Even Among the Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn is Still a Therapist at Her Core

Drea Letamendi
Movies Comics
Movies Comics DC

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 Robbie’s version of Harley Quinn, based off what we saw in her first appearance as the character in Suicide Squad. Be sure to also check out Dr. Drea’s profile on the original version of Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series.

“A Whole Lot of Crazy”

The most dangerous super-villains. Gleefully immoral degenerates. The worst of the worst. Members of Task Force X are atypical criminals who are decaying in maximum security prisons and hand-picked by the U.S. Government to perform high-risk missions in exchange for shortened sentences. In the film Suicide Squad (2016), the varied team includes the mercenary assassin Deadshot, the rageful cannibal Killer Croc, the fire-conjuring metahuman El Diablo, and the skilled thief Captain Boomerang. But among the assassins and metahumans drafted to Task Force X, Harley Quinn is the only identified “wild card.” In selecting her, government official Amanda Waller relies on Harley’s mental condition, equating “crazy” with risk-taking, suicidality, and a propensity for violence. To Waller’s credit, Harley’s shown distinct patterns of behavior indicating recklessness, self-harm, mood instability, and dissociation. Does this profile make Harley a good soldier? Is Waller’s assessment of Harley Quinn accurate-and, is Harley really as unhinged as Waller believes?

Our introduction to Margot Robbie’s incarnation of Harley Quinn is delivered through the gaze of Captain Hunter Griggs, an officer at Belle Reve‘s Special Security Barracks, the black site where Deadshot, El Diablo, Killer Croc, and Harley are imprisoned. Hanging upside-down in a meditative, acrobatic pose, Harley is seemingly unaware of the dreariness inside her double fenced, exposed cell. In juxtaposition to her caged situation, a haunting cover version of Lesley Gore’s song, “You Don’t Own Me,” murmurs in the background.  Griggs engages with Harley as if she were a feral animal. He taunts and prods at her from outside her cell. Harley, however, willfully pushes his buttons, subverting the power play, provoking him with an imitation of sensuality and psychoticism. “Are you scared?” she teases him, stroking her cell bars, completely performative and self-aware. To reassert his control, Griggs triggers the electric bars of her cell, and Harley spirals into a flashback of her life as a prisoner. Now we see her perspective. We witness a rapid sequence of fragmented memories depicting abuse, use of restraints, force-feeding, injections, humiliation, and torture inflicted on her by Belle Reve guards. In one instance, Harley is crouched on the ground in her underwear while uniformed, armed male officers interrogate her. These cruelties are not completely fantasy.

Acts of Tyranny: The Psychology of Imprisonment

In the early 70’s, psychologist Philip Zimbardo led the Stanford Prison Experiment, which remains one of the most controversial studies in the history of social psychology. Interested in demonstrating the strong influence of situational context on behavior, Zimbardo sought to examine the reactions of participants assigned to spend two weeks as “guards” and “prisoners” in his make-shift penitentiary at Stanford University’s psychology department. Within 24 hours of the simulation, the guards began abusing and humiliating the prisoners—and in turn, the prisoners became helpless, depersonalized, and submissive to the guards. Due to the distress experienced by its participants, the study was terminated after six days. Despite being criticized for its sloppy and unethical methodology, the Stanford Prison Experiment earned Zimbardo much attention and propelled him to pursue decades of subsequent research surrounding the relationship between human nature and immoral acts, eventually publishing his work in the book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

Truly, Zimbardo’s work led to a better understanding of the torture and abuses discovered in the real prison, Abu Ghraib, which became a U.S. military detention center following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. A quick study of Suicide Squad’s Belle Reve’s Special Security Barracks lends us some comparisons with Abu Ghraib and Stanford—the situations have us wonder, what is the long-term impact of harms occurring within and under the auspices of formally established corrective systems? Moreover, what are the psychological effects of inhumane conditions and abusive personnel? The Stanford Prison Experiment showed us that only a few days’ worth of disempowerment and dejection can lead prisoners to show helplessness and signs of depersonalization. When we feel depersonalized, it is like we are detached from our body or feel like our surroundings aren’t real. Abu Ghraib revealed something even more terrifying – the results of ongoing, persistent mistreatment of detainees can be long-lasting. Under the guise of “national security,” interrogations included the use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and language isolation. Some guards drifted further down a cruel path to engage in brutal and sadistic acts that were clear and serious violations of international human rights laws.

