He's crazy, she's crazy, and, almost as an afterthought, they're all the "Worst Heroes Ever": Warner Bros.' long-awaited "Suicide Squad" movie opens in less than two weeks, and ifthe trailers are any indication, it devotes a significant amount of screen time to The Joker and Harley Quinn.
It's not simply because she seems to wear sparkly underpants for the majority of the film, either. It's because her character Harley Quinn has become wildly popular in recent years. Bolstered in no small part by "Batman: The Animated Series" nostalgia and video game cameos, Harley has wrangled her own solo comic, a couple of team-up series and a new gang, not to mention a hefty chunk of floor space at Hot Topic. With her cinematic debut just around the corner, she's becoming one of the most highly recognizable female villains in fiction.
What's more, she's probably the most important female villain to hit the screen -- in any genre -- in a long time. Whatever approach we see in this cinematic rendering of Harley Quinn will undoubtedly influence the character's depiction in comics, and it may even affect the representation of females as villains in media more generally. Because she's that popular.
That brings us to the matter of how female villains are treated in comics.
The problems began long ago, when the tradition of hero-as-proxy was only beginning. Certainly one of the most important elements of superhero comics since their inception is their function as a means of escape for the reader. Through characters like Spider-Man, readers are given the feeling that they, too, could be heroes (with or without the radioactive spider-bit). For a long while, those readers were largely assumed to be white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men or boys. That's why so many comics feature protagonists with those qualities, often engaged with villains who are the "other." There were clear elements of xenophobia and sexism in the early decades, and heteronormativity is almost always king.
As an avid reader, I'm proud to say superhero comics have come a long way in their treatment of women, people of color and the LGBTQ community. But although we continue to demand that our heroes represent more of us, so that more of us may use them as proxies, there are still qualities in mainstream superhero comics that hark back to more disappointing times.
Case in point: The depiction of female villainy expresses the very hypersexualization and diminutization we have largely purged from characterizations of our female heroes. And, although it's tempting to suggest the villainization of sexual promiscuity will act to undermine the tendency of real women to mimic those qualities, or for real men to desire those qualities, it doesn't really work that way. That's because, unlike male villains, female foes are created to be more like ladies in distress than psychopaths, who need saving rather than shunning.
In other words, female villains aren't free to be the complex characters their male counterparts are, at least not in traditional superhero comics. Instead, they seem to have all of the same limitations.