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Joker/ Harley: Dominant/Submissive?

September 16, 2017


Constantly searching for something to plug into my for the morning commute, I came across The School of Movies podcast and it’s episode on Suicide Squad (kudos to the community over at Birth. Movies. Death. for that recommendation). Now whilst I listened mostly for the thrill of people slagging off that poorly edited mess of a film, one argument, as someone with a vested interest in the world of BDSM could find #problematic was raised; namely that the film portrays the relationship of Harley Quinn and the Joker as one of a ‘loving’ (even if deeply troubled) D/s relationship, coded in Hollywood’s usual manner*.

Now whilst I’m more likely to follow Folding Ideas theory on Man of Steel when it comes to Suicide Squad, (tdlr: the film in all cuts released is so fundamentally fucked on the thematic and structural level that you could read anything into the film and probably be right) I none-the-less decided to dive on into the internet to see if anyone else had picked up on this particular reading.

I’m not one to dismiss an interesting interpretation outright and (as Suicide Squad is more interesting to think about than actually watch) if a year on I had a chance to get some sort of interesting reading from a garbage fire of a film, I was willing to take a chance to see if it wasn’t anything more than a desperate attempt by one critic to try and salvage some sort of meaning from that film**.

Now, the most significant of the posts I found about the argument was written on the Posthuman Being blog, and it raises some very interesting points that dive a little deeper than the generic fetish imagery that is Harley Quinn’s look in the DCU post the Arkham games. It goes into depth on how Harley’s journey through the film is less a poorly edited mess and more David Ayer reinterpretation the Harley/Joker relationship as an extreme ‘out’ BDSM relationship, with Harley being more “Warrior Submissive”, than a brainwashed abuse victim.

This interpretation is hard to parse, especially when viewed through close to 20 years of media that tells us that the Harley/Joker relationship is anything BUT healthy and that the Joker is a sociopath, using Harley’s blind love of him for his own goals and discarding her when he tires of her***. But if we’re going to be fair to the interpretation presented in Suicide Squad, we have to try and ignore all that has gone before and consider the film on its own merits.

The main argument against the this intepretation is that the blog does resort to focusing on some signifiers that are taken out of context of these scenes they are in. He mentions that Harley is escorted around prison in a ball gag, not explaining the wider context that those scenes show her being tortured (force fed through a tube up her nose) in a clearly not consenting way.

The author does present a rather convincing narrative of the D/s relationship through the flashbacks of the film where we see how Harley was ‘created’ by the Joker. My theory is rather, she creates herself a persona to fit a man she loves. The biggest clue to this is the scene (also, missed out on the Posthuman Being piece) where the rest of the Squad find Harley in the streets, crying after the Joker’s “death”.

The squad sees Harley with no pretences of the Harley Quinn persona and instead seems to be Dr. Quinzel again, overtaken with grief at her loss. We see her compose herself when she is spotted by the group, slowly taking on the mannerisms and ticks of ‘Harley Quinn’.

This suggests heavily that the ‘Harley Quinn’ we see in the film is nothing more than fiction. Rather than ‘Joker’s mad gal’ as she like to portray herself to others, she is a fully sane adult making the decision to create a persona that pleases the man who she so loves (who Joker in return seems to alternatively treat as nothing more than an object to possess and someone he obsessively needs throughout the film). This may mirror is some ways how some subs choose to weld themselves to the personality of a more confident Dom and mould their personality to suit theirs, which would suit PBB’s theory. But it sure isn’t fucking healthy.

In the same way, the scene where the Joker saves Harley from the chemical vat that birthed him after she throws herself in at his insistence. A sociopath (which the Joker is established to be in the film) showing minor remorse doesn’t make his actions suddenly healthy. It makes them a blip on the radar of every bad thing he has done to her, knowing she’s do it because she’s dependant upon him.

That within certain parts of the BDSM community, that there is this feeling that to do BDSM properly one must give yourself wholly over to the life, may work fine for some (and far too coincidentally for my liking usually fits within a traditional patriarchal/Gor bullshit structure very well), but it’s not the only way to do things. As I’m British, I like to know who is doing the dishes and picking up kids from school when the rope and whips are put away. A 24/7 BDSM lifestyle seems rather counter to how life works in general, unless of course, we go back to ‘traditional values’, or the people involved are independently wealthy enough where the idea of having to fit in a bit of slap and tickle around the drudgery of everyday life isn’t an issue.

Portraying something like the Joker/Harley as some sort of healthy really doesn’t reflect well on the average BDSM relationship and interpreting their relationship as healthy to boot, well that’s just bizarre to me. Perhaps it’s allowing several people to indulge in a fantasy of what BDSM could be like for them, in which case you will get no judgement from me. Fantasy is an essential part of a healthy sex life – it helps us explore our desires and figure out what it is we want from a partner. But that what is clearly at best, a co-dependent relationship and at worst just abuse, could be seen as aspirational, again…I can’t wrap my head around it.
BDSM is, in part, undergoing a sort of mainstream acceptance akin to videogames in the early 90s, where the community had to sweep some of the more unsavoury aspects of itself under the rug to present a united to front to the ‘norms’ who were happy to put sanction on it. It can get that. Even if, in videogames case, that attitude has resulted in the festering wound in the community that is still lurking around post-Gamergate in the form of the newly minted “Alt-right”.
With BDSM, stories abound of abuse of both subs and Doms if you just scratch below the surface. Even muddying the waters in such a mainstream movie and holding up the relationship of Joker/Harley in the Suicide Squad as even remotely healthy and something to aspire to, well I can’t understand that. And I’m not sure it’s the right interpretation either. BDSM is not wrong. It is not unhealthy or abusive where all participants are fully aware of what they are getting themselves into and accept it with consent.
But the Joker/Harley relationship is abuse. Even if we have shitty editing in a film to cover up just how abusive it is.

*Something done by directors in films when they want to get ‘adult’ subject matter under the radar of review boards who may otherwise slap a much higher rating on the film if those themes were more brazenly a part of it.
**Quite why I’ve wanted to do this is anyone guess, but then perhaps my brain just wants to justify to itself quite why it put itself through such a waste of time and is engaged in some sort of overarching Sisyphean Cost/Benefit analysis of the DC Cinematic Universe.
***Which makes me wonder quite why a rabid cult has arisen (especially in the BDSM community) that believes this portrayal is a healthy relationship. It’s really not, though perhaps that speaks the wider view of how society views relationships on an unconscious level.

From → Life, Writing

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