What We Can Learn From Harley Quinn’s Dark Relationship With Joker

Drea Letamendi
TV Comics
TV Comics DC Animation

With Birds of Prey in theaters and putting Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) center stage, Fandom reached out to clinical psychologist Dr. Drea Letamendi to provide psychological profiles of a couple of the most notable versions of the fan favorite Batman foe.

Below, you’ll find an analysis of the original incarnation of Harley Quinn, who we first got to know in Batman: The Animated Series and its follow-up series, The New Batman Adventures. Be sure to also check out Dr. Drea’s profile on Margot Robbie’s version of Harley Quinn, as first seen in Suicide Squad.

The Original Harley

Among the many versions of Harley Quinn, the very first portrayal of the quirky character is the one that established her definitive psychological architecture: She is lively, boisterous, playful, irresistibly charming, and unmistakably bold. Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm in 1992 for Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS), Harley steals each scene she’s in with bouncing pigtails, double entendres, and conscious one-liners. Dressed in her jester-inspired black-and-red motley one-piece and a domino mask, Harley exudes the attitude of a carefree clown and the physical magnetism of a performer. She is sentimental, endearing, lighthearted. In the Animated Series, Harley floats on air.

But the allure exists beyond Harley’s distracting outfit and meltingly charismatic voice. This is the Harley we see being thrown through glass windows. This is the Harley who’s grabbed by her shoulders, throat, and floppy fool’s hat. This is the Harley seen in Batman’s reactive, widened eyes, while, off-screen, the Joker is beating her. This is the Harley who delivers a deadpan joke while her limp body twitches in a pile of garbage. This Harley. She’s invited us into a complicated but important dialogue through the fourth wall to consider safety and risk, boundaries and choice, freedom and ownership. She is the Harley who started out as a blonde spunky sidekick and eventually transformed into one of the most adored, championed, troublesome, and provocative comic book characters to transcend multiple forms of media.

“Just as Sane as Anybody”:
Arkham Asylum’s Revolving Door

Due to her recklessness and criminal antics, Harley Quinn finds herself detained in Arkham Asylum, the psychiatric facility for the “criminally insane,” about as often as Batman’s most devious rogues, villains like Two-Face, the Riddler, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and, of course, the Joker. In the episode “Harley’s Holiday,” she is released from her sentence due to the results of a decisive psychiatric evaluation. Her tests demonstrate that she is no longer a danger to the self or society. Harley is over the moon, showing off the not-so-realistic-but-to-the-point certificate that simply reads in large letters: “SANE.”

Although Arkham is more fiction than not (and more of a prison than a hospital), the scene of Harley being discharged offers a helpful perspective related to the involuntary commitment of individuals who present a danger to themselves or others due to signs of mental illness. Welfare and Institutions Codes differ across states (involuntary civil commitment is known as Section 5150 in California, for instance, and comprises a 72-hour hold), but Gotham City seems to have a similar law wherein a person with a mental illness can be involuntarily detained unless cleared by standardized, comprehensive testing. In more realistic and ethical situations, individuals are transported to hospitals and designated treatment units where the proper treatments are offered— in the majority of cases, criminal offenses rarely come into play and the person is not sent to jail.  In many ways, involuntary hospitalization may be helpful to the person placed on a hold – they might benefit from access to immediate care, physical safety for the self, and support from family members who can rally for them. Importantly, thorough assessment is also indicated, typically with the goal to better understand the patient’s medical and psychological needs in order to determine an aftercare plan.

Psychiatric holds do introduce challenges. Law enforcement is involved in about a quarter of psychiatric holds according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Often, it is a worried neighbor, family member, or citizen who calls the cops to respond to a person observed as erratic, distressing, or a potential harm to themselves; although this is a public service, the linkage between mental status and civil punishment is muddling. In Harley’s case, it is either Batman or law enforcement who takes her into custody. “I just want to live a normal life without the cops always pouncing on me,” she asserts, determined to prove she can play by the rules and not allow her impulsivity to cost her freedom again. Unluckily, it’s her muscle memory that gets Harley into trouble. While shopping in a high-end clothing store, she accidentally walks out the door with the security sensors attached. A uniformed officer attempts to stop her, and the moment he lunches at her to grab the garment, Harley becomes overwhelmed and downshifts back into the helpless feelings and sensations of a prisoner. Some moments later, she gives up her attempts to conform to the law, feeling censored and surveilled, watched and persecuted, finding it futile to work against a society that pathologizes her. “I’m sick of people trying to shoot me, run over me, and blow me up” she shouts, fully giving in to antisocial behaviors again. She defaults into her hostile and violent ways, earning a spot back in Arkham Asylum.

