Where did Harley Quinn come from? In this video, we take on the fascinating and colorful history that led up to the Margot Robbie super anti-heroine in Birds of Prey, and figure out why she matters for the future of female heroes.
In an industry that keeps churning out female superheroes who are beacons of strength, power, and love, Harley Quinn is the reigning antiheroine. The Birds of Prey star is manic and (for most of her history) hung up on a guy who’s bad news. But she’s also intriguingly full of contradictions, countering her toxic situation and disturbed psyche with an irrepressibly colorful outlook and a fun-loving girlishness.
Harley Quinn: “Isn’t this fun? It’s just like a sleepover. We should order pizza. Make cosmos.” - Birds of Prey (2020)
Ultimately it’s significant that (unlike with the seemingly perfect women we’re used to seeing onscreen) this character’s flaws and her particular brand of weirdness are key parts of why viewers are drawn to her. Reviewers have seen her as DC’s female equivalent to Deadpool for her R-rated irreverent playfulness.
Cassandra Cain: “You’re that psycho chick.”
Harley Quinn: “You never call a woman a chick. I’ll accept ‘broad’, ‘lady’, ‘woman’, and on occasion ‘bitch.’” - Birds of Prey (2020)
We can see big cultural shifts reflected in Harley’s evolution from throwaway character and neglected love interest to the protagonist of her own story, who rivals the Joker in terms of charisma, individuality, and box-office centrality.
Amanda Waller: “She’s crazier than him and more fearless.” - Suicide Squad (2016)
This is now shaping up to be the era of Harley: the animated series Harley Quinn premiered in November 2019 and the character is only the second woman in the DC franchise to get her own movie, DC co-publisher Jim Lee has called her “the fourth pillar in our publishing line, behind Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.”
So what does the rise of Harleywood say about our cultural moment? Here’s our take on the evolution of Harley Quinn and how her emancipation heralds a time where female heroes are free to be less than perfect.
Fool for Love: A History of Harley
Harley is the rare superhero movie character who didn’t originate on the pages of a comic book. Instead, she was introduced in the “Joker’s Favor” episode of Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. Paul Dini, then a freelance writer for the show, had been thinking about giving the Joker a henchwoman, and inspiration struck when he watched his friend Arleen Sorkin on Days of Our Lives playing a roller-skating jester in a fantasy sequence.
Sorkin was cast as the voice of Harley Quinn, who was (according to her co-creator Bruce Timm) “always intended to be a one-shot character in just one episode.” But the show quickly realized it had struck gold with Harley and brought her back several months later for the episode “The Laughing Fish,” after which she became a recurring presence as the Joker’s sidekick and girlfriend.
Harley’s character was informed by old-school gangster molls, actress Judy Holliday, and Sorkin herself. Her name is a clear play on “harlequin,” the archetype descended from Commedia dell’arte’s Arlecchino. The etymology of this name underlines that her first identity was as a female version of the Joker—she was another clown-like figure who brought chaotic energy, mischief, and glee to her destructive acts.
Meanwhile, the other side of Harley’s original identity—which lives on to this day—is that of the lover. This woman is defined by her undying devotion to her “Puddin”. And this capacity for empathy and affection is proof that at her core, she was never just the Joker in a woman’s body. 1994’s one-shot comic book Mad Love revealed her origin story: Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatry intern at Arkham Asylum who treated the Joker, fell hard for her patient. So we can glean that the Joker unleashes a passion in Harley, which was previously repressed under a buttoned-up, professional exterior. It’s her conviction that she can save this damaged, misunderstood bad boy that leads her to cross over to the dark side and become his partner in crime.
Harley’s redeeming quality—her sensitive, boundless heart—is also her undoing… because her Mad Love is directed towards the most unloveable person there is. Deep down, Harley dreams of domestic bliss. Sorkin has described how, to get into character on her way to do voice work on Batman, she would sing the Guys and Dolls song “Adelaide’s Lament,” about a woman bemoaning her man’s failure to walk her down the aisle. In 2016’s Suicide Squad when the Enchantress can see each person’s greatest desire, we learn that Harley wants nothing more than a traditional life as a wife and mom—even if she can’t admit this outright. Thus the tragedy of Harley is that she wants something she can never have, as the object of her affections simply isn’t capable of loving her back in a healthy way.
Harley Quinn: “My heart scares you and a gun doesn’t?” - Suicide Squad (2016)
In 1999’s Batman: Harley Quinn #1—her first canonical appearance in a DC universe comic book—the Joker is so unnerved by the feelings he’s developing for Harley that he actually tries to kill her. And most of the time, he’s hung up on someone else. But to acknowledge her boyfriend’s villainy would also mean accepting that he doesn’t reciprocate her love, so as long as she’s defined by her love for Joker, denial and self-deception must remain key facets of her psyche.
Harley Quinn: “Sure, my puddin’s a little temperamental. But, gee, what relationship doesn’t have its ups and downs?” - Batman Animated Series 02x10
Timm initially worried that giving the Joker a girlfriend would humanize him. But it actually had the opposite effect: because the hurt he inflicts on his loving girlfriend is so personal, the couple’s twisted relationship made him feel like an even more frightful, reprehensible villain. Harley’s and Joker’s dynamic has always been grisly- even from her start in Batman: The Animated Series, a show targeted at children.
The way the Joker manipulates this mental health professional also highlights his mastery of psychological violence… He fools Harley with crocodile tears over his supposed daddy issues and makes her feel special through flattery and revealing his secrets. He turns her into a devout disciple, unerringly faithful no matter how badly he treats her.
Thus Harley’s devotion foreshadowed this character’s power to inspire cult-like followers, which we’ve seen become central to the darkly charismatic, more mythical iterations of the figure, from the Dark Knight era on.
