I love Harley Quinn.
I love how she, as a character, represents a combination of fun and mayhem, vulnerability and power, love and violence. Really, I love how complex she is.
I also appreciate- deeply, how her character, over twenty years, has moved from abuse victim to empowered survivor. Yes, I’m VERY excited for the Birds of Prey Movie! (That’s the trailer. I just watched it again. CAN’T WAIT).
So, as you might expect, I also love Harley Quinn cosplayers.
Anyone who spends any time at conventions (or even looking at cosplay online) knows that Harley is one of the most popular (if not THE most popular) cosplay for women, and crossplayers. I have found this to be true in both the United States and Mexico- speaking to the very broad appeal of Harley as a character.
Part of what makes Harley so appealing, I believe, is that her overall evolution offers choice and agency to many cosplayers.
There are cosplayers, like The Batgirl Pierce, for example, who grew up watching Harley on Batman the Animated Series, and who love “identify with her happier, playful side.” Pierce shared with me that “I like to poke fun, but not in a violent way.” The version that Pierce cosplays is often referred to as the “Classic” version.
This is true of many Harley cosplayers, who identify with the comic, bubbly and mischievous characterization of Quinn in the animated series. This is, of course, a valid choice for cosplayers, and I love to see it.
This version, however bright, cheerful and geared toward comic relief, is also very sad. Her optimism and humor cover for her child-like vulnerability and a desire to love and be loved. She desperately seeks The Joker’s affection and he abuses her regularly and violently. As the authors of the DC Animated Universe Wiki describe her, Quinn is the “epitome of the battered wife syndrome.”
This is another way in which cosplayers often identify with Harley- with her pain and suffering, and therefore her anger.
This anger is on display in the more “Modern” versions of Quinn’s appearance- first demonstrated in the New 52 versions of the comics, and then continued through the Arkham games and Suicide Squad comics and movie. The dichotomy between classic and modern versions is clearly represented on the cover of the DC Comics omnibus special issue dedicated to Quinn.
Cosplayers who choose this version often identify strongly with a Harley who, in the words of Mexican cosplayer, Bernadette, remains ““fun despite the tragedy” of surviving an abusive relationship.
Harley represents a woman with significant trauma in her past, who escapes and becomes truly empowered. For Missouri cosplayer Raylene (pictured above as the featured image), this is key to her admiration for, and identification with the character. Raylene shared that “that’s why I like her. While she’s still hung up over Joker’s death it’s the first time in the Arkham series where you actually get to see what’s she’s capable of and how she’s able to organize herself and an entire gang just by herself.”
Raylene says that “I’ve always just really liked her and the depth of the character they portray in her. I’ve had a lot of issues in my own life and when I saw her grow as a person, whether it was in comics, movies, games, etc., it really helped me out in my personal life. When I saw her separate herself from certain situations and stand up for herself against Joker, or Deadshot, or even her own demons it was always so inspiring to me since I resonated with her on such a personal level.”
This is not an uncommon sentiment. Harley Quinn cosplayers in the United States and Mexico have expressed this feeling of resonance with a character who is abused, and mistreated, and then breaks free to find agency and self-empowerment.
That this agency is often violent is, I believe, cathartic. As French feminist Julia Kristeva noted, when women have been systematically abused and gaslighted for decades (and we all either have suffered this and/or have seen it happens to friends and family), it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the backlash against that abuse may be violent.
What Kristeva says is that a woman fighting to free herself from oppression by a partner (or a society), “may, by counterinvesting the violence she has endured, make herself a possessed agent of this violence” and that sometimes this violence and the weapons she uses may seem disproportionate, but are not so in comparison to the suffering she has endured.
I would argue that even women who do not become violent in their personal lives can find satisfaction in role-playing and cosplaying a woman who represents the chaotic energy of one who is fighting back against her tormentors.
Cosplay is perfect for this. It allows for identification, exploration and, in the end: creativity. Cosplayers can choose from various versions of Quinn to cosplay, depending on their experience and desire to play with the idea of being a “possessed agent of violence.” Given the nature of the practice, then, Harley cosplayers can even then invent their own, new versions of the character.
When I spoke to Mitsuko in Mexico City, she was cosplaying her original, steampunk version of Harley Quinn.
Mitsuko told me that she cosplays several versions of Harley Quinn, but this one is her favorite. In her creation, she sought to portray a version of Quinn who was “passionate, not afraid of anything,” as a way to express a combination of parts of the persona she identified with, along with the parts of the persona she aspired to.
Mitsuko appreciates the liminal, conflicted nature of Harley, saying that she saw her as a villain, but also someone who helped others.
And that, right there, is the badassedness of possibility in Harley Quinn. It allows for both villainy and helpfulness. Playfulness and mayhem. In Harley, we can identify our pain, and appreciate her revenge.
Cheers to all the Harley Cosplayers that I have met! (and those I haven’t!)