Textual Echoes: Praxis

Masochist or machiavel? Reading Harley Quinn in canon and fanon

Kate Roddy

Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland

[0.1] Abstract—Creative responses to the DC Comics character Harley Quinn, sometime girlfriend and assistant to the Joker and established favorite among female fans, are considered. By means of examples from an array of media (fan fiction, short film, and comics), I observe how the character's trait of submissiveness is read and (re)constructed. First acknowledging the antifeminist possibilities of the submissive female and masochism's portrayal within medical and psychoanalytic discourses, I then move on to explore the ways in which fans use the Harley character to overcome these negative stereotypes of sexual submission. I show that fan works exhibit evidence of familiarity with concepts of the Jungian shadow self and with real-life BDSM practices and philosophies. The central thesis is that we can understand the masochist as potentially Machiavellian—that is, creative and manipulative. Fan fiction echoes postmodernism's concern with ambiguous subjectivity and employs strategies that shift the responsibility for character construction from creator to reader.

[0.2] Keywords—BDSM; Comic book; Fan fiction; Fan vid; Gender; Masochism

Roddy, Kate. "Masochist or Machiavel? Reading Harley Quinn in Canon and Fanon." 2011. In "Textual Echoes," edited by Cyber Echoes, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 8. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2011.0259.

[0.3] "Puddin'," she sobs helplessly. He looks so mean. Harley's almost scared to approach him. Everything she once recognized is gone now…he has gone beyond her understanding into a religious agony of perfection. Harley Quinn imagines she can see radioactive light spilling from her Saint, her Joker, from his ears and eyes.

—Grant Morrison, The Clown at Midnight

1. Harley Quinn in canon and fanon

[1.1] Harley Quinn is the off-again, on-again "hench wench" and girlfriend of the Joker and the best friend of Poison Ivy. She is a relatively recent addition to Batman canon, making her first appearance in Batman: The Animated Series (1992–95). In 1994 the character was given a canon backstory, first in the one-shot comic Mad Love and then in an animated episode of the same name. It emerges that Harley was once Dr. Harleen Quinzel, an ambitious young intern at Arkham Asylum, determined to interview the Joker in order to write a tell-all book about the villain and advance her fledgling career. Seduced by him during a series of interviews, she comes to believe that he has affection for her and that he is a troubled soul who can be rehabilitated through her loving care. Her moment of crisis comes when the Batman returns a visibly injured Joker to Arkham. Outraged on her beloved's behalf, she raids a costume store for an outfit and props, becoming "Harley Quinn" in order to break the Joker out of the asylum. They enjoy a crime-spree honeymoon, and the rest is history.

[1.2] This prequel reinforced what was already a running joke of the animated series, perpetuated in subsequent comics and fan works: that of Harley's obsession with her lover, "Mistah J," and her readiness to endure his (often violent) mistreatment of her. Her submissiveness is remarked upon in a 1993 animated episode, "Harley and Ivy," when Harley appeals to her best friend, "I am not a doormat…am I?" Poison Ivy's acerbic reply is, "If you had a middle name it would be 'welcome'!"

[1.3] In Mad Love's most recent reissue (Dini and Timm [1994] 2009), both of Harley's creators speak about their inspirations for the character. Writer Paul Dini says in the preface,

[1.4] It's happened to me, it's probably happened to you, and if it hasn't happened yet, rest assured that it will…Mad love is when you fall so passionately for a person (particularly the wrong person) that nothing else in the world matters…Through Harley's tragicomic experiences, we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a funhouse mirror, distorted and all too willing to play the fool for someone we'd be much better off without. (6, 7)

[1.5] And in an epilogue, producer Bruce Timm writes,

[1.6] Another instance of "art imitating life"—a mutual friend of ours was stuck in a stormy (but nonviolent) relationship with a guy whose personal obsessions precluded him from returning her unconditional love. (73)

[1.7] Here Dini proposes a purely allegorical interpretation: Harley as every(wo)man, donning the harlequin costume as a visual signifier of the foolish nature of her quest. However, Timm hints at a more gender-specific paradigm. Although attempting to sidestep the darker implications of his model by insisting that it is "nonviolent," Timm acknowledges that Harley's story is that of a nurturing woman in a relationship with a self-centered and abusive man.

[1.8] Perhaps significantly, fan meta does not focus on the motives or agendas of the male writers (primarily Dini) who have been instrumental in shaping the Harley character in canon. Instead of viewing Harley Quinn as a product of gender ventriloquism, fans consider her to be a persona that is fully formed and already fan property, and they tend to produce psychologically realistic readings of her. For example, lovedatjoker, zhinxy, itlcometome, and benicio127, the authors of a two-part fan essay entitled "Cartwheel of Contradictions: Who Is Harley Quinn?," ask not "why have the (male) writers made the Joker and Harley's relationship so long-lasting?" but "why does Harley stay?" (2010). This phrasing points to a strongly appropriative relationship with the character; while canon is respected, Harley is not absolutely delineated by it. What is more definitive is the reading agreed on by the fans themselves, constructed through fic and meta.

