Is there any superhero gayer than Batman? Spandex aside, the intimate relationship shared by the Caped Crusader and his Boy Wonder has long drawn scrutiny from straight and queer readers alike.
As far back as 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham claimed in his book Seduction of the Innocent that “Batman stories are psychologically homosexual.” Since then, everything from the camp ’60s show to that opening shot of George Clooney’s ass in Batman & Robin have all shone a giant Bat-Signal on the character’s inherent queerness.
But what about The Joker? For decades, comic book lore has portrayed Batman and the Clown Prince of Crime as two sides of the same coin, each broken by just one bad day. Because of this, homoerotic tendencies stretch throughout both of their stories even wider than The Joker’s grin.
In light of Joaquin Phoenix’s new take on the character, a petition that urges DC to “Make The Joker Gay Again” has picked up traction, arguing that the Clown Prince of Crime should be officially “let out of the closet,” but is this the kind of representation that the LGBTQ community needs right now?
Many faces of The Joker have been portrayed throughout the character’s eight-decade-long history, and sometimes, these faces like to lock lips with women. In “The Killing Joke” comic, a younger version of The Joker planned to raise a child with his expectant wife before her untimely demise, and Jack Nicholson’s take on the character in the Batman movie had a thing for Wayne’s lover, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), too.
Every Clown Prince needs a Clown Princess, which is why The Joker’s abusive relationship with Harley Quinn has become so integral to his story ever since he first seduced her back in the ’90s. Most recently, the pair shared their love of chaos on the big screen in Suicide Squad, but that’s not all they share. After all, Harley is canonically bisexual and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that The Joker might yearn for his very own Clown Prince, too.
To assume The Joker’s sexuality based purely on superficial indicators like his fondness for makeup and flamboyant attire is largely reductive. However, actions speak louder than words, and The Joker isn’t one for subtlety.
During his latest onscreen appearance in Suicide Squad, Jared Leto’s Joker was rather physical with Officer Griggs (Ike Barinholtz), and there was something queer about that female nurse costume Heath Ledger’s character wore in The Dark Knight too. Still, the films barely scratch the surface.
Back in the ’80s, acclaimed Batman writer Neal Adams claimed that The Joker was and always had been homosexual, something which various other comic book writers have subsequently played around with ever since.
In the past, The Joker’s obsession with Batman led some to believe that he is, in fact, asexual, preferring to scheme up ways to defeat The Dark Knight rather than pay Harley Quinn any attention. However, as Adams implied, there’s clearly a sexual undercurrent to this decades-long conflict, even if Batman wasn’t the one who acted upon it.
Never one to hold back, The Joker has often used pet names for other men throughout comic book history and even proposed sex, including with Batman himself. Who can forget when The Joker grabbed both of Wayne’s Bat-Buns in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth?
These instances once prompted comic book legend Frank Miller to describe the relationship that Batman and The Joker share as a “homophobic nightmare.” If Bruce Wayne can be likened to a closeted gay man obsessed with secrecy and repression, then the Clown Prince of Crime symbolizes what can happen when queer deviance runs free.
Part of The Joker’s appeal is his love of unbridled chaos, pushing back against a system that represents regulation and heteronormativity. The problem with this, though, is that evil characters have long been associated with queerness in wholly derogatory ways.
From the effete antagonists in Alfred Hitchcock movies like Rope and Psycho to Javier Bardem’s recent stab at villainy in Skyfall, gay coding has frequently been used as a shorthand for evil in cinema and beyond, perpetuating harmful stereotypes that still haven’t been eradicated.
To deny The Joker’s sexuality entirely would be queer erasure, but officially labeling him as such could be harmful, too. After all, the Clown Prince of Crime has often used sex as a weapon in sadistic ways, most notably when he raped Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke. LGBTQ representation is still sorely needed in comics and the media at large, but for some, this might not be kind of representation that we need right now.
However, it’s also worth noting that deifying queer characters is hardly realistic either. The LGBTQ community has long argued that morality and sexuality aren’t connected and therefore, not every queer character should be portrayed as a shining beacon of heroism. The key is to ensure that there are enough queer characters out there to help form a more rounded form of representation equivalent to our heterosexual counterparts.
This would suggest that DC should just lay out their cards and officially “make the Joker gay again.” However, there’s another more straightforward reason why the company shouldn’t necessarily go down this route and it has nothing to do with the reputation of the LGBTQ community at large.
Despite accusations of erasure, DC’s refusal to officially label The Joker’s sexuality actually helps maintain his mystique, something which Joaquin Phoenix’s origin movie threatens to unravel. The Clown Prince of Crime is chaos incarnate, and so the less we know about him, the better. His sexuality should be just as fluid as the explanations that Heath Ledger’s Joker gave about his scars in The Dark Knight, constantly shifting how the world perceives him.
It’s admirable to campaign for more queer representation, but The Clown Prince Of Crime is one of those rare characters who actually benefits from the mystery that surrounds his sexuality, and that’s why DC should continue to hold their cards close to their chest, no matter how many petitions they might be inundated with. Batman, though? Well, that’s a whole different story.
The Joker origin movie will be released on October 4, 2019.
Header image via Getty