Psychologists assert that the impact of abuse on detainees is cumulative. That is, we must understand the experience of ongoing torture holistically, not instance by instance. It’s compounded.

Similarly, at Belle Reve, Griggs and his team are not just violating the welfare, dignities, and rights of detainees like Harley Quinn, but likely inflicting complex trauma and exacerbating existing emotional struggles. In a striking resemblance to guards who took photographs that were later gathered from Abu Ghraib, Griggs even takes a selfie of himself and Harley, who is restrained and gagged, as he pumps liquid meal replacements up her nose. From objectification to physical (and implied sexual) abuse, the trauma Harley sustains at Belle Reve are painful replications of the Joker’s mistreatment of her. To other prisoners and guards, Harley seems disturbing and erratic. But Harley’s outward “wildness,” the very thing Waller tries to weaponize, could certainly be explained by her emotional fatigue and vigorous efforts to internally manage the intensity—and enduring nature—of her trauma.

“It Feels Good to be Bad”

Harley is the least reluctant recruit for Task Force X, excited to be out of her cell and to embark on something adventurous. There are some signs that she’s struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), characterized by the prolonged mental distress that results from exposure to life-threatening events and often manifests in the form of upsetting memories, feeling on edge, having difficulty sleeping or calming the body, and intrusive thoughts or images known as flashbacks. Not uncommon, traumatic flashbacks consist of a re-experiencing sensation of our trauma. In a flashback, we may feel or even act as though the traumatic event is happening again. Though they’re temporary, flashbacks are upsetting and can throw us off course—we may maintain some connection with the present moment or we may lose total awareness of what’s going on around us, being taken completely back to the traumatic event.

When experiencing her flashbacks, Harley shows signs of complete physical takeover. In one instance, as she and the rest of the Squad ascend a stairwell in a high-rise building, headed toward their safe house, Harley pauses and is suddenly distracted by the winding, steep incline. She looks down. Dazed, her brain travels to a memory that felt similar: lack of control, falling, loss of awareness, adrenaline. It’s the memory of the Joker pressuring her to self-harm. He wants her to join him, to align with his chaos and anarchy. He wants her to become like him. Harley recollects the experience vividly: He is coercing her to jump from a height of hundreds of feet into a vat of toxic waste. In this moment, the Joker asks Harley if she would die for him. After she says yes, he raises the bar. “Will you live for me?” he challenges. Stuck in the memory, Harley feels the sensation of falling from a great height and landing in the toxic ooze. Shaken, and brought back to the present moment, Harley is on alert. Still zoned out, she points her gun at Deadshot, hypervigilant and scared.

In addition to flashbacks, Harley exhibits symptoms of dissociation, an experience where we feel disconnected from ourselves and our surroundings.

Dissociation is very similar to flashbacks but can include losing touch with the things that happen around us, and may even cause us to feel like we’re outside of our body during the episode. Though she doesn’t make others aware of it, Harley is frequently shifting in and out of a dissociative state. To be clear, her dissociation does not mean she is psychotic. Dissociation involves disconnection from events and states that are usually integrated, like memory, identity and perception. It’s a thin, but effective, emotional buffer against further psychological harm. In fact, we all dissociate to some degree in our day-to-day functioning—think of how many times you’ve arrived at home, work, or school without paying any attention to how you got there. When our bodies and brains have been overexposed to trauma, this function goes into overdrive, and though it’s quite adaptive in the short term, can create a disabling and distracting experience. Psychosis, on the other hand, involves delusions and/or hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t there, hearing things that have no source), and sometimes aligning with those versions of “false reality.”  Astutely, Harley does mention that she hears voices, but she uses this as a tactic to provoke others and assert a level of control over those around her.

Like other traumatized individuals, Harley is often reactive. This can be tied to our neurobiology—there are some clear differences between the brain of someone living with PTSD and the brain of someone who isn’t living with PTSD. Given the abuse and torment she’s experienced, Harley is responding to novel situations with a fear-driven brain. That is, her brain’s threat-perception system—the part that detects safety and danger—is enhanced. Persons with PTSD often “see” danger where others may see manageable situations and settings. In addition, Harley’s self-sensing system is busted. Though it varies, we all share the ability to sense ourselves, and to connect to our own emotions, especially “teachable” ones such as heartache, shock, or terror.