[1.9] This desire among female fans to create online spaces where they can discuss and define their own Harley may be in no small measure because mainstream comic book fandom is still unwelcoming to female readers. As Karen Healey observes,

[1.10] Overwhelmingly…superhero comics themselves support "male" as the default gender for their readers…[but] despite these metaphorical "NO GURLS" signs on the comics clubhouse door, superhero comics culture contains many female participants…Especially in cyberspace, female superhero comics fans have established clubhouses of their own, and there they vigorously perform and articulate feminine comics fandom as they explore the rocky terrain of self-definition. (2009, 147)

[1.11] Lovedatjoker, zhinxy, itlcometome, and benicio127 are keen to acknowledge the gender bias evident within comic book fandom and the need for more nuanced portrayals of female characters, writing, "It is with good reason that depictions of women [in comics] are harshly examined and assessed" (2010). They go on to delineate the particular problems associated with the characterization of Harley Quinn as follows:

[1.12] Harley Quinn, being a character entwined within an abusive relationship, is often the subject of discourse around the use of misogynistic tropes in comics: her relationship with the Joker is seen as something she must escape from, lest DC [Comics] be sending "bad messages" to "female comic book readers"—often described as "young," to boot. (2010)

[1.13] The Harley Quinn character inspires fan art, videos, fiction, and cosplay, and there are numerous LiveJournal communities and archives dedicated to fan fic featuring her (often focusing on her relationship with the Joker). As the above quotation shows, fans are conscious of the potential pitfalls: these stories—which are often tagged "darkfic," "BDSM," or "ECP" (extreme corporal punishment)—could be read as glamorizing abusive relationships, and their authors could be accused of rejecting feminist values by championing submissive, even self-negating feminine behavior. I urge an alternative, altogether more positive reading of the Harley Quinn of fanon: fans' responses to the character, far from valorizing abuse or repudiating feminism, evince a complex engagement with issues of gender and subjectivity.

[1.14] I first place the concerns surrounding female masochism within their medical, psychoanalytic, and feminist contexts to demonstrate both how and why sexual submission became seen as an unhealthy practice. I use the writings of BDSM (note 1) practitioners themselves to challenge outsider assumptions about the nature and function of sexual masochism. Finally, I show that fan authors' incorporation of BDSM tropes into their stories aids the construction of a deeply ambiguous subjectivity, and thus helps to shift responsibility for character motivation from writer to reader.

2. Women and masochism

[2.1] As early as 1986, Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diane Veith argued that slash fan fiction is a cry for gender equality (see Busse and Hellekson 2006, 17), an argument developed in Constance Penley's "Feminism, Psychoanalysis and the Study of Popular Culture" (1992). Penley proposes that slash can be viewed as liberating because it allows the author to write about sex and relationships without having to deal with the power dynamics of heterosexuality. To this she adds a keen observation concerning the apparent reluctance of heterosexual women within slash fandom to include female characters in their erotic stories:

[2.2] I think there's another reason why the slash characters have to be male, and this has to do with the fans' rejection of the female body. The fans do indeed reject the female body as a terrain of fantasy or utopian thinking, but the female body they are rejecting is the body of the woman as it has been constituted in this culture: a body that is a legal, moral, and religious battleground. (498)

[2.3] The rejection of this culturally constructed female body, Penley argues, leads slash authors to "write their sexual and social fantasies across male bodies" (498). That women may find it necessary to write their desires onto male characters is an idea that has been interrogated and developed by numerous critics of slash fiction, including Henry Jenkins (1992, 188–200), Anne Kustritz (2003), Susanne Jung (2004), Elizabeth Woledge (2005), Robin Anne Reid (2009), and Monica Flegel and Jenny Roth (2010) (note 2). Although het and femslash have increased in popularity since the time of the Star Trek fanzines that Penley describes, the continued prevalence of slash attests to the fact that the fictionalized female body remains a battleground in popular culture.

[2.4] What exactly constitutes a compelling female character, and whether such a character can be compelling if she does not have agency, are hotly contested questions. The dominant "strong woman" type perpetuated in comics and action films has been derided for its two-dimensionality and appeal to the male gaze (Brown 2004; Mlawski 2008), while similarly idealized, assertive female characters in fan fiction are likely to be derided as "Mary Sues" or "self-inserts" (note 3). Yet although portraying a female character as dominant is not sufficient to ensure an audience's engagement, there is also considerable discomfort with her opposite number, the submissive female. The relative scarcity of submissive female characters in fan fiction points to a profound unease among a predominantly female writing public. It is my experience that while dom and sub play is a common feature of slash and femslash erotica—and there are plenty of female dominants in het fics—the prevailing sentiment among fan writers is that "fem!sub" is considered "triggery" and needs to be listed as a warning in the story header, supplementing indications of graphic sexual content rather than being a natural part of them.

