From Sidekick To Survivor: How Harley Quinn Became The Perfectly Imperfect Hero For Abuse Victims

Harley Quinn, the multi-faceted supervillain sidekick-turned-hero, just turned 30. And like any self-respecting 30-year-old, she should probably take inventory of her growth over the years, because she has a lot to be proud of. The character was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for "Batman: The Animated Series," and debuted on September 11, 1992, but she's come a long way from being Joker's horny, homicidal sidekick and romantic interest. In the past decade or so, she's become a fascinating feminist figure, a bisexual powerhouse who's a surprising face of representation for survivors of abusive relationships. It's been a bumpy road full of weird missteps and unfortunate costume choices, but even if Harley Quinn hasn't become a full-fledged hero in the canon, she's become one of my heroes. 

As an abuse survivor and former manic pixie dream girl myself, Harley Quinn used to frustrate me, but her growth has made her into one of my favorite fictional characters. So much of what I loathed about her are things I loathe about my own past self, and seeing a post-abuse transformation arc play out over multiple mediums was incredibly cathartic. 

The problem with Puddin'

In Harley's earliest days, she existed as a bit of comic relief and to help spice up storylines with the Joker. In "Batman: Harley Quinn #1," seven years later, she was finally given a backstory as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a beautiful psychiatrist working at Arkham Asylum who disastrously falls for one of her patients: the Joker. She adopts a persona based on harlequins, who are comedic servants in Italian commedia dell'arte, and lives only to serve the Joker, whom she calls "Puddin'." While Harley is funny (in large part due to great voice work by Arleen Sorkin on the animated series), she's also pretty one-dimensional for a two-dimensional character. When interesting female villains can be a rarity, it's frustrating to see them written as so subservient and simple. 

On a personal level, it was hard to watch a woman who was supposed to be brilliant falling victim to basic abuser tactics. Joker has never been interested in anyone but himself, and their "romance" was always purely one-sided. Then again, if someone as educated and witty as Dr. Quinzel could fall victim to the skills of a narcissistic sociopath, then maybe falling for those same tactics as my younger self wasn't so horrible. I realized that despite being a victim, I was victim-blaming poor Harley when she was still only Joker's dancing doll, because I ultimately wanted better for her. 

Manic pixie dream queen

Australian actor Margot Robbie made her debut as the killer shrink in David Ayer's "Suicide Squad" in 2016, and while that film has its fair share of problems, it also helped Robbie find her footing in the character. She's still a little too wrapped up in the Joker (especially a Joker played by Jared Leto), but she's fierce. Then, in 2020, director Cathy Yan delivered "Birds of Prey," giving Quinn a chance to go through a messy breakup with her Puddin' and find herself. She even gets a post break-up glow-up, with new costumes and a look that's still sexy without being truly uncomfortable

"Birds of Prey" saw Harley stepping into her own with the help of an all-girl squad of heroes and antiheroes that would go on to become the Birds of Prey, and it was a blast of fresh air in the grimdark, masculine-centered superhero cinematic playground. Girls just wanna have fun, and "Birds of Prey" is a tremendous amount of fun. It just doesn't give Harley the kind of emotional arc she truly deserves after more than two decades as Joker's punching bag, but thankfully the DC folks have been giving us heaps of Harley and she got two more chances. 

Avoiding a toxic rebound

In James Gunn's "The Suicide Squad," Harley teams up with another rag-tag bunch of mercenaries, but this time she gets to do a whole lot more than spout off weird one-liners and look hot. (She still does plenty of both, don't worry.) She ends up getting captured by a rather good-looking tyrannical dictator who wants to marry her. She's swept up in the idea of romance with another bad boy, but once he starts talking about his vision for his nation and killing children, the romance is shattered. He's just another Mistah J, sans clown makeup. She kills him and then gives a monologue on her reasoning that is equal parts comical and chilling:

"I'm sorry. Recently, I made a promise to myself that the next time I got a boyfriend, I'd be on the lookout for red flags. And if I saw any, I would do the healthy thing, and I would murder him. And killing kids? Kind of a red flag. I know. I know. I know what you're trying to say. Harley why not just leave? And I'd say, Why are you screaming at me? I'm not deaf. I'm standing right here! And then I'd say, When your taste in men is as bad as mine, they don't just go away quietly. They slash your tires, and they kill your dogs, and tell you that the music you like ain't real music at all. And all the cruelty tears you apart after a while."

"All that cruelty tears you apart after a while" ripped through me, laying bare one of the most uncomfortable truths about being a domestic abuse survivor: it will break you down and make you numb, and before you know it you're just a dancing doll. 

The ultimate Harley Quinn

Harley Quinn started her life as an animated character, so it makes sense that the best incarnation of her to date is also animated. On HBO Max's animated "Harley Quinn" series, she's voiced by Kaley Cuoco and given the kind of character development she's always deserved. The show's Harley is still quirky and violent, with a penchant for smashing first and asking questions later, but she's not just some manic pixie dream girl, nor is she someone's faithful servant. The first season follows a break-up arc after she and the Joker (Alan Tudyk) call it quits for good, and fans have spent three seasons watching her grow into her own person. "Harley Quinn" is funny and crass and has some absolutely bonkers moments, but it's also one of the best damn love stories ever told about someone recovering from abuse. 

I never expected to get emotionally invested in a cartoon series about a character who used to grate my nerves, but "Harley Quinn" got under my skin and into my heart. Harley stumbles and makes mistakes as she learns how to stand on her own two feet, and it's refreshing to see a picture of healing that's not perfect. Harley is a psychiatrist, after all, and knows a thing or two about healing from trauma that she's just never applied to herself. Her journey is messy, just like real-life recovery from abuse, and it's written with a lot of care. 

The power of love

In season 2 of "Harley Quinn," she starts hooking up with her best friend, Poison Ivy (Lake Bell). It's a whirlwind romance that's both helped and complicated by their deep friendship, and there are moments where they veer toward being toxic and co-dependent. Season 3 explores their new relationship in depth, and ends with them having an earnest heart-to-heart about what they want for themselves and each other. Their relationship is one of the healthiest, sweetest romances in television history, as the two support one another and encourage growth as individuals. They also recognize Harley's trauma and discuss it, and other characters comment when Harley slips into old behaviors to try and appease people, a common survivor habit. 

Harley and Ivy's talk sounded like ones I've had with my husband, who was my best friend for years before we dated and helped me out of an abusive relationship. The comments from friends reminded me of ones I heard my own friends make, frustrated that I couldn't see through the fog of abuse yet myself. Representation is hugely validating for a number of reasons, but this struck me. The nitty gritty of trauma and how we go on afterward is usually relegated to much more serious fare, but Harley's arc on "Harley Quinn" was the closest to my own and felt the most genuine. 

I spent years of my life identifying with the final girls of horror films or various antiheroes whose trauma turned them into monsters, but Harley's healing journey from villain's sidekick to actual hero has opened my eyes to a much more hopeful third option. Dr. Quinzel would be proud.