Joker and Harley’s relationship is as much popular as it is messed up, totally unhealthy, and dysfunctional. This couple has so many fans who love to read the two villainous clowns’ adventures. But, for obvious reasons, there are also plenty of people who really dislike the ship.
Their relationship often gets misinterpreted either by being romanticized and softened (like in ‘Suicide Squad’ directed by David Ayer) or brutalized to a point where neither Harley nor Joker seem to be their true-selves (like in the New 52, that new Harley fans seem to love).
However, the perfect balance between unhealthy and light tenderness can be found in many other comics. According the Paul Dini, who co-created Harley and her relationship with Joker, a good example is “The Joker” by Azzarello. Paul Dini specifically mentioned one particular panel where Joker was weeping on Harley’s lap. Joker is cruel throughout the whole comic and never explicitly says anything sweet to Harley, yet in that little moment, he opens up to her. She and him are intimate, and there was what Dini called an “unspoken tenderness” in that moment.
But let's first talk about the relationship before modern Harley came in and ruined the so loved jester.
Harley appeared for the first time in “Batman The Animated Series” in the episode “Joker’s Favor” as Joker’s henchman. With time she managed to become more and more popular due to her lively personality. Since fans asked for more of her, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm worked on and published the now popular novel “Mad Love”.
The comic is pretty sad and tragic: Harley and Joker's abusive relationship is at the center of the attention for the first time. But it also is a good exploration on Harley's creation, indeed we get to see how Harley fell in love with the homicidal clown in the first place.
She was a new therapist in Arkham Asylum and did everything in order to become Joker’s therapist, so that she could write a book on him and make money. It's implied and hinted at that her aim as a psychiatrist was never to help people: she openly tells her colleague she feels this attraction to criminal minds and that there's an element of glamour to them. It's also underlined how she managed to get her degree: she used her beauty and body to get good grades through college. That doesn't make her a terrible person (not yet), but while examining her psychological profile, Batman says that her sweet appearance hides an obsessive and dangerous mind. Harley is good at hiding her true self but has always had psychotic tendencies.
When she became Joker's psychiatrist, the clown only saw her as a way to spend his time while he was locked up. Harley, certain that she could handle him, found herself losing the humanity she had in the process of trying to understand if Joker had any humanity at all. The sessions didn't cure Joker. Instead, they brought her dark side out.
She sets him free after he returns battered from a fight with Batman. Joker does not ask her to, she was meant to be an entertainment only, but to his surprise she dresses up as a jester -- a character which pairs closely with a clown -- and sets him free acting of her own accord. He bursts in laughter as they run away. He had just found a person that was messed up enough to love him for what he is.
But that doesn't make him become any kinder towards the sentimental jester: all he cares about is fighting Batman and every time she gets in the way, he beats her up. Indeed, at the end of Mad Love, he throws her out of a window and once she gets locked up in one of Arkham’s cells, she finds a message from her lover: “Get well soon. -J”.
Joker and Harley’s dynamic is quite complex and fascinating, their Bonnie and Clyde style always attracted fans. They’re two mentally ill individuals, therefore to expect them to have a sane and healthy relationship wouldn’t make much sense, but there is much more to their relationship than just slapping each other.
In BTAS, Joker was not the only one who was abusive. She beat him up (although not as often as he did to her) and made deals with Batman to capture him and verbally abuse him. Joker didn't obviously mind and, truthfully, Harley didn't either. For two psychotic villains, this relationship isn't that abnormal. What Harley minds is not getting the attention she wants (that's why she tries to kill Batman in ‘Mad Love’), but not the criminal life she has started itself.
A perfect example of their dynamic are the episode “Harlequinade” and the comic “Batman: Harley Quinn (1999)”.
In ‘Harlequinade’ Harley is locked in Arkham while her lover is about to destroy the city. Batman and Robin make a deal with Harley: freedom in exchange of help and a lead on where Joker is. She accepts and goes with them. Harley's words prove how she doesn't care about Joker destroying the city. Instead, she cares about her freedom. That might be why she once tried to go back to having a normal life (Harley's Holiday), but since her true self doesn't fit normality, she ends up going back to her old, bad ways.
At the end of the episode they finally find Joker and she breaks the deal with Batman after jumping into Joker’s arms. They decide to watch the “fireworks” together, but before they can do that, Batman reminds Harley that her lover wasn’t going to bust her out of Arkham before making the city explode. They have a fight and Joker tries to run away in vain, because his helicopter crashes. When he lands, Harley is pointing a gun at him. After teasing her with sentences like “you don't have the guts”, Harley actually pulls the trigger, but the gun turns out to be fake. Joker glares at her, and to everyone's surprise -even Batman and Robin- Joker picks her up and hugs her: “Baby, you're the greatest!” (he seemed actually glad she pulled the trigger, as if that proved she had the guts).
