The Paragon & The “Psycho” Pathologist
Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn
In this week’s installment of Chasing at Shadows, we’ll address the characters of Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn: their hidden similarities, their stark differences, and the importance of their influence on what it means to be a well-rounded, well-written female character in comics.
In the long legacy of DC comics, there are two beloved female icons, though they couldn’t be more different. One is a paragon of virtue and one is a psychopath. One encourages women and girls to fight for their independence, while the other is in an abusive relationship with an insane criminal that defines her identity. One stands on decades of historical canon and an inception full of purpose. The other was meant to be a one-off—a random idea, a short amusement in a kids’ cartoon—but has exploded into a phenomenon. Despite their differences, Harley Quinn and Wonder Woman are both adored the world over. They both have held constant interest for fans over the years and, for many women, both mark milestones of feminism.
To discuss either of these characters, we first have to discuss the real-world context of their origins. Of the two, Wonder Woman can boast a much longer history. Her creation in the early 1940s (aka the “Golden Age” of comics) was the creation of William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway Marston, a well-educated couple who had made great accomplishments in the field of psychology. In fact, William’s invention of the polygraph is widely considered to be the inspiration for Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. The Marstons’ goal was to create a new sort of hero, one who was just as well-armed, physically capable, and intelligent as her contemporaries, but working from the priority of love instead of simple violence.
Upon Mrs. Marston’s insistence, the hero had to be both a woman and a beacon of inspiration to womankind. In his wife, Marston had the perfect model for his heroine. Elizabeth was certainly a wonder woman in her own right; she was unconventional, a woman her own daughter called “a small package of dynamite.” She held three degrees and easily passed the bar exam, all in spite of her father’s unwillingness to help her achieve. Elizabeth was a fighter, and so is her Wonder Woman [ 1 ].
In remarkably stark contrast, Harley Quinn was not conceived with such planning or lofty intentions. Her rise to popularity is a relatively recent, completely unprecedented curve ball. She was meant to be only a passing character in Batman: the Animated Series, a mainstay of 1990s childhood. Yet in a bizarre twist of fate (and the right people knowing each other), Harley Quinn got her origin.
The cartoon’s writer, Paul Dini, watched a tape of his college buddy, actress and comedy writer Arleen Sorkin, doing comedy bits in Days of Our Lives as a weird court jester. Her personality clicked with the character Dini sought for a girl in The Joker’s crew. This odd turn of events established Sorkin as the long-standing voice actor for the new character. As Abraham Riesman tells it, “When he saw Sorkin in clown makeup, the pieces fell into place, and he came up with a silly little sidekick. He gave her the comic-book-y name of Harley Quinn….” [ 2 ].
The Gendered Reality of DC’s Superheroines
Despite this polar opposition from the very moment of creation, and also despite Harley Quinn’s character arc moving away from being under the Joker’s thumb and living as an independent woman of her own in more recent DC storylines, both characters have had to deal with their gendered reality as a part of their identity. This, in turn, is a big part of how the world interacts with them. For example, Wonder Woman’s relationship with gendered identity is omnipresent.
On one end of the spectrum, Wonder Woman uses her womanhood for lofty goals, expressing femininity as a part of her strength and the strength of all women. However, because of her entanglement with historical context, the expression of her female identity fluctuates between progressive independence and reinforcing societal limitations on women. According to Mitra C. Emad, “In each historical instance … Wonder Woman’s body is both an icon of the traditionally masculine, public realm of nationhood as well as the traditionally feminine, private realm of female sexuality. As such, her body serves as a site for constantly oppositional encounters between gender and nation, private and public, and bondage and power.” The strong Wonder Woman of wartime America is a motivation for women to take traditionally male jobs and to gain financial efficacy and personal strength for the sake of the country’s success. Yet after the war, notes Emad,
“Her message changes drastically … Wonder Woman’s identity moves further and further into the domestic, feminine realm and away from the masculine realm of politics and war. As American women are exhorted not to compete with returning servicemen for employment … Wonder Woman herself enters a phase where she is continually hounded by Capt. Trevor to marry him” [ 3 ].
Wonder Woman’s womanhood is a double-edged sword because of its connection to societal expectations. Just as she can be a symbol of progress, she can also be used to reinforce expectations of ideal femininity, which somewhat undercuts her messages of power and self-sufficiency.
