Suicide Squad has kind of flopped, despite an encouraging first weekend at the Box Office. Despite the mixed reviews, many people are still praising Margot Robbie. A review in The Atlantic says she’s “genuinely terrific as Harley Quinn, earning the movie’s best lines and nailing almost every one of them.” But public reaction to Robbie’s Quinn remains torn on her sexuality: Is she a shallow male fantasy, or something more?
For sure, the Harley who prances around in strip clubs and makes pouty faces at prison guards hardly compares to the one we’ve seen in the graphic novels by Adam Glass and Federico Dallocchio. However, that’s not Robbie’s fault; she managed to breathe life into a pretty thin script. I would love to see her star in a movie with more substantial material pulled from the character’s back story. Since Warner Bros. seems to be doing everything ass backwards with their extended universe, it’s likely that we’ll get a Harley movie down the line. Some recent reports that she’ll headline a film with a female cast have stoked my hopes.
The genuine Harley looks amazing in skimpy outfits, but she also earns her keep as a super villain. In one volume of Suicide Squad, she trounces the Joker in a fistfight while biting off the tip of his tongue. Later, she escapes a dungeon by ripping off her own skin, sustaining injuries that require 36 stitches on her wrists. Plus, she raises hyenas.
As for this film, it’s worth watching—but an under-achiever in terms of the writing. If there’s one thing I’d hoped Suicide Squad would nail, it was Harley and Joker’s romance. Alas, I face-palmed at least three times during their scenes together.
First, the film never explains why Harley falls so hard, so fast for the Joker. One critic rightly accuses it of sugar-coating their entire relationship. We see a few seconds of Dr. Harleen Quinzel’s sessions with him, then all of a sudden she’s breaking him out of Arkham Asylum and skinny-dipping in toxic waste. Their attraction makes no sense, except for the lazy excuse that “they’re both crazy.”
Compare this epic fail to the graphic novels, which are much deeper. When Joker first lays eyes on Dr. Quinzel, he’s the one who falls for her. After some verbal foreplay reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Quinzel threatens to kick Joker’s nuts into his mouth if he tries to attack her with “whatever you’ve got behind your back.” Joker is intrigued by her, the same way Hannibal grows a quick crush on Clarice.
Their next meeting, Joker surprises Harleen with a gift. He’s somehow learned everything about her past, including her father’s death at the hands of a wealthy 1-percenter who never served any jail time for his drunken vehicular homicide. When Joker presents Harleen the man’s finger, he apologizes for not being able to sneak in the entire fat cat banker’s corpse. She weeps with gratitude.
Second, the film never explains why Harley decides to help Joker escape. Even if we accept that she’s inexplicably allured by him, what set of events push her to throw away her life and career for someone who might very well rape and murder her? The cinematic Harley simply gives into Joker’s demands, as if under hypnosis.
In the graphic novels, Harleen has plenty of reason to quit her job with a vengeance. Her colleagues all mock her professional interest in the Joker. But when it turns out she’s onto something, her boss tries to steal her research for a book. (Sounds a little like Frederick Chilton, right?) The two psychiatrists confront each other, and Harleen’s boss declares ownership over all notes and transcripts pertaining to the Joker. Enraged, Harleen snaps and goes on a kind of killing spree. The first love scene differs little from the film.
The film version of Suicide Squad also white-washes the ugly parts of Harley’s sexuality. Her attraction to the Joker is truly unhealthy, and the graphic novels remind us of that routinely. For example, Harley escapes Amanda Waller’s custody and eludes the rest of the squad in order to procure Joker’s face from the Gotham PD. Yep, his face. In one scene, Harley ties up Deadshot and makes him wear Joker’s skin while she engages him in a kind of demented roleplay.
Creeped out yet?
The real Harley Quinn is unpredictably psychotic, and dangerous.
Finally, the film ignores the issue of abuse that figures so prominently in the graphic novels. In the film, when the Joker returns from death, he happily reunites with Harley and the two of them practically ride off into the sunset. Not so in the graphic novels. As you might expect, Joker smells Harley and Deadshot all over his face when he finally takes it back from Gotham PD. He greets Harley with a backhand and drags her away by the hair. By his logic, Harley has cheated on him and has to pay.
So. What I’m saying is that Harley Quinn isn’t the best role model for young girls thinking about entering STEM fields.
But she’s not just a male fantasy, either. I think some critics have missed the point on what’s wrong with Suicide Squad. One writer takes aim at the film’s sexist representation of mental illness in particular, criticizing the generic classification of Harley as “a whole lot of pretty, and a whole lot of crazy.”
That happens to be my dream compliment, thank you very much.
Speaking from experience, the film isn’t so far off the mark in its representation of mental disorders. You don’t exactly interview someone a few times and slap a diagnosis on them. Crazy comes in warped boxes of slop. My mom was diagnosed with everything from schizophrenia to manic depression to multiple personality disorder when I was growing up. In fact, I think the merry-go-round of treatments and medications created new illnesses, like hydra heads. After a lot of self-education, I’ve diagnosed her with a mix of borderline personality and paranoid schizophrenia (the rare, violent kind you actually see in movies).
