Harley Quinn, Suicide Squad, and Abuse

[Originally posted August 8, 2016]

First, a content warning: this will contain spoilers. It will also contain invocations of abuse. This is something that I think we all ought to talk more frankly about,


if you don’t wish to read about these things, that’s perfectly fine. This is upsetting subject matter, and you don’t have to get into anything you don’t want to.

Suicide Squad is a very bad movie. It’s barely a finished product. I didn’t watch it because I wanted to, I watched it because I was frustrated by the lack of expansion on negative ‘Harley/Joker abusive relationship’ reactions. Most folks summed it up like this:

‘It glamorizes the relationship’

‘It just doesn’t feel right.’

‘She’s such a strong character, it doesn’t make sense.’[1]

The relationship ‘vexed’ people, but they weren’t all that interested in picking apart ‘why.’ I’ll admit, this is a topic I have a personal investment in – having given most of my meaningful years/relationships to abusive women – so I went and saw the movie. I wanted to understand what the movie did wrong, and I want to talk about why.

Let’s qualify the specifics of the Harley/Joker relationship as shown in the movie. Many abusive relationships are mutually abusive, with both figures hurting the other. Some people perform this hurt intentionally, others perform it unintentionally. Abusive relationships are complicated and varied, but – given what we were shown in the film – the Harley/Joker relationship is a one-way, intentionally abusive relationship. The Joker is the dominant figure, moving very deliberately to subordinate Harley Quinn. He tortures her. He breaks her mind. He makes her dependent on his every command. This often confuses people, because they aren’t able to understand how the ‘strong character’ and ‘abuse victim’ characteristics can become seemingly interchangeable. But that’s the greatest horror of abuse. It’s why people think victims are lying when they say that they’re suffering abuse. We see this all the time. This is why Amber Heard isn’t allowed to smile and laugh with her friends during the abuse scandal between her and Johnny Depp. She’s a victim, so she must always play the victim.

But that’s just not how people work.

Abuse is – in fact – built around the destruction of strength. An abusee may be strong on their own, but that strength dissipates in the presence/threat of the abuser. People don’t fall into abuse because they’re weak. They fall into abuse because their abuser knows how to diminish their strengths. This is a particularly big gripe I have with Suicide Squad. Harley is weak until she meets The Joker. He gives her her strength. He fucks up her mind, and that’s where her strength comes from – so says the movie. This has always irked me. Harley Quinn is an intelligent, physically capable woman, whose strengths are used by The Joker for his own gain. She doesn’t acquire this power from him. ‘But no,’ the movie tells us. ‘Her strength comes from her broken mind. And who broke it? Mr. J.’ It’s not a problem that Haley abandons her strengths for The Joker. The problem is that she gets those strengths from The Joker.

Now, we know that this is an incomplete edit of the film. DC botched this one pretty bad, y’all. But that’s not the issue. There’s not going to be some revelation that comes with the new edit, some moment where we go ‘oh wait. The screenwriters actually DID understand abusive relationships.’ Let me tell you why.

This is where the real spoilers come in, by the way.

There’s a moment during the film’s climax, where Enchantress – our antagonist – distracts the squad with their deepest desires. “I can give you what you want,” she says. We’re given brief little vignettes of the wants of each villain. Deadshot wants to chill with his daughter. Rick Flagg wants to be with his lover. Harley Quinn wants to be de-Quinned, married to her de-Jokered puddin’. Again, the film fundamentally misunderstands the psychological effect on victims of abuse. Oftentimes, abuse victims don’t want their relationship to change – even if they’re aware of its abusive nature. I spent years justifying the constant fear and depression I felt at the hands of my SO. When Ray Rice punched out Janay Rice on camera, she responded by supporting her husband through his ‘time of crisis.’ Harley doesn’t want a ‘return to normalcy.’ In the film, she’s not even cognizant of the abusive elements of her relationship. Harley loves The Joker because he’s The Joker. She wants a future with him, yes, but that future doesn’t involve changing his fundamental characteristics. She wants to get married and have babies with ‘The Joker.’ She doesn’t want everything to change. Again, that’s part of the psychology of abuse. Even if it’s fucking miserable – and believe me, it is – you want to maintain the status quo of those relationships. That’s where abusers get their power – they can make their victims want to remain in their current situation.

‘Power’ is also something Suicide Squad fails to understand. There’s another scene where The Joker asks Harley to jump into a chemical vat for him. She does, of course, but then something significant happens: The Joker turns away. He makes like he’s going to walk out – leave Harley to die. The movie seems to think that The Joker doesn’t care about Harley. Again, Suicide Squad misunderstands the mechanisms of abuse. Abusers don’t abuse their victims because they don’t care about them. To an abuser, a victim is a trophy – a monument to their dominance. An abuser needs an abusee in order to function. It doesn’t matter if the abuser performs their abuse intentionally or not – having a reciprocate body to abuse gives them their fix.

Suicide Squad fails to understand every angle of abuse. Its heart is barely even in the right place. Like most of DC’s recent films, it’s more interested in shallow invocations of ‘edgy’ iconography, be that death, violence, or abuse. Something I’ve always appreciated about DC was its willingness to embrace those darker sides, but that also means we need to engage with those elements on a deeply critical level.

A final note: my understandings of abuse are entirely personal. I’m not an expert on the statistics, though I am a survivor of around 3 collective years of abuse at the hands of various women. Those years did not grant me a universal command over the topic, but it did help me understand it a bit more.

If you’re being abused, please reach out to someone who can help.

National Domestic Abuse Hotline

Thanks for reading.


Read my game writings here. Follow me on twitter @tloughnessmnstr


[1] Note: these are all word-for-word reactions I’ve seen. I’ve not linked to these people because I have no desire to put them on blast. It’s clear they didn’t fully represent their opinions, and I have no wish to put any sort of critical light on their opinions. At least they were talking about this.

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