This Friday, Suicide Squad hits theaters everywhere—and in the lead-up to the film, no character has gotten quite so much attention as Harley Quinn, the pigtailed, hot pants-clad supervillain played by Margot Robbie. As depicted by Robbie, Quinn is wild, sexy, clever, and fun; the kind of character young women will eagerly emulate (something Hot Topic definitely seems to be counting on). And yet not everyone’s on board with this portrayal: As numerous commentators have noted, the linchpin of Quinn’s narrative is an abusive relationship. To many, portraying the character as “cool” means endorsing intimate partner abuse.
If you haven’t spent the past few decades steeped in DC Comics mythos, here’s a brief introduction to Quinn: Originally known as therapist Harleen Frances Quinzel, the character’s life is turned upside down when she takes on The Joker as a patient. From there, thanks to a combination of love, fascination, and Stockholm Syndrome, Quinzel abandons her straight life and adopts the Harley Quinn identity. Over the decades Quinn has seen a number of iterations (from Harlequin-style clown to punk-rock roller-derby girl), but her relationship with The Joker has consistently remained a tragic tale of manipulation and abuse—one that’s made her compelling, fascinating, and utterly repellant, depending on your point of view.
I’m not interested in defending Suicide Squad, or making a case for its depiction of Quinn—by all accounts the film is a mess, and its take on the complicated relationship between Quinn and The Joker fails to provide the nuance or depth that a story like this one deserves. But I’m bothered by the knee jerk assumption that depicting Quinn as sexy, or confident, or in any way aspirational is tantamount to condoning, or even celebrating, the abusive romance that’s a central part of her story. Because in real life, many of the women who find themselves in abusive relationships are confident and compelling and even people you might consider to be role models. They just happen to be role models who’ve managed to end up in horribly unhealthy romantic relationships.
Our cultural narrative about what an abuse victim looks like is often painfully oversimplified. Close your eyes, and you can picture it immediately: a sad, beaten down woman with little-to-no self confidence; her body covered with bruises, her ego too fragile to allow her to do anything other than stand by her man. It’s an image we see reflected in movies, on TV, and in virtually every domestic violence awareness campaign. And yet the abuse survivors I know—myself included—rarely fit that mold.
The version of me that was in an abusive relationship wasn’t sad or pathetic on the surface. I was a driven, accomplished Columbia student who graduated with a 3.66 GPA, held impressive internships, and ran a business on the side. I was a fun girl with lots of friends and an active social life. From an outside perspective, I didn’t look anything like my vision of a woman in an abusive relationship—and that’s likely one of the reasons why I stayed with a cruel, dishonest, and emotionally manipulative partner as long as I did. I didn’t recognize my experiences as abuse, because, even as I lived it, I couldn’t identify with the tragic representations of abuse victims offered up by most of the media.
Creating an honest, unflinching portrayal of what it’s like to be in an abusive relationship—one that’s willing to depict an abuse victim as relatable, and potentially aspirational, even in the midst of a toxic relationship—is no easy task. Put too much effort into showcasing the emotional connection that causes many victims to stay and you run the risk of romanticizing abuse; lean too heavily on the violent, abusive aspects of a toxic partnership and you create a monstrous depiction few victims will be willing, or able, to identify with. Yet nuanced depictions of abusive relationships, and the wide variety of people who end up in them, are an essential part of our educational toolkit: the more we make clear that strong, accomplished people can, and do, wind up with abusive partners, the easier we make it for victims to identify abuse and become survivors.
What might this sort of storytelling look like? One excellent example is Leigh Stein’s memoir Land of Enchantment. In clear-eyed prose, Stein simultaneously condemns the abuse her ex subjected her to while offering insight into why—in spite of all his flaws—she continued to find her partner appealing. Stein refuses to romanticize abuse, yet still admits that she found the relationship romantic; that for all the torment her partner put her through, dating him felt like a grand, exciting adventure. And through it all, Stein manages to be charming, funny, and, yes, relatable—far from the typical depiction of a woman subjected to abuse.
There’s a difference between admiring a woman and admiring the awful relationship she’s tragically been drawn into. The more we’re able to tease out the differences between who a woman is and what kind of partner she falls for, the more accurate and honest our depictions of abusive relationships—and the women who wind up in them—will be. Of course, accomplishing that goal also requires us to treat women as fully fledged individuals who exist independently of their romantic relationships, and that, sadly, is not something American media seems particularly good at.