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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Funny Girl Week: In Defense of Harley Quinn – The Rarity of the Female Trickster

CoyoteRoadIn 2007 Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group USA, published the anthology The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales. It was edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, and edited edited (if there’s a better term of this, I’d love to hear it) by the great and wonderful Sharyn November (who, as luck would have it, initially edited my own book Funny Girl, which we’re celebrating on the blog this week).  Prior to reading this book I was vaguely aware of trickster tales as a form, but had put no real thought about their make up.  In their Preface, Datlow and Windling defined the term “Trickster” as follows:

“… an unpredictable and irrepressible figure found in stories all around the world. A liar, a thief, a clown, a troublesome meddler, and a sacred world creator, Trickster is a paradoxical creature who is wily and clever, yet also very foolish; he is both a cultural hero and a destructive influence, usually at one and the same time.”

Note the use of the pronoun “he” near the end of that quote. A trickster is, more often than not, male, though there have been known exceptions.  Coyote Road itself contains several stories where the trickster is a woman, but more often than not she doesn’t embody the form quite as fully as her male counterparts.  You read that description just now.  A true trickster is clever AND foolish.  A hero and destructive.  Half the time female “tricksters” are trapped in marriages and the like.  That’s no life for them.

Which brings us to Harley Quinn.

HarleyQuinn

Okay.  So you’re going to have to bear with me here.  Harley Quinn is a character that holds a lot of fascination for me these days.  She’s everything that’s wrong with superhero comics and their creators, while at the same time containing the germ of an idea that could, if worked out correctly, yield something truly interesting.

For the history of Harley I recommend you read The Hollywood Reporter piece The Story of Harley Quinn: How a 90s Cartoon Character Became an Icon or, far better, the Vulture piece The Hidden Story of Harley Quinn and How She Became the Superhero World’s Most Successful Woman.   Long story short, Quinn was created as a Joker girlfriend for the TV show Batman: The Animated Series.  When I was younger I used to babysit a kid who would watch these in perpetuity and, inevitably, my favorite character became Harley.  She was a terrible role model.  Willingly trapped in an abusive relationship with the Joker, there was still something really appealing about her.  She didn’t wear revealing clothing (tight-fitting, yes, revealing, no).  She kicked jerk policemen when they sexually harassed her.  And there were a couple episodes in there where you could see her when she was nowhere near the Joker, and you know what she was?  Funny.  Hilarious even.  Destructive and a hero.  Clever and foolish all at once.  She was, as it turned out, a female trickster.  And, sometimes, a female superhero with a sense of humor.

Because let’s be honest here.  Men get Spiderman and Tony Stark and The Flash and loads of other fast-talking, funny superheroes.  And until the rise of Squirrel Girl (with her novels penned by, yes you guessed it, Funny Girl contributor Shannon Hale) and the new Ms. Marvel, it was bloody hard to come up with funny female superheroes.  I love me my Wonder Woman but she does not quip.  Batgirl doesn’t crack wise.  Supergirl is earnest, not hilarious. But Harley?  When they keep her close to her original form (not that Suicide Squad babydoll version) sans Joker, she’s actually pretty darn impressive.

HarleyQuinn2Now we find the DC Universe attempting to wrangle Harley into her newest form: kid-friendly DC Super Hero Girls.  Author Lisa Yee has been penning the Superhero High books and each girl in the series is to have her own tome.  And somewhere in there, nestled amongst the Poison Ivy and the Katana, is Harley.  She’s got a gigantic hammer.  Being funny is part of her personality.  So while there are horrid versions of her out there, I like where this is going.  Maybe she’ll get a decent movie out of all of this someday.  Maybe maybe.

Looking for other female trickster characters in children’s literature?  They’re out there, though they’re usually wise or wed.  The best one I’ve ever found is, without a doubt, the female Coyote character in the book The Coyote Columbus Story by Thomas King.  Coyote is a marvelous combination of smart and infinitely stupid.  It’s a delight to read.  If you haven’t sought it out already, please do.  Plus she plays baseball.  What’s not to like?

CoyoteColumbus

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Very interesting! I like the idea of Harley Quinn being a female trickster! Please elaborate some time on why she’s everything wrong with superhero comics. You’ve really got me scratching my head trying to think of prior funny superwomen — maybe it wasn’t possible until now when they’re written with more independent agency. (P.S. Please fix one of your links. Both go to the same Hollywood Reporter article.)

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Dur. Doggone links. Correcting.

      So Harley willingly subjects herself to a violent, abusive relationship out of a misguided sense of “love”. Her love of abuse isn’t precisely the best message for the girls, to say nothing of women. And yet, there is good to the character! Great good!

  2. Nick Smith says:

    I think that her breaking away from traditional character roles is one of the reasons that Harley is so popular. In folklore, the few female tricksters seem to be playing tricks in defense of themselves or their families…shapeshifting to get away from an assailant, or pretending to be more dangerous to protect their children.
    Most of the “wise fools” or adventuring tricksters in folklore were male, probably because they were the ones allowed to wander around getting into trouble, in the real-world cultures attached to the stories and songs. Also, I suppose that moms didn’t tell bedtime stories about women acting too silly, because it would undercut their Mom authority.
    Even Squirrel Girl isn’t really a trickster character, other than her occasionally victimizing Tony Stark. I mean, he can spare a suit of armor now and then, right?
    She’s doing goofy stuff for a purpose, though, not out of a sense of chaos.
    Also, a lot of Batgirl stories did include touches of humorous banter during fights. She’s not always grim and scowly…

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  1. […] Quinn: Trickster: Betsy Bird sees Harley Quinn evolving into a female version of the traditional folk-tale […]