The full title of Harley’s new movie—Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)—underlines that this is the story of Harley becoming free. Most centrally, she’s extricated herself from the toxic relationship that’s long defined her. And this character who was basically designed to add dimension to a man now gets to tell her own story. Harley’s way of seeing the world comes through in the film’s visual language, which is far more vivid and colorful than the gritty Suicide Squad. (Incidentally, her love of color is fitting, given that one definition of the word “harlequin” is “fancifully varied in color”.
As the first DC heroine to get her own movie since Wonder Woman, Harley represents a new kind of strong female lead—one female viewers can see themselves in precisely because she’s not a Wonder Woman or a clear-cut role model. These days female superheroes are often most distinguished by their strength and strong moral code. But imperfect Harley reminds us of those male comic book characters who get to be complicated and a little morally ambiguous. In the words of Amanda Conner—co-writer of the Harley Quinn comic series—“Wonder Woman sort of represents perfection, whereas Harley represents everybody else”. Even her past obsession with a guy who doesn’t treat her well is something many viewers can relate to.
So this seriously flawed female protagonist is an important next step beyond a one-note “you go girl” mentality, and she might foreshadow a new movie era of super-antiheroines, as powerful as they are full of interesting faults. As Harley leans into life without her man, she could also become one of the (as yet) very few superhero characters who explore an alternative sexuality onscreen. After much fan speculation that there was more to Harley’s long-time friendship with Poison Ivy, in 2015 the DC Twitter account confirmed that they’re “Girlfriends” without monogamy. In the 2017 comic Harley Quinn #25, they shared a kiss. And star Margot Robbie has expressed hope for a Harley/Poison Ivy reunion in the DC Extended Universe.
Harley’s journey toward emancipation hasn’t followed a straight line, though, and not all changes have served her story for the better. After starting out with a chaste, full-body jester costume, she was reimagined in looks designed to show off a lot more skin. In the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game she debuted a more risqué, corset-ed costume, and in Suicide Squad she’s very overtly eroticized. Birds of Prey—while maintaining a loose continuity with Harley’s Suicide Squad aesthetic—develops a new version of her look which Robbie describes as “definitely less male gaze–y”.
Even if Birds of Prey is asserting its female point of view and walking back that ultra-seductive version of Harley, in these recent installments the character’s personality has also transformed into someone noticeably different from her original self. In the ‘90s animated series, she was characterized by compelling vulnerability and sensitivity; the show leaned into her contradictions and invited viewers to feel deeply for her. By contrast, the super-sexy, ever-playful woman-child she’s become is full of a carefree swagger that risks making her less relatable and taking some of the humanity out of her character.
Deadshot: “Why don’t you stop acting like a drunken stripper.” - Suicide Squad (2016)
Moreover, while most would obviously applaud Harley’s choice to exit her toxic relationship, her long-time inability to leave a man she clearly should have also captured a very real psychology that’s worth examining in a deep, layered narrative. According to Robbie, Harley may not truly be as over her Puddin’ as she appears. Robbie told Empire, “She’s trying to own it…It’s not clean and easy to be a strong woman. It’s so hard. She’s a bit more Courtney Love than Debbie Harry this time. She says, ‘I’m single, I don’t need him, fuck that guy.’ But if the Joker were to text her, ‘You up?’ she’d run. She’d fall to pieces.”
This portrait that Robbie’s words paint—of a woman acting like she’s impervious while a tempest of emotion rages underneath—is classic Harley at her core: a lover who’ll never stop feeling for the Joker, even if she walks away, and a vulnerable basket case who’s digging deep to summon that strong woman within.
Harley Quinn: “I’ll show you! You’ll be sorry! I’ll pull a big heist, and I’ll be laughing at you. Haha. You hear? Laughing… I miss him already.” - Batman Animated Series 01x47
Harley and the Girls
It’s not just our antiheroine moment being reflected here; Birds of Prey also dramatizes the emotions of the Me Too era. Director Cathy Yan said, “It’s about Harley as well as the other Birds coming into their own, recognizing that they are stronger together than they are apart.”
Harley Quinn: “We’re gonna have to work together.” - Birds of Prey (2020)
The girl-gang movie, which is also written and directed by women, focuses on Harley’s bond with other women as they team up to protect a young girl from Black Mask, the villain that actor Ewan McGregor describes as “a true misogynist”. So it’s as if, symbolically, Harley and her crew are fighting misogynism itself, and trying to prevent it from hurting future generations of girls.
Themes of female payback and making bad men answer for their sins are in the zeitgeist right now, as we can see in movies like Promising Young Woman (which, like Birds of Prey, has a sugary-sweet color palette and is produced by Robbie).
Yet even though Birds of Prey channels difficult emotional undercurrents of today’s climate, the result is anything but grim or gritty. The premise is executed with a cute, playful soul. And crucially, there’s something fundamentally feminine about the movie—it portrays the desire to team up with your girlfriends to bring down a bad guy, and (very importantly) have fun while you’re at it. This positivity is a big part of what fans have always loved about Harley herself. No matter how much pain life throws her way, her sweet, open spirit drives her to pick herself up and bounce back. And this resilient, optimistic outlook (echoed in the candy-colored glasses through which she views the world) is the most aspirational thing about her.
Harley has shifted between a variety of identities over the years: ambitious psychiatrist, smitten lover, abuse victim, emancipated woman… But there’s no need to limit her (or any other female character) to just one simple label. All of these iterations are still a part of her, forever informing who she is. This is underscored by scenes where her psychiatrist’s side unexpectedly resurfaces. Throughout this character’s evolution, a few key things have stayed the same: her wild free spirit, her vulnerability, and most of all, her big heart. That’s why, no matter how many times she stumbles, frustrates us, or makes the worst possible choice, we can’t help falling in love with Harley Quinn.