But what happens to us when our bodies consistently feel these intense emotions? What is it like to feel bad all the time? Harken back to Harley’s constant torment and abuse at Belle Reve. First, it’s likely that her internal response is heightened—this can feel psychologically painful and dysregulating. Naturally, this is a state that isn’t manageable in the long run, and Harley will likely find a way to dampen those intense emotions. With little access to helpful drugs or substances that might help to dampen the intensity, it is likely that Harley would attempt to harness an internal capacity to numb out the extreme feelings. And this can be pretty effective. After all, sometimes it can feel relieving, even good, to not feel anything at all. The danger of numbing, however, is that in order to feel something good again, we have to raise the bar. Harley affects this when she tells Officer Griggs, “I’m bored.”  She’s willing to engage in an interaction that is abusive in order to feel some sense of excitement, intimacy, and connection. This is why some individuals with histories of trauma seem to have a natural attraction to situations that resemble their trauma. With pleasure and pain confused, Harley is able to access positive emotions when with her abusers. She enjoys the thrill of antagonizing Batman, and seems fueled by the adrenaline when she pursues violence and brutality alongside the Joker. Waller may have been right about one thing: She knows that Harley can feel alive by exposing herself to things that actually cause terror. The explosive implant she injects in Harley’s neck is yet another experiential aspect of control and manipulation, a sick re-enactment of Harley’s previous volatile and abusive relationships, with the stakes dialed up to the extreme.

It is clear: Harley’s troubles are often relational. And even though concerning signs like risk-taking, self-harm, and lacking a sense of safety are very common with survivors of interpersonal trauma, she’s likely struggling with complex mental health problems. For instance, Harley also shows some features of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a pervasive condition characterized by difficulties regulating emotion and, as a result, propensities toward impulsivity, poor self-image, stormy/harmful relationships and intense responses to triggers. Persons with BPD experience emotions intensely and for extended periods of time, alternating with periods where they feel misunderstood or mistreated, bored, and empty.

“The World Hates Us”

Waller missed something crucial. As a psychiatry intern at Arkham Asylum, Dr. Harleen Quinzel exhibited signs that she could be perceptive, thoughtful, and sharp. Though she got caught up in her own idealism and narcissistic conviction that she could “cure” the Joker of his violent and homicidal ways, Dr. Quinzel managed to use her empathy and compassionate philosophies to get to his heart. As Harley Quinn, she continues to be receptive to the thoughts and feelings of others, and she is able to tap into the humanity of people society casts off as “degenerates.” She is, after all, a therapist at the core. Her get-up is only a distraction.

In choosing her for Task Force X, Waller banks on Harley’s mental instability, intent on weaponizing her emotional triggers. In viewing Harley as hazardous and hysterical, Waller did not take into account her propensity for attachments. Harley isn’t careless. Robbie’s Harley Quinn is on the mark in that she embodies this unique combination of volatility and warmth. Her Harley captures an all-embracing freedom, an enthusiasm for novel experiences, a willingness to connect with people around her—no matter how vulnerable it can be—and the belief that feeling good is fundamental to the human experience. These are all important facets of a good therapist. When the Squad begins to abandon hope, seeking to drown their sorrows in an empty bar, Harley hops behind the counter to serve drinks. It’s a subtle move, but puts her in the position to counsel, guide, and even confront them about their mistakes and letdowns. She manages to validate the despair felt by Croc, Deadshot, and El Diablo, while also pushing them toward accountability.

Margot Robbie possesses the ability to capture a self-awareness necessary for this character to work. Her Harley knows that in order to manage in the world, she must rely on interpretation. She does not believe that she’s insane, but she knows how to occupy the views and stereotypes held by others toward the “sick and crazy.” She leverages their stigma and fears, triggers discomfort and uncertainty, to gain control of a situation. Robbie’s Harley is completely direct and audience-facing about her mental health. She owns it. This is the power of Harley Quinn: She knows how to get under our skin and stay for a while.

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.