The challenges of Harley’s reintegration into society may be symbolic of a number of issues—financial, housing, and employment barriers come to mind. Often, people are expected to transition back into a “normal” routine without much help. For any of us recovering from a crisis, multiple resources are paramount. Interestingly, BTAS highlights the psychological barriers persons face after long-term or frequent hospitalizations. It is a powerful commentary about the treatment of individuals who have the willingness and commitment toward recovery and rehabilitation, especially if their mental health needs are elevated. In prisons, for instance, the prevalence of mental illness is three to six times higher than outside of these settings—and there are more mentally ill persons in jails than in hospitals, a result of the unstable mental health system and the criminalization—and stigmatization—of people trying to cope with severe mental illness. In many places, people like Harley go through the arrest-incarcerate-release-repeat revolving door while painfully suffering the symptoms of their illness.

Persons with severe mental illness and histories of incarceration manage better during community reentry with the involvement of what is called continuum of care – enrollment into less-restrictive “assisted outpatient treatments” that can give them access to programs that provide routine therapy, anger management courses, and a case manager. Research shows that assisted outpatient treatment can help persons with histories of mental illness and legal problems reduce their risks of homelessness, suicide attempts, and substance abuse. These programs also keep the public safer by reducing incidents involving physical harm to others and property destruction. For Harley, she may grow more disappointed with the system as well as lose faith in the concept that she is just as “sane as anybody” in her efforts to function outside the gates of Arkham Asylum.

Mad Love

As a psychology intern, Dr. Harleen Quinzel eagerly accepts one of the most challenging cases, one that will change her life forever. Considered “untreatable” by the administration at Arkham Asylum, the Joker is introduced to his new plaything within the context of a pre-existing power dynamic: patient and doctor. Immediately sensing her vulnerability—the self-doubt that exists within her as a new practitioner, the imposter syndrome of an early career therapist—the Joker leverages the young doctor’s ambition and compassion to draw closer to her.

Their connection starts with confusing feelings; the Joker associates negative and positive emotions in order to establish Dr. Quinzel’s dependency on him. During therapy sessions, he discloses stories about his abusive childhood and upbringing. He details a stinging memory of his father’s abuse. “There was only one time he was really happy,” the Joker explains, describing a day at the circus. “I remember the clowns, running around dropping their pants.” In an effort to get his father to laugh, the Joker continues, “the very next night, I ran out to meet him with his best Sunday pants around my ankles!” To illustrate his account, the Joker stands up slowly, approaches Dr. Quinzel, and unexpectedly releases his prison trousers. She is seated in a chair, mesmerized by everything he’s exposed psychologically, her face uncomfortably just a few feet from the front of his bright red heart-covered boxer briefs. “And then he broke my nose,” the Joker finishes, deadpan. This is a predatory tactic. He’s undressed himself without her consent, but makes it a part of a performance.  It’s shocking, but he plays it off as ordinary. Wrapped in a punchline, his violation of boundaries isn’t overtly threatening or offensive, but a line is blurred. Despite being the one holding freedom and authority, Dr. Quinzel is subjugated. Joker claims dominance in the room. He knows he is physically more powerful than she—and he uses this power to intimidate, humiliate and reduce her. It’s an animated show meant for all ages, and we won’t see more than his underwear, but the scene captures the tension necessary to be coded as sexual harassment.

There is an undercurrent of danger in the room with a clear message Harleen Quinzel isn’t unfamiliar with but it wounds nonetheless: your body is not entirely your own.

