The recent reemergence of the Star Wars movie franchise has won more than just positive reviews and massive amounts of money from the box office, home video sales and merchandise. It has also won Disney a great deal of praise – progressive street cred, if you will – for its dedication to promoting diversity in blockbuster movies. Front and center on the posters for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was its heroine, Rey: a brave, determined, self-sufficient, force-wielding fighter who demonstrates enough fear and vulnerability to make her human, but ultimately saves the day. She is the protagonist of her own story, rather than simply being a love interest, and – crucially, since children will naturally want to cosplay as the character – Rey dresses in practical clothing befitting the life of a space adventurer.
Poor Harley Quinn. If an 8 year-old girl dressed up as Margot Robbie’s Suicide Squad character for Halloween – with her tiny glittery shorts, tattered fishnet stockings, vampy make-up and “Lucky You” tattoo – parents would probably faint at the sight. If Rey is the quintessential strong female character for little girls everywhere to look up to, then Harley Quinn is the quintessential bad role model. She gave up her career as a psychiatrist to become the girlfriend of a violent criminal: throwing herself into acid for him; modelling her look and personality after his; killing and robbing and go-go dancing in clubs until finally her terrible behavior landed her in a maximum security prison. On paper she’s a feminist’s nightmare – a woman whose entire life revolves around a man, and a psychotic, abusive man at that.
Yet despite her obsession with Mr. J, Harley isn’t just some scantily clad girlfriend like the million and one scantily clad girlfriends who have passed through Hollywood movies before her. Harley is as much the protagonist of her own story as Rey was, and the film industry needs more characters like her.
It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in Hollywood, both on screen and behind the camera. A recent study of the top 100 highest-grossing domestic films released in 2015 found that female characters comprised just 22% of protagonists, 18% of antagonists, and 33% of all speaking characters. This actually marked an uptick from previous years, meaning that audiences are used to seeing even fewer female characters on screen. Little wonder, then, that a movie like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which female characters in the principal cast are outnumbered more than two-to-one, is perceived as being “pretty equal.” The Force Awakens was also praised for passing the Bechdel test, which originated as a joke in a comic strip where the punchline is how pathetically low the bar for passing the test is.
All this is to say that the push for more female protagonists in movies is complicated by the fact that, by virtue of their rarity, female characters are subject to the kind of scrutiny that their male counterparts just don’t get. It was in this high-pressure soil that Hollywood grew the archetype of the Strong Female Character: a woman who packs in enough strength, skill, and independence to positively represent her entire gender, thereby saving screenwriters the inconvenience of having to write more than one or two female characters. Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond; Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy; Black Widow in The Avengers; Claire in Jurassic World… the list of examples, from the past few years alone, goes on and on and on.
It’s little wonder, then, that Harley Quinn has caused such disquiet. By all rights she should be Suicide Squad‘s strong female character, but instead she’s an aberration that many critics have argued is regressive and sexist. It’s true: Robbie’s version of Harley is not a positive representation of women. She’s not a character that little girls can dress up as for Halloween. She’s not a strong female character. What she is, however, is funny and tragic and challenging – a complex, interesting character driven by a powerful performance from Robbie. She also saved the world so, you know, a “thank you” would be nice.
Many of the criticisms aimed at Harley seem to treat her as though she is the movie’s only real representative of women – which, in a lot of movies, she would be. But while it’s true that female characters in Suicide Squad are vastly outnumbered by male characters, there are enough of them that it would be unfair to try and parse the movie’s view of women based on Harley alone. To do so would be to ignore Amanda Waller (Viola Davis): a cold-hearted, manipulative, ruthlessly pragmatic puppet master who, though she does terrible things, is ultimately working to protect humankind and even considers her own values to be in line with Superman’s. The movie’s other female characters include samurai warrior Katana (Karen Fukuhara) and Deadshot’s daughter, Zoe (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon), a savvy honors student who steps in front of her father’s gun in order to protect Batman. Suicide Squad also has a female villain – something that, just a few years ago, was explicitly vetoed at Marvel Studios.
