Cutting heroines down to size


It’s time for another of my bemused visits to the DC Universe and, more specifically, the curious attitudes of some of its fans.  I have already written (at some length) about two characters: Power Girl and Harley Quinn.  When I wrote about them I noted that in both cases there was something anomalous, for Power Girl it was the weird objectification to which she is subjected, in spite of the fact that it does not fit at all well with her character, and for Harley Quinn it was the somewhat strange way that her numerous fans seem to prefer her to suffer a hopeless and pointless love rather than get on with her life.

Thinking about things a bit more, I realised that there is, in fact, a common theme underlying both cases, that is to say that the heroine needs to be cut down to size before her fans can identify with her.  And this, then, leads on to fascinating parallels with the progress (if that is the word) of the modern romantic comedy.

So here’s what I’m going to do.  I’ll start off with a quick summary of the relevant points regarding Power Girl and Harley Quinn – if you want to know more, read my essays about them.  Then I’ll put forward my theory as to why they are both inconvenienced by their fans.  And finally I’ll cast the net a bit wider, seeing just how prevalent the cutting-down-to-size phenomenon is.

Meet the ladies

Power Girl

Carefully ignoring a certain amount of confusion, it is safe to say that Power Girl is Kara Zor-L, Superman’s cousin from another universe.  She’s at least as strong and powerful as him (possibly more so), is immune to Kryptonium, and has a very strong character and powerful intelligence.  Not having spent her childhood among humans, she has little of Superman’s love of humanity, and it shows: she’s tough, stroppy and a natural leader.  She also has very large breasts and wears a costume that leaves no doubt about it.

That last bit looks rather out of place doesn’t it?  Yes.  Exactly.  That’s the problem.  The thing is, here we have a character who is a natural feminist icon – she’s immensely powerful and intelligent and doesn’t take crap from anyone – and yet she is regularly depicted in a way that makes it clear that what matters is not her intelligence or her leadership qualities, but her breasts.  She is objectified horribly, making it very hard to take her seriously as a character.  During the worst period of objectification (interestingly, when the artist drawing her was a woman) she was given silly plot lines, like what to do when a kid has found your secret identity and uses it to blackmail you to go to the comics store with him, so his friends will think he’s cool?  Fortunately, shortly before her recent unfortunate downgrade from superhero to trophy girlfriend, she did recover some of her dignity, but the image of her as a Playboy bunny who hits people lingers.

Harley Quinn

Harley Quinn is generally described as the Joker’s girlfriend, but things are a bit more complex than that.  She originated on Batman The Animated Series, but was so popular that she transitioned to the DC Universe proper, where she eventually acquired her own title.  As a result, she has two origin stories, one set out in TV-spinoff comic Mad Love, the other in the eponymous Harley Quinn comic.  We need to compare them.

Mad Love version

In this version, Harleen Quinzel  was a student who wanted a job as a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, so she could write a tell-all memoir and retire on the proceeds.  Not actually having the smarts to do this, she got what she wanted by sleeping with her tutors.  Having arrived at Arkham, she starts out as the Joker’s therapist, thinking he will tell her juicy secrets, but actually he seduces her, destroys her mind, and turns her into Harley Quinn, his crazed side-kick.

Harley now suffers from unending adoration of the Joker, while he is only really interested in her in so far as he can use her for his own ends.  Therefore she is subjected to endless humiliation, rejection and violence, but always, always comes back when he calls.  And there you have it: a woman with no future, with no special talents or abilities, who has got where she has by the good graces of men, whom she rewards with her body or her devotion.  Scarcely a good role model.

Comics version

Both versions agree that Harleen Quinzel was a psychiatrist, but they differ somewhat on the details.  Here, Harleen had no need for help: she is described as having a formidable intellect, and picked up the posting at Arkham by virtue of being brilliant.  When at Arkham she becomes the Joker’s therapist, but now she seduces him.  She tells him about the Harleen Quinzel = Harley Quinn pun, whereas in the Mad Love version, that is his idea, and she clearly makes the move on him.  She has already decided that she is Harley Quinn before she has even met him.