[2.5] This strong negative response to depictions of female masochism point to its long history as a subject of medical and psychoanalytic writing, going back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. The coiner of the term masochist was the self-styled sexologist Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, author of a compendium of sexual dysfunctions, Psychopathia sexualis (first published in 1886). Krafft-Ebing defines masochism as "the association of passively endured cruelty and violence with lust" (1899, 115), naming the phenomenon after Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs (1870). Krafft-Ebing describes masochism as a predominantly male phenomenon; his description would be followed by Sigmund Freud and Magnus Hirschfeld, among others. Because women are both biologically and psychologically conditioned to be submissive, submissiveness constitutes masochism, a perversion, only when it appears in men, who are naturally dominant:

[2.6] In woman, voluntary submission to the opposite sex is a psychological phenomenon. Owing to her passive role in procreation and long-existent social conditions, ideas of subjection are, in woman, normally connected with the idea of sexual relations. They form, so to speak, the harmonics which determine the tone-quality of feminine feeling…Under the veneer of polite society the instinct of feminine servitude is everywhere discernible. (Krafft-Ebing 1899, 187)

[2.7] Krafft-Ebing here makes the essentialist argument that submissiveness is a defining characteristic of the female, and he elsewhere uses the example of the "love tap" among "all Slavs of the lower classes" as evidence that women are reassured of their femininity and value by violent mistreatment at the hands of their male partners (188). It was an important task of second-wave feminism to refute such pronouncements. In The Myth of Women's Masochism (1985), Paula Caplan sets out to dispel the fallacy of women's inherent "moral masochism," that is, their alleged self-defeating enjoyment of suffering, often used as a justification for rape and domestic abuse (140). Caplan exposes this fallacy as a product of a patriarchy that wants both to subjugate women and to make them responsible for the pain it inflicts upon them:

[2.8] At the turn of the century, when the theory was first formally proposed, women led lives that were so constricted and repressed that one way to rationalize their unequal status was to assume that they must enjoy suffering. Furthermore, espousing the theory that women "enjoy" pain makes the espouser feel important. (30)

[2.9] The sexologists and psychoanalysts seemed to be unaware that they were operating under "the unquestioned assumption that to be a normal human is to be male and sadistic," as John Noyes puts it (1997, 169), and to lack an appreciation of the embeddedness of "masochistic" practices within society and culture. Highlighting society's role in the forming of masochistic behaviors, Judith Butler observes that "the attachment to subjection is produced through the workings of power" and that the same mechanisms by which a child is disciplined are later appropriated by the state: "this situation of primary dependency conditions the political formation and regulation of subjects and becomes the means of their subjection" (1997, 6, 7). These late 20th-century critics have shown masochism to be not a spontaneous perversion of nature, but rather a product of society's machinations against the individual.

[2.10] With moral masochism seemingly defeated, feminists turned their attention to the subject of sexual masochism. A bitter schism emerged in the second wave between the liberal, "sex-positive" theorists (some of whom, like Pat Califia, supported and participated in BDSM), and the staunch antipornography campaigners such as Susan Brownmiller and Andrea Dworkin. Female interest in sexual submission began to be treated by some as another myth in need of debunking. Caplan uses anecdotal evidence to portray sexual masochism as a "grotesque" (1985, 158) kink that is inherently male and that women avow a complete lack of interest in. In dealing with so-called rape fantasies (a term that she rightly points out to be a misnomer), she adopts the staid, even Freudian explanation that the idea of being overpowered allows women to experience sexual release without guilt because within the fantasy itself, the sex act is not instigated by the woman (155).

[2.11] The view that women are not interested in sexual submission came to be perpetuated by sex-positive texts too: Nancy Friday's third follow-up to her influential 1973 collection of women's sexual fantasies, My Secret Garden, is entitled Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women's Sexual Fantasies (1991). Friday also dismisses fantasies of sexual submission as guilt avoidance devices (1991, 4), and the fantasies that she selects to appear in Women on Top, as the title suggests, center on female dominance. She sees this emphasis as progressive, and a reflection of women's increasing social empowerment:

[2.12] I have chosen to arrange the fantasies in three chapters which denote the themes that most frequently turned up in the thousands of letters and interviews I collected since my earlier books: women in control, women with women, and sexually insatiable women. I've arranged them in chronological order so that we could see how changes in the real world influence the erotic imagination. (6)

[2.13] Friday claims to chronicle women's desires in all their variety, but her emphasis on expressions of dominant sexuality ("women in control…insatiable women") betrays an ideological bias that obscures submissive fantasies. This attempt to sweep female sexual submissives under the rug implies a value judgment no less censorious than Krafft-Ebing's. Both Friday's and Caplan's texts hold that sexual masochism is for the guilt-ridden, a symptom of neurosis. Only sexuality that is assertive can be considered healthy.

