With the release of Warner Bros’ Suicide Squad , and the marketing focus on a huge part of people’s interest in the film, the Joker and Harley Quinn’s relationship, there’s been a wave of the exact same sentiment repeated ad nauseam on social media, that this relationship is toxic and should not be endorsed on any level. Going on any social media platform and searching the words “Joker and Harley” invites an avalanche of people lecturing no one in particular to “Stop shipping these 2! It’s abusive!” or some variation of “When I see a person who ships those 2 I think they are TERRIBLE and get MAD!”. The phrase “shipping” refers to basically anything having to do with wanting two people to be in a romantic relationship with each other, it usually refers more to potential couples rather than established ones, but it has evolved into being more of a nebulous term for fictional couples (and sometimes even celebrity ones). The Joker and Harley Quinn relationship has become a particular point of interest because it is not a healthy relationship, it is an abusive one between two very dangerous people. The knee jerk reaction becomes outright rejection of it among several circles of the internet, to the point of intolerance of anyone who enjoys watching them together. But it’s in that where people are overlooking what so many people liked about the pair in the first place.
Let’s make something very clear on the outset, nobody who likes Joker and Harley together is endorsing abusive relationships, or denies that it isn’t a healthy. The abuse is the dark underbelly of what is mostly a fun pair of villains that capture the attention of every scene they’re in together. The chemistry between these two, especially during the Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin days, is legendary. You can take a story about anything, have a decent amount of focus on just Joker and Harley interacting, and they could very well steal the whole thing. Before Batman v. Superman, there was the DC Animated Universe’s World’s Finest, which saw the team up of Batman and Superman as they did battle against Lex Luthor, the Joker, and Harley Quinn. If you’re wondering why so many people love these two together so much, watch that movie. It gives you a better Batman/Superman story than Zack Snyder did, and very entertaining and threatening villains in Joker and Harley, who basically steal the movie.
Obviously I’m overlooking a key thing here for certain folks that are reading this. “So what if they’re fun to watch, he still hits her, and that isn’t right” is what many of you may be thinking, and of course I know that isn’t right, but that doesn’t mean I ever want to stop seeing them together. The key to the Joker and Harley’s relationship is that it can be fun and interesting, but it can never be totally romanticized. We never see an episode of the animated series in which Harley debuted where the Joker works to win her back while being portrayed in a positive light. We always see it for what it is, an abuser using his charm and charisma to win back the devotion of a victim (although Suicide Squad has an interesting twist on this dynamic). That’s part of what makes the dramatic half of their relationship so intriguing, it projects an anti-abuse message more powerful than anything the independent Harley stories of the recent comics has produced. We are always going to remember Mad Love (a story that is to Harley Quinn what The Killing Joke is to the Joker), but I doubt we’ll be remembering any of solo Harley’s newer stories a year past their publication date. The reason for this is simple: At her core, Harley’s character works best when she’s with the Joker, her reason for being. Her character is ultimately supposed to be a tragic figure. Just like the Joker, who projects vibrancy and a twisted sense of fun towards the world, deep down, she’s another broken human being in the Batman’s rogues gallery who has lost her way in the world. The strongest exploration of that aspect of her character only happens when she’s with the Joker, the one who sparked the creation of the “Harley Quinn” persona.
People who like the Joker and Harley relationship, generally like it for many reasons. They love the “good” aspects of that pairing; their unmatched chemistry among villains, the fact that they can pull humour out of anything, that they don’t feel restricted and held down by any rules or normal expectations, and that they make everything they do seem amusingly theatrical. On the other hand, there’s people who are enraptured by the dramatic element to the relationship, the fact that they’re psychologically stunted people trapped in a cycle of abuse that is horrifying, but also very interesting to watch and see stories structured around. Sure you can have Harley break off from the Joker temporarily, but her character stops making sense as “Harley Quinn”, when the person she built the identity for stops being a factor in her life. They work best together, because they are interesting to watch work off each other, and the entire thrust of Harley’s narrative revolves around her relationship with the Joker. Her relationship with Ivy is also fun, but it’s another thing that works best in relation to the Joker, where Ivy is trying to get Harley away from him, while also not being all that great an alternative since she’s a homicidal maniac as well.
Next time you see someone shipping the Joker and Harley together on social media or calling them #goals, can you please give them the benefit of the doubt? Can you just assume they are not literally advocating for domestic violence like the people responding to them seem to think? The people who do ship the two almost certainly do so for the most straightforward of reasons, that they are supremely fun to watch together, and that their stories have a lot of substance despite their insanity. Wanting these two fictional characters together does not mean you endorse domestic violence or hate strong female characters. Being a “strong female character” shouldn’t just refer to characters who are emotionally put together and strong like Wonder Woman, it also should refer to their strength as characters on a writing level. The strongest writing around Harley has long been associated with her relationship with the Joker, which is why a lot of people remember her so fondly from her days in the Batman: The Animated Series. Joker/Harley shippers respond to their chemistry and the strength and story potential of their pairing, to suggest that anyone that doesn’t hate the ship hates the character of Harley, or worse, hates women, is presumptuous and small-minded. It presumes the stupidity and immorality of everyone who doesn’t think like you, and it’s the type of behaviour that has been running rampant online for far too long. I can go on and rant about this issue forever, but I think I’d have a lot more fun just watching the characters together again, hopefully those who hate the pairing so much that they can’t stomach people who like it can do the same to better understand why it is so beloved.
Quote of the Day:
“Hello Mr. J, I’m Batman! Eat me! Eat me! Eat me!”
Harley Quinn, World’s Finest.