abuse and relationships that are the opposite of healthy and safe. It pushes the idea that you can hurt your partner so long as you claim to love them.
And there are young men and women out there who are looking for the “Harley to [their] Joker” and vice versa. There are couples out there who strive to have this type of relationship with one another, without considering the costs and repercussions of having this type of relationship. They only see that “Mad Love” marketed to them as an evil clown couple who will defy God and Man and the Law so long as they are together. The marketing sells them as a couple, pushes their so-called love, and ignores the problematic, abusive and dangerous rhetoric that this coupling pushes. Even in the marketing and the back covers of books like HARLEY LOVES JOKER do we see there is an imbalance of power, as it is suggested Harley messes up and the question becomes “can Harley cool down the Joker’s hot temper?” and if that doesn’t scream abusive relationship and the threat of physical violence, then I honestly don’t know what does.
The long and short of it is this couple is toxic and abusive and marketing executives like to sell the king and queen of crime as a romantic ideal that only serves to perpetuate the inability to see your own toxic situation or to encourage couples to engage in unhealthy relationships to emulate what they’ve been sold as “mad love.” Recognizing the toxicity and violence inherent in the Harley and Joker pairing is the first step to undoing these learned behaviors, but, we need to idolize a healthier couple. To do that, we need to stop buying the merchandise and the stories that continue to abuse Harley at the Joker’s hand. When we vote with our dollars and stop giving DC the reason to continually publish and market these stories and merchandise, we will all be better off and the people who think Joker is romantic can maybe find a better way to express their love.