In “Suicide Squad,” Harley Quinn and The Joker's Relationship Isn't Love—It's Abuse

This review includes plot details for Suicide Squad. You’ve been warned!

There are many things one must consider when chasing down exactly what makes Suicide Squad a Bad Movie. Written and directed by David Ayer, DC Comics’ latest addition to their burgeoning cinematic universe fails in several rather spectacular ways: its characters are a mess of cliches and racial stereotypes; its dialogue sounds like how a suburban dad thinks people of color talk; its soundtrack is a relentless barrage of distracting rock hits that refuses to let any given scene exist on its own merits. But most of all, the film displays the most insidious type of misogyny—the kind that thinks it’s actually feminist.

While Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice blended every sexist trope Zack Snyder, Chris Terrio, and David Goyer could think of like some kind of antiwoman Cuisinart, Suicide Squad appears to be different. It has a veneer of gender equality—if you don’t squint too hard.

Viola Davis in Suicide Squad.

Government intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) recruits a team of villains to do dangerous work that regular soldiers can’t pull off. They’re under the command of Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), whose girlfriend, Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne), has been possessed by the dark witch-goddess Enchantress and is currently wreaking havoc on Midway City. Davis is perfect in the role of the hard-nosed agent, and it’s her incredible strength of will and cunning ideas (she implants a bomb in the neck of each Suicide Squad member to be detonated if they try to escape) that force the oddball team to work together. The film has lots of potentially great female characters, including Enchantress, who is more powerful than any other character in the DC Universe up to now; wild and fearless baddie Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie); and Katana (Karen Fukuhara), whose quest for revenge on the criminals who murdered her husband is by far the most compelling bit of characterization in the movie. There’s a lot of potential in all those characters, and there’s no reason any one of them couldn’t lead their own movie if they were given the right writers. And with their powers combined, they could make Suicide Squad into a feminist juggernaut, right?

Karen Fukuhara plays Suicide Squad member Katana.

But none of these admittedly badass female characters can detract from the casual air of misogyny that creeps into Ayer’s script like a cancer. There are so many gendered insults, I lost count—the omnipresent “bitch,” of course, makes up the bulk of them, with the odd “pussy” from Harley, who seems gleeful at the chance to question her teammates’ masculinity. Even Enchantress gets in on the “fun,” as the 6300-year-old spirit spits that Flag doesn’t “have the balls” to kill her. This isn’t feminism; it’s doubling down on the same old masc-over-femme cussing that’s been decried as casual misogyny for decades. As critic Jen Yamato writes, “There’s a fine line between subverting stereotypes and glorifying them, but in Suicide Squad writer-director David Ayer trips and stumbles all over said line.”  

Really, though, the insults are the film’s slightest transgression. Violence is an equal opportunity force here (Harley in particular is adept at both taking and dishing out a bludgeoning, as well she should be), but there are several moments of aggression toward women that made me cringe even as I was thrilled by the film’s many explosions and gunfights. Slipknot (Adam Beach) is introduced by punching a female guard in the face. “She had a mouth,” he smugly explains to the audience. No less nauseous is Deadshot’s (Will Smith) suggestion on how Flag can stop Enchantress’s plan: “That’s your girl, right? Go down there, smack her on the ass, and tell her to stop that shit.” That these are “bad guys” doesn’t soften any of these blows; the audience is meant to see them as hip antiheroes, unconcerned with gender roles even as they reinforce the subjugation of women.

Common, Jared Leto, and Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Harley’s relationship with the Joker (Jared Leto). I’ll resist the urge to go off on a tangent about Leto’s pathetic display of faux-psychosis; tempting as it is to detail exactly how dull Leto manages to be while trying his best to be edgy, he’s really only in the movie to provide context for Harley’s existence, and it’s Ayer’s interpretation of their dynamic that makes the movie fall short.

        Read This Next: The Antifeminism of “Dawn of Justice”
        Read This Next: Riot, Girl — Harley Quinn Will Finally Get Her Big Screen Debut

Comics fans have known for years that Harley and the Joker have a frighteningly abusive relationship—it’s been central to their characters since Harley was introduced in Batman: The Animated Series—but Ayer, in his desperation to posit Harley as a Strong Female Character who says things like “I can sleep where I want, when I want, with who I want,” attempts to establish Harley as a willing participant in her own abuse. His  understanding of emotional abuse is shockingly off-base. This is most telling in a flashback sequence in which we see Harley “voluntarily” jump into a vat of chemicals to show her devotion to the Joker. The fact that she was coerced into potential suicide is hurriedly swept into the corner when we see the Joker turn to walk away, only to shake his head, turn back, and swan dive into the chemicals himself. See, screams Ayer through his script, he does care!

