Let’s talk about the intersection of female sexuality and public opinion. As you all know, this topic is an Internet staple. Lately it’s been revved into overdrive by the release of Suicide Squad – a film I haven’t seen and don’t plan to see. Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter are rife with the trending hashtag #relationshipgoals attached to a photo of Harley Quinn and The Joker, Warner Bros has released a line of merchandise that proclaims the same, and the attendant screeds that wish to put to a stop to this phenomenon are full throated and annoying as hell. At first, I ignored it. Now that this film has grossed over $280 million and the voices of dissent are becoming louder and more ubiquitous, it’s impossible to continue ignoring it without unfriending half my mutual followers. The Negative Nancys usually unfurl the following argument:
“The Joker and Harley Quinn are in an abusive relationship” – insert comic panel showing The Joker punching Harley or otherwise hurting her – “and should NOT be idealized.”
Then there’s a whole lot of bloviating about the nature of domestic abuse and Stockholm Syndrome, as well as a horde of mansplaining comic geeks that want to remind us all that Harley Quinn is an allegory for domestic abuse (a contentious topic), and should never be emulated. “She isn’t badass – she’s a victim!” is repeated ad nauseum, and there are passionate diatribes about what a delusional person she is, how she and Mistah J are definitely NOT in love, definitely NOT a “relationship goal,” and that the women who fantasize about these two need to be educated on what a healthy partnership looks like.
I’ve been clenching my teeth on the subject, because I’m not a DC fan and am therefore not personally invested in the discussion, but now I wish to say something, because this is a carousel that has gone around more than once. The central tenets are always the same: women don’t know what’s good for them, deserve to be lectured about their troubling sexual fantasies, and can’t grasp the concept of fiction. It happened in 2008 when The Dark Knight came out, and here it is again, bigger, louder, and more misogynist than ever.
What I’m going to present to you all is the idea that women are capable of identifying the difference between fantasy and reality. Shocking, right? Suicide Squad is a silly action movie starring charismatic actors. It’s set in the darkest of the popular comic book universes, and its heroes are the clinically insane and criminally violent. It’s pure escapism. Who doesn’t occasionally dream of inhabiting a fictional world? That’s why these things exist. Furthermore, Hollywood glamorizes all kinds of horrid, unhealthy shit, and this is what moralizing assholes are seizing upon? I’m sure it has nothing to do with policing female sexuality and everything to do with protecting victims of abuse and promoting good role models for women, right? Yes? No.
Eight years ago, the internet exploded with erotic Joker fanfiction courtesy of Heath Ledger fans who really dug his turn as the Clown Prince of Crime. Luckily for them, the DC universe comes equipped with a ready-made Mary Sue in the form of Harley Quinn, so that fanfic was easy to churn out. Almost immediately there was a wave of outrage (not all of which came from “nice guys” who were butthurt that the geek girls of their dreams were getting off to thoughts of a psychopath), including op-eds from fairly respected sources like the A.V. Club. Men and women of all stripes came forward to admonish these fans and let them know that they didn’t want to hook up with The Joker. I don’t think I need to point out that these criticisms were lobbed exclusively at women. There was no condescending finger-wagging aimed at the legions of male fans who rabidly loved Ledger’s Joker, because apparently it is perfectly okay to imagine being a violent man, but not okay to imagine fucking one. I also found no mentions of gay men who may have dipped their toes into the warm waters of erotic fanfic. It was a decidedly gendered backlash, and in their haste to make pronouncements about female sexuality and share their very un-asked for opinions, these neckbeards and wannabe pop psychologists failed to acknowledge a couple of things.
For one, fantasizing about a fictional character is different than wanting to actually experience a real world approximation of that fiction. Fan clubs devoted to real serial killers are rare. People aren't posting photos of Chris Brown and a battered Rhianna with the caption “relationship goals.” If women really wanted to be brutalized, they’d have no trouble locating a brute. Maybe all this Joker/Harley fetishization is just –gasp! A FANTASY. And hey, maybe it isn’t up to you to armchair psychoanalyze these women and lecture them about their fantasies. Maybe women’s fantasies are none of your business, Dr. Freud. Just because they’re writing about them on the Internet doesn’t mean they’re inviting you to weigh in on their emotional states and/or intellectual competence.
Some women have rape fantasies. As icky as many of us may find that, it’s pretty common. Human psychology is complex and varied. Even people with PhDs don’t fully understand how it all works. Why does every Tom, Dick, and Harry assume they know how it works? Assuming that women can’t separate fantasy from reality is insulting, not to mention inaccurate. Some women are into BDSM. Some women are into humiliation. Someone women are masochists. The last time I checked, The Joker was a fairly sadistic character. Why not use him as a cipher in your erotic fanfiction? Why not use Harley Quinn as a stand-in for yourself if you want to get off to hardcore sadism? It’s a safe space to play out scenarios that could not and would not ever happen. Stop yelling about how “unhealthy” it is, and stop lecturing women about relationship dynamics. This is kink-shaming of the highest order.
