Since Suicide Squad came out, I have seen a lot of pictures of Joker and Harley or just blog posts talking about them and occasionally I will see #RelationshipGoals on the posts. People are saying that they want a Joker to their Harley, and I’m not going to lie, that worries me a little bit. I don’t care what people ship necessarily or what they write fanfic about, but it very much worries me when fans look at a canonically clearly abusive relationship and claim that they want a relationship like that. These relationships almost always involve men with female victims, which makes it very disturbing to me as a woman that so many people view such relationships as romantic. It makes me worry for people’s safety and reminds me how much we need feminism.
Trigger warning for abusive behavior and relationships below the jump.
Joker and Harley’s relationship is inherently abusive. That’s how their relationship is portrayed, and it is something that informs both their characters. Harley attempted to help the Joker when she was a psychiatrist, but the Joker tricked her and she ended up falling in love with him and becoming a villain. The Joker tells Harley fake sob stories to get her to view him as a misunderstood victim whom Batman is always hurting. After escaping Arkham and a particularly brutal beating from Batman, Harley snaps and dons her jester costume and breaks the Joker out. Harley leaves behind her life as a successful psychiatrist all because he manipulated her into believing he is actually a victim and that he is in love with her. The Joker never really cares for Harley but instead uses her to escape Arkham, at least initially. It’s true that the Joker in the comics does seem to care for Harley a little, but more in the way a child might for his toys. Joker views Harley as a possession; she is possibly his favorite toy, but she is still expendable—she is still just an object, a tool he uses at his whim. There have been some comics that imply the Joker might actually care for Harley, connecting him slightly more to his humanity, but usually when the Joker realizes this, he attempts to kill or harm Harley in some way because he doesn’t want to be normal. He doesn’t want to have feelings for Harley.
Harley, for her part, is less in love with the Joker and more obsessed with him and dependent on him. She shapes her whole identity around what he wants of her and who he wants her to be. She needs the Joker’s attention and affection to define who she is as a person. Harley does also gain a sense of freedom by being able to break away from society because of the Joker, but it’s in a very negative way. Plus, in many ways she trades society’s chains for the Joker’s—being with the Joker doesn’t help her be free; it just binds her to the Joker’s philosophy.
It seems unfair, however, to just pick on Harley and Joker and claim this is the first time we’ve seen fans declare a clearly abusive couple sweet and romantic when that is very clearly not the case. So let’s talk about another pairing that has been on my mind—Christine and the Phantom from The Phantom of the Opera. Christine and the Phantom are definitely a couple that fans tend to fawn over despite some of the more creepy elements in their relationship. First, there is the fact that the Phantom is much older than Christine, old enough to be her father. He watches her in the Opera House from the time she is a young child (at least in the movie version) and teaches her to sing beautifully, but he is also obsessed with Christine and, like the Joker, treats her like a possession that belongs to him. Once Christine physically meets the Phantom it becomes apparent that he has been grooming her in many ways to be his wife. He intends for her to stay with him and always be his. Christine for her part at first thinks the Phantom is an angel. Then, when she finally meets him, she is drawn in and enticed by him. However, soon Christine becomes frightened of the Phantom’s anger and possessiveness toward her. She wants to be with Raoul, but the Phantom in his jealousy almost kills him. He cares for Christine enough that he seems to feel bad for what he has done and lets Christine and Raoul go, but their relationship was primarily one of possessiveness, obsession, and child-grooming.
With a lot of these relationships I get the sense that people like them because there is an element of feeling like one is weird or misunderstood and wants to find someone who understands them. I get that. To an extent, it makes sense to me why people are attracted to relationships like this. Christine does understand the Phantom better than a lot of other people would, which is how she is able to save Raoul from him in the end. And if anyone could finally take out the Joker if they really wanted to, it’s Harley. She has been the person who has gotten closest to him and maybe even knows him better than Batman. On top of that, they seem to be very similar in their strangeness, and it appears like they serendipitously found someone like themselves. But with both couples, that is not the case. Both the Joker and the Phantom took women and shaped them into someone they wanted. Neither the Joker nor the Phantom get to know Christine or Harley as they are, and they certainly don’t care about their wants or desires. It’s never about two like-minded souls finding each other. That would be a story I could get behind, but instead it’s always about men manipulating and abusing women or ordering them around to get them to conform to what they want.
And this is one of the many reasons why we need feminism. The fact that so many people look at these relationships and think of them as relationship goals makes me worry that our society still doesn’t know what a healthy equal partnership between a man and a woman looks like. Furthermore, I worry that our culture has romanticized abuse in some ways. We have romanticized dominant male figures ordering women around “for their own good” or to “help them in some way”. But in reality, this is abuse. It’s fine to ship these couples for your own personal reasons, but please don’t pretend the actual canonical relationship is in any way healthy or good. It should never be anyone’s relationship goal.