Why she does this is rather interesting.  When at university, she carried out a rather cruel psychological experiment, using her boyfriend as guinea-pig.  Unfortunately, he became so distraught that he committed suicide.  The affair was kept quiet, but Harleen concluded that life was, in fact, a cruel joke, and having done so, looked about for people with whom she could share this world-view.  The choice was obvious, so she set about doing what was needed to catch her prey.

So here we have a decisive, powerful woman who directs her own life.  She just happens to be somewhat deranged.  When the Joker becomes too much, she dumps him (with considerable violence) and sets out on her own, or (more usually) in partnership with Poison Ivy, with whom she starts to develop a proper relationship.  She eventually manages to rehabilitate herself and actually play a more or less positive role.  And she is also one of the few people who has more or less worked out who Batman is.  This Harley Quinn is no joke.

What’s with these people?

Harley Quinn

So, we have something a bit strange going on here.  The comics version of Harley Quinn is, modulo the whole psychopath thing, equally quite a good role model, in that, as I’ve said, she’s pretty formidable herself.  And yet of her legions of fans, the majority think that the comic book version is a travesty and prefer the dim bulb of Mad Love.  You only have to compare the smiles on the pictures of the two Harleys to see the difference.  Mad Love Harley wears a lovesick simper, gazing adoringly at her man.  Comic book Harley’s is the smile of a woman who is in charge, knows what she’s doing and is enjoying it.   To make what that means totally clear, then: the fans disdain a genius who chose her criminal life, and would rather be a woman whose only asset is that men will do her favours in return for sex, and who ends up controlled by an insane love.

This is a strange kind of role model for women, and that is the thing.  Once could understand men finding an easy lay who adores her man more attractive than a capable woman, but the fans we’re talking about are women.  Why would they prefer an easy lay over a genius?  What it seems to be all about is low expectations.  Being a dependent trophy girlfriend is easy: all you need is surgery and sufficiently elastic morals.  Rising to the top of your profession by sheer hard work is much harder.  So Mad Love Harley is more easily achievable.  But what are the rewards of being her?  Harley doesn’t seem to get any reward: her life is bleak in the extreme, used by the Joker when he needs her and thrown away (sometimes literally) when he doesn’t.  The only thing she gets out of it is the knowledge that she is in love, and her (dubious) belief that one day she and her love will be together.

When you look at it, that isn’t much of a goal, to be honest.  It seems strange to be prepared to live a life of self-abnegation and hurt just so you can have a man of your own.  And yet, this seems to be what it’s all about in contemporary woman-oriented romantic fiction.  For example, the horrendous Twilight saga preaches deeply regressive sexual politics on the grounds that the heroine may end up as  cipher, but she has a love that will ring down through the ages, and is joined with her love in ecstasy at last.  And somehow the fact that she has two attractive pseudo-men wanting her at the same time is meant to be sufficient achievement for any young woman.  And the same is true, as I have said elsewhere, of modern romantic comedies.  We repeatedly see the basic plot of successful single woman pretends she is happy, meets man, realises she hates her life and ends up choosing to become his plaything.  And again, as with Twilight, as with Mad Love Harley, it’s women who consume this regressive tosh, and so we must conclude that they seriously do think that romantic love is fulfillment in itself. Me, I’d rather be a top psychiatrist.

Power Girl

So, we can see that the strange preference for the dim Harley over the bright one is a matter of preferring to aim low, belonging to a culture that tells you to aim low, to not try to stretch yourself.  Before we consider that further, let’s look at Power Girl and her vast tracts of male fans (though she has her fair share of female followers too).  Power Girl should be a formidable figure and a feminist role model.  Instead she’s a bit of a joke, butt of endless bad breast jokes.  Well, this seems to be the opposite side of the phenomenon we’ve just discussed.  Women want to be airheaded bimbos because that’s what men like, and men like airheaded bimbos because they’re frightened that a real woman would threaten their quaintly antiquated notions of masculinity.  And, of course, the fact that the women they interact with behave like airheaded bimbos reinforces those notions of masulinity, so we have a rather nasty feedback loop going on.

