We receive more questions and requests for "Mad Love" than any other episode of Batman: The Animated Series. And now, it's time that we cover it! This is Harley Quinn's origin story: When an eager, determined early-career psychologist encounters the charms of a tortured clown considered "untreatable" by doctors at Arkham Asylum, the most dangerous, provocative, and beloved couple in pop culture emerges. It starts simple. The psychology intern, Harleen Quinzel, perhaps gets caught up in her own idealism and conviction that she could cure the Joker of his violent and homicidal ways. Seeing the vulnerability in her, the Joker engages willfully in their therapy sessions, sharing stories about his abusive childhood and upbringing.
Tactfully, his storytelling combines and confuses humiliation and humor; pain and pleasure; abuse and laughter. Harleen is pulled in. When she realizes she could rescue the Joker from the system that continues to torture him, her alter-ego, Harley, is created. The beginnings of their relationship show us that their connection starts with these confounded feelings and forms the starting point of the unhealthy partner violence we see later. Due to being packaged with the slapstick tones, familiar musical beats, and comedic style established by Looney Tunes, the show conveys battering in a way that, although disturbing and tragic, is seemingly allowable in the era of '90s animation.
In this episode, we discuss the overt partner abuse displayed between Harley and the Joker on screen. Notably, we point to the less commonly discussed nuances in abusive relationships: coercion, threats, intimidation, minimizing, isolation, and gaslighting. The more overt behaviors like physical violence and sexual assaults are often accompanied by an array of these other types of abuse that establish a pattern of intimidation and control in the relationship. Understanding the whole array of power and control allows us a way in to healing and recovery. In fact, advocates and therapists have moved away from the concept of the "cycle of violence" to capture the "phases" of abuse. Rather, battering and control occurs in a more complex, less-predictable way.
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