Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Suicide Squad: The Precipice of Dominance and Submission

Note: After suffering a little burnout this summer resulting from some research and revision, I needed a slight break from my regular subject matter. This entry is a departure from my usual posthuman, technology-related posts. It contains mature content and covers topics such as BDSM (bondage, discipline, submission, and sadomasochism), and D/s (Dominance and submission) -- topics which I often discuss in my philosophy & gender courses. Links included here are not explicit but some are not necessarily safe for work. Themes may be disturbing for some. For more information in safe and responsible D/s practices, please see the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. And always play safely and responsibly!

August 2018 update: I've updated some the links, but they tend to keep moving around. 

David Ayer's Suicide Squad had a lot going on. Cutting through the critical reviews and the general noise that always surrounds DC movies (some critics said it needed to be funnier, yet others said it needed to be darker), I'd like to focus on the relationship between Harley Quinn and the Joker. To be clear, there are somewhat disturbing portrayals of violence and abuse in regard to their relationship. The Joker is a sadistic, psychotic sociopath. Harley is equally disturbed -- and a case could be made that her own behavior is a product of the Joker's abuse. But I believe that there are subtle cues in the film that present an alternative reading of the Harley/Joker dynamic, presenting a darkly veiled Dominant/submissive relationship.

The relationship between the two has always been an interesting one, especially since it first evolved in the 90s Batman: The Animated Series. Quinn was a rare character created for a peripheral DC medium who made it into the comic canon. Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel started out as the Joker's therapist in Arkham Asylum, only to be slowly manipulated and brainwashed by the Joker until she had her own psychological break, becoming a villain in her own right. Even in the animated series, she was ruthless and chaotic, showing a penchant for oversize mallets, guns, and the occasional cartoonish bomb. As she evolved through the comics, and became a more well-rounded, complex character, it became apparent that under her ditzy facade was a calculating, sometimes terrifying persona whose only psychological and emotional loadstone was the Joker himself. She was very much her own person, but her chosen center was him. Her relationship with the Joker eventually became more complicated, and she has also been associated with other DC villainesses, most notably Poison Ivy, with whom she recently became romantically involved. 

While Harley's sexuality has evolved in the cartoons and comics, Suicide Squad explores a deeper facet of her sexuality: Harley is a submissive to the Joker's Dominant. The interesting part, however, is the complex, stylized -- and often insightful -- way in which their D/s relationship is portrayed on screen. Rather than being a stereotypical, Fifty Shades of Grey-type submissive, she is a very strong, positionally independent sub; meaning that when not in the presence of the Joker (and even when in the presence of the Joker), she is what Michael Makai would call a "Warrior Princess Submissive." Although the label is somewhat misleading given the sometimes pejorative connotation of "princess,"[1] it aptly describes Harley Quinn's role: "She is the wicked-smart, strong-willed, uber-competent, ultra-competitive, synergistic, switchy [as in, can also play the role of Dominant when needed], crusader. She's no one's doormat, never a victim."  There is very much a sense of independence to Harley Quinn, so much so that her devotion to the Joker outside of D/s circles might seem paradoxical. But, as Makai continues: "she is willing and able to fight the good fight alone, but welcomes the notion of having a worthy partner fighting by her side. And yet, when the day's fighting is done, she is perfectly at ease with considering herself entirely his -- heart mind, body, and soul. She is important because she may just be the hope and salvation of this [D/s] lifestyle."

Cultural clues to her participation in a D/s relationship are peppered throughout the film in a few recognizable bondage archetypes. When she is transported around in prison she is restrained -- at one point with a ball-gag. And when she is later tortured by the Joker, she is strapped to a gurney and gagged with a leather belt. She also wears a collar bearing "Puddin," her nickname for the Joker. For a mainstream audience, the fetish imagery is enough to either disturb or titillate in the same fashion as images of Bettie Page or Dita Von Teese -- fetish legends themselves who have been portrayed as both Dommes and subs (Mistresses holding whips or in dominant positions, or submissives who are bound/gagged or otherwise in subservient positions). 

But the relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad presents a very clear D/s relationship for those who identify as in the D/s or BDSM spectrum. Through a D/s lens, Harley's devotion to the Joker is a choice -- rather than a type of codependency.[2] This, I believe, is where most would disagree, maintaining that Harley has been manipulated by the Joker and brainwashed, especially given the lack of an explicit moment of consent. However, if we broaden our view to take into account Dr. Quinzel's qualifications as a psychiatrist and her capacity to recognize a patient's ability to manipulate others, her fascination and eventual complicity becomes a reasoned choice given her history. While this would not immunize her from codependency completely, the grey area of when and where she decides to begin to engage the Joker as a "warrior submissive" is clarified when we take into account the logos of the comic book universe of which she is a part.

