There are few among us who haven’t heard of Harley Quinn. I’m not much of a comic book reader, but even I couldn’t miss the obsession around this fiery baseball bat-wielding woman. And once Margot Robbie played her in the Suicide Squad, it seemed that Harley was all around, particularly during Halloween 2018 and 2019.
With pink and blue frosted ponytails, ripped clothing and an ear-to-ear grin, it won’t take you long to realise that something isn’t quite right with this femme fatal. Most will simply label her ‘crazy’, but others have gone as far as to question what mental illness Harley Quinn would suffer from. When I shared to a friend that I had been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, their response was “Oh, Harley Quinn has that.” Not exactly what you’d hope for, but I’ve had worse reactions.
I have spent a lot of time educating myself in BPD, including examining how the CW show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend portrayed Borderline Personality Disorder. And so, I decided to dive into the mysterious world of Harley Quinn, and discover whether or not she qualifies for BPD.
There is plenty of evidence to diagnose Harley Quinn with Borderline Personality Disorder. To give you a quick introduction to the disorder, BPD is a significant personality disorder that affects both your sense of self and the stability of your relationships. We’ll run through some of the major symptoms below, but you can check out my previous article for an extensive explanation of BPD.
1. Fear of abandonment
This is one of the major markers of BPD. Individuals with this disorder will do whatever ever it takes to avoid real or imagined abandonment. In a relationship, this could be using sexual acts, or in general with emotional manipulation and pretending to be something they’re not. They are terrified to be alone, and they are constantly dreading the worst.
Harley Quinn stays with the Joker despite his poor treatment of her. She goes out of her way to please him and impress him, terrified of losing him. When he leaves her, such as in the new Birds of Prey film, she is a wreck. Harley exhibits the primary BPD symptom of trying to avoid abandonment at all costs.
Part of the unstable relationships that individuals with BPD have comes from their black and white views of individuals. Someone is either perfect or horrible, the best or the worst. Harley Quinn appears to view the Joker in this light, seeing him as the best person ever despite all the evidence to the contrary. The initial attention gifted to her is enough, along with small doses to keep her going and ensure she continues to idolise him. Her obsession with him is unhealthy enough to be deemed BPD worthy.
Individuals with BPD struggle to control their emotions. I feel easily overwhelmed by my emotions, as they are often not under my control or don’t even feel like my own. I would often be told that what I was feeling was ‘wrong’. Harley Quinn is everything or nothing. She is an ecstasy of happiness or a pit of sadness and pity. Her anger is the most remarkable, as she is fierce and terrifying, able to kick ass with ease. The manner in which she loses her temper is indicative of BPD. Such mood swings can explain why BPD is often mistaken for Bipolar Disorder, but the difference is in the lengths of the mood swings. BD mood changes will last days, weeks or months, while BPD mood swings can switch back and forth within hours.
Individuals with BPD have a tendency to act impulsively. This can be to avoid imagined abandonment, or a result of their varying moods. There are high correlations between BPD and addictive behaviours, including substance abuse, sex, gambling and shopping. Many individuals with BPD report a feeling of emptiness, and use these activities to try and fill that void. Harley is the queen of impulse, running around Gotham and causing mayhem. She acts and thinks after, if even then.
5. History of abuse
Not so much a symptom, but rather a cause. Many individuals who suffer through abuse will go on to develop BPD. This doesn’t just apply to physical abuse, but also emotional or psychological. It is a coping mechanism, a way for their mind to survive, and the issue is that this behaviour becomes imprinted on their personality even when it is no longer needed.
Don’t be too hasty, as even though there is evidence that Harley Quinn could have BPD, there are also many stones still left unturned.
Mainly in the comics, Harley Quinn is was seen to suffer from visions or fantasies, which could easily be interpreted as psychoses. This is not a trait of BPD but is actually a symptom most commonly associated with Schizophrenia or Schizotypal. BPD does involve a weak grasp of reality, but not to the extent of hallucinations or delusions. One could think that Harley suffers from these too often to qualify for a personality disorder, and instead struggles with a paranoid disorder.
As shown by too many Halloween costumes, Harley Quinn is primarily known for her sex appeal and short shorts. She oozes seduction and is consistently flirtatious and vivacious throughout the films, series and comics. Individuals with BPD can use sex and be known for promiscuity, but the level to which Harley excessively exhibits these traits is more indicative of Histrionic Personality Disorder. Many consider HPD to be a subtype of BPD. Other symptoms of HPD displayed by Harley include her shallow, impressionistic speech and overestimating the intimacy of her social relationships.
Until recently, women were rarely diagnosed with ADHD, and this led to many misdiagnoses of BPD, such as through the mutual symptom of impulsive behaviour, yet the difference lies in the cause of such behaviour. ADHD can occur alongside BPD, but it is more likely that the individual has been incorrectly diagnosed. Harley’s ADHD is apparent in her hyperactive nature and temper tantrums.
Before she was Harley Quinn, she was Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. This is where she met the Joker, and her life was changed from there. But is her mental illness a result of his influence? It is unlikely, given that personality disorders manifest from a young age and consist of learned behaviours. It is more likely that the Joker and his abuse were the final straw for her struggling mind, and the trauma released the personality disorder within her. Don’t forget that personality disorders, and many mental illnesses in general, have genetic markers and inherited roots. BPD and other personality disorders usually manifest between the ages of twenty and thirty, making it likely that her existing condition would become apparent during her post-study work at the asylum.
No one can give someone a personality disorder. They can contribute to it, they can cause lifelong trauma, but a personality disorder is more than a reaction to trauma. It is a reconstruction of your sense of self; it is woven in so tightly with your identity that many therapists fear even to approach it. The Joker may have lit the match of her mental illness, but she weaved those splinters together and was born with the wood.
It seems highly likely that Harley Quinn has a personality disorder, but I doubt that it is Borderline Personality Disorder. Harley seems to qualify for HPD, and the over-sexualisation of herself could indicate trauma of a sexual nature from a young age. She also likely has ADHD or another attention based disorder and is struggling through a lot of trauma.
You may wonder, why does it matter what we would diagnose a fictional character with?
1. To move away from the easy label of ‘crazy’. This term is extremely harmful and generalises a vast spectrum of mental illnesses. By exploring her symptoms, we move to more exact terms and away from this hurtful label.
2. To help people understand BPD and other personality disorders. They’re still an unknown area of mental illness, and I hope that by applying it to characters that we recognise, we can stop the mystery and fear regarding personality disorders.
3. To normalise mental illnesses. They are all around us. One in four individuals will struggle with one, so let's start bringing them into the conversation. By talking about mental illnesses, we normalise them and allow individuals to seek help and open up about their struggle.
If you have another character you’re curious about, mention it in the comments and I will explore which mental illness would most likely apply to them, if any at all!
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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