I’m a huge fan of DC comics. Show Arrow and Comic Batman are my favorites. (What can I say? I like the broody types.) I recently came across an article picking apart and analyzing the relationship between Harley Quinn and the Joker. In general, it’s pretty widely acknowledged that both the movie and comic relationships between these two characters are unhealthy and abusive (though the movie relationship is less so). However, there is some debate over whether Harley Quinn can be viewed as a feminist icon because, as a villain, she fights Batman and other heroes just as well as the other male villains.
I think this is crap. I’m not trying to discount Harley Quinn’s abilities–but her villain abilities alone, in spite of all her other character traits (most notably, her obsession/addiction to the Joker), is not enough to make her a feminist icon. Just because Harley Quinn can fight like her male counterparts, doesn’t automatically mean this is a step forward for women. While I’m intrigued by the character of Harley Quinn, I don’t think she is a feminist icon, and I don’t think other women should view her as such. She’s interesting, she’s multifaceted, she’s tragic, she’s compelling….but she is not a feminist icon.
I won’t go into the reasons why I think Harley Quinn isn’t a feminist icon. That’s another post for another day, though I’m sure the reasons why I don’t believe she’s a feminist icon aren’t all that groundbreaking and are already known by others, especially DC fans.
The fact that Harley Quinn can hold her own in a fight and be in the same league as other male villains doesn’t make her a feminist icon. Feminism is equality–but when we say a that a character or a person is a feminist icon or a champion for feminism just because they can do the exact same thing as a man–all that does is continue to play into the idea that men set the standard, that men are the example. Which, paradoxically, is anti-feminist.
I sometimes wonder if we need to re-evaluate our understanding of how to achieve equality between the genders.
When we talk about equality between the genders, we generally look at it as women having the freedom to do all the same things men can easily do (and take for granted). It started out as having the ability to get an education. To vote. To work. To work in the same fields. To have the same pay. All of which I completely agree with. Why wouldn’t you want to have all those same opportunities that men have?
Where some of this gets a little muddled is in less concrete aspects. For instance, there is a double standard where if a man has multiple romantic/sexual partners, he’s often celebrated by how much he “scored”–at least among his male friends (not necessarily by women). On the other hand, if a woman does the same thing, she’s viewed negatively. It’s like that lyric in Christina Aguilera’s song “Can’t Hold Us Down.” So, in this sense, does equality mean women having the freedom to have as many romantic/sexual partners as she wants without the negative labels, just as men have? In this case, I don’t think we can define equality using this standard–because these sorts of actions should not be a standard. It’s not something to celebrate. Like, all men have the freedom to act like fuckboys, and we want that freedom too? This is all down to personal preference, but women having this kind of behavior should not alone be considered a win for feminism. An actual win for feminism would be fewer men acting like fuckboys, and more men being respectful towards women. Or, if you prefer the open relationship type thing, also more men being respectful and honest with their partners.
In terms of rights like legal rights, equal pay, equal career opportunities–the standard of equality is the one set by men–because there’s no other standard. Men have had plenty of opportunities that women have not. So, naturally, for men and women to be equal, women should have the same education, career, and financial opportunities as men. It doesn’t make sense to decrease the opportunities granted by men–because what good would that do? But when it comes to things like social conventions, things that aren’t as easily defined–I don’t think we should always define equality as just doing what men do and being able to keep up with them. I mean, it’s one thing to want to have the freedom to express yourself and live your life in whatever way you choose–and that in itself is a vital part of the feminist movement–but I think there should be more emphasis placed on men also being influenced and doing what women do. We often celebrate women who are tough, who can fight, who are strong-willed and independent–because they demonstrate characteristics that are typically associated with men, and because these characteristics show that women are not dependent on men to live a good life and make an impact on society. Which makes sense, because men historically didn’t really need to depend on women for economic opportunities and such. And so, it’s a good thing when women can be independent. It shows progress.
But, how often do we celebrate men who are more gentle-mannered or soft-spoken or emotionally intelligent? Those are characteristics typically associated with women, and having a man display these characteristics would also be a form of gender equality–yet we rarely talk about this. Just like it’s good for women to feel free to be tough and independent, it’s also good for men to feel free to be emotional and sensitive. While it’s great for women to learn to be aggressive, to ask for promotions, to learn to fight or be good at math….it’s also great for men to learn to be a little more patient, to learn to take a deep breath and listen or learn ballet. I think lately, what I’m seeing as “wins for feminism” are women doing things that men have typically done. Which is awesome, for the most part. But an equally important “win for feminism” would be men doing things that women have typically done. Men taking on household duties, or choosing to be a stay-at-home parent during the first few months/years of their children’s lives–while their wife/partner works and takes home an income. (Side note: This is actually what my parents did. My mom worked, my dad stayed home, and it was the best thing ever. My dad is amazing dad…he made sure I knew how to read before I started kindergarten. Seriously, men can do just as great as job as women at being full-time parents. None of this “it’s a woman’s nature” and “men are helpless when it comes to child-rearing and household” bullshit. We’re all human. We all have brains. We can all do it.) Or men choosing to be nurses, or teachers–two fields that are incredibly important and rewarding, yet have always been associated with women. If it’s viewed as progressive when women feel empowered to be engineers or join a male-dominated career field, why can’t it also be progressive when men feel free and empowered to join a female-dominated career field? Equality isn’t just women working their way up to the level where men are. It’s also men working their way up to the level where women are. It’s not about viewing certain fields as “tough” or “girly.” It’s about choosing what’s best for you, and having the ability and opportunity to do so. I think it’s really easy to get caught up in thinking that feminism is all about tough women being able to keep up with the men. But we shouldn’t forget that, just as often, men need to be able keep up with us. That’s equality.