Funny Girl Week: In Defense of Harley Quinn – The Rarity of the Female Trickster
In 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.
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.
Now 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?
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy 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.
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