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Mad Love: Personality Disorders in Harley Quinn & the Joker

Will "Suicide Squad" be true to the original characters?

The long-standing popularity of comic book superheroes is understandable: They represent ideal versions of who we'd like to be. However, a more recent – and potentially even more intriguing – pop culture phenomenon has been the popularity of super-villains.

If they are the people we “love to hate,” why are we drawn to them? Perhaps it’s because they reflect our own dark desires, our own animalist nature that most of us suppress with religion, cultural values, and distraction. This embrace of villains is the foundation for the upcoming movie “Suicide Squad,” in which several enemies from the D.C. universe team up to work for the government.

One of the most beloved comic villains is the Joker (Batman’s long-standing nemesis). However, much more recently, people have been fascinated by a relatively new villain named Harley Quinn. First appearing in the TV Batman animated series in an episode called “Mad Love,” Harley Quinn eventually showed up in Batman comic books, then in her own line. She’s more or less the Joker’s assistant and girlfriend.

Their relationship dynamic is, in a word, abusive. Harley is constantly and consistently manipulated and both psychologically and physically abused by the Joker. It’s important to point out that being a victim of relationship violence is never the victim’s fault. It is always the perpetrator’s fault. The Joker manipulates her and terrorizes her. But that’s not the focus of this article. (Read more about that topic here.)

Today, I’d like to write about whether these two characters display signs and symptoms of personality disorders. Specifically, I believe that the Joker fits a classic example of antisocial personality disorder, while Harley fits the bill for histrionic personality disorder.

Symptoms of personality disorders can be found in the DSM-V, the book that details all mental illnesses. Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by the following common symptoms:

  • Failure to obey laws and norms, warranting criminal arrest
  • Lying, deception, and manipulation for amusement or profit
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Irritability and aggression, including assaulting others
  • Blatant disregard for the safety of self and others
  • Pattern of irresponsibility
  • Lack of remorse

Anyone who has ever seen the Joker in any depiction – comic book, TV, or movie – can see how likely it is that he would be diagnosed as having this disorder. Indeed, Harley Quinn first meets the Joker when he’s a patient in Arkham Asylum and she is assigned to his case.

Yes, Harley starts as a young intern at Arkham (her real name is Harleen Quinzel). The Joker plays on her emotions, pretending to be the victim of childhood abuse himself, making her feel special, all so she will eventually help him break out. So, does Harley display signs of a personality disorder herself?

While she does inevitably become his “girlfriend” (although he never treats her with love and respect) and his assistant, Harley doesn’t appear to have antisocial personality disorder. Instead, her character is closer to a diagnosis of histrionic personality disorder. Those symptoms are:

  • Being flirtatious or seductive
  • Wanting to be the center of attention
  • Provocative clothes (for women: low-cut tops, short skirts)
  • Shallow, impressionistic speech
  • Dramatic and excessively emotional personal presentation
  • Gullible
  • Overestimates the intimacy of their social relationships

Again, it’s almost as if Harley’s character were written to exemplify this list of traits. Her entire relationship with the Joker is based on her “harlequin” clothing, her vulnerability to his manipulation, and her “falling in love” with him almost immediately. Her voice (at least, in the Batman animated series) is high-pitched and immature, as is her language.

It will be interesting to see whether Harley Quinn is changed for the upcoming movie “Suicide Squad.” Will she be shown as smart or gullible? As a feminist or as a sex object? As someone possessing basic morals and loyalty, or as devoid of remorse as the Joker appears to be?

In the comics, Harley's character evolves over time. She stands up to the Joker, leaves him, and has a bisexual relationship with Poison Ivy. I haven't seen the movie yet, but the previews show Harley as sexually objectified and simplistic. I hope she is portrayed as more than that.

Copyright Wind Goodfriend, Ph.D.

Note: Thanks to Ryan Harder, for loaning me all of his awesome comic books.