05 November 2013

Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy: The Sexual Subtext of Batman: The Animated Series.

Gratuitous Comic Book Post. Fair warning.

 Image from Newageamazon.buzznet.com

Recently I have been watching Batman: The Animated Series with my son (who is obsessed with crime fighting super sleuths) and I noticed an obvious thing. This obvious thing I missed completely as a teenage boy when I first watched the show.

That thing I missed Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy were sometimes lovers. Some people may disagree, but I think I can go a little further, and suggest, with some confidence the dynamics of this relationship. Ivy was probably actually in love with Harley, but for Harley, the relationship was casual, or very nearly so. Ivy was an warm and inviting ego boost in between bouts of separations from her one true love (or obsession), The Joker. It may take me some time to build your agreement with this, but I think I can.  As I watch it now its all pretty obvious, more obvious than Bert and Ernie, but any adult watching would probably have picked up on the clues.

But let me build my case.

In the episode Harley and Ivy Harley Quinn, a one time psychiatrist whose obsession with understanding the Joker led to the most dangerous Stockholm Syndrome in comic book history, now the Joker's chief and most able enforcer gets thrown out. Booted, broken up with. A door opens and Harley is thrown ass over tea kettle on to the street, landing unceremoniously on her back side. However Joker might describe his feelings for Harley to himself, or, if asked, to others we may never know, but to the outsider looking in, abusive is the only word that adequately describes the relationship between he and Harley Quinn. The break-up is not different and characterized by verbal, and physical abuse, and intimidation. The break-up, of course, had nothing to do with her poor performance in the gang, but was rather the product of the Joker, feeling shown up by her in front his other henchmen. To her credit, when Harley leaves, she doesn't come back, though clearly love sick for Joker. Dialogue between Joker and his gang establishes this has been the typical pattern. Instead of repeating this pattern, she makes a vow, that she would show him, and be a better heister on her own than with he and his gang.

Enter Poison Ivy, idealistic eco-terrorist, but one with with bills to pay. Funding her kind of activism is not in any way cheap. Ivy and Quinn meet while robbing the same Museum, Ivy for rare plant toxins, and Quinn to nab a rare diamond. Quinn deftly defeats security systems and is about to secure the diamond, with a demonstration of skill that even Selina Kyle would admire the alarms are set off. Posion Ivy runs by, and nearly into the arms of the police before being pulled back to temporary safety by Harley. After brief introductions, Quinn manages to lead them out of the museum -demonstrating considerable ingenuity- with their swag, having given the GPD the slip. As they drive away we hear Ivy say, "This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

She isn't wrong.

During a scene in which Ivy inoculates Quinn from the toxins that seem to permeate her hideout, Quinn wonders aloud why shots bother her so much after living with Mr J. 
"Why do you put up with that clown?'
Harley offers up the excuses, we might identify as typical of battered spouses. Ivy is having none of it. After pointing out Quinn's similarity to a doormat, Ivy, somewhat seductively gives Quinn a rose, and says, "From now on, we play with the boys on our terms." Their first act as a dynamic duo, is to rob a mens only club haunted by wealthy men.

They are an extremely successful pair. The papers run story after story of them lamenting the success of this daring pair. Months pass, and the first clues to a deeper than work relationship appear. Their kitchen fridge is plastered with their headlines for sure, but also with just pictures of the two of them. When we see them after their crime montage of success, they are both wearing only shirts, and Ivy has prepped dinner. She has presented her favorite beverage, not wine, but in wine glasses. This is clearly not breakfast, why are only in t-shirts? Why would Ivy make them both of them dinner in that ensemble? Why does Ivy look so hurt when the colors of the dinner remind Quinn of the ill tempered Mr J? And why is Harley wearing Poison Ivy's shirt? There is also only one bed in their apartment. As this episode approaches its climax, the pair manages to defeat the Batman, and the Joker (fed up with their press and success, he has traced them to their hideout and tries to steal their loot, and kill Ivy in the bargain). As this nefarious duo speed away from the two men in their lives (Batman and Joker are fighting it out at their safehouse) Ivy makes the declaration, "No man can take us prisoner!" Almost immediately afterward one of their tires is shot out. They are caught, by Renee Montoya, who in the comic book was the only firmly established lesbian in DC. In Batman: the Animated Series Montoya is a beat cop with little backstory. I've come to think that was a little fan service to underscore what writers were trying to imply about Harley and Ivy. At the end of their first episode together the two are in a garden working at Arkham (Gotham's porous home for the criminally insane), Harley says of Joker, "I think we can still work it out." Ivy hurls soil into Harley's face. This behavior is certainly not at odds with a lover who wants to be more to the person they love.

These clues repeat throughout the series. Whenever they are alone, and not in crime mode, they are always depicted together in t-shirts, at least one shot in the scene shows a messed up bed, and messed up hair. Ivy always asking probing Harley to be free of the Joker for good.

This show was early to mid-ninties, Ellen hadn't yet come out, we hadn't even gotten the beautiful Bound, or Chasing Amy. I think you could still find usage by good guys of the word fag, or faggot in popular entertainment. That word now, if it appears at all in popular fiction, is as sure a marker of a villain as a Nazi attire. Positive depictions of homosexual couples were not common in mainstream adult shows at this time and yet here in the often subversive universe of Batman, we have a bit more than hints about Harley and Ivy. It may be reaching to say that they were a positive depiction of a non-hetero couple, but I don't think I am reaching when I say that there is clearly something romantic going on between the two. And Ivy was certainly good for Harley. Together they made an incredible team.

Did the show, ostensibly for kids but consumed by fans from 8 to 80, break any new ground? Did it increase empathy and sympathy for the GLBTQ community? If so, I would guess only a little. But it is nice to see that they introduced their attraction in a positive way, even if their relationship is uneven in its affections. They are honest with one another, and betrayal is something they leave to the men of Gotham's underworld.

While googling for a picture to go with this post, I noticed I am not the first person to think these kind of thoughts about Harley and Ivy (something I had already guessed). It is a popular theme in fan fic about the characters. Google it. Some of it is decent, some of it is just racy.

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