The Glorification of Mad Love
The purpose of this paper is to examine activism and the emergence of slacktivism in the digital age. This paper will give an in depth look at the professional cosplayer, Sweetheart Harley, who is the owner of Sweetheart Harley Inc and Harleen Makeup Inc. and how she uses her social media platforms and creative designs of DC Comics character Harley Quinn to spread awareness about domestic violence. The method of activism, slacktivism, and social media will be analyzed throughout including media psychology and prosocial media This study will also look at the outcomes and effects of bringing a fictional character to life and using it as a tool for social change.
Social Change and Technology
Activism is a group of individuals or community with similar ideals who are fighting for positive long-term change through acts of protest (Lawless, 2015). Some of the most impactful activism movements in the United States trace back to the 1840’s and were started by women (Drake, 2017). The 1840’s brought on activism in the form of the Suffrage Movement where women banded together to fight for their rights through hunger strikes, protesting outside the White House daily, and even being arrested but their activism led to the right for women to vote (Drake, 2017). Feminism came from the radical women of the 1800’s and their activism can be seen in 1970’s with the women’s Liberation Movement, and in 2017 millions of people marched throughout the world to support Women’s March and fight for women’s reproductive rights to their own bodies, gender equality, and racial equality (Drake, 2017). The Women’s March reached people around the globe with the use of social media to support their movement (Drake, 2017).
In the age of technology, slacktivism has emerged and is prosocial media used in an online space or through social media to address social issues (Stever et al., 2022). It lacks a physical presence that activism has but can take many avenues to gain support (Kristofferson et al., 2014). The internet has made movements to enact change available to individuals around the world with easy solutions to monetary contributions, signing petitions, and connecting with others for the same cause (Kristofferson et al., 2017). Cyberpsychology theories on slacktivism are based around two main concepts, using prosocial media encourages individuals to enact change and using technology to enact change has no impact on longevity of social movements (Whitty & Young, 2017).
Michael Cornfield, a political scientist, believes that the internet is a tool to easily access information which increases self-efficacy and allows individuals to access more information at any given time (Kenski & Stroud, 2016). Johnson and Kaye, professors of journalism and communication, oppose technology as a means of information since the lines become blurred between credibility (2016). Parasocial interaction also plays a part in slacktivism through fans and fandoms (Giles, 2003). Fans or fandoms of a certain celebrity or company follow them online and through social media, and if that person or company endorses a cause their fans are quick to follow suit to adapt and support the cause (Giles, 2003). This method is no longer restricted for the famous, it now encompasses online influencers, someone who has a large following online, and fictional characters (Giles, 2003). Media psychology, cyberpsychology, prosocial media, and parasocial interactions all work together to enact a positive effect of slacktivism (Giles, 2003).
Not A Broken Doll
Sweetheart Harley is a professional cosplay who specializes in cosplaying the DC Comic’s character Harley Quinn (Dimopoulos, 2021a). “Cosplay is all about dressing up as your favorite characters and having fun” (Nerd Caliber, 2021, 4:34). Cosplay comes in many shapes and forms with the basis being dressing as a fictional character that is special to that individual (Pushkareva & Agaltsova, 2021). Cosplayers choose a character they connect with on a deeper level, someone they would almost see as a role model, and while in cosplay they can choose to act like the character they are portraying (Pushkareva & Agaltsova, 2021). Cosplayers can evolve and change their characters by creating their own costumes and props that take hours or days of labor to get in all the tiny details (Pushkareva & Agaltsova, 2021). In an interview with The Nerdlings Podcast, Sweetheart explains how she is entirely self-taught with the cosplays and props she makes, and it can take her anywhere from three hours to over 60 hours for a single prop or cosplay (2021).
The Maiden of Mischief
Quinn first appeared in 1992 on Batman the Animated Series in the episode “Joker’s Favor” where she is depicted wearing a black and red jester suit, long horned cowl on her head, and white face paint overlayed with a black eye mask (Burke, 2021). She was created by DC Comic’s Bruce Timm and Paul Dini as a sidekick, or henchwoman, to the villainous Joker but she soon took over the spotlight in the eyes of viewers with her witty and comical humor (Burke, 2021). The fanfare followed her to the comic Mad Love where her past life was shown (Burke, 2021). Quinn was originally Dr. Harleen Quinzel working in Arkham Asylum where she ended up falling in love with her patient, the Joker, and it was all downhill from there (Burke, 2021).
