I am really into costumes. Maybe it comes from my theater background. There is something thrilling to me about pretending to be someone else – even if it’s just in appearance. Truth be told if I’m going to be somewhere that could feasibly have site-specific wardrobe, you best believe that I’m taking advantage. Which is why Purim is always a Big Deal for me.
In the past couple of years, I’ve been a Viking, Holly Golightly, Pride from the Seven Deadly Sins, a steampunk explorer, the Queen of Hearts, Cruella de Vil, Eliza Doolittle at the races and Elsa from Frozen. This is not counting the sundry group costumes and themed parties in which I also participate. I also want credit for the fact that these were all modest costume, which means working on the average cheap costume found on Amazon for a believable extension that doesn’t detract from the overall effect. I can’t sew, but if enthusiasm counts for anything I’d consider my tendencies to be cosplay-lite.
When I first picture myself pulling off a costume I’ll get an itch to see it happen. Sometimes that means holding on to a character from 2016. If it’s not around Purim time, I’ll sometimes buy the costume accessories anyway, collecting them with the hope that I’ll have use for them in the future. Wonder Woman’s headpiece and armband. A rainbow unicorn horn. A red-lined cloak. Steampunk stuff.
There’s one character, though, that I can’t bring myself to mimic: Harley Quinn.
It’s always the jacket that stops me. Printed on the back are the words: Property of Joker. It makes me take off my pastel-colored glasses and remember what the character represents, a living caricature of infantilized hypersexuality. Harley can’t free herself. She needs the Joker to do that. Much as I’d like a cute, high heeled, baseball bat-wielding character to be the feminist icon for taking no prisoners, Harley is not that.
If I can’t respect a character, I can’t embody her. Not to say that Audrey Hepburn’s characters are blushing flowers or that the Vikings didn’t rape and pillage everything in their path. When I dress up, I’m merging with the character to present a version of myself that can’t be expressed any other way. In costume, I am myself as seen through the lens of this new character. I don’t want to see myself in an abused light.
This is not to disparage the hundreds of thousands of women who do dress up as Harley Quinn, as evidenced by Instagram tags and Amazon reviewer photos. I have no problem looking at the different takes on her – even the preteen takes, decidedly and mercifully less sexualized – and appreciate the costume for what I envisioned for myself, separate from the character flaws. The women who dress up as Harley Quinn look like they’re empowering themselves in a cute outfit. I find it encouraging that there is a whole range of body types demonstrated. In a hypothetical situation I wouldn’t be able to make it modest, but I would be able to wear it with confidence and not have to worry about feeling fat.
Despite everything, I still wonder what it would feel like to wear that outfit. Would I feel empowered enough to create my own narrative in the costume? Or would I slip into a “bimbo” routine, smacking gum like Robbie does in the movie, putting on a bad Brooklyn accent and ultimately fit myself into her misogynist narrative? In a better movie, with female writers, Harley Quinn might have been an iconic character. Her wardrobe is so specific and fresh that it isn’t hard to imagine that character, which we may yet see in one of her upcoming films. Until her redemption arc, though, I’m going to have to keep resisting the urge to see myself through her.
Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.