In short, Suicide Squad has enough strong female characters that Harley Quinn doesn’t necessarily need to be one as well, which is fortunate since she’s horribly suited to the role. Being completely lovesick for the Joker has been part of Harley’s character since her inception, and it’s arguably the reason why the character has garnered such a massive female fanbase (according to exit polls, women made up 46% of the audience during Suicide Squad‘s opening Friday). She’s the patron saint of fangirls; the Bridget Jones of the DC universe. If Wonder Woman is an inspirational figure, Harley Quinn is a relatable one; after all, not many women know what it’s like to save the world or have superpowers, but plenty of women know what it’s like to fall in love with a bad boy.
As rightfully derided as it may have been, 2015’s movie adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey (which was made by and marketed towards women) grossed over $571 million at the box office. The book itself was originally written as fan fiction for the Twilight series, which in turn grossed billions worldwide over the course of five movies. Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight are generally kept quarantined from any conversation about great female characters in movies (with good reason), but the fact that these movies attracted female audiences in droves, regardless of quality, is something that cannot and should not be ignored.
Jared Leto might have created his Joker with ambitions of grand complexity and depth, but in the theatrical cut of Suicide Squad the character plays much the same role as Edward Cullen or Christian Grey in their respective franchises. His sole purpose in the story is to seduce and fall hopelessly in love with the female protagonist, to the point that his life is empty without her. Whenever Joker appears on screen he is either with Harley, or desperately trying to get her back. He might be the “dom” in their relationship, but in terms of narrative function he’s entirely submissive to Harley’s needs. Presumably he has some kind of life that doesn’t involve her, in the same way that Christian Grey is theoretically a businessman with a company to run, but the Joker only really matters insofar as he informs Harley’s character development.
And what a great character she is. Harley ties with Deadshot as the most prominently featured Suicide Squad team member, and between the present day crisis and her flashback scenes the movie paints an intriguing picture of a complex, multi-layered antihero. In particular, the movie explores the idea that Harley’s well-known persona may simply be an elaborate performance. Her lodgings in Belle Reve are pointedly evocative of a circus tent: Harley in the middle, at the center of attention, with raised walkways all around her and a constantly watching audience of guards. The visual parallels are further heightened by the fact that, when the audience first sees her, Harley is performing a gymnastics routine using a makeshift trapeze made from her bed sheets.
In the single brief moment that we see her alone, Harley looks lost and miserable, and yet forcibly brightens up and strikes a pose when she sees the squad approaching. Moreover, a vision of her ultimate fantasy shows her married to the Joker with two kids and a domestic home life where – crucially – both of them look completely normal: no tattoos or pale skin or brightly-colored hair. Her flash of anger at El Diablo, where she mocks him for thinking he could ever have a happy family and a normal life, is clearly a projection of her own turmoil. And outside of the broader picture, Harley also has some enjoyable smaller character moments; towards the end of the movie she dismissively diagnoses Deadshot as “another textbook sociopath” – a simple but effective reminder that she’s not just a crazy clown… she’s Dr. Crazy Clown, M.D.
Harley Quinn will probably never be put on the same kind of pedestal that Rey or Imperator Furiosa or Katniss Everdeen have enjoyed. She’s too broken, too boy-crazy, and her shorts are far too short. But at the risk of sending studios the message that movies need more sexed-up female characters whose lives revolve around men, Hollywood definitely does need more characters like Harley. Somewhere amid the fight to have more women in big-budget movies, the idea has emerged that being a positive role model is a prerequisite for great female characters – which is stifling from a creative standpoint. If nothing else, Suicide Squad is a reminder that sometimes it’s good to be bad.
Suicide Squad is in theaters now, to be followed by Wonder Woman on June 2, 2017; Justice League on November 17, 2017; Aquaman on July 27, 2018; an untitled DC Film on October 5, 2018; Shazam on April 5, 2019; Justice League 2 on June 14, 2019; an untitled DC film on November 1, 2019; Cyborg on April 3, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps on July 24, 2020. The Flash and Batman solo movie are currently without release dates.