Harley and Me

I just got back from seeing Suicide Squad, and boy are my arms tired!


HERE BE SPOILERS. Also, for the sake of this exegesis, just take as a given that Jared Leto annoyed me greatly.

It’s canon in the DC universe that the Joker is exquisitely bad to Harley Quinn, and that she loves him obsessively, rarely even acknowledging his flaws. He is abusive towards her, and she takes it.

This movie is extremely interested in changing that narrative, while trying to maintain her baseline victimization as a get out of jail free card (ironically enough) for dealing with her willingness and enthusiasm for doing bad things. They want her and the Joker to be soulmates that lift each other up and inspire, while bringing them ever closer to perfect harmony with their own weird divine. She seems to be the exception to his nastiness. His obsession with her humanizes him. An obsession, by the way, that we all share from basically the minute we see her onscreen.

They are presented as a unit. Twinned, in a way, with the “bad guys” Enchantress and her giant gold maguffin of a brother. In this universe, Harley supposedly outstrips the Joker himself in terms of being reckless, opportunistic, showy, sociopathic, violent, and just plain uninterested in consequences. We SEE that. It’s glorious and kinky and consensually disturbing. (Scene in the strip club that will haunt my forevers.) We see, furthermore, the honest-to-god BATMAN so enthralled by her that instead of looking for his arch-nemesis to, I don’t know, make sure he’s dead or something, he drags her out of a river and gives her mouth-to-mouth. (During this process she tries to kill him twice and then snogs him when he tries to give her CPR.)

This positioning of Harley as the Joker’s redemption, as his soulmate, the one being he cares about more than himself, doesn’t quite work. Not completely. Because he created her.

We see him manipulating her in Arkham, then his minions tie her down and he electroshocks her, and then she jumps into a vat of chemicals after he’s basically taunted her into it, and THEN he jumps in after her. Her origin story is one of tremendous abuse and manipulation on his part. She is supposed to be a good woman turned bad, but also… unlocked, somehow. Comfortable being the ultimate gangster’s moll, wanting to be married and living in a beautiful house with two babies and the Joker, only he’s not Jokerfied. This part actually works, I think. She, like the rest of them, understands that what she wants is out of her reach. But in context of how we’re led to believe that he corrupted her utterly, it’s sinister. If they were willing to change her origin a little, they could have changed it a lot.

She really seems to like herself quite a bit. Everything she does and is functions as a performance for her own benefit. She spends a lot of the movie wearing a collar that says “Puddin” and a jacket that says “Property of Joker” across the back. When he dies, she’s heartbroken and throws the collar away in a moment of rain-soaked independence. But when he’s back, she’s elated. I question, by the way, whether that collar is usually worn by her or him. Their relationship in this movie contains a shadow relationship that relies on Harley’s fundamental right to her own psychopathy. No, I’m not kidding. There’s something actually subversive going on, but it never explodes into full, weird life.

In a movie about the bad guys, you really have to commit. And the people who wrote and directed and framed this movie do, they almost do. The film ends with a shot of Joker’s face, not Harley’s. He breaks in to one of the highest-security facilities in the US to get her, out from under Amanda Waller’s nose. You would, too. Don’t lie to me.

But in the end, left to her own devices, I think Harley’s just too scary for them.

Oh. And yeah, I liked the movie.

I am a woman.

I started writing a post about an hour ago. I had eleven hundred words before I knew it, and they were some of the angriest words I have ever put to page. Writing about nerd male privilege and being a “geek girl” just after seeing Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is perhaps not the most effective recipe for a balanced response to my subject. I am an angry person, it turns out, but after a first very ranty draft about the dregs of behavior geek girls have to put up with, I took a step back and established what I am truly angry about, in my little corner of the big and angering subject, “Women in fiction and its environs.” What I’m most angry about is the stories. Angry about the way women are treated in the stories I love. I should know. I am a woman.

I am betrayed by the stories I love. Betrayed, belittled, ignored, used, punished, raped, tortured, and killed. I have little clothing, and less agency. I am a plot device, a cliche, as much a part of the hero’s journey as the Totem or the Mentor, and about as well-rounded. I have worn many names and many outfits, my hair has been raven, fiery, chestnut, and golden. I have been femme fatale, ingenue, princess, whore, with and without the heart of gold. I am reviled when I am strong, I am ridiculed when I am weak. I am a woman.

I am betrayed, too, by the world I inhabit in my life outside of stories. The world of geeks and nerds, the world of swords and sorcery, ships and starships. The realms of fantasy, science and fiction are still a boy’s club, though it gets better. Oh, how it gets better too slowly for me. I was raised on Batman and Star Trek, a legacy that brings me joy to this day, this very minute of writing. But there are shadows in the corners of my eyes, monsters in the alleys of the City of Invention that I love. For I am not striding down the streets, chest thrown back, my chin raised. My hand is not on the hilt of my sword, no challenge to all comers is present in my eyes. I am a woman. I am in danger here.