[2.14] Yet the assumption that emancipated modern women are not interested in submissive sexual play is not borne out by the writings of BDSMers, or studies in which they are participants. A recent empirical study is Megan Yost's "Sexual Fantasies of S/M Practitioners: The Impact of Gender and S/M Role on Fantasy Content" (2007). Of Yost's 264 participants, just over half (138) are women, and 20 of them express a preference for the dominant role, 82 prefer the submissive, and 36 identify as switch (that is, capable of switching between the roles) (note 4). Yost also notes that "the sample was highly educated: 33% had completed higher education beyond the bachelor's degree, 25% had a bachelor's degree, 19% had attended some college, and all but one participant had at least a high school education" (139). Yost's research implies that there is considerable female interest in sexual submission and that BDSMers are likely to be well educated, and therefore (we may assume) articulate and self-aware. It is a truism of BDSM writings that those interested in submission tend to be professionally successful, highly driven individuals who use sexual play to experience what Noyes calls a "pleasurable abandonment of identity" (1997, 4).

[2.15] If male masochists are "successful politicians, judges and other important and influential men" (Baumeister 1989, 9) who are drawn toward experiencing unfamiliar moments of surrender and powerlessness, then this model also holds true for women. Thus, female interest in sexual submission may signify not that women are slow to shake off the patriarchal superego, but that they are increasingly socially empowered. To put it another way: fantasies of dominance may come from anger and disenfranchisement, fantasies of submission from a position of privilege.

[2.16] While it is not my purpose to explore the correlation between BDSM practices in fan fiction and in real life or to ask what proportion of writers are also practitioners, it is important to note that a preference for BDSM (whether in reality, fantasy, or fiction) does not indicate an unreconstructed attitude toward gender issues, but rather a thoughtful engagement with both gender and desire.

[2.17] As a final note on the history of women and masochism, one area that is in need of further research is the possible correlation between contemporary BDSM and feminist writings. Although no work of third-wave or postfeminist scholarship has so far engaged substantially with the politics of BDSM, all three arenas can be observed to have common interests. The first of these is an investment in "female pleasure and (sexualized) agency" (Genz 2009, 83), a move away from the second wave's perceived censoriousness as it appeared in the antipornography and political correctness movements (Siegel 2007, 109) and from what key postfeminist texts refer to as "victim feminism" (Roiphe 1993; Wolf 1993). The second is an engagement with subjectivity, particularly in considering the "notion of the self…as an autonomous and self-actuating agent," in opposition to "an alienated female subjectivity…determined socially, linguistically and biologically by patriarchy" (Gamble 2001, s.v. "Subjectivity"). Linked to these explorations of subjectivity are notions of the performativity and role-playing of gender: as Stephanie Genz writes, women can be "self-conscious social actors rather than passive objects of the male gaze" (2009, 92).

[2.18] Perhaps the strongest tie between all three is their championing of pluralism, of individual and minority group choices over the assumption of common goals and what Jacob and Licona term a "false sense of unity" (2005, 200). As Heywood and Drake observe, "We know that what oppresses me may not oppress you, that what oppresses you may be something I participate in, and that what oppresses me may be something you participate in" (1997, 3). The right to choose what others may deem oppressive has obvious resonances for BDSMers, and, as I demonstrate in section 4 below, BDSM theory engages with all these issues of pleasure, agency, subjectivity, and individual choice. Fan discourse, too, addresses the need for pluralism; lovedatjoker et al. write,

[2.19] When we call for more feminist depictions of character, do we simply mean that these depictions be true to the ultimate objective in media: that women be considered whole and actual people, are depicted as three-dimensional, complex, full developed beings with a wide scope of human experience and behaviour?…[Harley] is a real character, three-dimensional and rounded out…In this way, she embodies the ultimate objective of feminism: that women be seen as human beings. (2010)

[2.20] Although the essayists here do not specify a form of feminism, their question highlights the particularly third-wave and postfeminist preoccupation with the need to produce varied, individual representations of women rather than a unified conception of Woman. Writers of Harley Quinn fan fiction use the character to reflect women's experiences in the aftermath of the second wave and thus take an approach that may properly be termed postfeminist.

3. Shadow selves

[3.1] Having acknowledged the feminist struggle to dismiss the notion that women neurotically enjoy suffering and bring abusive relationships upon themselves, we can certainly see why a character like Harley Quinn—the ambitious career woman who gives up her autonomy to become an abused sidekick—can be construed as a troubling subject of fannish attention. But what is the effect of denying and distancing oneself from unacceptable traits like self-effacement and submissiveness, once considered womanly? Natasha Walter has commented that these rejected qualities go toward forming a feminist "shadow self": a haunting figure of the obedient housewife and mother, like Virginia Woolf's troublesome Angel in the House (1998, 77). The shadow is the name given by Carl Jung to "the inferior part of the personality" (1960, 208), composed of qualities that the ego rejects and that it often projects onto disliked others as part of a process of disassociation and repression. According to some Jungian analysts, the shadow is "diabolic" and "subversive" (Solomon 2007, 159, 229), and if left unchecked, it has the potential to subdue the true self, the ego (Hart 2008, 98).

