Yeah, I feminist <3 Harley Quinn. I just saw Suicide Squad. I know little about the other Harley Quinns—the many versions in DC comic books and animated TV shows and video games–so I can’t really speak to those. But I can say what I noticed about the Harley Quinn in the movie.
The movie doesn’t know who it wants Harley Quinn to be. But I don’t care—I still feminist <3 her.
No, that’s a lie. I totally care. I care about the mess of contradictory characterizations and the abusive version of BDSM* that Harley and the Joker’s relationship represents in the movie. I care so fucking much that I want to blast my way through the shitshow of David Ayer’s narrative with Harley’s LOVE/HATE pistol and make it my own, take that text and chew it like gum and blow it back out in a big pink bubble that is sticky sweet and strong and whole.
The movie is full of holes, as Harley is full of holes, as her thin baseball-sleeved Daddy’s Little Monster shirt is full of holes. It is through these holes in her shirt that I read my own version of Harley, the Harley I feminist <3. The Harley in a consensual D/s relationship. Who is genuinely happy. Strong. Knows herself. In charge. Who’s fine with everyone’s looking at her, as long as they stand back at a respectful distance. She likes to be looked at. She knows she looks damn good.
And this is an essay about Harley, not about Enchantress, but I also feminist <3 the version in my own mind of Enchantress. With her dirty-hippie look and moon headband, she’d look rad at Coachella. The movie makes her a bad guy—THE.WORST.—but I don’t buy it. In my head, she’s a sort of Game of Thrones Children of the Forest pre-human spirit eco-warrior who wants earth back without all the machines, and that is a good thing. I’m rooting for her, and when Enchantress tells Harley to bow down at her feet, I want Harley to say, “I do very much enjoy roleplaying all that worship shit but the person to whom I have consented to do that with right now is Mr. J” even though I know that in this version that’s not what her relationship is like at all but LISTEN, in my version it IS. Enchantress is rightly getting a lot of criticism, too, because she gyrates around and talks like Sigourney Weaver as Zuul, but in my version her gyrations are badass spasms and I <3 her feral relentless ambition.
But the portrayal of Katana is awful. There is nothing I feminist <3 about it. I can’t even invent another lens through which to view it, it’s so racist and pointless. Ugh, Katana. She deserves so much better. (There’s tons o’ racism in Suicide Squad, but I’m only discussing the girl villain/heroes.)
Um, did I say spoilers? Sorry. Spoilers. We’re a bit of a brat, Harley and me.
In D/s there’s a whole category called brat, actually. It’s a kind of sub, an s-type, who talks back and gets off on being difficult. Some D-types love a brat; some don’t enjoy a brat. I am not a brat but I do identify as a Lolita, another subcategory of s-type–one with a sexually-knowing, kinda wholesome, somewhat rebellious attitude toward her D-type–which overlaps with the category of middle, any adolescent-style s-type, therefore by definition somewhat bratty.
The notion of a Lolita is obviously based on the book and I love the book Lolita too and I know there are many problems there but you CANNOT STOP ME from feminist <3ing it so hard. I won’t talk about that here, but in Suicide Squad the Joker says Light of my loins to Harley which is as I sure hope you know a line from Lolita and it made me all melty inside, not because I like Mr. J or how he talks to Harley because I do NOT but because literary references and also acknowledgement of relatively obscure BDSM terminology though I don’t think Ayer knows shit.
Ayer doesn’t know. The movie doesn’t know. Is Harley a lovesick, naïve scientist whose brain was stir-fried so she’s now under the Joker’s manipulative powers? Or was she in love with him from the start, the way some women fall in love with bad boys, even if that’s a super bad choice? Or is she the victim of a violent and abusive relationship who is suffering under trauma-induced delusion? Or are Harley and Joker locked in a folie à deux? And in any case, how’d a psychiatrist get to be really good at pole dancing and acrobatics? Or were those skills she had all along? The movie doesn’t know.
