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Is Harley Quinn a Villain or a Tragic Character?

By Kira Goldring
 Getty Images: Matt Cowan
*Updated 2021
The death of legendary Marvel comics creator Stan Lee has everyone thinking about superheroes. While he did not create the character of Harley Quinn, her creators, DC Comics, credit Lee with changing the way we look at heroes. In that regard, it is fitting to discuss Harley Quinn, who has long been a popular yet controversial comic-book character. If you’re a DC Comic fanatic, or, for that matter, a video game aficionado or Suicide Squad lover, the odds are that you’re taken by Harley Quinn. She’s polarized people with her wild antics, criminal activity, and bizarre love story. She’s become so popular that she stars in her own movie, sans Joker. But do you wrinkle your nose in disgust at her choices, pity her predicament or go so far as to applaud her actions?
Here are three arguments for why you should sympathize with Harley Quinn, and three reasons why you shouldn’t.


Harley got the raw end of the deal.


She just wanted to be loved.

Originally known as psychologist Harleen Quinzel, Harley ends up falling for the Joker, a psychotic patient in Gotham’s Arkham Asylum, who is under her care. Despite how the pair may be portrayed within fan art on the internet, their relationship is a toxic and abusive one. For example, in Suicide Squad’s New 52 version of her, the Joker pushes Harley off a ledge and into a vat of chemicals to prove her devotion to him. His abuse persists over time; the Joker continuously manipulates Harley into doing his bidding, and he’ll never really love her, because his ultimate obsessive desire is the Batman. All Harley wants to do is put a smile on the Joker’s face, and her many misdeeds are a product of her desire to get the Joker to love her.


She has an empathetic streak.

Harley certainly causes a lot of bloodshed, but she has a habit of standing up to bullies as well. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that she has a strong sense of compassion and loyalty for the people in her life, as opposed to the Joker, who will abuse anything and anyone to get what he wants. For example, she won’t fight the Black Canary when the Canary is pregnant, and she helps bring a broken family together in one of the Harley Quinn Holiday Special comics. While not without fault, her moral sides can’t be ignored, which makes it much more difficult to condemn her character.


Her character has become sexually objectified.

While she stars in a movie devoted to her empowered life post-Joker, and stands strong in Suicide Squad 2 independent of the Joker, these portrayals of her are recent. Harley was previously introduced to viewers in the 2016 Suicide Squad movie, where viewers meet her as Dr. Quinzel, a victim of the Joker’s manipulation. Her original role in Batman: The Animated Series was that of a strong female character, yet the focus since then primarily became about her dysfunctional relationship with the Joker and her sexual appeal. This version exploits her; for example, after her transition from Dr. Quinzel into Harley, the first time we hear her speak in the movie is when she’s working in a strip club and flirting with the Joker’s colleague. Her current costume consists of barely-there shorts and a tight-fitting crop top, which is a complete deviation from her original clown-like attire and more in line with the borderline pornographic portrayal of Harley in the 2009 video game Batman: Arkham Asylum. The exploitation of her role only further seems to paint her as a sympathetic character, one that people are inclined to root for.


Harley is a villain and doesn’t deserve sympathy.


Her creators don’t see her as a victim.

While there are many adaptations of Harley’s character, most of them clearly paint her in a negative light. Paul Dini, who was one of Harley’s original creators, said in an introduction to the 2015 deluxe version of Mad Love: “I don’t think of Mad Love as a victim’s tale, but a cautionary one about what happens when someone loves recklessly, obsessively, and for too long.” This lends itself to the argument that it’s Harley’s choices that get her where she is; namely, in the position of psychologist-turned-serial-killer. She decided to make her villainous bed, and her creators want that to be emphasized throughout her story.


Abuse comes in many forms.

It’s difficult to argue for Harley’s mistreatment at the hands of the Joker without acknowledging that she was in a position of power over him – and she abused it. He was under her care as a psychiatrist, and she transgressed the professional boundaries of their relationship. After joining his ranks, Harley had no problem committing crimes for fun, like kidnapping a billionaire because she was bored, robbing a store between fight scenes in Suicide Squad, and beating up Batman and trying to feed him to a tank of piranhas. While it’s pretty clear that Harley is abused by the Joker, it’s not enough to pardon her from her continuous abuse of others.


Harley is a murderer.

Need we say more? There are certain red lines that arguably shouldn’t be crossed, and Harley leaps over all of them. For example, she kills all of the lawyers that put the Joker in Arkham Asylum, and to add insult to injury, she dances with their corpses. Harley is ruthless, sadistic, and doesn’t just use murder as a means to an end – she takes pleasure in it.


The Bottom Line: Harley Quinn does some deplorable things, but much of those things stem from being manipulated and wanting to please her abusive lover, the Joker. What do you think? Does Harley Quinn deserve sympathy, or should she be condemned as a villain?

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