[3.2] Comic book heroes and villains alike appear to illustrate the principle that the shadow self must be acknowledged or it will burst out. This tension between the true and shadow selves is especially appropriate within Batman fandom, which naturally lends itself to Jungian paradigms. The clearest illustration of this is the character of Two-Face, who is both physically and psychologically bifurcated; the ego, Harvey Dent, struggling against the malign influence of his shadow, "Big Bad Harv," an introjected, negative father complex.

[3.3] Yet some analysts stress the positive aspects of the shadow. Lyn Cowan describes it as a "psychopomp or guide" (1982, 38) to the deepest recesses of the psyche. The shadow can also be a refuge for the shattered or frustrated ego: the Batman is Bruce Wayne's animal avatar, which enables him to inspire fear and fight crime in a way that his public persona cannot. Picking up on this idea, a large number of Harley Quinn fan fics portray her transformation from shrink to harlequin positively—not as a catastrophic psychological breakdown, but as a liberation. Fan fic writers give Dr. Harleen Quinzel an internal monologue that expresses anxiety, loneliness, and a lack of self-confidence, which are belied by her cool, professional exterior. In Apheliongirl's Maelstrom (2010), Harley's divided nature is reflected in the alternating tones of an (ultimately unsent) letter.

[3.4] Dear Mom,

[3.5] Thanks for trying to arrange a blind date with that airline pilot, but please don't worry about me—I'm a big girl now (Bullshit—I'm afraid of the dark and still sleep with my old Barney doll).

[3.6] I don't mind being alone (I hate hate hate it)…

[3.7] No, I don't think I want to join a dating service (I'd die of embarrassment admitting I'm such a FREAK that I have to pay to find a date).

[3.8] My job is really great (I find it so depressing—the inmates are all hopeless cases, scarred from childhood, write-offs every one).

[3.9] (Really, mom. Don't worry. I'll probably end up a crazy cat lady dying alone in my apartment, no one noticing until the meowing of my cats drives the neighbours crazy and the police break down the door to find my rotting bloated corpse…)"

[3.10] Harley crumpled it back up and dropped it in the wastebasket. (chapter 1)

[3.11] In donning the checkerboard costume, Harley becomes confident and free of the restrictions of society. It is also important to note that heroes and villains alike in Batman comics have usually adopted their personae in response to a personal trauma, be it the death of their parents or a dunk in a vat of toxic chemicals. That Harley adopts hers volitionally—even cheerfully—is in itself a radical break with tradition. The transformation scene therefore constitutes a pivotal moment in many origin fics, as here in shallots's All My Balloons (2008):

[3.12] Harley came home from work. She tossed her things on to the counter top and headed for the bathroom to put some face paint on. The doctor in her knew this was crazy…[but] what she did after work was her business. No one needed to know that she went home and painted her face like a clown.

[3.13] Everything that had happened at work just melted away. She completely forgot about her boss and Jonathan Crane. After finishing her face she danced to her closet and pulled out a Halloween costume.

[3.14] She had bought it this morning. While she was looking at cosmetics, trying to find something similar to her clown make up she spotted it. The isle across from the make up section was filled with costumes for Halloween, at its end was a jester's costume. She had to have it.

[3.15] Putting on the mask of makeup is portrayed here as simultaneously cathartic and thrilling. There is a suggestion of sexual taboo in Harley's admiration of herself in the mirror: her costuming is an act of cross-dressing that violates not gender stereotypes but the more risky barrier between sane and insane. The text also subverts a teen pop culture trope, the makeover scene. In this case, the dowdy bookworm descends the staircase not as a princess in taffeta, but as a villainous clown.

[3.16] Leaving aside knowing parody, these fics are both concerned with the pressures that women's advances in the workplace and society (as a result of second-wave feminist activism) generated, and how the drive to be autonomous and career focused can in itself become imprisoning, even alienating. Apheliongirl's Harley recognizes the impossibility of the fabled work/life balance, as her feverish struggle to maintain and advance her professional status means she has no social life. Although Harley's mother is vaguely pleased by her daughter's academic success, she tactlessly pressures Harley to find a man, leaving her with visions of herself as an isolated cat lady and "FREAK." As a safety valve to relieve these maddening pressures, she becomes the shadow self, embracing the feared alternative to normalcy. In this reading, Harley therefore represents rebellion, not submission.

