Yahtzee!: A look at Harley Quinn as portrayed in pre-New 52 media

Harley_Quinn_0015Image from DC Database

Dr. Harleen Quinzel is a woman of many faces. Depending on the author(s) behind her, she can be merely the Joker’s lovesick fangirl or a brilliant villain/anti-hero with invaluable in-depth knowledge of the human psyche. Because of the former, she can be dismissed as a misguided idiot suffering from battered person syndrome (or even described as a character that promotes domestic abuse), but I am here to tell you that because of the latter, she can be so much more than that.

Originally created by writer Paul Dini and artist Bruce Timm as a one-off Joker henchwoman for the Batman: the Animated Series episode “Joker’s Favor,” she ended up being well-liked enough (by audiences or creators… or both) that Dini and Timm expanded her role by making her a recurring character on the show, as well as giving her a back story in the stand alone graphic novel Mad Love (which was later adapted into an episode of the animated series in its fourth season).

HqImage from Batman: The Animated Series Wiki

In her initial incarnation throughout the run of Batman: the Animated Series, Harley is portrayed as crazy (as she is in all her appearances in the DCU) but somewhat misguided by her affection for the Joker–not necessarily malicious on her own. That’s not to say Harley would be completely on the side of angels without the Joker’s influence, of course; Harley definitely had some criminal inclinations of her own. Though she is most often associated with the Joker, her character in Batman:TAS was paired up with Poison Ivy (as partners-in-crime) just as often as she was the Joker’s number two.

The original Animated Series Harley Quinn was also not above betraying the Joker when she felt he had crossed the line. This is most obviously seen in the episodes “Harley and Ivy,” where she initially strikes out on her own and teams up with Ivy (to great effect), and “Harliquinade,” where she sabotaged and almost succeeded in killing the Joker in order to stop him from blowing up the city and killing her beloved pet hyenas and all “their” friends at Arkham. Like many other iterations of her character, Harley is also shown as having significant intelligence (as evidenced in “Mad Love,” both graphic novel and animated adaptation, where she came closer to killing Batman than the Joker ever had), though vulnerable to emotional manipulation.

Image from DC Database

Another great portrayal of Harley came in her self-titled comic series written by Karl Kesel (and later A.J. Lieberman) that ran from 2000 to 2004. In this series Harley unapologetically focuses on her own solo criminal career, while occasionally hanging with her BFF Poison Ivy. Kesel creates a new duplicitous side to Harley not often seen in other versions of the character. At the end of the series’ first volume, Preludes and Knock Knock Jokes, and continuing into the first part of the second volume, Day and Night, Harley forms her own gang (“The Quinntets”) and leads them around the city on random criminal errands. However, completely unbeknownst to henchmen (and the private investigators following them), she’s secretly leading the P.I. trio on a goose chase and setting up an elaborate match-making scheme for two of them.

Granted, she’s still no role model (it’s criminal enterprise and general deception that she’s succeeding at, after all), but my take away from this comic (more so during Kesel’s run of the comic than Lieberman’s) was Harley’s sheer cunning and brilliance that she subtly hides beneath her goofy clown persona. And ultimately that’s where Harley’s true potential lies as a character. While she will occasionally use her feminine wiles to get what she wants, she’s not some femme fatale one-trick pony. She’s crazy, but brilliant; strong, but vulnerable. With so many facets to her personality, Harley is possibly one of the most well-rounded villainesses to come out of the superhero genre in a while.  Her only downfall is being written by anyone who doesn’t understand her depth and potential.

On Elsa in Frozen

Many have lauded Disney’s 2013 film, Frozen, as a groundbreaking film in Disney Princess-feminism. While this sentiment is arguable, I don’t think it’s fair to completely write the film off as having no valuable lessons to be learned.

Dani Colman makes an excellent argument against Frozen being some kind of marvelous feminist masterpiece in her article, “The Problem with False Feminism (or Frozen is not groundbreaking).” One of the points she makes is that the two leads simply cannot be construed as “strong female characters.”

Anna and Elsa
Image from Disney Wiki
For a laugh, check out Kate Beaton’s “Strong Female Characters”

Anna is shallow and a noticeably poor example of an independent, self-actualized woman, being the first Disney Princess in quite a while whose main motivation was to find “the one” or love for the sake of being in love and living happily ever after. In contrast, many of the more recent princesses longed for some sort of adventure, broadened horizons, or to be part of something bigger than herself (for example: Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine) and simply got a prince and/or true love as a bonus prize.

Elsa, on the other hand, may not fall under the same umbrella of weak or underdeveloped female characters as her sister, but provides a poor role model given her near self-loathing and tendency to over-react to her problems and just make them worse.

Elsa
Image from Disney Wiki

Here is where I would disagree with Colman’s view on the characters. True, Anna is a pretty typical adorkable lead without a whole lot of sense, but I prefer to chalk that up to her being, what, sixteen? A sixteen-year-old girl without parents to reign her in. Yeah, I think that pretty much covers it.

With her view on Elsa I both agree and disagree. True, she has some deep-seated psychological issues and that does cause her to make poor choices, ultimately making her out to be a poor role model for young girls to look up to. Despite all that, I think Elsa is an amazing character. I don’t think she was ever supposed to be that woman little girls want to be when they grow up; I don’t think her appeal is to be directed at young girls at all. I think she’s there for adolescents (and adults) to identify with.

Elsa is an eldest sibling that has (or feels like she has) the whole world resting on her shoulders, not an uncommon trait for eldest siblings, boy or girl. Whether it was entirely her parents doing or not, she feels she has to keep herself hidden away to protect her beloved younger sister. It all builds up: the self-inflicted isolation, the pressure to be the “good girl,” the need to hold everything inside for fear of oneself. Then after an unfortunate confrontation causes her glass facade to crack, she has that realization everyone has their first time away from home and on their own: she doesn’t have to adhere to mom and dad’s (or whomever’s) standards.

Elsa
Image from Disney Wiki

While on the one hand she does run away from her problems, a very immature and irresponsible way to cope; if she hadn’t, I don’t believe she would have been able to come to the realization that she did. It’s something that every person who went through (or is going through) a difficult adolescence had to overcome: realizing you don’t have to hold yourself to the standards of others and that you have to be happy with who you are. For Elsa, this comes in the form of accepting her powers as a part of who she is, for better or worse. In the real world we don’t really have to worry about our magical ice powers accidentally hurting people around us, but we do have to deal with accepting our self image and being comfortable with who we are, no matter what our peers think.

That is (at least in part) the lesson Frozen is telling through Elsa’s self-actualization: you have to be okay with who you are. Sure, she’s no adventurous Ariel or headstrong Belle for little girls to look up to, but she demonstrates that in order to be happy forever after, you have to like yourself.