Quinn and Joker’s relationship is shown as abusive since she appeared, and in Mad Love was prevalent and can be seen on pages where Quinn is trying to get the Jokers attention and he grabs her by the nose, drags her downstairs, and kicks her outside before slamming the door shut (Dini & Timm, 1993). Some of the most graphic abuse from the Joker can be witnessed through the series Suicide Squad, opening with the Joker returning after a long time away and as Quinn runs towards him, he punches her in the face, grabs her by the pigtails, and threatens her with a knife in her mouth before cutting her face (Glass et al., 2012). In this same series the Joker chokes Quinn with chains before he puts her in a straitjacket and hangs her upside down above a vat of chemicals (Glass et al., 2012). Quinn starts to fight back but the Joker ultimately wins and shackles her underground with an area riddled with corpses and bones (Glass et al., 2012). Tearing at the shackles Quinn was able to free herself and shows up at the home base of Task Force X, also known as the Suicide Squad, with bloodied wrists and a torn-up body (Glass et al., 2012). The head of Task Force X asks Quinn what she did, and to this she responds, “What I had to escape. A little blood, a little pain and a lot of wiggling ‘til my hands were free. I wanted to show him I was more than just one of his broken toys to throw away” (Glass et al., 2012, p. 20).
Sweetheart Harley: A Voice to Scream the Whispers
Sweetheart is a professional cosplayer and lifelong fan of Quinn being born six days before she premiered on Batman the Animated Series (The Nerdlings Podcast, 2021). Growing up and watching this femme fatal take different forms, the lines blurred between who Quinn was and who Sweetheart was, “There is a fine line that is crossed frequently. Since I’ve followed Harley (Quinn) for my entire existence and been such a big fan of hers, I’ve found myself in similar situations but not purposefully” (The Nerdlings Podcast, 2021, 4:12). In an interview with CosplayZine, Sweetheart expresses how she never set out to be a cosplayer, she wore what she loved and despite all the stigmatisms or whispers about her, it never stopped her from wearing what she wanted and looking how she wanted to look (2021). In the CosplayZine interview, Sweetheart opens up about her struggles with mental health, trauma, and being in an abusive relationship:
In 2013 I almost died from anorexia nervosa, and it changed my life…I have also struggled from depression…severe anxiety, a panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder from an abusive relationship I was in, and I will always struggle with monsters from my past…I was given this life because I am strong enough to live it, and I believe that every single day. To anyone struggling, I am so sorry from the bottom of my heart…You are not you’re your disorders or your illnesses, you may carry them with you but never let them define who you are (2021, p. 7-8).
Sweetheart uses her social media platforms on Instagram, Tiktok, Youtube, Twitter, and her website as a tool to speak out and spread awareness of domestic violence and abuse which is a display of slacktivism (Dimopoulos, 2021a). As a survivor and cosplayer of Quinn who suffered abuse at the hands of the Joker, she feels like it is her responsibility to bring domestic violence and abuse to the forefront of social issues using prosocial media to educate the cosplay community and fans of comics how prevalent it is in society (Dimopoulos, 2021a). In 2021 Sweetheart connected with Quinn’s comic writer through Instagram to raffle off signed comics donated by the author, Stephanie Phillips, to raise funds for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, or NCADV (“Comics Against Domestic Violence,” 2021a). Sweetheart also reached out to Quinn’s creator, Paul Dini, through Twitter and he ended up donating two signed books to be raffled (“Comics Against Domestic Violence,” 2021b).
Sweetheart shared statistical information from the NCADV while she was a guest on The Nerdlings Podcast to put how far and frequent domestic abuse and violence reaches into perspective (2021). Some of the information shared by Sweetheart is that every 60 seconds 20 people are abused by an intimate partner and once someone is in an abusive relationship the abuser tells the victim what they want to hear until they are so far deep into Stockholm syndrome, they don’t see a way out (The Nerdlings Podcast, 2021). She also mentions that no one talks about it, especially in the cosplay community because they love the idea of Quinn and the Joker together so much, they choose to turn their heads away from the abuse she endured (The Nerdlings Podcast, 2021).
My page is a safe space for everyone because I have been through everything. I have been through things I would never wish upon anyone else, ever, even my abusive ex who almost pushed my head into an open oven. Big cosplayers are doing nothing else on their platforms besides monetizing from it. I never did cosplay to get followers. I don’t make videos to get likes… No one talks about the abuse experienced in the cosplay community. Nobody talks about the harassment. And here I am, screaming from the rooftops for somebody to do something, and no one is doing anything about it… People who have been through mental health issues, or have been abused, or who have suffered from an eating disorder don’t talk about it. That is what I use my platform for… somebody who is struggling to know they have a safe space on my page (Dimopoulos, 2021b, 1:02:45)
Sweetheart also emphasizes that individuals need to have unconditional compassion towards each other because each person is struggling in their own way, “You can spend $10 on a t-shirt and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you can also spend $10 and help someone get facial reconstructive surgery from getting their face beat almost to death from an abuser” (The Nerdlings Podcast, 2021, 44:48).