[3.17] Genre and tone must also play a role in dictating how Harley is perceived. In both canon and fanon it is a major function of the Joker and Harley's relationship to serve as a biting commentary on heterosexual conventions. They are, in the words of one community dedicated to the pairing, "the George and Gracie from Hell" (http://www.jokerxharley.com/evolution/partthree.html), a nightmarish celebrity couple who subvert every romantic cliché they touch. Take, for instance, the following depiction of one of Harley's daydreams:

Figure 1. "Play nice, kids!" Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Mad Love ([1994] 2009, 44). [View larger image.]

[3.18] The scenario is very much like a Charles Addams creation, as the humor comes from the juxtaposition of the mundane and the grotesque. Harley's fantasy future contains a vision of herself as housewife and mother, alongside a contented husband with pipe and slippers—but just as importantly, Batman's stuffed head mounted on the wall, and children who roughhouse with deadly weapons. Joker/Harley fan fiction abounds with fluff or comedy stories in this vein, which often make use of familiar romantic comedy plot devices like "Valentine's Day," "date night," or, in the following example, the Bridget Jonesian convention of the romantic minibreak:

[3.19] "I want you to take me to Metropolis."

[3.20] "What on earth for?"

[3.21] "I've never been! I want to go and do all the touristy shtick—see the view from the top of the Daily Planet building, go shoppin' on Fifth Avenue, share a midnight carriage ride in Centennial Park…it'd be so romantic! […] Oh please, Puddin'! Pretty please? Pretty, pretty, pretty please?" […]

[3.22] "To Metropolis it is! And don't forget to pack my thicker socks—it gets pretty nippy there this time of year."

[3.23] "Okay Mistah J."

[3.24] "And some plastic explosive and fuses."

[3.25] "We're not gonna go on a midnight carriage ride, are we Mistah J?"

[3.26] "That depends on whether the Big Blue Buffoon is in town, what the police response time is like and if you can find a horse that doesn't mind explosions." (alocin 2008) (note 5)

[3.27] This constant tension between the macabre and the mundane, and the opportunities it affords for generic subversion and play, go a long way toward explaining fan artists' and writers' interest in the character. In this mode, we do not have to be concerned with Harley's well-being, or what she represents, because it is decidedly nonnaturalistic. We may borrow Dini's metaphor of the funhouse mirror: it distorts rather than reflects.

[3.28] The appropriation and subversion of stereotypes is very much in tune with the conventions of BDSM play. As Noyes notes, masochism is a device for the performance or fictionalization of power structures, gender, and the self (1997, 5, 73, 31). Thus, like the characters of the commedia dell'arte from which Harley Quinn takes her persona (Harlequin), BDSMers belong to the world of Bakhtin's carnivalesque. I therefore move away from medical and psychiatric discourses to consider masochism not as a mindless reenactment of social and gender hierarchies, but as a satirical commentary on them.

4. The masochist as machiavel

[4.1] The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989) still defines masochism in Krafft-Ebing's sense: "the urge to derive pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from one's own pain or humiliation." The most recent edition of the Dictionary of Psychology (Coleman 2009) describes sexual masochism as one of the "paraphilias," "a group of mental disorders characterized by recurrent sexually arousing fantasies." The effect of classifying it in this way is that masochism becomes not an activity but an identity—one that sets those with masochistic desires apart from those with "normal" sexual lives, implying deviancy, sickness, and compulsion.

[4.2] Yet those who write from a position of familiarity with actual BDSM practices do not take kindly to being pathologized. The most vehement repudiation of conventional wisdom on the subject is Anita Phillips's A Defence of Masochism (1998). On the basis of her own experiences with BDSM play, Phillips rejects the negativistic dictionary definition of masochism as a search for "pain" and "humiliation" to offer this one instead: "It is the agreement between two people to explore the roles of master and slave by acting them out for a specified time period" (25). Phillips suggests two main changes to how masochism should be understood. First, she insists on its fundamentally fictive and creative nature, calling it "the offspring of art abducted and operated on by science" (24). Second, and perhaps more importantly, she argues that "masochists are not a complementary breed to sadists" (13). While the conventional binary dualism of sadist and masochist is "bright and shiny…attractively user-friendly" (13), it is also misrepresentative of both the masochist's character and the power dynamics involved in BDSM encounters:

[4.3] Highly autonomous, the masochist's faults are vanity and posturing. While the sadist seeks a victim, and is repelled by the masochist's capacity for pleasure, which diminishes his own, the masochist wants to find a playmate. The opposite number is someone who can be convinced or charmed into acting the role of torturer, not a brutal heavyweight…The perfect choice may be another masochist. (12)

[4.4] In Phillips's scheme, masochists are not passive victims but cunning manipulators. They seek people who can be persuaded or cajoled into participating in sexual games. We may note that in Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, it is the submissive Severin who entices his lover, Wanda, into the dominatrix role, describing his lifelong fascination with cruel women in fur coats to encourage her to step into his imaginative world. First-person accounts by BDSMers collected in Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance and Submission (Brame, Brame, and Jacobs 1997) confirm the submissive's power and dominant's biddability; the editors note that "most dominants seem specifically aroused by their partner's pleasure" and that "many of our interviewees…felt that in the final analysis, the submissive runs a D&S relationship." One such participant, Marie-Constance, states that "dominants are generally submissive to the will of submissives" (78).

