Harley and Me

Or, a lesson in how many ways I can say “Nope.”

I made a post on my Facebook page a few weeks ago, stating that I would only draw the original, jester style Harley Quinn, as I do not, in any shape or form, endorse the current versions  (New 52, Rebirth, Arkham, or cinematic ones).  As an artist, especially as a comic artist, and even MORE especially as a DC (well, VERTIGO) artist, I get requests to draw her all the  time, but personal reasons and beliefs are why I stick to my guns with only drawing her original interpretation.

Needless to say, since that post, and more since the movie version has been thrown around everywhere, I’ve been asked repeatedly what those reasons and beliefs are.  I didn’t think it was necessary to discuss them at the time, but recent events, specifically posts I’m seeing defending the Harley/Joker relationship, have lead me to think that now is the time to open that line of conversation.  I recognize my growing voice in the comic community, as well as my position where younger individuals are looking up to me as some sort of example or role model.

So, if you’re inclined to go on a very dark journey with me for a bit, grab a drink and settle in.  This isn’t pretty, but hopefully it helps shed some light on why I, and many other women, refuse to support the current Harley depictions.

If you’re easily triggered by discussions of abuse, in any of its forms, now’s the time to turn around.

Still here?  Okay.

My childhood is a case study in abuse: physical, verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual.  Alcohol, as well, though that was via my mother and whatever boyfriend she was with at the time.  More on that in a moment.

The roots of this stem from my father’s death by way of AIDS when I was three years old.  From everything that I’ve gathered regarding life before that, this was the tipping point for my mother.  She was never exactly stable, emotionally, having suffered sexual abuse from her uncle when she was a child, and she chose to self soothe through alcohol.  After my father’s death, which was at the height of the AIDS scare in the 1980s, and therefore a very long, slow process due to lack of knowledge, my mother and I had to go through rigorous testing to make sure that *we* didn’t have it.  This, combined with the stress of signing the DNRs, and then trying to find someone who would actually bury a man with that diagnosis, and THEN trying to raise a toddler — it caused a snap in her, and she was never the same.

She found solace in alcohol and a string of men that would prove to be very bad ideas.  These men were beyond abusive to both of us, physically, mentally, emotionally.  My mother bore the brunt of the abuse, and I remember many, many times seeing her wasted and getting the shit kicked out of her by her equally wasted boyfriends.  Mind you, she was not innocent in this, she more than did her part in antagonizing her boyfriends, and while i’m not saying she DESERVED it by any means, she also wasn’t exactly an angel.  I had my share as well, and there were many, many times i was beaten, typically with the buckle end of a belt, and one very memorable time when around seven or eight, and I was thrown across the room, and landed in such a way that it was thought my spine had broken.  But for all of this, I was not sexually abused, and I was too young to understand emotional or verbal abuse.

That changed with Clint.

I’m not changing his name, because the bastard is dead, of complications from Hep C no less, and he should be called out for exactly what he was.  This man was the definition of sociopath, and the truest manifestation of evil I’ve ever come across in my life.  He’s also my brother’s father, which is a different conversation, and one that took me a long time to come to terms with.

Anyway, Clint came into my mother’s life when I was about 11 years old.  For about two years until she met him, my mother was sober, absolutely, totally sober, the longest stretch that, to this day, I’ve known her to be.  I will honestly say that for the first few months, he was great.  My mom fell for him because he was devastatingly handsome (he looked like a clone of a Smokey and the Bandit era Burt Reynolds), and also incredibly, INCREDIBLY intelligent.  I fell for him because he took me fishing, and he bought me a kitten.  Simple things, but I was a young girl, and I loved kittens.  Little did either of us realize how much of that was just a ruse to get us to trust him, like the best sociopathic plays.

I can’t tell you exactly when everything started falling apart, because I honestly blocked a lot of those memories out.  I still can’t remember stretches of time from that period, for which i’m both grateful and frustrated.  I do know that it started out as verbal and emotional abuse towards my mother first.  The physical started soon after, a slap here and there when she said something out of line, or did something that he didn’t entirely approve of.  Nothing too ridiculous.  Yet.