But I have thoughts. I have theories. I have feelings. And I have questions. Like, did she choose that look for herself, with the ponytails and the booty shorts?
I ask in part because I am someone who chooses ponytails and booty shorts for myself.
Harley also has wrist cuffs, YES and SIR, I guess because in the animated series her character, terrified of psychopath-boss-boyfriend-abuser, often answers him yessir. In the movie she doesn’t say yes, Sir. In keeping with other aspects of the canon, she calls the Joker “Puddin’,” wears PUDDIN on a gold glittery collar. Despite what’s on her shirt, she doesn’t ever call him Daddy. Though one time the Joker says to Harley Come to Daddy and when this happened I grinned.
Because I do call my partner Daddy and we both feminist <3 it. And to be super clear I am collared by a person who makes dinner and washes the dishes and does the laundry. Who lugs my bags around for me when I go on book tour and cries at Michelle Obama’s DNC speech. Who is a total softie about animals. I could not call him PUDDIN despite how much I’d love to really cosplay it up. He’s not the Joker. I don’t like the Joker.
But in the scene after Mr. J dies (but not for reals) and Harley is bereft—or pissed because it seems like maybe he threw her out of the helicopter? Again: UNCLEAR—she takes off her collar and my first thought was NO, that’s absolutely NOT what you’d do if your D-type died. You’d keep it on. You’d get that shit tattooed on your neck, maybe. That is the kind of feminist thought I was thinking.
So, I mean, I want YES SIR wrist cuffs and gosh I dig that sparkly collar. My newest one is baby pink leather with a nice heavy D-ring.
I also <3 Harley because she has the Betty Boop Brooklyn-by-helium voice, just like the voice of every character I’ve ever wanted to be: Ellen Greene as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors or Bernadette Peters as Lily St. Regis in Annie, and yes I am aware that both of these ladies are dating sadistic assholes but as I said that’s not the part I’m into. It’s the ditzy, gangster’s moll voice I love—the kinda gangster’s moll who’d call her man Daddy, by the way. To me it’s the sound of optimistic femme power. I’ve got no interest in husky-larynxed fatales or dulcet-toned sweeties. Give me a wide-eyed, outer-borough floozy any day.
I imagine this is maybe a problem for some people? I get it. As Harley says, I am known to be quite vexing. I am full of holes, as the movie is full of holes, as Harley is full of holes.
Though one thing I really did NOT <3 was how Harley’s greatest fantasy is to be all suburban hotwife, with babies and a middle management husband. I am totally down with wanting babies if you want babies (I did!), and do the hotwife thing if that’s what you’re into, but if you can fantasize about a happily-ever-after life with a glam-rock supervillian with whom you’ve zoomed around in private helicopters and a purple custom sports car, I think you’d want more than a shitty little raised ranch.
In the movie, when the Joker asks Harley to take her “oath” of loyalty to him, he says “Desire becomes surrender, surrender becomes power.” I gotta say, I’m stoked by what that line can mean. Because that’s how me and a lot of other feminist s-types do it: we gain more power through consensual, playful, erotic surrender. We know that there’s only POWER EXCHANGE if there’s power on both sides of the equation. No one should ever, ever fuck with us (or fuck us) unless that’s something we ask for, something we want.
In the version of the Harley Quinn I feminist <3, she knows it, too.
*Please note: healthy BDSM is practiced by partners who prioritize consent above all else, who mutually respect one another and negotiate their terms together, and who are informed, skilled, risk-aware and realistic about the nature of the roles they are choosing to enact. No one should ever force you to do anything against your will: that’s not kink, that’s abuse or assault.
Arielle Greenberg writes poems, creative nonfiction, and cultural criticism from her backyard work studio in coastal Maine, and edits the essay series (K)ink: Writing While Deviant for The Rumpus. Her latest book is a collection of micro-essays about consumerism, style and the feminine body called Locally Made Panties.