Meanwhile, the Joker’s seemingly vulnerable stories about his father’s abuse intentionally comingle humiliation with humor. Brutality with intimacy. Pain with pleasure. Inexplicably drawn to him, Harleen is pulled in. When she discovers that she could rescue the Joker from a system that continues to torture him, her alter-ego, Harley Quinn, is created. And it’s the Joker who gives Harley her name: “Rework Harleen Quinzel and you get Harley Quinn,” he suggests, excitedly. “It’s a name that puts a smile on my face,” he coos. “It makes me feel there’s someone here I can relate to… someone who might want to hear my secrets.” From there, the stormy romance of Harley Quinn and the Joker begins, escalates, and crashes like a wild roller coaster off its tracks.

Rough Play, Consent, and
The Myths of Relationship Violence

Perhaps due to its timing, aired alongside energetic and frenzied shows like Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs, BTAS employed liberal use of explosives, intentional violence and violence by mishap, often depicting the straightforward and honest suggestion of a long-term abusive relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn. Frequently delivered as slapstick, BTAS portrays romantic love in the form of combative arguments between a jester and a clown. Physical comedy is part of their repertoire. At times, scenes only imply physical altercations. For instance, when the Joker is driven senselessly mad on screen, the perspective will shift abruptly and we cut to a screaming Harley as her body catapults out of a back door and lands on the street. Other times, we see overt depictions of intimate partner abuse in the form of Joker grabbing, striking, kicking, choking, and flinging Harley to the ground. In one scene, the Joker uses a ridiculously massive swordfish to shove Harley out a window of a high rise building. She crashes through the glass windows and falls, in slow motion, several stories to the street. Though we do not see her land, the story cuts to an image of her limp body atop bags of trash and debris, twitching from injuries, blood dripping down her face. “My fault… I didn’t get the joke” she mumbles at us.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is one of the most common forms of violence against women and can include the use of physical, sexual, emotional abuse, and controlling behaviors by a romantic partner. IPV occurs in all settings and among all socioeconomic, religious, and cultural groups. Four types of IPV are recognized, which include 1) acts of physical reactions and violence (for instance, when Harley “messes up,” the Joker delivers punishment in the form of grabbing, slapping, and throwing her); 2) sexual violence and coercion (the Joker makes physical and verbal advances toward Harley without clear, renewed consent); 3) emotional abuse (the Joker shouts at Harley, calling her a disappointment, a failure, a dolt, and is therefore deserving of mistreatment); and 4) controlling behaviors (the Joker isolates Harley from others in her life such as Poison Ivy and even Batman, restricts her access to resources by throwing her out of their hideout location, and monitors/stalks her).

What if, at one point, Harley was genuinely interested in satisfying, rough-play with the Joker? Would the above definitions of intimate partner violence still apply? Is it her fault that the lines have become blurred? And when is it too late to say “no”? Consent is hugely important in making those determinations. All consensual intimate activities—including ones involving pain, humiliation, dominance, and control—are based on the ethical and safe principles that what partners do together is carried out through informed, voluntary agreement. Consent is therefore mutual and informed. When we give consent to engage in a power exchange in a relationship, then, we must do so freely, without being subjected to threats, fraud, coercion or deceit. Consent is also revocable. Anyone can revoke consent to anything at any time during or between intimate activities. Though there isn’t any evidence that Harley consented to an unbalanced power exchange with the Joker in the first place, she absolutely gives expressions and signs of withdrawal of consent.

Though a bit of masochist himself, Batman is perplexed by Harley’s relationship with the Joker. In the episode “Harlequinade,” the narrative offers a complicated idea, an unsettling paradigm in which Harley admits her willing participation in a toxic relationship. Batman offers her a moment to escape the situation by inviting her to team with him, just for a night. “What’s the attraction, Quinn?” he asks her, when they’re alone. “This sick infatuation with the Joker?” Harley is honest: “When I was a doctor I was always listening to other people’s problems. Then I met Mr. J, who listened to mefor a change and made everything fun.” But Batman pushes on. “You think it’s funny when he hurtspeople? I hope you’re still laughing when it’s your turn.”

True, Harley is savvy, resourceful, and independent. Why doesn’t she simply leave the Joker? A theory called the Cycle of Violence is often helpful in better understanding why Harley continues to choose a violent situation over a safe one. The Cycle of Violencetheory explains how and why the behavior of a person who commits domestic and family violence may change so dramatically over time –earning trust, renewing faith, and confusing their partner in a cyclical pattern. Notably, after the stages of escalation and explosion (peak violence), the partners enter a honeymoon phase during which both people in the relationship may be in denial as to how bad the abuse and violence really was. Often, the participants do not want the relationship to end, so are willing to ignore the possibility that the violence could occur again.

