Give ‘Em Elle: What’s An Eight-Year-Old Harley Quinn Fan To Do?
Welcome to Give ‘Em Elle, a weekly column that hopes to bridge the gap between old school comics fandom and the progressive edge of comics culture.
I often find inspiration for these columns by soliciting questions on Twitter, but because of the holiday, I didn’t have a chance to do that this week. However, I did have a chance to go to the movies, and I have a story to tell.
I spent the weekend visiting an old friend who has two kids in elementary school. I was at the movies with them, and we saw a trailer for Suicide Squad. Margot Robbie was on screen waving a mallet around, and I heard my friend’s eight-year-old daughter gasp and say, “That’s Harley Quinn! Mom, I wanna see that movie!”
As characters on the screen fired guns and threatened each other with knives, axes, and swords, my friend turned to her daughter and said “Sorry honey, I don’t think this is going to be a movie for kids.”
“But Mom,” said the eight-year-old in disbelief, “It’s got Harley Quinn in it!”
There’s a problem here. It’s a problem in how we think about superheroes (and supervillains) and who they’re for. It’s a problem that’s been going on for a long time, and seems to be getting worse.
Now in this specific case, I’m of two minds. On one hand, I think Suicide Squad looks like a lot of fun, and I definitely plan to see it. The tone conveyed in the trailers interests me far more than those dour Zack Snyder movies ever could. The 1980s Suicide Squad is one of the best cape comics of all time. Honestly, even if it had nothing to do with comics, I’d probably see any movie in which Cara Delevingne plays an evil witch. And if you’re going to do Suicide Squad, it’s going to be a pretty grown up movie. The violence is right there in the name, and even more so in the premise (a gang of supervillains doing black ops for the government in exchange for clemency). All of that makes sense.
But I still don’t know what to say to the little girl who thinks she should get to see any movie that stars Harley Quinn. In fact, I think she has a point.
Harley Quinn wasn’t a member of the original Suicide Squad, of course. She hadn’t been created yet. As most people know, she didn’t even debut in the comics. She was created by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini for Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, and was only brought into the comics after she was a big hit there. As I understand it, that’s also where my friend’s daughter first encountered her. In the age of streaming video, a lot of kids are growing up on the same cartoons their parents watched.
So here’s the thing about Harley Quinn: She was created to be a children’s character. You know who else was created to be a children’s character? Batman. Also the Joker, Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Iron Man, the whole Justice League, and all of the Avengers.
As an aside, I don’t think this is as true of the rest of the Suicide Squad, though it depend on the character. Comics were already courting older readers by the time that series came out. Characters like Deadshot, Enchantress, and Captain Boomerang were originally created for kid-friendly comics and then thoroughly reimagined years later. Deadshot in particular was made-over from a forgotten Golden Age jobber into a red-costumed cyborg-eyed badass by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers during the era in which Batman comics were consciously moving away from the campy ‘60s in pursuit of older readers.
But characters who originated in older comics, like Batman and Superman, and characters who originated in Saturday morning cartoons, like Harley Quinn, were inarguably created to entertain children. And now they star in dark, violent live-action films that many parents (quite reasonably) don’t want kids to see. And when one appears in something kid-friendly, like Batman: The Brave and the Bold, there’s often an outcry from older fans who insist that this is somehow inappropriate.
I remember riding the train home from seeing Man of Steel in the theatre, not terribly thrilled about the tone and feel of the movie. It wasn’t just what happens to General Zod at the end (and I have no desire to dredge up that argument); it was that the whole thing was run through with this kind of hypermasculine malaise. The thing I kept thinking was that a Superman movie should be a children’s movie, or at least a family movie. Superman is one of the greatest children’s characters of all time. Imagine if Mickey Mouse appeared primarily in brutal action films full of callous death and cynicism, and everyone thought that was normal.
Keep in mind, when I say that Superman should star in children’s movies, I don’t mean to imply that you should feel foolish for being an adult fan. Most comics fans I know regularly go to Pixar movies on opening weekend, after all, and those are solidly children’s films. Wreck-It Ralph was one of my favorite movies of the last decade, and I don’t go around trying to pretend that it wasn’t for kids.
I see DC making an effort at including kids, and young girls in particular, with stuff like DC Superhero Girls, and that’s great. But when you have a toy line aimed at young girls that includes Barbara Gordon and Harley Quinn, and then at the same time those characters are appearing in an R-rated Killing Joke movie and the aforementioned Suicide Squad, you’re sending very confusing messages.
I want everyone who loves comics to be happy (except maybe those guys who are creepily obsessed with The Killing Joke), but I don’t know that it’s ultimately healthy or even possible for these same characters to be shared between little girls and grown men, and simultaneously starring in products aimed at both markets. And if it comes down to it, I know DC Comics will choose grown men every time. I just wish they weren’t so comfortable leaving little girls out in the cold.