It’s not easy to get Harley Quinn right. Much of the character’s identity in television series, comics and video games, as well as in the 2016 Suicide Squad movie, revolved around her toxic beau, the Joker. Since she first appeared on Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, the psychiatrist-turned-Joker-sidekick has played a punching bag, a victim of abuse and a sex object to be ogled by her fellow baddies. None of these qualifies as a particularly empowering storyline, and depictions of her have faced even greater scrutiny in the #MeToo era.
This year’s Harley Quinn spinoff Birds of Prey: The Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn, starring and produced by Margot Robbie, nominally set the character free. The film begins with her breakup with the Joker and sets Harley on a path to forge her own identity in the Gotham criminal underworld. But Harley cycles through all the sexist breakup tropes—cutting her hair, adopting a pet for company, drinking herself into blackouts—and big action set pieces largely overshadow any nuanced discussion of her emotional scars. The Joker’s presence haunts the movie.
After Birds of Prey, it was difficult to envision a future for Harley Quinn that didn’t constantly reference her relationship with the Joker. Perhaps the character just carried too much baggage for anyone to do her justice on the big screen. And more plans are in the works to try: footage of The Suicide Squad (a soft reboot of Suicide Squad) was released during DC FanDome over the weekend, hinting at further attempts to evolve the beleaguered antihero.
Those of us who feel invested in her future should hope that director James Gunn takes a hint from a perhaps unlikely source: the sharp, animated Harley Quinn series. The show, which debuted on the DC Universe platform in 2019 and has run for two seasons, migrated to HBO Max this summer, allowing new audiences (and critics) to discover it for the first time. And it offers a master class in how to transform a female character with a tricky backstory into a compelling protagonist in her own right.
The show doesn’t shy away from Harley’s past. In the pilot episode, Joker uses Harley (voiced by Kaley Cuoco, who also produces the show) as a diversion to escape Batman and lets his girlfriend waste away in prison for a year despite promising to break her out. While there, Harley forges a friendship with Poison Ivy, voiced by Lake Bell channeling Daria’s sardonic tone. (In a genius plotting decision, Poison Ivy is less an actual villain than a superhuman labeled an “eco-terrorist” for taking extreme measures to try to save the planet.)
Ivy eventually proves to Harley that the Joker doesn’t love her—his true love, as any DC fan will already know, is Batman—and Harley begrudgingly crashes on Ivy’s vine-covered couch while she figures out her next steps. It’s a realistic portrayal of the support group that women need as they try to break free of an abusive relationship, and the friendship (and, eventually, possible romantic relationship) between the two women becomes the center of the show.
Harley is just as messy as ever: She’s a hellion determined to either earn a place in or destroy the boys’ club that is the Legion of Doom and leave plenty of collateral damage in her wake. But no longer playing second fiddle to the Joker, she gets to put a new spin on the sorts of adventures her male counterparts embarked on every week—like an ultra-violent villainess bachelorette party on Wonder Woman’s home island of Themyscira. And wisely, the show acknowledges that Harley has always been a passionate character in need of a partner in crime. It just swaps out an evil boyfriend for an empowering girlfriend.
Harley Quinn appears deeply aware of the tension between the studios’ efforts to respond to our current moment and present a more feminist characters and the small but loud subset of fans who want these fictional women to remain sidekicks and love interests. An early season 1 episode shows Dr. Psycho getting canceled after he calls Wonder Woman the c-word.
The show even takes a self-referential jab at DC’s own fans. In a hilarious, meta intro to a season 2 episode, two dudes sitting in their basement sporting “The Last Jedi Is Not Canon” and “Release the Syndercut” shirts (both references to very real, problematic fandoms online) complain the show is “another heavy-handed female empowerment story where the true villain is quote-unquote the patriarchy,” adding of Harley’s ability to fight back against the Joker, “I’m sorry, but ‘cucked’ isn’t a great color on the greatest villain of all time.”
The animated Harley Quinn series invites its viewers to contemplate and even critique the versions of Harley we’ve seen before. As a new fan of the show, it’s difficult not to scrutinize the footage of The Suicide Squad from DC FanDome. Gunn, who directed Guardians of the Galaxy, is putting his own spin on the franchise and the marketing, at least, is promoting Robbie’s Harley as the lead character.
There are some promising signs that Warner Bros. is evolving the character on the big screen as well as the small one. The Birds of Prey version of Harley got a more practical costume change. The Suicide Squad takes the evolution a step further. Harley gets to wear pants rather than just underwear in the new film. Her heeled sneakers appear to have been replaced by combat boots. Her “Property of the Joker” tattoo from the last film now reads “Property of No One.”
Harley Quinn’s evolution has been slow. Whether her new stewards take cues from Warner Bros.’ own television division (though HBO Max has, frustratingly, not yet renewed Harley Quinn for a third season) or from Robbie (who is a producer on the forthcoming Gotham City Sirens) or from critics who have pushed back against tired tropes, here’s hoping she’s finally getting her due.