Though nearly all depictions of Harley and the Joker in BTAS show unhealthy interactions, seeing the whole array of power and control, and the highs and lows, from the context of a cycle allows us a window into real circumstances of dangerous partnerships. The episode “Harley and Ivy” addresses the risks of disrupting a toxic or abusive relationship abruptly. In an effort to help Harley leave the Joker, Poison Ivy brings Harley to her home and attempts to teach her a lifestyle about independence and self-sufficiency. It isn’t long before the Joker breaks into Ivy’s house with the intent to leave with Harley. “I’m only staying long enough to collect what’s mine” he asserts, grabbing Harley aggressively and throwing her to the ground. Moments later, she is enamored with him, relieved to be back with him. This may be one of the most extreme depictions of their abuse, and is true to life: The riskiest period of time for a victim of intimate partner violence is shortly after leaving their abuser; there is a higher likelihood of a fatality or serious injury because the perpetrator interprets it as loss of control and escalates violence to regain the control. And the severity of the physical interaction matters. According to one often-cited statistic, those who have been choked by an intimate partner are seven times as likely to eventually be killed by them.

The Cycle of Violence is sometimes inaccurate in real application because abuse and trauma don’t often occur in such a linear pattern. The Duluth Model, known better as the Power and Control Wheel, can be more helpful in understanding and predicting relationship violence because it actually illustrates a pattern of co-occurring actions that an aggressor uses to intentionally control or dominate their intimate partner. Think of the wheel as a diagram of the tactics the Joker uses. While the inside of the wheel is comprised of subtle, continual behaviors, the outer ring represents physical, visible violence that others might see. These are the abusive acts that are more overt and forceful, and often the intense acts that reinforce the regular use of other subtler methods of abuse.

Sometimes the more subtle abuses go unseen; non-physical tactics include: coercion and threats (turning Harley over to authorities if she is uncooperative or missteps); economic abuse (limiting Harley’s access to money or resources); male privilege (treating Harley like a servant, making the decisions for the household and defining their roles); intimidation (smashing things, destroying Harley’s property, threatening or abusing their pet hyenas); emotional abuse (humiliating Harley by sending her outside in her lingerie); isolation (controlling where Harley goes and who she sees); and minimizing, denying and blaming (turning the tables on Harley when a heist goes wrong). Many of these actions can be happening at any one time, all as a way to enforce power within the relationship. As they accumulate, a lot of these behaviors can feel subtle and become normal — often unrecognizable—until observed in a collective way.

Trauma Bonds and the Importance of Emotional Recovery

As a sidekick to the Clown Prince, Harley finds her identity and her value almost completely defined by the Joker. She doesn’t know what her life is without him, and when she begins to break away from him, she doesn’t have long enough to find out what her emancipation would feel like. Another important complication: Harley is thrilled by violence, too. She cannot see the faults in the Joker if they resemble her own, or she would have to confront her own vulnerabilities and wrongdoings. Harley lives in this dissonance; as such, she’s able to see the Joker as someone who is good for her. The belief that troubled people are good together is an indication of a trauma bond. A trauma bond is a complex attachment between individuals, usually formed in the presence of danger, shame or exploitation. When we are bonded this way, we are often triggered by the presence of the other person, and, disconcertingly, grow a desire to want to help the person who hurt us. Harley exhibits further evidence of struggling with a trauma bond, including: Having difficulty leaving unhealthy relationships, trusting those who have proven themselves untrustworthy, maintaining contact and perhaps desiring to be understood by her aggressor, and rationalizing violations into consensual activities.

Trauma bonds can also lead to self-destructive denial, self-blame, and (confusing) amorous obsession.

Learning to cope with residual emotional pain related to intimate partner violence is essential to healing. First, steps for dealing with trauma bonds should include cutting off contact with the aggressor with the assistance of a safe advocate, learning detachment strategies, accessing support groups and group counseling, and finding adaptive ways to process emotions. Individual counseling sessions with trauma specialists often provide a safe and confidential environment for survivors to express their feelings, thoughts and fears in a 1:1 setting. These specialists can help process traumatic memories –as well as the fear, anxiety, and anger associated with them—so that it is possible for the survivor to move on.

