Rebranding Harley Quinn: Nothing to Laugh About

Until 1992, no one had ever heard of Harley Quinn. So, how'd she get so popular? Simple: rebranding.

Rebranding Harley Quinn: Nothing to Laugh About

Posted Friday October 28th, 2016 by in Analysis + Strategy.

Until 1992, no one had ever heard of Harley Quinn. Not even the most serious DC comic collector — because she didn’t exist yet. Her first appearance in a single-episode cameo in “Batman: The Animated Series” hardly put her in the spotlight. Today, not only is she the talk of a summer blockbuster and one of the 2016’s most popular Halloween costumes, the character’s story can be found in media sources from Yahoo! Finance to CNN Money to Forbes. What happened?

Rebranding happened. And it happened because DC listened and delivered what its audience wanted.

To be fair, Harley didn’t go from marginal to main character overnight. In fact, like most comic characters, she evolved over many years through different mediums before the Harley we met in 2016’s “Suicide Squad.”

Harley Quinn’s Story.

From the beginning, Harley has been a controversial character. To begin with, she was merely introduced to be the harlequin bodysuit-wearing henchwoman in Joker’s gang for that single episode. And to say his treatment of her was volatile from the start is putting it lightly. Despite the violent storyline, or maybe because of it, the comic audience started paying attention to Harley and DC noticed.

Then after making more appearances in the show and then her first comic appearance in “The Batman Adventures: Mad Love,” Harley’s popularity status really began to change … and so did her appearance.

Over the years, Harley’s story was fleshed out, she became entirely obsessed with the Joker, their relationship intensified with his doling out mental and physical abuse toward her, and her outfits got more revealing. Much of the audience ate this up, but others, particularly women, were seeing red flags.

Now it’s no secret that the comic industry’s main demographic had been men for years, and within the last decade, it was dominated by male characters. But indeed times are a’changing. A 2014 Facebook survey showed that 46.67% of the 24 million self-identified comic fans were women and female characters are getting more screen (and paper) time than ever, and that number has since grown. DC, thoroughly understanding the power of rebranding, reacted and adapted to its new audience and demographics.

DC’s response came in the form of giving Harley more and more girl power in the “Gotham Girls,” “Suicide Squad” and Harley Quinn-centered comics, and of course, most recently, the “Suicide Squad” blockbuster, which actually paid very little attention to Joker’s mistreatment of the character. As far as the most recent costume change, costume designer Kate Hawley says,

“There was a call to in some areas to make her overtly sexual,” adding that,in the end, she saw Harley’s new outfit as reflecting a woman owning her own sexuality. “It’s hers, it’s not for anyone else,” she added.

What is the verdict?

Has the DC Universe franchise and the developing Harley Quinn franchise succeeded in creating as strong female character who ranks as a feminist icon? Well, the jury is still out on that. But one thing for sure is that people are literally buying it and the evolution (or in marketing-speak, rebranding) of Harley Quinn has her creators laughing all the way to the bank.


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