Now, a woman like Power Girl is a terrible threat to a man who thinks that the act of possessing testicles is somehow in and of itself a major achievement.  She’s smarter than him, tougher than him, stronger than him and can wither him with a stare without even having to resort to her laser beam eyes.  Clearly that is an affront to the dignity of men everywhere, so the only way a woman like that can be allowed to continue is if she is cut down in size, reduced from something frightening to something a man can relate to in a way that makes his superiority absolute.  And, well, sex is how you do that, isn’t it, for no woman can resist any real man, of course.  And so Kara’s increasingly grotesque hypertrophy is a way of indicating that she may be frighteningly capable, and more or less a goddess, but basically she’s sexually available, and hence conquerable really.  And this reaches its insane conclusion in her latest transformation, from Power Girl to trophy girlfriend of Mr Terrific, being cast as the nasty blonde whom the nice girl puts right in a speech of staggering ineptitude: ‘I am a black woman, made to be able to do things you can’t even imagine…’ Presumably Kara is too polite to reply ‘Fancy; I’m a Kryptonian,’ or else, as would be more characteristic, just throw the silly girl through the wall.

The bigger picture

In a series of pieces starting with The Tyranny of Realism, I attempted to understand why it was that, despite vastly greater capability and resources being available to their makers, modern films are almost uniformly less interesting than those made in the past.  In fact, there almost seems to be an inverse relationship between the capability of visual effects and the imagination with which they are put to use.  The conclusion was essentially that audiences are less willing to work than they used to be.  They don’t want to have to use their imaginations or think or be challenged; they just want a simple adrenaline surge.  So modern films are about simple stuff like explosions and things hitting other things and more explosions and sex and even more explosions.  Looking at the wider culture, this seems to apply elsewhere: effort is out, spoon-feeding is in.  Homer Simpson started out as a satirical figure; now he is a role model.

And, unfortunately, the same applies here.  As I said above, any woman can aspire to be Mad Love Harley if she diets enough and knows how to fake an orgasm.  The life of comic book Harley may be much more interesting an rewarding, but she has to do hard stuff like work and lead a gang and so on and so forth, while Mad Love Harley just does what her man tells her.  And, for the men, though Power Girl would be a great woman to aspire to be the partner of, she wouldn’t be entirely likely to tolerate her partner being a slacker who spends all his free time in a bar or in front of the TV.  So, naturally she is reduced from a woman to a pair of breasts, turned into something safe and easy to relate to, because relating to breasts doesn’t require any effort, and have no annoying personality.  And now she isn’t even Power Girl, she’s Karen Starr, and is just some man’s toy.  She has been utterly neutralised.  And what has happened to Harley Quinn is unspeakable.

So, in conclusion, I think we have to say that though it is now possible to understand why these two women of power are so misrepresented, and how that fits in with the culture they inhabit.  But, while that culture would say that we should just accept it and not strive for anything better, I think we should.  Write fanfic where Power Girl is elected as President of the United States.  Create websites celebrating the real Harley Quinn.  Stand up for women, even if they don’t want to be stood up for.


10 responses to “Cutting heroines down to size

  1. Hmmm… a very interesting article, that I really don’t have time to respond to properly. I’m not particularly up on the latest developments with these two characters, but I do remember Power Girl making an impression on me in my teens as she fell (literally, in fact) into the arms of Firestorm during one of those regular JLA/JSA crossovers. She struck me as rather young and sweet at the time. And big-breasted, naturally. Which, when you’re a teenage boy, you tend to notice. Which is probably the point.

    In terms of character, though, I seem to recall her being ‘feisty’ but, probably because she was too powerful for the story (something that used to happen a lot with JLA at the time), she was incapacitated pretty early on. Her original costume (of which the current one is a variant) was also interesting in that it had a piece cut out of it pretty much the same position and shape as the ‘S’ on Supergirl’s outfit would have been. It’s almost as if the creators were drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that she’s *not* Supergirl. As well as her breasts, of course…

    In the early 90s the character underwent a significant remodel. The costume became skin tight and yellow/gold. The cleavage disappeared, although, as the costume was *very* skin tight, this made very little difference to the kinds of issues you mention above. And the hair got shorter. And her height was really emphasized too. In short, she came across as very butch. But she was written as being almost constantly pre-menstrual – and a figure of lust for a ludicrously juvenile Wally West. Which kind of emphasizes your point. While the character was powerful, she wasn’t *fun* or particularly interesting. I’ve not been keeping up to speed on her solo comic, unfortunately. Maybe I should…

  2. If you read this it’ll give you a pretty good ideas about the degradations that poor Kara has been subjected to over the years. The 90’s version with the skin-tight costume and the astonishing bosom is, if anything, even more eye-popping than those with the hole!