My mom is a feisty woman, to say the least.  If you hit her, she WILL hit you back.  She’s also a whopping 5’5 and 225 lbs.  Clint was 6’5 and a solid 250, having been both a former Marine gunner in Vietnam and incredibly vain.  He’d also spent time in a federal prison after being dishonorably discharged from the USMC, and had ties to the Russian mafia.  Needless to say, when my mom fought back, she didn’t stand much of a chance, and Clint reveled in abuse.  He LOVED to fight.

My mother was utterly under his thrall, and having suffered from a total lack of self-esteem her entire life, she didn’t thing it was a problem.  This started the spiral into the abyss.  My mom started drinking heavily again, as well as partaking in the far more elicit things that Clint preferred (if you could snort it or shoot it, he loved it).  I kept a diary of her functionally sober days, and there were months where there wasn’t a single one.  All the while, Clint was beating the hell out of her.  There were times when she literally had her face smashed through drywall, chairs broken upon her back, she was repeatedly choked, hair pulled out, eyes blackened.  Her teeth, loosened by drug use, were knocked out.

During her few moments of sobriety, she threatened to leave. In turn,  Clint killed, or damn near killed, my pets.  He dumped my fish on the floor and stepped on them.  He broke a broom over my cocker spaniel’s back.  He ripped my kitten out of the litter box, and beat him within an inch of his life (and left me to nurse him back to health, because he refused to bring them to the vet for fear of prosecution).  When that didn’t work, he turned his attention to me.  He never actually HIT me, mine was far more in the realm of extremely inappropriate touching and conversations to be having with a 12 year old.  The one time he did go to hit me, I stabbed him.  He didn’t try again.

During all this, my mom would vacillate between periods of strength to leave, and fear against the repercussions of doing so.  Clint was a master at manipulation, and knew exactly how to play my mother, and keep her in a position of total submission to him, primarily by way of drugs, abuse, and gaslighting.

It was an incredibly brutal situation, and I’m truly amazed that she survived it.

I was removed from the household by CPS when I was 12, after my mother finally snapped, and took her rage out on me.  In turn, I ended up throwing her through a table, breaking her jaw, and fracturing her eye socket.  Obviously, the violence I was surrounded by left an impression on me.  After this, Clint and my mother, still under his thrall, moved to Ohio, where she got pregnant with my brother.  It was only when Clint turned his abuse towards my brother, who was still an infant, that my mom finally got her thoughts together enough to leave.

There’s a lot more to that story, but you get the gist of things.

Now, how does that relate to Harley and my dislike of her current incarnation?

Because she’s a fetishization of abuse.

The Harley/Joker relationship, to anyone who knows the backstory, is one of extreme abuse.  I’m not going to pull panels to illustrate exactly what I mean, but here’s a link for those who refuse to believe it.  And a screenshot of that google search that took me all of 3 seconds to do.

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 12.18.08 PM

Now, a quick clarification.  I don’t hate Harley.  I hate how she’s depicted as of late, and I especially despise how fans are choosing to view their relationship.  The comics, to my knowledge, haven’t portrayed Harley and Joker as anything BUT something abusive, even if they haven’t outright stated that “hey guys, btw, what he’s doing?  That’s bad.  That’s really, really bad.”

Harley and Joker are not Romeo and Juliet.  They are not Tristan and Isolde.  They are not #relationshipgoals.  And to the growing number of folks who think that it’s a Dom/Sub relationship, yes, it is, but not a healthy one.

This is abuse, pure and simple.  And what you’ve chosen to do instead, is glorify and fetishize it.  Joker repeatedly beats her, belittles her, and gaslights her.

Can you see why i might have a problem with this?

So what exactly is my problem with Harley?

Well, recent costume changes have taken to sexualizing her, which is something fandom has really gravitated towards, because frankly, sex sells.  Very, very well.  Booty shorts, corsets, miniature school girl skirts, crop tops, pigtails: these are all things that in American society, have certain connotations.  I’m not passing judgment upon those who choose to wear those things, but the facts remain that when you have one or more categories devoted on PornHub to those things, certain things will be assumed upon your wearing of them.  I’m all for a woman’s choice to wear what she wants, when she wants, and how she wants, but i’m also for maintaining a certain level of societal awareness.

