[This article is adapted from our superhero podcast: It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast!]
In 1957, an 18-year-old named Charlie in Lincoln, Nebraska was trying to buy a stuffed animal at a service station on credit. Charlie had a bad temper and a reputation around town as a bully. He’d dropped out of high school and gotten kicked out of his house, so his life was a mess in general, and the store clerk’s refusal to sell him the stuffed toy on credit was, evidently, the last straw. Charlie left the service station, returned with a shotgun and forced the service agent into a car. He drove him off to a remote area outside of town and shot him in the head.
It was Charlie’s first murder, and the only one he would ever lie about. After burying the body, he drove to the home of his 13-year-old girlfriend Caril and confessed to robbing the man, but not killing him. Caril would later tell police she hadn’t really believed his story, but she pretended to at the time. And that pretending would cost Caril severely.
Two months later in January of 1958, Charlie went back over to Caril’s house, only to find her gone and her parents sternly warning Charlie to stay away from her. By this point, Charlie believed that he’d entered what he called “a new plane of existence,” in which normal laws and rules didn’t apply to him. “Dead people,” he would later theorize, “are all on the same level.”
By the time Caril returned home, her entire family was dead. Charlie had killed Caril’s mother, Velda, and stepfather, Marion with a shotgun. He had also killed the couple’s two-year-old daughter Betty Jean. Caril would help him hide the bodies.
The two then embarked on the killing spree that would make them famous. Charlie Starkweather and Caril Anne Fugate would murder ten people throughout Nebraska between January 21 and January 28, ranging from a 70-year-old friend of Caril’s family to a couple of teenagers who offered to give them a ride. They embarrassed local police who identified the couple but were unable to catch them. They stole cars and jewelry. They were the most famous criminals of their day.
Their story would be immortalized in 1982 in a quiet, haunting, almost tender song by Bruce Springsteen called, simply, “Nebraska.” It also got the Terrence Malik treatment in Badlands starring Martin Sheen as Charlie and Sissy Spacek as Caril (though their names were Holly and Kit in the film).
The public’s fascination with the Starkweather Murders was always bolstered by the presence of Caril, the 14-year-old girl who went along with her boyfriend out of love, fear, fascination, or some toxic mix of the three. The legal system would later spend a lot of time trying to figure out just how culpable Caril was in Starkweather’s murder spree. Was she equally guilty? Was she a victim herself? Charlie would insist that she’d pulled the trigger on a few of their victims — something Caril would deny — but the evidence also found that Caril had had opportunities to leave Charlie, so the court said she was just as guilty as her boyfriend. He was given the chair. She was sentenced to life. She is the youngest woman in American history to be tried for first-degree murder.
Ten years after “Nebraska,” Paul Dini and Bruce Timm were working on a new episode of Batman: The Animated Series and came across a unique problem. They wanted Batman’s arch-villain the Joker, to pop out of a cake, but the move seemed a little bizarre even for Joker’s standards.
Dini was reminded of an old episode of Days of Our Lives, in which actress Arleen Sorkin appeared in a jester costume — it struck Dini as just the sort of getup the Joker might have a henchman — or, in this case, a henchwoman — wear. So he created a female sidekick for the Joker and, in a nice bit of symmetry, even got Arleen Sorkin to voice the character for the show. Sorkin gave her a Younkers affection, and a very Joker-esque love of mayhem, sadism and chaos. Harley Quinn was born.
The character was intended to be a one-off, a walk-on role. But her characterization and Sorkin’s brilliant vocal performance made her a hit. She would return to the animated series and, eventually, appear in the Batman Comics themselves. It was there that it’d be explained that Harley Quinn was actually Dr. Harleen Quinzell, a psychiatrist who had worked with Joker during his time at Arkham Asylum. She eventually fell for him, developing an alarmingly dire case of Stockholm Syndrome for Gotham City’s clown prince of crime.
Despite her disastrous taste in men, Harley Quinn was frequently shown to be a masterful criminal. While she was forever outsmarted by the Batman, the show didn’t demean her abilities or cunning. Her only real fatal flaw was her desperate love for the Joker, who would treat her either like a bumbling sidekick, an annoying pest or, occasionally, a genuine girlfriend.
This is a long way of saying that Harley Quinn was clearly in an abusive relationship, something Batman: The Animated Series accidentally found itself depicting without really understanding how to handle it in a sensitive way. How does an animated superhero show address toxic romance? That’s the question that has followed Harley Quinn’s entire existence.
Harley proved so popular that she moved out of a children’s TV show and into the actual Batman canon. This would prove to be a more suitable environment for discussing Harley’s complex mental and emotional state, but DC Comics didn’t always exploit this the right way. Early on, Harley’s traditional jester costume was traded in for more of a leather fetish-y, burlesque vibe that was ostensibly about giving Harley an exhibitionistic streak but was pretty clearly in place for male readers to drool over.
But there were other, more positive developments. Harley’s arcs became more clearly based on actual abusive relationships, and what’s more, Harley seemed to possess a growing awareness that she deserved better than the Joker’s cruelty. She would strike out on her own and even develop a healthier, more equal friendship with another Batman villain: Poison Ivy. Later comics would even depict Harley and Ivy in a romantic relationship which, for all the lawlessness and crime sprees, was certainly a more emotionally healthy place for Harley to be.
But Harley Quinn would almost inevitably always return to the Joker’s side — either because of Joker’s grand gestures of romance or because of Harley’s own pull towards his deviance.
The difficulty was, of course, that this made Harley’s entire existence dependent on the Joker. Later origin stories would even show Joker pushing Harley into a vat of acid so that her skin took on the eerie paleness of his own. While this made her brand much more in line with his, it also made her a toy of his twisted creation. It’s not hard to believe that Joker is capable of such a thing, but it removes Harley’s agency from the equation altogether. Harley’s legion of fans who’d been drawn to her because of her offbeat humor and complex emotional life now found that their anti-hero was little more than a prop for her boss.
And she became a prop for the readers too. In an infamous 2013 contest, DC Comics asked its readers to draw depictions of Harley attempting to commit suicide by carrying a toaster into a bathtub. The contest rules explicitly called for Harley to be naked.
Fans were outraged and DC issued an apology, but the contest is a good picture of DC’s own difficulty with Harley Quinn. She’s a manic pixie dream psycho who requires a delicate hand to be drawn realistically, in a way that does service to real struggles of the emotionally and relationally abused. When well-handled, Harley’s an important character who provides a real picture of a complex woman. When she’s not, she’s just another offensive female trope.
So we come to her depiction in Suicide Squad. Margot Robbie’s performance is one of the film’s less bad things, but she’s poorly served by a script that can’t seem to figure out what kind of character Harley Quinn is. Is she one half of a twisted love story? Is she just one more trick in green-haired Jared Leto’s bag full of them? At the movie’s best, she’s shown to be a victim of Joker’s mind games. This could be a sad, if not completely unrealistic look at a woman manipulated into the service of her psychopathic boyfriend, except that the movie also wants Harley Quinn to be a picture of empowerment and sensitivity. It also wants blatantly wants her to be a mesmerizing piece of ass, and none of this fits into any coherent characterization.
But then, that’s always been the trouble with Harley Quinn. She’s a good character — even a great one. DC Comics just can’t figure out how to prove it.
Caril Ann Fugate only served 17 years of her life sentence at the Correctional Center for Women in York, Nebraska. She was a model prisoner, and got released in 1976. She moved to Lansing, got a job as a medical technician, and even got married in 2007, when she was 64 years old. That marriage would end tragically in 2013, when her husband was killed in a car crash.
Caril’s still alive today. She has always maintained her innocence.