Cosplay Dossier is a companion column published each week alongside the video show Agents of Cosplay that examines issues and stories behind the costumes.
As you can see from the video this week, Harley Quinn is a lot of different things to a lot of different cosplayers. But the thing that tends to come up a lot with critics is the sexy depiction of a character whose mental illness makes her vulnerable to an abusive relationship. How could any woman, they ask, want to embody a victim of domestic abuse? Worse, why would she do it to make herself more appealing to men?
Every person who cosplays Harley has a slightly different answer to the first question, and Manda Cowled gave a great one in the video that I won’t duplicate here. Regarding the second question, I won’t claim that no woman ever dressed up as Harley Quinn just to please her boyfriend, but a lot of women are also choosing that costume for themselves. I think the cosplay connection to Harley Quinn comes from an affirmational place, not an aspirational one. It’s not about wanting to be in a bad relationship with a guy like the Joker. It’s about recognizing that many of us have been in a bad codependency, had the opportunity to get out, and went back. Harley is the patron saint of the bad choices many smart women make, and by embracing her, cosplayers can embrace their own lousy decisions from a positive place.
I want to attempt to address the appeal of embodying damaged, victimized, or even insane women through cosplay. It’s easy to assume that it’s a glorification of those realities, but it can instead be a celebration of getting out of that dark place, as much as a way to explore it safely.
But first, a bit of disclosure: I tried cosplaying Harley once. I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t connect to the cutesy “Mista J” headspace, because all it did was remind me of all the times someone has told me to smile instead of giving me a reason to smile. Becoming Harley was an unpleasant regression for me. It didn’t have the positive impact that it has for other cosplayers. I didn’t even feel like I looked especially good. I find that happens with cosplay: if I can’t sync with the character, I’m not happy with the physical result.
Personally, Harley terrifies me. She’s everything I hate about the expectations that go with being female – that “stand by your man and be cute and perky” riff never did sit well with me. Yes, I’m aware that I just described much of her appeal to some guys. I’m not interested in appealing to those guys. I don’t assume that Harley cosplayers are solely motivated by appealing to those guys either.
I’m aware that this is an overly simplistic description of Harley Quinn, based mostly on the original cartoon. The depictions of her in the comics are sometimes much darker, so if you’re a Harley fan, don’t take offence to my thoroughly personal opinions. I’m just being honest about my own relationship with the character. If yours is different, that’s equally valid. Cosplay is about exploration, not judgements. Finding out that I hated being in Harley’s skin taught me as much about myself as feeling right at home in Power Girl’s.
And I can’t claim that I’m above cosplaying damaged women — My “serious issues with men” cosplay is Harley’s on-again, off-again BFF/girlfriend, Poison Ivy. Harley and Ivy’s relationship appeals to different cosplayers on different levels: if you saw them as being more than friends, their relationship validated lesbians before it was really trendy. Even if your mental versions of Harley and Ivy are “just friends”, many women have a close friend who is in a terrible relationship, but you can’t help her until she’s ready to help herself, and that hits home with a lot of cosplayers. Harley and Ivy’s dynamic speaks to some pretty deep, uncomfortable things about “girl power” through pinup cuddle poses.
The thing is, Ivy isn’t any saner than Harley, and she’s a victim in her own way – in every version of her origin story she gets involved with a man who tries to kill her. While Ivy didn’t continue the relationship with that man, her life has been permanently warped. She’s driven by her hatred of humanity as much as her love of plants, so that bad relationship is still controlling and defining her. This obviously isn’t a sign of an emotionally balanced woman.
But the fact that Ivy is as much feminist caricature as eco-terrorist is why I find cosplaying her so fun. Perhaps I’m venting some. Perhaps I’m celebrating not ending up like that, despite my commitment to feminism and my vegan phase. Playing villains isn’t the same as really being a villain. In our over-analyzed, highly judgemental, “always on” world, it’s nice to be able to go a little crazy without being judged. Maybe Harley’s co-dependent tendency isn’t something I have to accept about myself. Maybe Ivy’s bitterness is.
There’s another element inherent to these Gotham Girl cosplays, of course, and that’s mental health stigma. It’s a point to note that Arkham Asylum isn’t a prison. It’s a mental health facility. And it is not a nice place. Why does no one in Arkham realize this might be contributing to their super villain problem?! In comic books, a mental illness is often used to “explain” the behavior of the bad guys, when in the real world, mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. I can’t help but feel that the popularity of Batman villain cosplay is a joyful rebellion against this comic book trope. I mean, no matter how many times they lock these characters up, they always escape again. That, in itself, is madness.
The popularity of Harley Quinn, Ivy, The Joker, and other mentally ill Batman characters may be a sign of the gradual decline of mental health stigma. At the very least, it’s a much more exciting treatment of mental illness than the stereotype of a Zoloft zombie. Harley has a unique place in this zeitgeist because she started off intended to be an animated equivalent of a walk-on role. At a time when comic book companies insist they don’t create new female characters or characters of color because it’s too hard to launch new characters, Harley Quinn cosplayers stand in defiance of that.
Now that being said, if you have lingering discomfort surrounding the darker elements of Harley Quinn, no one could really blame you. She’s cute and funny in the cartoons, but some of the places they’ve gone with her in the comics are downright creepy. And, yes, it’s okay to be uncomfortable with the sexualization of something originally intended for kids. Harley Quinn cosplay is hardly the first time that’s been done, however. Cosplayers didn’t create the concept of taboo sexual fantasy. We’re just having fun with it in a way that doesn’t hurt anybody.
That’s a big topic, so let’s leave it here for now: it’s safe to say that the sexual and social politics surrounding Harley Quinn are complex, but that’s the beauty of the art of cosplay: it involves iconic, symbolic characters that cosplayers then embody, saying a lot of things at once, but not in ways that are easily put into words. The only person who knows why they cosplay a certain character is the cosplayer, and that’s a dialogue with themselves that we have no right to interrupt.