On the other end of the spectrum, Harley Quinn has no problem using her gender as sexual ammunition—both before and after she broke the Joker’s stranglehold on her psyche. It’s even part of her origin story in Mad Love, the Eisner-winning comic exploring her beginnings and relationship with the Joker. As Batman remarks, “even from the beginning Harley Quinn was no angel” [ 4 ]. In order to score a passing grade on her psychology thesis, she uses sexual persuasion on her professor. She enters his office with a failing thesis, but when she exits, she leaves a disheveled teacher in her wake and her paper sports a big “A+.”
Then, after obtaining her degree via these questionable means, she moves on to working at Arkham Asylum, hoping to cash in by writing a pop psychology book about the inmates [ 4 ]. The creators of her storyline made a very important choice by showing us that she has an amorality about her even before meeting the Joker. This decision shows she has an intelligent evil streak as a villain in her own right, not simply a seduced innocent. In Batman’s words, “In her own way, Alfred, Harley Quinn’s as crazy as the Joker. Her playful exterior hides an obsessive and dangerous mind” [ 4 ].
Harley uses her sexuality with intelligence, rather than as a substitute for it. This type of agency (albeit for bad behavior) is as meritorious a feminist statement as Wonder Woman’s good deeds. Harley reminds us that what makes interesting—and resonant—characters is their human complexity. It is not enough that they be “good” or “strong.” Harley is not the flat and trope-y “strong female character” who is so often thrown in with more carefully written male counterparts. The standard rule for male characters is thus: he can be a hero or a villain but he must be interesting because he is complicated.
Female characters deserve (but have long been deprived) of this same nuanced existence, whether they are written as a hero, villain, or someone in between. Ultimately, writing female characters with rich dimensionality (shining attributes and nasty flaws, both) on par with, or surpassing, male characters is an inherently feminist action—and one that should occur more in modern storytelling.
And this is where Harley Quinn, in her identity as a female villain, has more freedom than Wonder Woman. Unlike Wonder Woman, she has no patriotic or societal agenda to push. Where Wonder Woman’s pedestal of perfection upholds decades of nationalistic and societal prescriptions of the ideal woman, Harley Quinn is a grenade of anarchy, adhering to whatever she damn well pleases at any given time. To the writers’ credit, they didn’t soften her insanity, her now thankfully-over abusive relationship with the Joker, homicidal tendencies, or even amoral glee on account of her gender, thereby avoiding a recurring and sexist tendency in the history of female villains. She is in every way the Joker’s match, in evil intentions and incisive intelligence, and is in fact more than his match in the end, as she showed in 2016’s Harley Quinn #25.
The Elephant in the Room
And what about that abusive relationship? The most provocative (and seemingly anti-feminist) aspect of Harley Quinn was, for a long time, her pathological reliance on the Joker for affirmation. But is it really anti-feminist? As discussed in the previous paragraph, to write a female character who is deeply flawed and human can be a more feminist act than simply pigeonholing a woman into the dismissive “strong female character” slot.
Harley Quinn is half hot mess and half powder keg. All together she is impossible to ignore, dismiss, or pigeonhole into meaninglessness. We see in Mad Love a cringe-inducing level of abuse toward Harley, from being thrown out into the gutter in her lingerie to being nearly killed when thrown out of a window [ 4 ]. However, in the middle of all of the Joker’s abuse and his insistence on her inadequacy, she does what the Joker never could: she kidnaps Batman and comes close to killing him. The only thing that saves Batman is him persuading Harley to call the Joker so he can be proud of her accomplishment—which has the opposite effect of injuring his pride and infuriating him into tossing her out said window [ 4 ].
In the midst of all of this, we see how complicated Harley is as a character. While with the Joker, she fluctuates between being aware of her abuse to being in denial of it. While in the gutter, she says to herself, “Another night I get all dolled up, and another night I get the boot. Face it, Harl, this stinks […] and hopelessly in love with a murderous psychopathic clown.”
Immediately after that thought, though, she blames Batman for getting between them, and souring the Joker on her affection [ 4 ]. Her rationalization of her abuse is chilling precisely because it is so believable. It’s true to how cycles of abuse work in the real world, fleshing her out as a more real, complex, human being. It is precisely this kind of authenticity that makes her a three-dimensional character.
Wonder Woman’s Own Gender Struggles
Harley Quinn isn’t the only one suffering under a man’s thumb. In many ways, Wonder Woman has a strange and sometimes sexist relationship with Steve, the pilot whom she saves. In the story Top Secret (a 1950s storyline during which Wonder Woman takes on a more traditional, socially-approved, female role), she spends the entire comic fending off Steve’s marriage proposal through a bet that he can’t pick her out of a crowd. It’s later revealed that Steve found her by putting a special dye on her finger. The creepiness of trying to marry someone through trickery is undeniable to a modern reader, but played off as cute and doting in the story. It’s also important to note that while he’s chasing her, Wonder Woman is continually saving innocent civilians, but her fantastic heroics play second fiddle to the main plot of whether or not she’ll get married—a situation the writers concocted to pander to female readers, whom they thought needed a romantic story [ 5 ].