In the tradition of Batman-related villains, we see that even those who are "turned" (most notably, Harvey Dent/Two Face), often do so because they have a potential or latent tendency which drives them to crime. The basic formula of the Batman canon of DC is that an emotionally seismic event of some kind (usually the death of a parent, spouse, or child; or something life-threatening to the individual him or herself), forces a choice to engage the character's darker nature. This brings out the individual's "true" morality, and allows them to tap into latent abilities (either human or metahuman) which enables them to bring justice or chaos to a world which they become convinced needs it. The same generally holds true for heroes within the Batman (and broader DC) universe: in a "moment of truth," heroes face the choice to use (or not use) their powers.  This is dangerous ground when applied to a female character who is potentially victimized by a male antagonist. But even though problematic, I do believe that the Joker/Harley relationship as presented in Suicide Squad contains enough elements to support a D/s read. As per her history in the DC universe canon, Dr. Quinzel understands the danger in engaging with the Joker. She is aware of his capacity to manipulate. She is not a patsy to a "superior" intellect or to emotional/psychological blackmail. She chooses to take the leap into the Joker's world.

In terms of D/s sexuality, dominance and submission is a spectrum -- and  those who identify themselves as a part of the spectrum tend to know where they fall at a young age, even if they have no label for it. Images of characters being tied up or otherwise restrained can often cause "strange" feelings that, as adults, a Dominant or submissive can retrospectively identify as the first clues of their sexuality. If we speculate for a moment that Harleen Quinzel falls on the submissive side of a D/s spectrum, her attraction to the Joker -- more specifically, his power -- would make sense, especially since Quinzel herself is often portrayed as a gifted psychologist. She is strong and independent, making her choice to "submit" to the Joker even more significant and -- to some -- more moving. The Joker-as-Dominant also seems obvious on first viewing, albeit briefly. The Joker is a sadist and enjoys inflicting pain. He revels in the physical, psychological, and emotional pain of others. Let's make one thing, clear, however. The Joker is psychotic (as is Harley). His desire to harm or injure others against their will is sociopathic and morally wrong. Furthermore, one need not be a sadist to be a Dominant. But in his interactions with Harley, we see a D/s dynamic pan out quite clearly.

What I really liked about Harley Quinn was that she was a powerful character in and of herself. This is the part that is often misunderstood about D/s relationships: it is not about weakness vs. strength, it is about power and how the Dominant and the submissive engage with it. The term "power exchange" is a good one, but I think that it often puts forth the idea that submissives completely "give up" their power when in the presence of  a Dominant and/or according to the "scene"[3] in which the two are engaged. "Giving up" implies that power is "taken" in a one-sided fashion. However, the satisfaction that the Dominant achieves is contingent upon the submissive. A responsible Dominant must be completely in-tune with the desires, limits, and needs of the submissive; the Dominant must be able to "read" the sub and guide the scene accordingly. Hence, there is an exchange of power, since one word or signal by the submissive can immediately end the scene. A good Dominant, while ostensibly in control, follows the submissive's lead.  Additionally, each person in a D/s relationship must be clear about his or her boundaries, expectations, and hard limits. Each much be completely honest with each other before, during, and after a scene. The often parodied "safe word" or safe signal is an absolute that all parties must honor. Dominants have boundaries as well, especially if a submissive desires a scene that involves something that is either physically dangerous for the submissive or emotionally troubling for the Dominant. The contract works both ways. The submissive may be literally bound by the Dominant, but the Dominant is figuratively bound by the submissive.

Harley does have influence over the Joker because she is very much a strong woman at every turn -- whether or not she's in the presence of the Joker. When he is absent, Harley takes initiative, never needs rescuing, and has a keen insight into the psyches of the other characters, and she effectively manipulates them and uses them to her advantage. She asserts herself at every turn, and shows almost reckless confidence. She is also physically formidable, and tends to dispatch opponents with a baseball bat over a gun; and when cornered by multiple foes she takes them down with a balance of precision and showmanship. She does not cower. She does not stammer. She does not defer.

While it may be difficult (and for some, morally questionable) to separate the Joker's psychotic, homicidal, sociopathic, and generally murderous tendencies from his role of Joker-as-Dominant, there are definite markers that show a Dominant sexuality. As a Dominant -- and like anyone who either dabbles in D/s part time or lives a full D/s lifestyle -- he is drawn to power. One could say that his obsession with Batman is very much an aspect of that. Homoerotic theories aside, the Bat is someone who also wields power in a theatrical and effective way. With Harley, however, there is a challenge. Dr. Quinzel is smart, clearly strong, and very much her own person. Joker-as-Dominant is not "turning" her as much as he is "courting" her. The fact that he is in a straight jacket during their therapy sessions is not inconsequential; it highlights the fact that his seduction is an intellectual one. He must, like any responsible Dominant, allow Dr. Quinzel to make the choice to commit to him. Again, there is clearly manipulation, but Dr. Quinzel would know when he is trying to manipulate her. Like any responsible and insightful submissive, she knows what the Joker is trying to do and understands those advances. Ultimately, she chooses to engage. And she makes the choice long before she has any physical contact with the Joker.

