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.

In Defense of Black Widow and Joss Whedon

Black Widow
Image from Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki

A couple of weeks ago, the internet was freaking out over how director Joss Whedon quit Twitter, allegedly due to the backlash from how he portrayed Black Widow (a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff) in the recently released Avengers: Age of Ultron. For those of you not already familiar with the situation: many feminists felt that Black Widow was disgraced. Her portrayal was a “hatchet job,” and Joss Whedon had turned the Avengers’ most badass female character into a damsel in distressThe situation escalated when Whedon temporarily suspend his Twitter account, and the people who weren’t already outraged blamed the big, bad straw feminists for making a fuss. While the actual reason why Mr. Whedon suspended his Twitter account is debatable, one thing is clear: there are people out there on the internet who are pissed.

So without having any specific prior knowledge of what to expect, I set out to determine if these rumors I’d heard about Black Widow turning into a damsel in distress were true or not. While watching the film, I paid extra-special attention to all of Black Widow’s scenes and asked myself, is she vulnerable or in distress? Is she singled out among her teammates in this regard? What I sussed out were a small number of scenes where she might have been perceived as weak or (God forbid) womanly, and frankly, I thought calling her a damsel in distress in any of them was a stretch.

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR AGE OF ULTRON

The first instance I took note of was when the team was infiltrating Ulysses Klaue‘s ship, and Black Widow fell victim to Wanda Maximoff’s psychically induced illusion, which essentially incapacitated her. While she did have to be rescued by Hawkeye, so did Captain America and Thor, both of whom were also rendered helpless by Wanda. Rule of thumb: it’s not sexist if everyone is treated the same.

Next was when the Avengers were lying low at Hawkeye’s house, and Bruce Banner shares a moment with Natasha, in which she confesses that upon graduating from assassin school, she was forced to undergo an effective, in her words, sterilization process. Interestingly enough, this was the point most articles critical of Black Widow’s portrayal latched on to. Oh no! She pressed the mommy button! For many, it seems, this focus on motherhood has simply ruined Black Widow’s character. The general assumption that was all the secretive foreshadowing hinted at in The Avengers was that she thinks of herself as a monster because she is incapable of having babies and totally hung up over the whole issue. io9’s article Black Widow: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things went so far as to postulate that her relationship with the Hulk had become that of a surrogate mother.

The Hulk and Black Widow
Image from Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki

Personally, I take issue with that last one. If Black Widow is Hulk’s surrogate mother, that give’s Bruce and Natasha’s relationship a whole new Oedipal layer to it, which is just messed up. My take away from that scene is that yes, Natasha has regrets about her past and what was done to her, but I’d like to point out that it was Bruce who brought up the whole “can’t have a family” thing in the first place. With that in mind, Natasha’s confession can be viewed more as an act of solidarity. You can’t have kids, Bruce? Well, guess what, neither can I. The unsaid message there being: don’t be such a whiner, Bruce, and take a chance on our relationship. And as for her being a monster, if you strip her forced sterilization down to a basic level, not counting the connotations of motherhood, it’s still a very disturbing prospect. When she was young, a piece of her body was destroyed and can never be repaired. There’s also the implication behind why she was sterilized. She was sterilized so she could go about her spy business without worrying about getting pregnant. That means that they expected her, a young girl at the time, to be in sexual situations as part of her job. If that’s not monstrous, I don’t know what is.

I also want to address the issue that this line of thinking draws the conclusion that “feminism” means a woman shouldn’t be interested in being a mother. This is an issue I’ve been mentally wrestling with for a long time now. On the one hand, I want to be an empowered woman with a career and not be bogged down with traditional gender roles. Gender normatives are bullshit, it’s true, but on the other hand, there are many women out there who want to be girly, have babies, and be a homemaker. And if that’s something they want (not because it’s what they should do as a woman, but because it’s what they desire as a person) then they should not be shamed for it. As musician and performer Amanda Palmer puts it: being a powerful feminist is doing what you want to do, regardless of what that may be. So really, if Black Widow wants to be sad because she can’t have babies someday, that shouldn’t be something we all should get mad about and resent Joss Whedon over. (Even if I don’t think that was what the movie was going for in the first place.)

Captain America, Black Widow, and Bruce Banner
Image from Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki

The last instance is definitely the most like a “damsel in distress” situation. At one point in the film, Black Widow is kidnapped and taken prisoner by Ultron. None of the male Avengers are kidnapped, just Black Widow, and she is eventually rescued by Bruce Banner. Here’s why I don’t think this makes Black Widow a damsel in distress: she is captured for a whole of maybe five minutes (after being yanked out of a plane in mid-air–something a person who can’t fly couldn’t escape and survive), during which she gets lectured a bit by Ultron and jury rigs a telegraph out of junk that was laying in her cell. A damsel in distress would not be taking action to facilitate her escape. There is nothing wrong for calling for help when you need it (and let your team know where the enemy hideout is in the process), and I think it’s a testament to Natasha’s faith in her friends’ ability to receive her message and come to get her. A damsel in distress would have also taken up Bruce’s proposition to run away together and forget the fight. Instead, Black Widow gives him a smooch for being adorable, then forces him to bring out the Hulk, because they’re Avengers, and they have a job to do.

So who is Black Widow? She’s a competent, confident female superhero with some regrets about her past (which is almost a standard in any superhero, really), and she is willing to sacrifice her own personal happiness in order to do her job and save the world. Is she the biggest, baddest, strongest Avenger out there? No, but neither is Hawkeye. She sounds pretty feminist to me….