(long post, sorry)
In spite of everything I love Harley Quinn but, damn, writers treat her so badly. I swear, the temptation to make her actually stupid must be terrible because it’s so often implied, or explicitly stated, that she slept her way through school. First of all, it does not work like that. Second, she’s not a therapist or a psychologist, she’s a psychiatrist, she’s a fricking MD and a damn young one too. Managing pre-med and collegiate gymnastics that she relied on to keep her scholarship? Harley is fucked up, but she’s not the dumb blonde she plays. (also stop making her stacked, she’s a gymnast. she is 4’11” of pure muscle and is not top heavy)
If you want a good Harley backstory it’s simple. She’s ADHD but medicated and slightly robotic because of it. I want to take special care not to demonize meds but, rather, people’s disapproval of neurodivergence and a lack of focus on what is best for a patient rather than what is most convenient for others. So, maybe, around ten years old Harley is a hyperactive space cadet who’s brilliant at tests but sloppy at coursework, who would be a gymnastics prodigy if she could actually focus on technique and put in practice time instead of fooling around. Then the meds come and it’s actually really cool because she can do the things she needs to do instead of just wanting to do them, doing something else entirely, and getting in trouble. People are proud of her, she’s proud of herself. But now there are expectations. Family and teachers and coaches overschedule her, find worth only in her success and don’t care about her mental health at all as long as she’s performing and castigate her when she does fail. Fuck if you don’t internalize that. But she doesn’t look unhealthy and she’s doing amazing. She actually has to choose between the Olympic trials and continuing her grad studies. She probably has some issues with self-harm but it either doesn’t look like self-harm or is well covered up.
When Arkham accepts her, fresh from her residency, it’s not a mistake. The woman is amazing. All they can see is a mountain of achievements rather than the seething ball of nerves, self-loathing, and imposter syndrome boiling just under the surface. That’s when Joker comes in. He’s got the Hannibal Lecter shtick down. Where everyone else sees an intelligent driven young woman he sees a frightened overwhelmed girl who is working her hardest to convince the world she’s anyone other than herself. Sending her into a nervous breakdown would be too easy so he doesn’t even bother. Instead he’s open with her, almost friendly. The other doctors are amazed, Harley is amazed, she’s not done anything particularly revolutionary but, for the first time in forever, it looks like the clown prince of crime is showing progress. He unravels her and it’s a challenge, she flinches back and gets very serious when he comes too close to the real Harley under the professional. Still, soon she’s questioning everything. She doesn’t even really like her co-workers. She hasn’t had a real friend in years. She’s forgotten how to have fun. Did she ever want this to be her life or did she just do it for other people? It starts so slowly that it looks, at first, like she’s getting better at self-care. Maybe something totally silly one weekend, a trampoline park where she can enjoy the way her toned body moves without stressing out over landings, a face painting booth at a street fair, some garishly colored downright tacky decoration that clashes with her sensible apartment. Suddenly she realizes how much she hates knowing the difference between cream and ecru. The beigeness of her life is repulsive. She hates the person she’s pretending to be even more that she hates herself which is really saying something.
After her weekend of freedom she would have called in sick if it wasn’t so suddenly important to see him. The relief she feels at talking to one of Gotham’s most infamous supercriminals is disturbing but it is relief and she’s been swallowing a slow-motion panic attack for hours. She admits, though she shouldn’t, that she took his advice about doing something fun and he teases her, what would straight-laced Doctor Quinzel do for fun? Did she realphabetize her sock drawer or buy a new clipboard? It’s not important to impress him, it’s really not. He’s dangerous, cruel, and he looks so proud when she admits that she bought a lamp shaped like a lawn flamingo. The only mistake, he says, is that she should have stolen it. She hopes the wicked thrill it gives her doesn’t show on her face. It does. She almost even laughs. He likes it when he can make her laugh and she likes it when he likes things.
It’s wrong and unprofessional, the relationship she develops, and she knows it but her whole life she’s been so high strung. Nothing she’s done has been for her, she’s not sure she knows how to really do selfish things anymore, but he knows the selfish things she needs to do. It feels good when she follows his advice even when it’s small things like the rainbow striped socks she wears concealed under her very bland slacks and sensible shoes. She’s so happy, almost giddy, and he loves her happiness, he loves her, he loves the real her that she’s had to beat down and hide for so long, the her that even she isn’t able to love. She is able to love him, though, and since he loves her she’s able to love herself for him, to protect and nurture something so important to him.
When the choice comes between her old self, the tedious endless labor of making the world proud, and Him, the spectacular man that brought color into her life, it’s not even a question. She kills Doctor Harleen Quinzel, she throws away the version of her that let herself burn just for medals and hollow accolades. She embraces Harley Quinn and it’s so much a part of her nature she can’t even see that she’s still living her life for someone else’s approval, except this time that person is a murderous clown. She hasn’t let her hair down, she’s just put it in pigtails instead of a bun.