Sweetheart contacted news sources online and through email to spread awareness of the raffles and used her own experience with domestic violence to turn press releases into an intimate look into her life, “I am a statistic, a victim of domestic violence. I have struggled for years with the post-traumatic effects from being physically, emotionally, and mentally abused. I found my solace through cosplaying…” (“Comics Against Domestic Violence,” 2021b, para. 4). Sweetheart makes it very apparent on her Instagram that the videos she makes, the photos she posts, and the cosplays she shares are not to gain a following, she does it out of love for the craft and hope that sharing her own mental struggles can reach someone who is struggling and make them feel less alone (Dimopoulos, 2022). In response to a comment thanking Sweetheart for sharing her struggles during one of her live streams she responds, “You don’t have to thank me, I just share my story… and I hope that it can reach somebody in a place that is not good and maybe help spark a little light in them” (Dimopoulos, 2022, 10:30). Everything Sweetheart does is based around prosocial media and slacktivism to create awareness of mental health and domestic violence driven by the hope that no one will go through what she has (“Comics Against Domestic Violence, 2021b).
Sweetheart is standing on peak of a tall building while wind thrusts at her every which way, but she does not move, she does not fall, and she does not break because if Quinn can endure it, so can she (Dimopoulos, 2021a). Since DC Comics took Suicide Squad to the big screen in 2016 not only did Quinn’s notoriety skyrocket, but so did normalizing her relationship with the Joker (Dimopoulos, 2021a). After 22 years of comics that showed Quinn’s abuse, escape, fights for her life, and becoming an independent woman, with the snap of two fingers it was 1992 all over again (Dimopoulos, 2021a). Suicide Squad does not show the length of torment and abuse Quinn goes through, instead a much younger crowed flocked to theatres and romanticized about a relationship like Joker and Quinn have (Dimopoulos, 2021a). There are many scenes from the movie that translate incorrectly, but one of the main ones is in the comics the Joker forcefully pushes Quinn into a vat of chemicals, altering her appearance permanently, while in the movie she willingly jumped into the chemicals further romanticizing their relationship (Salter, 2020).
Sweetheart spoke out publicly on these issues through social media and continues to correct misconceptions due to ignorance and in 2021 she was asked to write a guest blog for the NCADV as a survivor to talk about the abuse Quinn faces in the comics, and how the movies changed the narrative (Dimopoulos, 2021a). Sweetheart’s guest blog post ranked in the top five most read blog posts for the NCADV in 2021, so it was exposed to a vast audience and became successful (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence [NCADV], 2021a). Her use of social media to raffle comic books was successful with raising and donating over one-thousand dollars to the NCADV (Dimopoulos, 2021a, Dimopoulos 2022).
One risk factor of speaking out against domestic violence is that abusers can use online stalking to harass, gain coercive control, and instill fear in survivors (Woodlock, 2017). This method of stalking an intimate partner is not taken seriously in most cases and 68% of women who reported being stalked were a victim of attempted homicide or death from homicide within 12 months (Woodlock, 2017). “A lot of people don’t recognize the signs of abuse. Harley (Quinn) didn’t, I know I didn’t. Once you’re trapped in that situation you think it’s normal but it’s not normal” (Sweetheart Harley, 2021b). There is a stigmatization of women who report domestic violence and women who are abused and speak out about it are blamed for being in that situation (Halket et al., 2012). Women who leave their abuser are at a 75% higher risk of being murdered by the abuser, if there are children involved 11% of children will be kidnapped by the abuse once the woman leaves, and women who are financially dependent on their abuser are less likely to leave (Woodlock, 2017). Sweethearts work with the NCADV was successful through slacktivism and prosocial media, but the Domestic Abuse Hotline still gets over 20,000 calls a day, 1 in 3 women will still experience domestic abuse, and every 60 seconds 20 people call the NCADV for help (NCADV, 2021b).
In conclusion, Sweetheart Harley uses slacktivism on her social media platforms, through interviews, and on podcasts to share her story of domestic violence with a public audience. She uses prosocial media through images, videos, and text to create awareness of how prominent domestic abuse is in society and the cosplay community. Working with the NCADV and DC Comic authors she has raised funds to help the organization and those who leave their abusers. She will never stop yelling from every mountain, rooftop, and space she is in because she is a survivor and chooses to use her voice for others when they cannot and her strength when they are still fighting their battles.