She was once Joker’s sidekick and romantic partner, but now she’s a feminist icon.
Love her or hate her, you can’t deny the popularity of Harley Quinn. It’s easy to write her off as ‘Joker, but for girls’ but her history and backstory exemplifies the changing winds of societal norms and how they can affect females.
For instance, when you look at Harley Quinn’s early appearances, it’s incredibly easy for all but the most misogynistic comic fan to see that her relationship with Joker is text book toxicity.
Nowadays though, she’s not even with Joker. Further, her lesbian/bi tendencies are practically canon – such as her constant flirting with the botanical-themed femme fatale Poison Ivy.
Join us as we explore the in-universe and real-life origins of Harleen Quinzel, also known as Harley Quinn.
The Real-World origins of Harley Quinn
If you’re not a hardcore comic fan (and even if you are) you might be surprised by certain aspects of Harley’s origins.
For instance, even a lot of casual Batman fans are aware that she doesn’t come from the comics – she comes from the excellent Batman: The Animated Series.
Interestingly (or maybe not, mileage may vary), the name ‘Harley Quinn’ itself was actually first coined in 1939 by the Irish writer James Joyce, as a pun on the name Harlequin.
Harlequin was a standard character (as in ‘a named role’ as opposed to ‘a trope or character type’) for Italian comedy in the late 1500s. He’s light-hearted, clever, and often antagonistic to authority. He was incredibly gifted at acrobatics due to a deal made with a devil-type character. It could be argued that Harley Quinn (the DC character) shares those qualities (although her agility is probably a natural trait).
That’s where the name comes from, but what about the character herself?
Strap in, because shit is about to get weird.
There’s an old American soap opera, you might have heard of it: Days Of Our Lives? You know the one, it’s the ‘Like sands through the hourglass’ one.
In a dream sequence on the show, a quirky character called Calliope Jones had a dream sequence in which she wore a motley (a jester costume). The actress, Arleen Sorkin, went to college with a fellow called Paul Dini, and they’d remained friends ever since.
Paul Dini worked on Batman: The Animated Series (B:TAS), and at one point they needed Joker to pop out of a cake for story reasons. They decided that wasn’t something Joker would do, so they invented a female character to do it for him instead. They knew the character had to be clown-themed, and that they had to be female (because I guess males didn’t jump out of cakes back then?).
Paul remembered that one dream sequence scene (dream scenequence?) his friend Arleen performed on Days Of Our Lives, and reached out to her regarding the Harley Quinn role – even inviting her to voice the character which she had inspired.
Arleen would go on to voice Harley Quinn for years, until she stepped down and the role was taken over by the always-amazing Tara Strong. She was also portrayed in film by Margot Robbie, whose choice to only occasionally use Harley’s accent was a stroke of genius, thereby relaying Harley’s internal struggle for control over herself.
Still, it could be worse: Harley is also voiced by someone else on her eponymous TV show but we’re not going to talk about that because I’m supposed to watch my blood pressure.
Can we just rewind a bit and talk about the phrase ‘something Joker wouldn’t do’? I didn’t even know was a thing – isn’t unpredictability, like, Joker’s whole schtick? Mr Dini obviously agrees with me, because Joker was the one who popped out of the cake in the end.
That’s the great irony of Harley Quinn – she didn’t even end up doing what she was designed for. I feel like that fits her character, somehow.
So there you go – that’s how a soap opera is responsible for the creation of Harley Quinn.
But what about her in-universe origins?
The in-universe origins of Harley Quinn
Please note: Comics are very weird and they keep getting rebooted all the time. These ‘facts’ could be changed by the time you’re reading this. For instance, Tim Drake, the third Batman-sidekick named Robin, wasn’t actually ever a Robin according to the canon of the DC Comics New52 reboot. Except, wait, now he was Robin because they changed their minds in a few random issues or whatever. Cool. And yes I’m going to copy-paste this every single time I do the origins of a comic book character, because it will literally be relevant every single time.
There once lived a young girl named Harleen Quinzel, because people in comics have weird names.
Her family was, shall we say, dysfunctional. In order to understand her family (and hopefully herself), she became a psychiatrist.
During the course of her psychiatric work, she was eventually stationed at Arkham Aslyum, which is where all of Gotham’s most deadly criminals end up because Batman cares more about his Rogue’s Gallery than the citizens of Gotham.
While there, she met the most fascinating man, a man named Joker, and not ‘The Joker’ no matter how times people get his name wrong. This man wasn’t evil – he was just in severe emotional pain, she could tell.
She was wrong of course. Joker was playing her like a fiddle – he’d met plenty of people like her before, people who pretended they cared but then just went home to their sad little apartments. Most of these apartments weren’t much bigger than his cell, which made him wonder what crime they must have committed themselves.
Every time Harley thought she was getting close to Joker, he’d begin mocking her. She eventually realized this, and one day she stood up to him.
That was when Joker fell in love with her. Not because he valued her, but because he saw a little of himself in her.
Thinking that she’d finally gotten through to Joker, she formed a dangerous bond with him. He’d eventually talk – not trick, talk – her into helping him escape, offering to make her his partner (in more ways than one). This was a lie though – he always viewed and treated her as a sidekick.
She eventually realized that Joker had done her dirty (by which I mean ‘literally tried to murder her more than once, just for fun‘), and she broke up with him and went her own way.
Over time, she went from villain’s sidekick, to villain, to anti-hero, to feminist icon.
Although she doesn’t really seem to understand how consent works (just ask Nightwing), that can be explained by her traumatic childhood and subsequent relationship with Joker.
Not excused – just explained.
What began as a one-off character designed for one of the male leads in a show has now become a strong character in her own right.
Harley Quinn, when written well, is a complex mess of contradictions. She values not only her femininity but also her thuggishness. She hates bullies, and yet her behaviour can often accurately be described as toxic femininity. She has a genius-level IQ, but she doesn’t really use it because she finds it ‘boring’.
That makes sense – say what you like about Harley Quinn, but one thing she’s not is boring.