Considering they’re both crazy, it’s really no surprise that Harley Quinn and the Joker have a seriously messed up relationship. Suicide Squad offers a glimpse: Harley (played by Margot Robbie) hurts herself for The Joker (Jared Leto), and he murders for her. But compared to how their love story originated—in comic books, a TV show and video games—their film romance is rather tame. Theirs is a twisted story of domestic abuse.
It’s no wonder, then, that Harley has become such a controversial character in popular culture. Some have embraced her as an icon of feminism—a villainess as crazed and violent as male villains. But others argue she’s just the Joker’s plaything, especially after her costume change. On television, in the comics, in videogames and now on film she’s embodied both of these roles. Here’s how the character evolved.
Batman: The Animated Series
Harley Quinn (and her thick Brooklyn accent) was first introduced in what was supposed to be a one-episode cameo on Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. Quinn was the only female member of The Joker’s entourage and had a not-so-secret crush on her lunatic boss. Her feelings remained unrequited, however, since the artists did not want to make The Joker sympathetic by giving him a girlfriend.
Still Quinn, who wore a tight-fitting but full-coverage harlequin bodysuit, wasn’t just eye candy: She could always fight with the boys. In the climax of the episode, she tried to distract Batman by saying, “I know, you’re thinking, ‘What a shame! A poor, innocent, little thing like her, led astray by bad companions!’” before grabbing a knife and trying to kill him.
The character clicked with audiences, and she soon became a mainstay in the series, albeit a problematic one. The Joker was abusive toward lovelorn Quinn: hitting her or throwing her out of buildings, all while playing sadistic mind games with her. The series clearly depicted the patterns of domestic violence: He beat her and cast her out before wooing her back. At one point she explained, “Don’t get me wrong, my Puddin’s a little rough, but he loves me, really.”
That’s not to say she didn’t stand up for herself: In one episode, shocked that The Joker would abandon her for a mission to blow up Gotham, Quinn aimed a machine gun at him. He taunted her, “You don’t have the guts,” at which point she pulled the trigger. It turned out the the gun is only loaded with a sign reading, “Rat tat tat,” but her willingness to kill her abuser, apparently was a turn on for The Joker, and the two reunited.
Batman Adventures: Mad Love
In 1994, Batman: The Animated Series creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm wrote a comic that revealed how Quinn became The Joker’s girlfriend. (The comic won the Eisner Award, the most prestigious award in comic-dom.) In it, a psychiatrist named Dr. Harleen Quinzel joined the staff at Arkham Asylum with the plan to one day write a tell-all book about her experiences. The Joker, charmed by the fact that her name sounds like “harlequin,” sends her flowers and offers to tell her secrets about his childhood. The villain describes being abused by his father, and the doctor eventually falls for her patient’s sob-story, though Batman later reveals to Quinn that The Joker tells many fabricated stories to gain sympathy.
After many sessions with Dr. Quinzel, The Joker escapes the asylum but is caught by Batman. Dr. Quinzel, now head-over-heels for The Joker, transforms herself into a clown-like villain and breaks The Joker out of prison. Harley Quinn was born.
The rest of the comic shows Quinn plotting to kill Batman with the hope that if the Dark Knight is out of the picture, The Joker wwill stop obsessing over the vigilante and pay more attention to her.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Quinn has evolved since the 1990s in both look and demeanor. The biggest change came in 2009 with the hugely popular video game Batman: Arkham Asylum, where she traded in her red and black full-body suit for a much more revealing corset and blonde pigtails. Her original comic book creators told the New York Times that they weren’t a fan of her new, vampy look, but for better or worse the video game introduced Harley to a larger audience.
The story of her relationship with the Joker also got darker. In the game, she clearly has lost her sanity and has no hope of escape from the abuse. In one line, The Joker says to Batman, “You had to spoil everything: beating up Bane, feeding Scarecrow to Croc, slapping around Harley—my hobby, by the way.”
Suicide Squad and Harley Quinn Comics
Quinn’s new video game look inspired the rebooted character in the comic book in 2011 and again in 2013. In 2011’s Suicide Squad comic series, Harley Quinn got a new, expanded origin story in which The Joker tosses the psychiatrist, struggling against him, into a vat of acid, which dyed her skin white and also made her insane. Later, believing her villainous lover dead, she joins the Suicide Squad and starts up a relationship with Deadshot. (So if you sensed romantic tension in the movie, that’s not just Focus residue.)
But even if the new version of Quinn was sexier, she also proved more powerful and independent. In 2013 she got her own comic, a life away from The Joker on Coney Island and her own adventures (though that comic too has been embroiled in its own controversy). Sometimes she joins forces with Poison Ivy, her sometimes lover as confirmed by current writers of the Harley series Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner on the DC Comics Twitter account. “Yes, they are Girlfriends without the jealousy of monogamy,” they tweeted. It’s notable that back in the Batman Animated Series, Poison Ivy always criticized Quinn’s relationship with the “wacko” Joker.
The movie version of the Harley-Joker relationship combines aspects of the TV show, the old comics and the new comics. Her look is inspired by the video game, her origin story an amalgamation of the Mad Love and the acid vat version: In the movie, she voluntarily dives into the acid to prove her love. She dreams of having children with The Joker (albeit in an alternate universe where they’re both normal suburbanites) as she did in Mad Love. And thankfully in the movie she’s a more modern woman, independent psychopath than sidekick.
The movie’s Quinn also walks the fine line between dependent and independent. While Quinn is as talented at murdering people as her male counterparts, she also is constantly waiting for The Joker to break her out of captivity. And sometimes, the Joker uses her as a pawn in his games, like when he offers her up to a villain played by Common before killing him for lusting after Quinn.
Still, director David Ayers thankfully refrained from showing The Joker physically abuse Quinn onscreen and allowed the Margot Robbie character to shine brighter (and get more minutes) onscreen than her boyfriend.