    On the subject of the hole, just before Infinite Crisis, Kara revealed to us that she had originally intended to put a logo there, but she hadn’t been able to think of one, and she knew (sob) she wasn’t good enough to borrow Superman’s. So she just left a big hole that wasn’t strategically placed at all. Oh no. As retcons go, it’s pretty stupid. But then, that’s true of pretty much every retcon that has ever affected the poor thing.

    Recently she had her own title, and the first 12 issues were basically superhero lite, with lots of breast jokes and everyone (even the villains) being terribly nice. Thank heavens, in issue 13 they got a new writing team who actually gave her something interesting to do. And then, just as she’d got her dignity back, the whole ‘New 52’ thing happened, and now (as I said) she’s a trophy girlfriend.

  3. Pingback: More from Power Girl | Julian's Books

  4. Interesting analysis, Julian. We’d like to know how female comic book fans respond to it, like the ladies at Girls Gone Geek and Girls Read Comics Too. We suspect females like to read emotional relationship dramas like Harley’s more than seeing her as a role model, but your points are well taken. The world is certainly full of people (male and female) engaged in unhealthy and degrading romances. The flip side of Power Girl’s appeal may be the overtness of her physique, the raw sexuality she suggests. Most women seem to want to acheive two ends, which sometimes come into conflict: being desired for their sexuality, yet respected for their identity. And as men, we seem to have a difficult time doing both of those at the same time. We do totally agree that as far as role models go, these two characters aren’t very good ones. Z from DMZ might be a better one.

  5. Thank you for your article.
    I kind of diasagree with your point about Harley Queen though. I think people like Mad love version more not because it is easier to be the woman who love than the woman who achieves eveyrthing by herself, but because it seems to be a nicer story- a psychic maniac Joker and his insane slave who is doing everything what he wants. Joker himself a prince of crime, a prince of evel. There is just no need in second villain who is equally smart and ambitious. It is just better and smoother for the story to see a mad slave next to such genious villain than another powerful ambitious villain. At least that is why I prefer Mad love Harely more, such Harley just looks to be a better fit for the current story. But that is only my opinion.

    • I find it hard not to see ‘Mad Love’ as an essentially tragic story. Harley has thrown her life away for a man who rejects her, and nearly kills her, and just when, at the end, she seems to be coming to her senses, one word from him makes her forget all he has done to her. It isn’t a nice story at all. I think (and certainly some of Paul Dini’s comments suggest that he would tend to agree with me).

  6. Pingback: The new objectification « The Porter Zone

  7. Hi,

    I ran across this piece while looking for less boobular images of Power Girl. I am a woman and I enjoy superhero comics, in fact I write about them. I am very fond of both Power Girl and Harley, but I enjoy them as characters, not as aspirational role models. I doubt many women would want to be the Harley who is pining for the Joker’s unrequited love. But I have to say, I much prefer the way less sexualized Harley of Mad Love to the hypersexualized (and now kind of crazy sexualized) Harley of the new DCU.

    I think a lot of women are fond of Harley because they recognize her, if not in themselves at one time or another, but in other people around them–people who have had their self-esteem systematically destroyed and their sense of reality distorted by abusive partners.

    But more, I think a lot women like the Harley from the animated series because she undermined the seriousness of the Batman, for her friendship with Ivy and because, when it came down to it, she could take the Joker, all without being objectified. Not so much for the emotional rollercoaster of her abusive relationship with the Joker.


  8. Can you do a story on Zatanna?

  9. Can you do a story on Zatanna? Please?

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