Why the suicide of Harley Quinn for marketing purposes is a problem

Today I discovered that DC comics were organizing a new search for talented artists, by setting a brief that I believe is disrespectful at best and dangerous at worst. The brief: Draw Harley Quinn. Naked. And committing suicide.

I was appalled, and immediately tweeted that I saw this as a betrayal of my many years of DC fandom (I have several signed Batman comics, and have an enduring love for all things Vertigo). I also pledged that DC would never get another penny from me again. And this is why:

Women in significant parts of the world are considered disposable. We are bought and sold. We are forced to marry when we are still children, regardless of outcome.  Women are used up and thrown away, as seen in the recent gang rapes in India, or the college rapes in America. We have acid thrown in our faces. Or we are shot, just for trying to get an education. In short: women are brutalised and marginalised all the time in real life. And that is a problem.

In the wider media women don’t fare much better because media mirrors society. In films we don’t get that many speaking roles, and when we do, these roles aren’t even about our own stories. In games women are often reduced to rescue-fodder. Or fetishized in- and outside of the game itself. Even the great bastions of international industry aren’t immune to the dismissal of women as a selection of traits that are designed to appeal to men. No matter how much they try to back pedal.

In comics we know that women have historically had a bad time. Many heroines have to endure some kind of emotional and sexual abuse in order to give them any kind of agency in the narrative. And a significant number of secondary female characters are so inconsequential that they were consigned to death in fridges – I mean seriously: In fridges – simply to provide motivation for a male character to go on some kind of revenge spree. Many a “dark origin story” is a dark ending for the woman. Even if women do occasionally get to be bad-ass super heroines, the emphasis is firmly on the “ass” in ways the male superheroes never have to endure. The Hawkeye Initiative proves that.

So where does that leave Harley Quinn, in her Goth-awesomeness and wild unpredictability? Somewhere between the alleged rape pits of Arkham City and the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill in Arkham Asylum, apparently. With a solid dash of well and truly misunderstood Suicide Girl thrown in.

Most of the comments I have received about the Harley Quinn naked in the bath problem have been well intentioned and ask valid questions such as: Isn’t suicide a valid narrative for a character with mental illness? And isn’t nudity in the bath to be expected and is therefore not sexual?

Here’s my response:

Many an artist or writer has explored the nature of mental illness in their narrative and in real life. There have been countless films and books and probably comics too (although I don’t know of any off hand), that feature suicide in their on-going narratives. I’m fairly sure superheroes kill themselves in the name of self-sacrifice every other day. But Harley Quinn isn’t doing that, and so this is different.

Agreed, in isolation using mental illness, suicide and taking a bath while naked, as narrative in comics is totally valid. Everyone bathes naked, right? But when you put them together you start a conflation of violence and vulnerability that is in this case dangerously sexualised. It’s the fetishisation of mental illness and suicide (and female mental illness and suicide in particular) that is the problem.

Imagine the famous shower scene from Psycho – which was already considered extremely shocking when it was released – but with a contemporary and much more sexualised framing of the action: The character has large, pneumatic breasts and a pout (as seen in current depictions of Harley Quinn), and she also has serious mental health issues. Then imagine it’s not Norman Bates who is preying on this woman at her most vulnerable, she’s doing it to herself.

And in this case it’s not an implied framing of the action where you never actually see the violence or the nudity, nor is it a bold plot point as part of a wider narrative that explores these issues in some complexity – it’s a stand-alone image outside of the DC universe canon. It’s a still frame out of any context other than the most crass and repugnant voyeurism, and is therefore a gratuitous marketing stunt.

As a DC fan I am shocked and disappointed. As a woman I am utterly appalled. As I type my cheeks are burning with indignation. It’s not enough that there are only a hand-full of women characters in comics to begin with. It’s not enough that those who survived the fridge have been brutalised in some way as punishment for making it through that ordeal. It’s also not enough that we have to see male characters dehumanising female characters as a means of affecting other male characters. Now these female characters have to do that to themselves. And it’s not even considered important enough to be part of the wider narrative of the universe. It’s torture porn. And it sickens me.

So DC aren’t getting any more money from me. Not for comics or any other spinoff. Goodbye giving a **** about the new Batman movie. Goodbye Superman movies of the future. Lobo, you were a contender for the name of my next dog. Not any more.

And with that many of the fond DC memories I already have are now tainted: Kid Eternity (I still ❤ you, Duncan Fegredo), Enigma, Death.

It’s been fun, but what the actual fuck, DC?

EDIT: Since writing this article a couple of hours ago, I have been pointed to http://hasdcdonesomethingstupidtoday.com/. Last time I checked, it has been 2 days since they did something stupid. And the list of stupid things they have done recently is impressive. Case in point, you might say.

But I still posit that casting another rock into the pool that is misogyny in the media is going to cause ripples that cannot be dismissed as mere stupidity.  Because if this really is about finding new artists for DC, it also counts as one of the most exclusionary recruitment strategies I’ve ever heard of, which borders on illegality. If I were at DC, I’d be calling my lawyers right about now.


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September 2013
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