From a Dominant perspective, anyone who is easily manipulated is not someone with whom a Dominant would want to "play," because manipulating someone into a submissive relationship negates their power, eliminating the passion that results from authentic desire. Someone who makes a conscious choice to submit is not only strong mentally, but strong in their own identities. They know who they are, they know what they want, and they know from whom they can get it. Harley Quinn decides to shed her identity as Dr. Harleen Quinzel and commit herself to a relationship in which she gives herself fully to him. She is "collared" with her name for him ("Puddin"), and she places herself in an orbit to him which still allows her the freedom to fully express herself

I know that I'm on shaky ground here, especially for those not familiar with D/s relationships. In the film, Quinn's "transformation" would seem to be predicated on a electroconvulsive torture session with the Joker, who straps her to a gurney, holds two electrical leads, and says the film's iconic phrase "Oh, I'm not gonna kill ya. I'm just gonna hurt ya, really, really bad."

Dr. Quinzel's response: "I can take it."

By no means am I justifying non-consensual torture. But, from a D/s perspective and in a comic book film idiom, the torture session is part of Harley's extended "transformation."  It is very much their "first scene," and Harley does, indeed, take it, proving her strength to the Joker, and the fact that her opinion of him -- and her commitment -- hasn't changed. If anything, it's shed her of the "person suit" (to borrow from Hannibal), that was Dr. Quinzel and allowed her to be a 24/7, out submissive. Soon after, Harley stands, literally, at a precipice, with bubbling chemicals below. The Joker asks "Would you die for me?" to which she quickly assents and is willing to prove.  The Joker immediately amends his question:

"Would you live for me?"
"Careful. Do not say this oath thoughtlessly. Desire becomes surrender. Surrender becomes power. You want this?"
"I do."
"Say it. Say it. Say it. Pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty please."
"Oh God, you're so GOOD."

Harley then allows herself to fall backward, plunging into one of the vats. Harley's "baptism" is the final step of her transformation. For some, this would prove that Harley has been utterly "brainwashed," and is the Joker's pawn. However, from a D/s perspective, this is Harley's "test" of the Joker -- a moment in which he must make a choice to pursue her -- and thus uphold his side of a D/s contract: to be devoted to her, to commit to her, and to allow her to be the submissive she is -- in all of its strength and power.

Ironically, the only moment of hesitation comes from the Joker himself. After she falls, he starts to walk away. But he pauses -- almost begrudgingly -- turns, and then gracefully swan-dives to her rescue, cradling her in his arms as they rise from the ooze. The Joker's choice to jump in after her places Harley in a position of power and is indicative of a confirmed power exchange. She has set the parameters of their relationship, and the Joker's dive seals the contract. He will always come back for her (at least in this film), and often at great cost. In many ways it is a dark, D/s version of the Superman/Lois Lane relationship established in the current DC film universe. Where Harley is, the Joker will follow. As with a deep D/s relationship, both partners must consent to commitment, understanding their specific responsibilities. Of course, in the film, the contractual nature of a D/s relationship isn't necessarily explored explicitly. But the Joker's dive, and his very explicit devotion to his submissive show a clear sense of obligation he has to Quinn, not to mention that fact that stages a massive rescue operation to break Harley out of a heavily-fortified prison at the conclusion of the film.

Together, the Joker and Harley are a formidable partnership. Their mutual devotion allows each to express themselves fully (albeit psychotically). Harley's devotion to the Joker does not entail a mindlessness, or a deferential attitude. Harleen Frances Quinzel chooses to express her power by transforming into Harley Quinn, a willing participant and "Warrior Submissive" to the Joker's "Ineffable Dominant"[4]  Conversely, the Joker willingly gives himself over to his submissive by his implicit commitment to her, even putting his own life at risk. In one of the more poignant scenes in the film, when Harley believes the Joker has been killed in a helicopter crash, she removes her "Puddin" collar and stares forlornly through the rain. There is a sense of foreboding to the scene as well, since without the Joker as her chosen center, she no longer has a focus for her energy. The scene hints that Harley will now be more dangerous and unpredictable than she ever had been before.

I don't expect the DC film universe to pursue this relationship in its entirety, but I do think that David Ayer's portrayal of the Joker/Harley relationship is much more complex than it seems upon first viewing. Sadly, I doubt that the same executives responsible for re-cutting this film (and Batman v Superman) would take the risk of giving the Joker/Harley D/s relationship the attention it deserves.

[1] Personally, I drop the "princess" and call this type of submissive "The Warrior."
[2] For an excellent discussion of the differences between codependency and submission, see "Submission and Codependency -- A Discussion" from the His Left Side Angel blog.
[3] An encounter involving BDSM role-playing and/or specific instances of power exchange which may or may not be sexual in nature.
[4] According to Makai: "The Ineffable Dominant .... consciously explore[s] and borrow[s] traits and characteristics from other dominant categories. The synergy created with each new partner brings new facets to the Ineffable Dom's unique (and sometimes indescribable) topping style."