The Horrors of Romanticizing Abuse and The Psychology of Harley Quinn

So… This is your idea romance, eh?
Source: BJA007 on Imgur

I’m going to try hammer this one out quickly on the grounds that, while it clearly needs to be said, it’s not something I enjoy talking about.

So, with the release (and subsequent lukewarm reception) of Suicide Squad, it seems that DC Fans have started clamoring about a topic that never fails to infuriate me whenever people start talking about it; the relationship between well-known Batman villains Harley Quinn and The Joker.

Nearly everyone I know has, at one point, said that they want a romance like these two. But here’s the rub – they often say this without realizing or even in spite of the fact that The Joker is an abusive and manipulative sociopath and Harley is most likely suffering from deep mental scars that extend far beyond even the damage he’s done.

For those not familiar with her backstory, Harley – real name; Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel (yes, the bubble-headed, bleach blonde, jester girl has a PhD) – was a graduate of Gotham State University where she excelled in Gymnastics and Psychology. After finally getting a job at Arkham Asylum and eager to start analyzing their most notorious super-criminals, she found herself locked in a battle of wits and egos with The Joker that ended with him seducing her to aid his escape on multiple occasions and eventually to join up as his most frequent collaborator.

But here’s the thing, The Joker is largely incapable of returning that love. If he has any love in his heart, it’s for the pain and chaos he causes. The closest he can be said to have come to loving a human being is his obsession with Batman. And that love for inflicting pain and disregard for human life is shown in the way he routinely scolds and beats Harley. For god’s sake, he threw her out of a 3-story window!

What’s more, Harley’s behavior is supported by psychology. There are the obvious implications of Stockholm Syndrome, but even her slowly growing to believe she could identify with Joker is supported by science. While working in Arkham, she clearly spent enough time with him for Emotional Contagion – the tendency for humans to subconsciously imitate the emotions of others – to set in. With enough time under her skin, it was only a matter of time before Shared Psychotic Disorder (also known as Folie à deux or ‘madness of two’) took hold and she started emulating his Anti-Social Personality Disorder under the delusion of romance.

So, are we clear here? Harley and Joker are not romantic; they are sick. Harley needs counseling to deal with her years of abuse and Joker needs to be placed in solitary confinement. When you say you want a love like theirs, you aren’t being Bonnie with Clyde (which would be bad enough) – you’re being one of those weirdos that send love letters to serial killers.

Seriously, the best thing that Injustice: Gods Among Us ever did was give us the moment that the comics took forever to do; having Harley figuratively nail Chuckles the Ass-Clown to the F***ING wall.

To Die Laughing: Why We Still Hold Mark Hamill As the Gold Standard of Joker Performances

He’s laughing at those other posers.

Lately, the internet has been exploding over Jared Leto’s depiction of The Joker in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie. And the general consensus I’ve gotten from friends, forums, and articles is less than positive.

The topic of this came up at work not long ago and got me to realize something – despite him retiring the voice some time ago, many fans of Batman and other DC media outside of the comics still consider Mark Hamill’s depiction in the various animated series’ and games to be the superior Joker. Why is that?

Well, before we answer that, I want to silence one particular argument I hear whenever I discuss this. Every time I broach the topic of The Joker’s many iterations, they disregard Hamill’s performance along with all animated/game media. I want to make it clear that the medium of choice has no effect on the quality of writing, nor development of a story’s characters. You can make a good story about anything in any format with the proper skill.

So, if the medium isn’t the problem, what is it? Well, the main problem with writing for a character like The Joker is that his character is INTENTIONALLY difficult to pin down. He’s so unpredictable and bares such a fluid personality – combined with multiple contradicting backstories that he made up on the fly – that the finest doctors at Arkham Asylum have never been able to make a concrete diagnosis of his condition (though his general desire to simply do whatever he wants with disdain for authorities that would stop him seems to point towards Anti-Social Personality Disorder; Thanks, psych minor!).

This means that, depending on the kind of carnage he wishes to unleash, The Joker wears multiple hats. What’s more, each of his most famous depictions presents a different hat; Cesar Romaro’s manic prankster, Jack Nickholson’s ruthless but dignified gangster, Heath Ledger’s sociopathic anarchist, and now Jared Leto’s psychopath.

So why do we love Hamill’s Joker? Because he was all of them.

The combination of Hamill’s characterization (he literally had a different laugh for every emotion) along with the amazing writing talents of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm – both known for making their stories analogous to reality by way of equal parts comedy, drama, and deceptive banality – allowed us to see the full terrifying spectrum of what The Joker could, and often would if it meant getting his way, become at a moment’s notice.

In short, we probably won’t see anyone that can truly challenge Hamill for the crown of the Clown Prince of Crime until we get a writer/actor combo that’s not afraid to explore the full range of what one of fiction’s most infamous criminally insane villains can be.