[4.5] This conception of masochism as playful has filtered through to fan fiction, which makes increasing use of BDSM tropes. Sex scenes involving bondage and spanking are now panfandom in their popularity, and writers often manage issues of consent by including safe words and verbal contracts in their stories: Jenny Alexander observes that "a clear majority of sadomasochistic fan fics follow BDSM IRL [in real life] codes and involve consensual scenarios" (2008, 126). Fan authors also make use of the kind of subversive BDSM logic discussed above, where self-proclaimed submissives are actually the architects of the fantasies, who then lure others into fulfilling them. Thus, a character like Harley can be constructed as what I have rather archaically termed a machiavel, after the self-serving trickster figure of the Elizabethan stage, whose gift is that of deftly manipulating others while giving them the impression that they are in control (note 6). Their shared conception of this literary-historical character is, I believe, what yokes fan fic writers and BDSMers together. That things (and people) are not always what they seem, and that identity is only a series of masks to be worn for one's own ends, is a philosophy that unifies characters like Harley with Sacher-Masoch's Severin and Shakespeare's Iago.

[4.6] In a PWP (porn without plot, or plot? what plot?) or sex comedy format, the machiavel can be seen enticing a lover to participate in sex or a specific fantasy. In princessbee's short character study, "Quick Learner," for instance, the distracted Joker—busy with plans for foiling Batman—is dragged away by a Harley who knows just how to catch his attention:

[4.7] "Oh, Mistah J!" she swooned, "You're sooooo sexy when you're bustin' the Bat! No one does it like you, Puddin'! Your genius makes me hot."

[4.8] Joker's eyes bulged a little and he leant to give his infatuated moll a vicious, nipping kiss that had her reeling with bliss.

[4.9] "Oh Harley," he sighed, tearing her pretty new panties aside with a lascivious grin, not even looking at them. "You really know how to push my buttons."

[4.10] She squealed in delight.

[4.11] No, she wasn't used to this sort of thing but she was a quick learner.

[4.12] In the end, it was all about getting what she wanted and doing what it took to get it.

[4.13] Maybe Harleen Quinzel only knew one way of being desired and exerting control.

[4.14] Harley Quinn just found another way.

[4.15] Yet fan fiction's genre savviness and ability to perform complex intertextual negotiations increase its capabilities beyond those of BDSM fantasy novellas such as Venus in Furs or The Story of O (1954). In engaging with postmodernism's questioning of both subjectivity and textuality, fan fiction adds new dimensions to the debate about the meaning of masochism.

[4.16] While the early modern stage machiavel's true intentions are revealed in first-person asides, the postmodern text no longer allows us to implicitly trust the words of the narrator, omniscient or otherwise. Flashes of insight are enabled by other means—for instance, a fic's use of multiple points of view to create simultaneous, conflicting versions of events, or to highlight characters' blind spots and supply missing details. Apheliongirl's Maelstrom is a novel-length work from Harley's point of view, but it also has a companion piece called Fugue, which retells the same events as described by the Joker, with understandably different emphases. Placed side by side, these competing narratives become a game in which Harley and the Joker second-guess one another's motivations, and the reader stands as referee. Whether this Harley is timid or a tease, submissive or manipulative, depends largely on whose account you choose to believe.

[4.17] Visual media like comic books and film can further muddy the waters of a character's intentions by seeming to offer external, unmediated views. In the case of Harley's canon, we might contrast her apparently straightforward backstory, Mad Love with a different version, which appeared in a more recent trade paperback collection, Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes (Kesel, Dodson, and Dodson 2007). Mad Love is told by Harley herself in first person, but Preludes appeals to our belief that the camera never lies by offering footage from a long-lost videotape of Dr. Quinzel's Arkham sessions with the Joker. The work presumes that the reader is familiar with Mad Love and sets up some obvious clashes between events as Harley has previously described them, and as we now see them.

[4.18] In the original story, Harley states that the Joker bestows upon her the identity of Harley Quinn as an act of Adamic naming, yet here we see her urging him in their first meeting, "You can call me Harley Quinn, like Harlequin, the medieval jester." In Mad Love, Harley tells us that she was gradually seduced, against her better instincts, but in Preludes, we see her approach him in a predatory fashion. We are never expected to take her plan to write a tell-all book as an enduring or serious goal, and yet when she is captured on film being returned to Arkham as a patient, she triumphantly proclaims the success of her mission to gain full access to the Joker and understand the nature of his psychosis by observing him outside of the confines of the asylum.

