The figure of Harley Quinn is one that we are all familiar with. The pink and blue dip-dyed hair, the heart on the cheek, the formidable baseball bat. Of course her superhero martial arts moves and iconic fashion make her a widespread cultural icon, not to mention having inspired hundreds of Halloween costumes around the world.
But Harley Quinn was fairly unknown to the wider world until the release of Suicide Squad. Why, then, has she suddenly taken hold as an iconic figure on a level that no female superhero has before? She lacks Wonder Woman’s moral compass, Cat Woman’s slinky attitude, and Black Widow’s frightening air of general power. Harley is fickle, devoted to a psychopath, mentally troubled, and deeply flawed. And that is in fact why we love her.
The superhero genre has taken a huge shift in recent years, from the promotion of the morally pure hero (Superman being the prime example) to exploration of the notion of heroism and what an individual has to sacrifice for the so-called ‘greater good’ (we are looking at you, Batman), to complete rejection of the hero stereotype and creating a villain-hero hybrid, the anti-hero. The hero with flaws, with problems. No doubt Harley Quinn fits into this last category. This enables the audience to relate to her on a level that they cannot reach with other superheroes. But Harley’s story is unique. Firstly a reputable psychiatrist, The Joker (her psychopath patient) essentially manipulated her into believing that he loved her. Her mental state gradually deteriorated as a result until we see her in Suicide Squad as almost equally psychotic. This is arguably a great tragedy.
It is this unrequited devotion that so many audiences can relate to. It is not only a sense of pity we feel for Harley and how she simply cannot see that the Joker doesn’t love her, it is also that one some level we empathise with her, we feel her feelings and we see that even a badass martial arts darling can fall victim to them. However, her ability to overcome this and use it to her advantage with her manipulation skills is admirable. In this way she possibly conforms to the new genre of superhero in a new way, embracing a more feminist look at the traditional hero in the face of sexism.
She is also humorous. You just need to watch the trailer to see some of Harley’s funniest moments; she is expertly played by Margot Robbie who keeps the humour and toughness, but weaves in a twinge of naivety and pitiable qualities. She also retains Harley’s childish immaturity, of course helping teens relate to her. This well-managed combination makes Harley entertaining, easy to relate to and admired for her daredevil antics.
Her iconic look is the icing on the cake. In this an age so focussed on image as a form of self expression, Robbie manages to look good in the costume, initially attracting audiences. But the costume choice is also more interesting than your average superhero costume. It screams bad-to-the-bone in a way that is accessible (particularly with the trendy bomber jacket). The two-tone hair retains her clownish essence but seems to make it more youthful, more innocent, more child-like. This of course adds to our impression of her character. Not to mention the dip dye and fishnets are screaming out to cosplayers wanting to look edgy and exciting at the same time.