My presence as protagonist is bewildering to the men around me. As a woman who loves what they love, I am a woman, who loves what they love. I have no right of my own to their inheritance. I am a victim of my genetics. I am here on sufferance. It took Star Trek three separate series and nearly seventeen seasons on the air before someone had the guts to write a female captain. Janeway is the most reviled of the Star Trek captains, for reasons that in other series made Picard and Kirk heroes. She, on being born a woman.

My opinions in the outside world are suspect and apparently easily shot down. I am accused of minding the shocking objectification of women in games, movies, and TV shows just because I’m a girl, as if there is a whole class of problem I just wouldn’t have to bother about, if I were not female. That, in fact, my concerns and questions about the role and treatment of women in geek media are so much noise to be listened to with a long-suffering expression and an uncomfortable shift of the shoulders. As if to say, “I know this is wrong, but I don’t want to have to stop loving what I love…” I understand you, you know. I understand all too well. I am a woman.

My love of so many stories is a double-edged sword. They mean the world to me, and yet I am forgotten. Tintin, Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes, they are nearly bereft of women. As if there is only, or ever could be, one woman. “The” woman. Is it any wonder women are at each other’s throats, when the wisdom of stories tells us there is only room for one of us? In rich and vibrant worlds, expansive enough to hold dragons and magic rings, or spaceships that soar through the air, technology as if by magic, there is no room for more than two or three female characters?

I exist on the edges, in the subtext, and behind the scenes. I am a cackling crone when I work magic, an untrustworthy minx when I am clever. Perhaps I am unbalanced, insane, a slave to my urges and emotions, like Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Harlequin. Perhaps I am Lady Macbeth, forever washing my hands of the sin of ambition, rotting in the dungeon of public opinion with Cersei Lannister. Or Desdemona, proven trustworthy too late, as death is the punishment for even the imagined indiscretions.

I write, and I read, and I try so very hard to be brave when I come to my keyboard. Brave enough to write complex, capable people. Brave enough to say that a character can be a woman and not spend the entire book being a woman. That she, like her male counterparts, can simply be who she is. Brave enough to define a woman by what she does and says, rather than by how other characters perceive her. Brave enough to make her more human than a Disney Princess with a dark past. But it is a frightening place in the City of Invention. I must be special, but not too much. I must be likable, but “strong.” To survive, to have any hope of surviving, I must make men want me, and women want to be me. But not too much, or else I will be accused of being a fantasy. I have news for you. All of this is a fantasy.

I walk through the streets of the City of Invention with my chest out, and it does not matter what size or shape that chest is. My chin is raised, and there is a challenge in my eyes to all comers. Try and stop me. Try and distract me. Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will resurrect me. We must fight this fight until we win. We who claim to represent truth more fully than life itself.

I am a woman. This is my story, still untold, though such things get better. Oh, but they get better too slowly for me.

Gratuitous Ranting

I try not to spend my time frothing at the mouth about things that are completely beyond my control and utterly predictable. However, the stars aligned this week, and so I bring to you a rant about gratuity.

I saw a screenshot or two of Catwoman, from the new Arkham City Batman game. Now, I try not to let the objectification of women in video games get to me. Really. I promise I don’t. I understand that fundamentally, video games are largely made by little boys for little boys, except I honestly never saw a 6-year-old actually care about OMGBOOBIES when he wasn’t explicitly told to by other media, so let’s find something else to call them. Immature men, how about that? That about covers it.

So, to rephrase: I understand that, fundamentally, video games are largely made by immature men for immature men, and these men live in a fantasy land where women look a certain way, i.e., like they’re from comic books. As stabby as this makes me, I understand. Somewhere along the line, tits-ass-legs became more important than storytelling or characterization or respect or anything. AWESOME. (Some might argue that this didn’t happen “along the line,” that it is just “the line.” To which I repeat: AWESOME.)

So, I saw these screenshots. And really? Really?! Even Catwoman looks shocked by how much skin she’s showing! Or maybe she’s just cold. Come the hell on. She’s a thief. She’s supposed to be sneaky. And that means not having her entire, lily-white chest exposed, glowing like a beacon in the darkness. Part of her appeal, too, is that she can be the sexiest thing on two (sometimes four) legs, and do it with her shirt on.

I know being overtly (sometimes ridiculously) sexualized is part of her character. But this Catwoman could have had her shirt skipped up another six inches and still had cleavage showing. No one would have complained. She would have been completely wank-worthy, I promise you. While we’re on the subject, her catsuit could have been zipped up completely and not damaged her sexiness one iota. After all, wasn’t this hot enough for you?

But, that isn’t how things work in Immature Game Designerland. More is always better there. More boobs, more skin, more legs. Also, as much of it should be naked as possible.

I know I’m not the target audience. After all, I’m a woman, and I have the brain cells left over after seeing that to question how practical and/or necessary all that skin showing is.The people who designed this character clearly didn’t think about that eventuality longer than it took to say, “ZOMG let’s make her shirt unzipped really far and then have her flip around and stretch OMGBOOBIES.”

I love the Batman universe, I had a great time with Arkham Asylum, and I love Catwoman. Being able to play her is going to be a blast in Arkham City. But seriously? To go so far into the realms of good character design and then unzip her catsuit so it looks like she’s leaping around on her way back from a mammogram?

Charming, really.