Healthy recovery from intimate partner violence and trauma bonds involves these essential ingredients and helpful questions we can ask ourselves along the path to healing:

  • Understanding the urge to try to make sense of the situation. Survivors of intimate partner violence often might try to make sense of the violation or betrayal. This is a search for agency. It is OK to allow the questions to enter our mind, and it is also OK to feel out of control and abandon the search for answers. Common questions that we may have the urge to ask ourselves include: What just happened? Why did it happen? What could I have done to prevent this from happening? Why do I feel the way I do?
  • Self-Compassion. In order to recognize the good in ourselves, it is helpful to exercise the three components of self-compassion, which includes self-kindness, mindfulness, and empathy. Being kind to ourselves allows for decreased self-blame related to the trauma. Mindfulness involves the practice of observing the body and mind’s present experiences, with little judgement or blame. When intrusive, self-accusing questions about the aggressor’s violent behavior enter the mind, for instance, we can gently push them aside and give them little weight or importance. Empathy allows for normalizing emotional and mental reactions. Important questions to ask ourselves related to self-compassion include: What am I feeling right now in my body?I’m feeling an intense emotional reaction—can I place the feeling more specifically? Why would it make sense that I feel hurt or sad because of what happened to me? Is it possible for the actions to be wrong or bad without making the perception I have of myself also wrong or bad?
  • Recognizing shifts in your views about yourself, other people, and the world. Traumas can disrupt our sense of safety, security, and everyday functioning. Some traumas distort our beliefs and reality. Important questions we should consider about our worldview include: How has the experience changed my view on life? Do I feel like my life is somehow shortened now? How has my sense of safety shifted and in what settings do I see this change? Do I think about intimacy differently? What does trust look like now?
  • Finding supportive and safe relationships. Harley is deserving of someone in her life who can tell her clearly, and directly, that recovery is achievable. Important statements that individuals in our support system can say include: I believe you. Your reactions are completely valid. You’re not to blame. How can I help?

What Harley Means to Us

Harley’s most endearing quality is her natural instinct to smile in our direction. Though she gets pushed, pinned down, thrown away, and diminished, Harley eventually springs back up to greet us, sometimes even in the form of a flip or a cartwheel, her vibrant persona taking charge. Harley’s resilience is performative. A leap. A hyperbolic gesture existing only to tell us of our own remarkable stories of tenacity. Pay attention, she signals. This part’s important.

The container of early 90s animation allows for an absurd yet acceptable silliness coupled with daring realness — a vintage art form that’s managed to preserve the origins of our uniquely defined love and tension for Harley Quinn.

Wrapped in our relationship with Harley is our capacity to love in complicated ways. Her persistent adoration for a heartless villain like the Joker mixes us up, creating an encounter (for many of us, as children) with a role model who is far from perfect. By making her problems available to us, however, Harley introduces a comfort around accessing our emotional pain, about being OK with being not OK. Her just-go-for-it attitude holds a mirror up to our personal doubts, setbacks, and slipups. Harley asks us to wrestle with emotional complexity, to reconcile the feelings of strong connections and closeness to a woman in a constant struggle for power. What does it mean to be both liberated and owned? Where does our agency begin and end? Where have we set our limits and boundaries? Harley gets us close enough to victimhood and trauma to help us safely examine parts of ourselves sometimes too vulnerable for direct confrontation. However often we find ourselves making risky choices, giving in to our impulses, becoming drawn to danger, saying nothing when someone belittles us, allowing another to overpower us, or loving a person who hurts us, we access a forgiveness we’ve imparted Harley for decades. This Harley. The one that gave us full permission to love monsters—apart from us and within us.

Readers interested in seeking support, resources, or advice about keeping themselves or someone they know safe are encouraged to visit the website thehotline.org.

Drea Letamendi
Dr. Drea is a licensed clinical psychologist and mental health educator. She co-hosts "The Arkham Sessions," a podcast dedicated to the psychology of Batman.