So like Harley, Wonder Woman also suffers harassment by a man, but in her case, the sexism is quieter, more insidious, and culturally approved. And in that way, Harley’s situation gives her more power because of her awareness of it. Wonder Woman doesn’t acknowledge or even seem to realize Steve’s behavior as harassment because of the societal context and norms her character upholds [ 6 ].
In spite of all of this, it’s important to note that Wonder Woman does maintain her independence and avoids marriage for the sake of her mission in the end. Also, throughout the story she does perform her super-heroic job of saving innocent lives. Similar to Harley, Wonder Woman fluctuates between submission to and independence from male domination. This back-and-forth realistically echoes the battles all women have with patriarchy and makes for nuanced characters, worthy of their identity as feminist icons.
Both of these women are much more than they seem. While Wonder Woman seems to be solid, upright, and unwavering in her mission over the decades, closer observation reveals that she changes priorities drastically as American sentiments change. She cycles repeatedly through being a pioneer of women’s rights and strengths to a submissive servant of sexist gender roles—sometimes in the same story. Her stories can be problematic in the most important ways, advocating independence while trapped in a weird sort of bondage to social norms.
Meanwhile, at times Harley Quinn appears (and is often written) to be the essence of flaky, unthinking anarchy. Despite this impression, she is an incredibly astute therapist, showcasing a raw, complex intelligence far beyond her initial role as comic relief. Her efficacy, thoughtfully antisocial personality disorder, and cocky stubbornness in the face of the Joker’s abuse—and her ability to rise above that abuse and leave him behind—show her to be every bit the villain he is. We prominently see this in her most recent depictions in comics and media. Most importantly, the depth of both characters, their grappling with patriarchy and gender norms, make us consider the possibility of more compelling and well-rounded female characters like them, with incredible power and heartbreaking weaknesses in equal measure.
- “The darker aspects of the Harley Quinn and Joker romance leave haunting echoes, even in versions of the story where she survives and mourns him.” Source: https://wallpapersbook.com/harley-quinn-arkham-knight-wallpaper-download-collection/ (Cite/Credit the Arkham Knight game for Xbox 360/PS3)
- “While Diana of Themyscira’s narrative may seem brighter and more hopeful, there are macabre touches hearkening back to grim parts of Hellenic mythology.” Source: https://4.bp.blogspot.com/-XaU2TJJdEKU/WTgpEEx1joI/AAAAAAAAEDE/WMHVjtII5Ns2zPwTX3psRoB7O214ldUzQCLcB/s1600/wonderWoman1.jpg (Cite/Credit Wonder Woman the 2016 movie)
A true Renaissance woman, Katherine’s a studious nerd across a wealth of disciplines. When not inhabiting her bellydance persona, she loves to wash off the lipstick, throw on her glasses, and inhale a new subject or technique. From dance, literature, art, neurobiology, or linguistics, she’s invested and taking notes. Her passions are constructive something— whether it’s new choreography or various written forms. Recruited out of TempleCon, she’s been a staunch contributor. Her series “Chasing At Shadows” analyzes comic adaptations and other fiction through the lens of film Noir.
- Lamb, Marguerite. “Who Was Wonder Woman 1?” Bostonia, Boston University, Fall 2001. Archived at web.archive.org/web/20071208045132/https:/www.bu.edu/alumni/bostonia/2001/fall/wonderwoman. Accessed 19 Sep 2021.
- Riesman, Abraham. “The Hidden Story of Harley Quinn and How She Became the Superhero World’s Most Successful Woman.” Vulture, 5 Feb 2020. vulture.com/2014/12/harley-quinn-dc-comics-suicide-squad.html. Accessed 19 Sep 2021.
- Emad, Mitra C. “Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation.” Journal of Popular Culture 39, no. 6 (2006), pp. 954–984.
- Dini, Paul and Bruce Timm. The Batman Adventures: Mad Love. DC Comics, 1994, pp. 8-12, 53-54.
- Women at the Center Writers. “Wonder Woman: Feminist Icon?” Women at the Center, New-York Historical Society, 21 Dec. 2020, womenatthecenter.nyhistory.org/wonder-woman-feminist-icon/.
- Kanigher, Robert. “Wonder Woman: Top Secret.” In Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. Edited by Dan DiDio et al. DC Comics, 2007, pp. 57–66.