”But Candace, it can and does happen!” I hear you screaming. “Women find themselves in abusive relationships all the time! Lots of abused women identify with Harley Quinn.”
And of course you’re right. But this feeds problem number two: Are you claiming that those women ended up in abusive situations because they idealized them ahead of time? If so, that’s blatant victim-blaming. That’s another iteration of “she asked for it,” and lets the abuser off the hook. Women fall into abusive relationships for a slew of reasons, but I promise you that fantasizing about mental patients in a comic book universe isn’t one of them. The Joker’s relationship with Harley Quinn is abusive at times, but these are criminally insane freaks in clown makeup who don't exist. What woman is honestly idealizing that relationship and basing her own life decisions on it? Women don’t need morality exemplified by a fucking superhero movie. We can think for ourselves, thank you. Jerking off to something doesn't mean we've lost all sense of morality.
It’s also likely that many women fantasize about extreme sexual and romantic situations out of boredom, regardless of personal fetishes and kinks. Female sexuality is repressed, policed, and controlled at every level of society. Maybe The Joker and Harley Quinn represent an alluring nihilistic escape from such puritanism. Maybe women aren’t the fragile little angels you think they are. Maybe women are so sick of being told they must fall in love with “nice” men that they’ve developed an attraction to very, very bad men. I’m certainly not the first person to suggest that. And maybe those same women enjoy imagining themselves doing taboo, violent, and illegal things without consequences. Again, it's called escapism and it's why fiction exists. I don’t see anyone bitching when women insert themselves into Jane Austen novels. That’s considered perfectly normal, but swap Mr. Darcy for The Joker and everyone gets upset. Why? Because one of those fantasies is socially acceptable and the other isn’t? Let's take a moment to ponder why that is. Additionally, Joker/Harley storylines are varied. Even someone with only a glancing knowledge of the Batman canon knows that Harley Quinn's character has been through dozens of re-imaginings, and her relationship with the Joker redefined again and again. Certainly all those stories aren't abusive. I know for a fact most of the fanfiction isn't, so these women are clearly seeing something in the characters that the squalling naysayers are either missing or ignoring.
The only argument I halfway agree with is that Suicide Squad’s marketing tactics are irresponsible. The offending Joker/Harley merchandise is clearly targeting teens and pre-teens. I know who shops at Hot Topic, and those kids are not mentally equipped to navigate the complexities of BDSM or the blurry lines of consent that accompany it. Branding an extreme kink as a relationship goal and selling it to a demographic with only a nascent understanding of romantic relationships is pretty sleazy. The budding sexuality of young women should probably not be subjected to images of a grinning masochist experiencing orgiastic pain/pleasure at the hands of a deranged maniac. Without anything else to compare it to, some unhealthy ideas could form. On the flip side, there’s a plethora of toxic Hollywood romances that aren’t as obviously cartoonish. I'd like to think that no kid, regardless of age, believes movies like Suicide Squad represent the real world. Parenting should come into play here, but I acknowledge that not everyone’s parents are stellar. So maybe, maybe it’s not great to show these kinds of relationships to teenagers. Having said that, human beings are not robots that become hopelessly indoctrinated by the media they consume. If someone, even a young person, finds herself titillated by a screen couple’s relationship, that means that some part of her resonated with what she saw. That isn’t something a writer, director, actor, t-shirt, or hashtag is responsible for.
Keeping women safe is important. Awareness of domestic violence and abusive relationships is important. Promoting healthy and happy human connections, romantic or otherwise, is important. All too often, media and entertainment utterly fail to do those things, but shaming women for their sexual fantasies is not the answer. That speaks to misogyny and nothing more. If you want to write angry screeds about the film industry's irresponsible portrayals of domestic abuse, that’s fair. If you think teen-friendly clothing shops at your local mall should refrain from carrying Suicide Squad merchandise, feel free to organize a boycott. You have a right to protest things that you believe are unethical or in bad taste. What isn’t fair is berating female fans for having fantasies that you don’t approve of. Stop kink-shaming. Stop victim-blaming. Stop trying to control female sexuality. The next time one of these movies comes along and makes a big splash, stay in your lane and recognize that women have a right to enjoy whatever escapism floats their boat, just as men do.
There have already been Internet rumors of a stand-alone Harley Quinn movie, and possibly even a Joker spin-off (obviously Jared Leto is hoping this is the case – otherwise, why would he have been such a try-hard?), and I’m preemptively bracing myself for the inevitable tide of outrage that will follow in their wake.