And if you think someone like Harley is just a fantasy, let me share some anecdotes with you. You’ll see that Harley was probably born from reality. She’s half role-model, half cautionary tale, and maybe a little bit of sexual fantasy.
Third Grade: I got sent home for pulling my shorts down in front of a boy. I thought he’d laugh. He snitched, and I got in huge trouble. Later that week I told my mom, “I hope he gets attacked by wild dogs.”
Fourth grade: I shocked my entire school during our talent show by performing a one-act play called, “Suicide.” I thought pretending to cut my wrists and climb into a cardboard tub, where I slowly bled to death, would have everyone rolling on the floor laughing. My teachers were horrified, and nobody talked to me for a few days after that.
Fifth Grade: I started having a conversation with imaginary friends I’d made out of crackers in the middle of a lesson. After five minutes, I realized the entire class—including the teacher—was staring at me. I had to sit at a desk by myself in front of the room for the rest of the day.
High school: Sometimes I got bored and deliberately dated guys at my school who already didn’t like each other, at the same time, to see what they’d do. Once, two guys actually got into a real fist fight over me. My huge regret was that we didn’t share a lunch period, so I missed the action! I also tried to strip tease for my dad one night and got sent to my room.
I’ve never been diagnosed with anything, but I’m not sure there’s a point. When you’re raised by a paranoid schizophrenic and a sociopath, the nature versus nurture question gets complicated. Anyway, worse to come.
College: That’s when I started having laughing/crying spells. Without warning, I’d start sobbing for no logical reason. A few hours later, or even minutes, I’d be giggling to myself about random things. Once, I passed a reasonably cute guy on my way out of the bathroom at a bookstore. I cracked up so hard I had to sit on the floor. He said, “Are you okay? What’s so funny?” I finally managed to answer, “Nothing. I’m actually having really bad day. Bye!”
For a while, I worked at a gym. I got fired for my lack of social skills. Once, I stopped at the front desk and held my middle finger out in front of a coworker and asked, “I just ate a protein bar. Wanna lick the chocolate off my fingers?” He did not find my behavior amusing.
This other time, I randomly walked up to a mixed group of coworkers and broached this subject: “So I had sex for the first time last night. But I didn’t orgasm. Does that make me still a virgin?”
Someone said something like, “Jesus, Jess.”
I said, “What? It’s a fair question! And don’t call me Jess. It’s Jessica.”
My early 20s: On my 21st birthday, I grabbed a bartender by the shirt collar and threatened him because he wouldn’t serve me. I glanced around and saw my friends’ worried faces, one of them about to cry. “You’re scary sometimes, Jessica.”
The punchline is that I went back to that bar the next night, and asked the same bartender on a date. He was about to say yes, but then he looked at me and said, “Wait. You’re that crazy bitch. Aren’t you?” So then he lectured me for a little, and I left a little teary-eyed.
I almost turned around and shouted at him, “I thought we had something special!” You know, a funny story about how we met? I guess not.
Over coffee a few days later, my best friend and I somehow wound up on the topic of my mental health. She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “You’re seeing a therapist, right?” She was the fifth or sixth person to suggest I might be “off.”
Nope, no therapist, and I never will. But after that wretched birthday party, I started paying more attention to how normal people acted. I started to emulate their behavior until I could pass.
It was a slow process, and I still did things that were ill-advised. I still spent some nights hanging out with homeless people until one mugged me. I trespassed into abandoned buildings until my friends and I got arrested one weekend. I climbed a sixty-foot cliff in my sneakers without any gear. I challenged a woman to a fight at a Starbucks for talking too loudly on her cell phone. I flipped off a crowded hotel shuttle full of airline pilots and shouted, “Suck my clit!” because the driver lady wouldn’t let me on board. I also screamed at some neighbors for having a party that interrupted my writing.
I think I promised to pick my teeth with their bones. Then I tried to apologize and sheepishly offered them half a pumpkin pie.
I’m not proud of my behavior, but I try to own it.
On the whole, though, I hardly ever get into trouble these days. It helps to remember that I have to behave like a professor now. I know exactly how professors are supposed to act, even if I still don’t quite understand people.
So when people debate the verisimilitude of Harley’s character, I think back to my own early adulthood and find her quite appropriate. Harley isn’t supposed to reflect normal girls. Healthy, well-adjusted young women should not aspire after Harley. But if you’re already a little fucked up, she might be a decent role model, or a tale of what to avoid. Harley and other anti-heroes have helped me figure out my own strengths and weaknesses.
Men, don’t feel guilty for fantasizing about Harley. But also beware if you ever meet a real one. She’ll be no good for you until she grows up a little.
Ironically, I’m becoming mellow right at the cusp of the Harley boom. Harley movies. Harley costumes. Harley skirt outfits. Harley makeup. Is this going to become a thing now with my students? I’ve gone to my fair share of Halloween parties as the New 52 version of Harley. I think I’ll stick with that, and leave Daddy’s Little Monster to the young ones. For once, I actually knew about something way before it became cool.