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A Censored Sex Scene In 'Harley Quinn' Sparks Debate On Depictions Of Female Pleasure

As comic book culture and the superhero genre have gone mainstream, changing audiences are now challenging the companies who own their beloved characters over issues like sex positivity.
YouTube/Screenshot by NPR
As comic book culture and the superhero genre have gone mainstream, changing audiences are now challenging the companies who own their beloved characters over issues like sex positivity.

Updated June 22, 2021 at 6:23 PM ET

In an interview with Variety last week, the creators of the HBO Max adult animated series Harley Quinn revealed that a scene depicting Batman performing oral sex on Catwoman was blocked by DC Entertainment because "heroes don't do that."

Well, this prompted some heated conversations on social media about the censorship of female pleasure and sex in comics, even as the sexualization of female characters has become standard in most storylines.

DC supporters agreed that scene wasn't appropriate for a show aimed at kids, but Glen Weldon of NPR's Arts Desk says that argument can get slapped down pretty easily.

"The Harley Quinn show is decidedly aimed at adults — it's filled with cartoon gore and explicit language, but also some very funny jokes that'd go over kids' heads," he says.

Weldon, who's also the author of The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, spoke to All Things Considered about how we've turned superheroes into symbols of American values, the relationship between show creators and companies like DC or Marvel and what it is about comic book culture and fandom that makes it a unique vessel for conversations about sex positivity in mainstream media. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for extended highlights of the interview.

Interview Highlights

On the argument that "heroes don't do that" and why DC would insist upon it

The whole notion that "heroes don't do that," that's provably false. I'd argue that thinking of others, putting their needs before your own, is pretty much the definition of hero. As you mentioned, we're getting this second hand from the Harley Quinn creators, who noted that DC let them go nuts with villain characters but were very nervous, very protective, of heroes like Batman and, unfortunately, that tracks. These characters are extremely valuable nuggets of intellectual property to these corporations and they get nervous about anything that might impact their universal appeal.

It also seems sadly inevitable because superheroes are a uniquely American creation — it's jazz, baseball, superheroes — and they embody our uniquely American hang-ups. They're all about violence, but when it comes to sex, they can't help but reflect our deeply repressed and Puritanical attitudes towards it. Depictions of sex in superhero fiction are still the exception, not the rule.

On a disconnect between show writers and the corporations that own these characters

When you're talking DC and Marvel, the creators involved are basically work-for-hire: They don't own the characters, they just get to play in that sandbox for as long as they work on them. And DC and Marvel want to keep that sandbox as clean and pristine as they can, which is why when something legitimately new and bracing in the DC or Marvel superhero genre comes along — something like Harley Quinn, which takes a character who was created back in the '90s as cheesecake appeal for 13-year-old straight boys and turns her into a fierce, independent queer icon — it's stands out.

Both DC and Marvel have long histories of treating their creators poorly. The pay is low; it's been like pulling teeth to get them to credit the women and men who created these characters. It's getting better, but not out of any sense of corporate largess — the companies have been forced to make changes. There's still a long way to go, but as long as writers and artists who grew up with these characters desperately want to write and draw them for DC and Marvel, the companies kind of have them over the barrel.

On how this incident highlights a changing relationship between fans and corporations

When I was kid, there were DC and Marvel, and there was us, the fans. And the communication went one way – any comic book story was like the Ten Commandments coming down from the mount, for us to read and obsess over and argue over.

But as the superhero genre went from being a nerdy obsession at the fringes of culture to what it is today — completely mainstream — the audience grew and changed. There've always been women, people of color and queer folk in the audience, but there's more than ever now. In the early days of the internet, it seemed as though the only fans out there were straight middle-aged white guys, because they were the loudest. But there's a lot more voices in the mix, and they've got a fundamentally different — and I would argue, healthier — attitude towards these characters because they use things like fanfiction to take these characters, mix and match them up in a way that completely ignores the notion that DC and Marvel own them. Yes, fanfiction has a rap: sometimes they do them in a lot of sexual ways that make that Harley Quinn scene seem like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but there is something more important going on here. It's really about renegotiating the relationship between creators and audiences. It's now an ongoing dialogue and not just a unidirectional corporate monologue.

What's happening now is that the world on the comics pages and on screens is looking and sounding a lot more like the world off of them. And anytime anything grows less monolithic and starts letting in more voices, it reflects reality better – and you get new, more interesting stories.

On whether fan outrage will ultimately impact what ends up on the screen

DC hasn't commented; they're not going to. But this whole thing was a very fun, inescapable meme for a couple days last week on social media, with idiots like me weighing on which heroes do and don't ... do that. So yes, they've heard. But are we gonna get an official DC comic or an official DC movie where the Justice League go to a key party full of hot hero-on-hero action? No. But if this helps move the needle, even a little bit, so these corporations — and by extension, these characters — get a little less uptight about sex, that'd be healthy. Think about it: They're already wearing the fetish gear, so take the next step. It's a small one.

Brandon Shillingford, Lauren Hodges and Christopher Intagliata produced and edited the audio of this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
Brandon Shillingford