In “Batman: Harley Quinn” (1999, written by Dini) Joker’s feelings are explored even better. Here Harley's origin is still the same; but before Joker tries to kill her for the first time, the comic explores how they spent time together: they danced together, planned their attacks on Gotham together, became intimate, and overall had fun.
But the day after that, Joker tries to kill Harley by sending her away via rocket, but before he does, he explains why:
“Y’see, over the past few weeks, I've felt some changes coming over me since you entered my life. I've been reminded of what it's like to be part of a couple, to care for someone who cares for me. It's the first time in recent memory I've had those feelings...and I hate having those feelings! They're upsetting, confusing and worse, distracting me from getting my share of Gotham now that the gettin’s good!”
Joker admits he felt a change in his life, but he doesn't like it at all. It's not hard to believe Joker could hide whatever he feels and neglect it, considering what kind of messed up individual he is. Obviously that doesn't justify anything he has done to her, just like Harley’s feelings don't justify her extremely obsessive, clingy and stalker behavior when it's about Joker. Neither does it justify all of her cruel criminal acts. Because let's face it, the way Harley treats him isn't constantly loveable, at all.
For example, in “Batman Adventures” #3, Joker comes back from Arkham cured and normal. If he didn't love her, he'd simply tell her that and break up, like a normal person; instead he gives her flowers, writes her poems, gives her all the love in the world. That’s literally Harley's dream coming true... or maybe not. She actually almost kills him in order to get her homicidal and cruel lover back which she does manage to do!
That's because Harley wants to be loved back, and she’s deeply sad when he shows her he doesn't, but that doesn't change the fact that she doesn't want an ordinary relationship. Indeed, in comics, when she pictures her future with Joker, she sees herself married to him and other children, but they're still criminals! In her dreams she isn't normal, nor is Joker or the children (reminds me of when she and J kidnapped the little Tim Drake and literally tortured him, an innocent child, and turned him into J Junior).
While Joker could simply kill her, shoot her in the head or try anything else that's just as simple, he never gets rid of her for good. Actually, he lets her come back every time, because he low key likes her presence.
He has been extremely jealous and possessive as well (like in Harley Quinn 2000 #1, where he shows to be very jealous and still tries to kill her in the end- he's quite a prick), probably because she reminds him of his first wife (“It’s the first time in recent memory I've had those feelings…”), Jeannie, who died when she was seven months pregnant with his child.
Meanwhile in the New 52 their complex dynamic becomes just an on-and-off thing where they hit each other and sometimes kiss. Basically, the writer makes Harley say she's totally over him (which is good for her) to then just bring Joker back and let her beat him up. Or in the New 52 Suicide Squad, Joker finds Harley, kidnaps her, and locks her up in a room with skeletons of people dressed like Harley, which is totally out of character since it makes it look like in his free time Joker has been obsessing over her and created all that mess just to kill her (in this issue Amanda Waller herself says that Joker actually loves Harley in his own, twisted way; yet that comic still was a joke to the couple’s shippers).
That’s why even Joker and Harley's fans didn't enjoy seeing them together: it was a terribly written comic that just ruined the whole dynamic.
Back to the comics that really count, whether the love is mutual or not there are many people who like them as a couple and who want more of their stories. Plus, the writers continuously change how Joker feels about her, which is something understandable, but when it's about the canon continuity they should keep in consideration the basics and fundamental characteristics and respect them.
It is inspiring, even in fiction, to see a woman getting out of an abusive relationship, that's why some people rightfully hate this couple. But for the reasons I've just explained, other people love it and are fascinated by it, but they don't obviously glorify abuse.
Moreover, instead of turning a villain -- who used to love being a criminal and whose character was built around her obsession and love for Joker -- into a hero and taking all of her principal characteristics away, why not actually make female superheros do inspiring acts? If fans really want someone to look up to and to learn from, they shouldn't look up to villains who were never meant to be a good example in the first place. If criticizing people who like this couple makes you feel on a higher moral ground, then you shouldn't like Harley, a murderer, to begin with.
These characters are fictional, they don't exist and therefore what we read in comics doesn't hurt or happen to anyone. Joker and Harley are iconic and loved by a huge audience, their stories left a mark and they will always have a place in future comics, so let people enjoy!