Figure 2. "One of Us," Karl Kesel, Terry Dodson, and Rachel Dodson, Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes (2007, 131). [View larger image.]

[4.19] All our fundamental assumptions about the character are called into question: is she a true disciple of the Joker's, or is this persona merely a deep cover? Is she his creation, or is he hers?

[4.20] A fan-made work that similarly utilizes the camera's external eye in order to generate narrative ambiguity is the live-action miniseries The Joker Blogs (2008–10). Here the audience is supposed to believe that they are watching genuine patient interview tapes that have been smuggled out of Arkham and broadcast on YouTube by an accomplice of the Joker; the channel's information tab reads, "The following recordings are for the expressed purpose of medical research and is the sole ownership of Gotham City's Arkham Asylum Psychiatric Rehabilitation Program staff and facilities." During the first story arc (episodes 1–8), the single fixed camera is always trained on "Patient 4479" (aka the Joker), while other characters remain off-camera, or are half-glimpsed as passing torsos. Harley's off-screen presence is a voice; we see her face only in a painting the Joker does, which bears only a dubious resemblance to her: "I'm out of brown paint, so I'm using yellow for your hair. It looks good. You should go blonde. It suits you" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A23OBqmvlVU)—a comment that either hints at his agenda to remodel her or reveals his lack of perception and inability to see her as she really is. Similarly, he reads her revelation of details of her personal life as evidence of his hold over her, yet the audience also receives hints that Dr. Quinzel is using her close relationship with the high-profile patient to drum up media acclaim and funding. He says to her, "I like the attention. You do too, I noticed your picture in the paper a couple of times as well. Went a little heavy on the eyeliner, if you ask me. Is that my influence?" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWVwr6WJlsc). She does not provide him with an answer.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] I have chosen to focus on fan reactions to a single character, but the points I have made about Harley Quinn could be made about any fictional female submissive, and thus they have important ramifications for our understanding of fans' negotiations of both BDSM tropes and gender stereotypes.

[5.2] Female masochism has a complex heritage in Western culture, and it has been the victim of medical anatomizing. Because moral and sexual masochism became confused in the popular imagination during the 19th and early 20th centuries, later feminist critics seeking to dispel the myth that women naturally enjoy suffering clashed with those pushing for sexual liberation and the positive portrayal of BDSM. That female interest in sexual masochism erroneously came to be seen as a patriarchal invention is, I have argued, the root of female fans' reluctance to write women as sexual submissives.

[5.3] Yet what can be achieved with characters like Harley Quinn suggests that there is a great deal to be said on the subject when fans do choose to engage with it. While a submissive female character may appear at first glance to represent values antithetical to feminism, fan fiction's incorporation of the subversive logic of BDSM culture makes it possible to read Harley (and her analogues in other fandoms) in a different light. She does not have to be read as a victim, because it is entirely possible that she is a Machiavellian masochist, the architect of the whole scenario.

[5.4] Furthermore, fan works' engagement with postmodernism's ambiguous subjectivity means that we can no longer tell what apparent submissiveness signifies, or even if it is submissiveness at all. The burden of representation is deflected away from the creator and onto the reader or viewer: in a work like The Joker Blogs, whether Harley is a victim or manipulator depends entirely on what you want to see. The effect is like staring at a Rorschach test card. This is a move from passive to active reading strategies—where creators refuse to inscribe the characters with definite intentions, the reader must supply them in order to generate meaning. By inviting the reader to participate in the text instead of merely consuming it, these works show fan media at its most challenging and creative. A given character may or may not be submissive, but the reader certainly is not.

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] I am grateful to Dr. Darragh Greene, Dr. Dara Downey, Dr. Edel Semple, and Aishwarya Subramanian for their comments. I wish also to express my thanks to Apheliongirl, shallots, alocin, princessbee, and lovedatjoker for giving their express permission to quote from their works.

7. Notes

1. I use the inclusive term BDSM, following the definition of Robert Westerfelhaus: "The acronym can be interpreted thus: BD = bondage and discipline, DS = dominance and submission, and SM = sadism and masochism (the two middle letters do double duty)" (2007, 274n1).

2. For an overview of scholarship on slash fan fiction, see Busse and Hellekson (2006, 17–24).

3. On the term Mary Sue, see Pflieger (1999).

4. Of the 126 male participants, 48 identified as dominant, 42 as submissive, and 36 as switch. Six genderqueer respondents were excluded from the analysis because its subject was "the impact of gender on sexual fantasy content" (Yost 2007, 139).

5. Ellipses in square brackets in this passage indicate authorial elisions; the one outside of them is original.

6. On the convention of the stage machiavel and its basis in Tudor interpretations of the realpolitik writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, see Richmond (2002, 280) and Raab (1965, 56, 70).

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