Games, Transforming Women and why Harley Quinn still matters

(Cross-posted from Cluster and Clash)

I can’t claim to be a big expert on Harley Quinn, but I was interested when the controversy over her 2009 redesign was brought to my attention again, just as the Suicide Squad film goes into pre-production.

There’s no need for me to re-write her history here, that’s been done beautifully by Vharley Essentially, Harley: wise- cracking, homicidal, unbalanced, gloriously amoral and hopelessly in love with the Joker, was a rare gem of the mainstream comic book world. She was a woman who was complex, flawed, smart: a fully rounded character (with very little flesh on show).

Then, in 2009, Arkham Asylum happened. Rocksteady completely redesigned Harley Quinn especially for her appearance in the game:

harley 2

Her personality altered too: she’s purely the Joker’s assistant, often delivering messages to Batman on his behalf. There was outcry, but the game was massive, and when DC introduced her as part of Suicide Squad comics, the artists took the game version of Harley and ran with it:




If this transformation happened back in in 2009, why does it still matter? I find it interesting because it was gaming which allowed this radical shift to occur. Despite protests and demonstrations from the solid Harley Quinn fanbase, the power of the game version of her character has been allowed to take hold, to become (in DC executives minds at least), the way she should be represented. Its helpful to think quite how big the game was, and how easy it must have been to perpetuate this version of Harley: Arkham Asylum sold 2.5 million units within just a few weeks of its debut; the biggest-selling Batman comic of that same month only sold 106,835 copies.

It’s exciting that games can be influential, but when they reduce yet another female character to a sexualised object, it shows how they can have a dangerous knock on effect to other medias. Sexism in the gaming industry is rife. Voices working to change things are loud, and fan-bases championing positive representations of women are strong, but there is far to go: these representations go beyond gaming audiences (which is damaging enough), and filter through to films, toys, culture.

Back in 2011 Guillermo del Toro predicated that games, not Hollywood, will be ‘the powerhouse of creative storytelling within the next ten years.’ Lets hope the games that get picked up focus on the real gems of the gaming world: Mass Effect, Dead Space, Bioshock, or Heavy Rain.


Cluster and Clash: Action Historian; trapeze apprentice, hair of a laudanum addict. I have a PhD in Cultural History and started a blog so I can write about my interests outside of the academic bubble. I write about urban culture, digital technology (including lots on gaming) all from a feminist/womanist perspective.