This idea that the Joker’s devotion to Harley somehow mitigates his emotional and physical abuse is everywhere: when he “gives her away” laughingly to a man who casually objectified her, only to blow the offender’s brains out a moment later; when he lays stricken in a circle of knives after she’s taken to prison; when he elaborately tries to rescue her from the Squad repeatedly, endangering her in the process. We’re meant to root for Harley to escape the Squad, since we’re told that’s what she wants. When the Joker cheats death to return in the film’s epilogue and rescue her a second time, it’s played for a cute look-at-the-evil-lovebirds gag. Ayer delivers her into her abuser’s hands with a smile, setting up future Batfleck plotlines.

All this runs contrary to Suicide Squad’s Harley-centric marketing, which posited that Robbie’s version of the character would have agency. Whatever agency Harley possesses is on loan from the Joker and only exists as an excuse for the camera to linger on Robbie’s legs, ass, and chest at every opportunity. (Apparently, dreaming up two separate skin-baring costumes for Enchantress couldn’t slake the filmmakers’ lust.) The film subjects a woman to systematic abuse and objectification so men can shrug and say, “Well, I guess she likes it, so it’s okay.”

Angry antifeminist comics fans have already begun attacking feminist critiques of Suicide Squad, of course, alleging (as they are wont to do) that feminists hate sex and never want female characters in danger. But that’s a transparent oversimplification. Feminism means more than giving a woman a bat or a bomb. It means a commitment to empowering women to defy their tormentors, break the cycle of abuse, and lift up other women in turn, not simply to raise the glass ceiling a few feet. If the average nerd thinks Suicide Squad is what feminism in pop culture ought to be, they couldn’t be further from the truth.

        Read This Next: The Antifeminism of “Dawn of Justice”
        Read This Next: Riot, Girl — Harley Quinn Will Finally Get Her Big Screen Debut

by Samantha Riedel
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Samantha Riedel is a freelance writer and editor living in Massachusetts. A former editor at The Mary Sue, her work has also appeared on Them, The Establishment, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency, among others. Samantha subsists on a balanced diet of estrogen, pro wrestling, and comic books. Prolonged contact may cause irritation. Follow her on Twitter @SamusMcQueen.

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7 Comments Have Been Posted


I think it's unfair to expect this movie to be feminist in anyway. Harley is a very human and very flawed character that is in an abusive relationship. That is the constant story line with her and the Joker. You can't expect a film adaptation of the comic to display anything different. Like the comics, it does not glorify the abuse. It just presents it as is and leaves it to the audience to decide what to make of it.

Are you really that stupid

Are you really that stupid enough to believe that David Ayer was trying to "soften" the relationship between Harley Quinn and the Joker? Really? The relationship presented in the movie was a straight, textbook case of how abusive relationship works. Do yourself a favor and read up on the subject.

By the way, are you in the pay of Marvel and Disney? I noticed that you had nothing to say about the third Captain America movie.


Thank you!! ^ they aren't supposed to adapt and change the characters so you won't be offended. They are supposed to portray them the way they are portrayed in the comics. It is obvious to EVERYONE when someone is being sexist, yes we saw when he said she "had a mouth." It is obvious to everyone that the joker and Harley have an abusive relationship, just like it was apparent in the comics; he chained her up and tortured her next to all of his old partners for Christ's sake. Harley has Stockholm's syndrome. One of her many disorders is literally sympathizing with her captor. It was the writer's job to lay their relationship out on the table, and to let the audience take what they would from it. Most people chose to sympathize with Harley, including myself because I was in an abusive relationship and I know how it feels to want them to love you like you do them. You aren't supposed to root for Harley and the joker to escape together, you're supposed to understand why she wants to go so bad. Because she has a DISORDER. Educate yourself on subjects before you spew this bullshit that gives feminists a bad name. We do not have to be offended by everything.

Suicide Squad

Thank you for your review of this film. I won't be going to see it anytime soon!

It's kind of pathetic that

It's kind of pathetic that this lackluster, rah rah feminist review about fictional people is enough to make you not want to see a movie. Women like you make me ashamed to be the same gender.

You've been warned!

That's right people the trailers weren't lying: they're the worst of the worst - they're the politically incorrect...

Romanticizing Abuse

I think the sickest part about the movie is the FEMALE joker and Harley shipper fans that have been mass produced by it. Although the type of abuse I experienced was childhood and not dating, I find it disgusting that so many "girls actually love seeing joker torment Harley to the point where they will look up scenes of it on YouTube and watch it over and over. For me it's not about a fight for femnism but more about fighting against the romanticizing of abuse in media. And media just loves to find lonely heart girls to target. They desire a relationship so much that they end up feeling satisfaction from watching couples abuse each other because media passes it off as "love". Media says abusers hurt you and only you, possess you and isolate you from the rest of the world because they "want" you. I could go on but I'm making myself sick just thinking about it and what I will have to fight against in the future as an abuse counselor. Thank you very much for writing this much needed article.

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