A DC Comics Villain Made Me a Better Me

This article features no spoilers for the 2016 Warner Bros. Film, Suicide Squad

Despite having mixed feelings about DC’s latest film endeavor Suicide SquadI came away with one resounding impression:

Harley Quinn was rad.

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I first learned about Harley Quinn/Dr. Harleen Quinzel from a high school friend who has cosplayed as her for years (and loves her more than I love anything, for the record!), and was very intrigued by her storyline. She seemed more to me than just, “the Joker’s girlfriend,” although she’s usually limited by that very label. She was a psychiatrist interning at Arkham Asylum who was manipulated by the Joker and fell in love with him. This led to her transformation into Harley Quinn, the Joker’s accomplice and member of the Suicide Squad.

When I heard that Harley was going to receive her first live action debut in the form of Margot Robbie, I joined the masses in thinking that this was a great choice. However, once I saw a trailer that featured this shot, I got slightly concerned:

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Subtle, guys. Real subtle.

Some controversy had sparked about Harley’s nontraditional costume anyway as soon as initial set photos leaked, but this shot seemed to preview what was almost sure to be an entire movie oversexualizing the character. Robbie is easily one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen period, but were intentionally titillating images like this really necessary?

After the pile of smouldering ashes after a garbage fire that was Batman v. SupermanI was ready to go into Suicide Squad hating it, especially after it was receiving initially terrible critical reviews. The only reason why I was willing to spend the money to see it was Harley herself: I was convinced Robbie’s acting would be worth it, and I was pleased to find that this assumption was absolutely right. The movie itself was a resounding, “meh” fest, but Harley easily stole the show. Not only that, but I left the theatre a different person because of her: Harley Quinn impacted me in a way I never anticipated.

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Settle in. It’s about to get real…

Insecurity, as sad as it is, has become a normal part of growing up and a normal part of being alive.  It’s so easy to look in the mirror and sneer at your complexion, the size of your ears or nose, or the shape of your face or your waistline. Growing up in today’s society is especially problematic to young people, as ideals of what it means to be “beautiful” or “handsome” forms very early on from images plastered, flashed, displayed, and put at the forefront of every aspect of the media we consume. It dictates what we believe is desirable, and can therefore influence our opinions on ourselves and others. Every trait becomes a comparison, looks we deem desirable instantly become commodities to be bought and sold, and we consider ourselves lesser, attempting to change ourselves to meet unreasonably high standards.

It certainly has been that way for me. I so often believed that if I was “prettier,” better things would happen to me. I would look on with envy at the girls I considered, “beautiful,” thinking naively their natural gifts immediately granted them a better life than I could ever imagine. I find it incredibly sad that it was only a few years ago that I stopped believing this. I now know better: there are just as many insecurities rushing through them as there are in me. We’re human, we’re fallible, and we all have our flaws. It’s largely consumerism that has formed this way of thinking.

So even though I do agree with feminists, concerned Harley fans, and critics that Harley Quinn’s character has grown increasingly oversexualized in the DC Comics Universe, especially for a character intended to serve as a symbol of domestic abuse, her first live action iteration left me feeling confident and proud.

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In this version, Harley knows how beautiful other people find her. It even surfaces in a line of dialogue spoken in the movie, where a member of the Squad calls contrasts her exterior beauty with her “[ugliness] on the inside.” Her beauty doesn’t define her, however. She’s been chemically altered and psychologically manipulated, and as a result is a loose-cannon; unpredictable and manic. She’s a fierce fighter, a bit zany, and bad-to-the-bone. Just as how this version of Harley isn’t completely driven by her subservience and love for the Joker, she’s also not merely eye candy: to the character’s credit, she uses her sexuality as just another weapon in her artillery.

It was almost a subconscious change that occurred in me after the lights in the theatre came up: I remember walking out and into the bathroom, passing by a full body mirror on the way by. I stopped and smiled at the reflection I saw. Damn. Eyeliner on point! I recall thinking. As the day went on, despite feeling rather ill, I made my way through various shops with a pep in my step. I felt different. I felt good. I felt comfortable in my body. I even ended up buying a swimsuit, and when I tried it on, the response I had wasn’t the typical, “Well this one sucks the least,” but rather, “I look amazing in this one!”

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Precisely.

And no, I’m still not totally happy with how I look as of present. Speaking strictly from a health perspective, as of right now I am about fifteen pounds heavier than I should be, and I know I have to take better care of this body so that Future Me doesn’t completely resent Past Me (no more Pringles, Jessica. Pretty much ever.). So improvement will always (and should always) stay in the forefront my mind. But watching Robbie emanate that character who was so comfortable in her own skin and in everything she did made me want to feel exactly the same, and I truly believe that longing triggered a reaction that made me feel more confident with the hand I’ve been dealt.

So I guess what I’m saying is that we need to turn this culture of chasing “ideal beauty” on its head: instead of comparing ourselves to what someone else considers “perfection,” let’s try to adopt the air of confidence that surrounds that label. Let’s try living it up inside every inch of our own bodies just the way that they are. Move, act, and be secure exactly as you are right now.

And if that’s not working for you, then you can always take Margot Robbie’s beauty regimen to heart, although it might very well turn you into  Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. You were warned…

Cover photo by author. All gifs from giphy.
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