Harley is currently being marketed towards children, specifically tweenish girls.  She’s brightly colored and adorable, so it makes sense on a strictly aesthetic level.  In turn, those little girls are heading to comics, but more likely movies and games, to see more of her.  What does it say when you have a character who is a case study for abusive relationships and how NOT to deal with them, that’s being idolized by an extremely malleable age group?

Why does this have anything to do with my decision to only draw her in her original costume?

Because when she was in her jester costume, it was easy to realize that she is a CHARACTER.  This is a COSTUME, and she looks like a clown.  But when what she’s currently wearing can be found at Hot Topic, and is damn near common street fashion, that sets a different tone altogether.  Any one can easily cosplay as her, and when that happens, intentionally or not, the spread of the fetishization of abuse happens.  My own life has included a very close and personal parallel to the Joker/Harley relationship, and if you couldn’t figure it out, it was not pretty.  It was deeply traumatizing, and I’m lucky to be as sane as I am after having experienced that.  To romanticize it in any way whatsoever is abhorrent.

Harley is a survivor, and I love that about her.  She is damaged goods, and shows that you CAN get out of a bad situation.  You may not be entirely whole, and you’ll never be the same, but you can survive.  She is also fully within “her rights” (as much as a fictional character can be), to wear what she wants.  However, the problem is that she is a fictional character, and idolized by thousands, if not millions.  Be aware of the message that you’re sending when you’re overtly making her as sexy as possible, just to make a buck off her, because in that way, you’re not much better than the Joker, because you’re still using Harley for your personal gain.


Update, with a bit of a convo had with a reader:


Subject: Harley Quinn

Comment: I didn’t like Harley when she first appeared. She was a dog for the Joker. In the cartoon, they kept it mild, but he is a monster. But then, in the show, she grew. She shaped up, she left the Joker, she ‘killed’ the Joker. She became, ‘Cough’, besties with Poison Ivy. (I loved there was a hinted lesbian relationship.) That is what I remember about Harley. I have not read but a few pages of the comics, but in each iteration she walks away from the Joker. THAT IS SO IMPORTANT FOR GIRLS. Girls are going to end up in bad relationships, because the men who do this are smart, charismatic, and persuasive. I have been so excited about this new movie because she is a survivor. You kind of have to go through the bad to become the bad-ass.

I get what you say… but there is more to her than that.

My Reply:

I absolutely agree that it’s incredibly important that people realize that she’s a survivor, which is why I closed out the essay with that exact statement.  The thing is, visually, she’s not being marketed as such. With the writing in the new comics, she is, and I give Jimmy and Amanda a heaping dose of kudos for that. I also adore her relationship with Ivy, because it’s so healthy and well portrayed. 

But again I return to how she’s being marketed. We are as a culture, especially young adults, visually driven.  Her current aesthetics, in most mass market audiences, are ones that fetishize her appearance.  Visually, she’s being shown in bras, and booty shorts and all sorts of other things that in our culture have far different meanings than simply “fun.”  I wish it were as simple as saying that she has the power to make the choices in what she wants to wear, but when the writers (the ones outside her solo title, then also video games and movies) are still using key elements of the abuse, to explain the psychotic elements of her character, and then putting her in extremely sexualized outfits, it sends an very mixed message. Is she wearing such because she’s crazy? (i sure hope not) Or if she hadn’t gone through the abuse, would she still dress like that?  Did the abuse empower her to make her own choices, which is what I sincerely hope, or did the abuse break her to the point where since she’s no longer getting the attention from her abuser, she needs to find it in other ways?

That’s my problem overall. Its a simple fix with a costume change, really.  I love the character that she’s become after leaving the Joker, and, in writing, her costume rarely means much of anything. After that point, it becomes a matter of design aesthetic, so what exactly are they trying to promote?