Queer representation is hugely important. Not in a “Sure, everybody is equal” type of platitude way where people shrug, grin and agree until it affects characters they care about. No, queer representation is majorly important in all types of media, especially comic books. The story of the marginalized, downtrodden and unique individual is the most common trope of any superhero comic. Conversely, the status quo will continue to be reflected and reinforced through the stories of minorities. The X-Men serve as an analogue for Civil Rights and Gay Rights, but most them are cis-het white men. Such is a cognitive dissonance in storytelling and representation, that if the X-men were all black, the narrative of a minority class who protects the majority which hates and fears them would be radically sharper, and much more incisive.
DC Comics have been playing catch-up when it comes to minority representation. Characters like Black Lightning, Katana, Steel, Maggie Sawyer, Vibe, Vixen, John Stewart, Jaime Reyes, Cassandra Cain, Jason Rusch and Ryan Choi have all been inserted and recycled through the main white characters’ stories but rarely stick around or headline a title of their own for too long. When it comes to any type of non-cishet, non-male POC (people of color) characters, where DC excels is with its myriad of female characters. From the beginning, icons like Lois Lane, Wonder Woman and Black Canary, have bountiful on this side of the Big Two. And while Batman comics are about as successful with representation as the rest of the DC line historically, major characters like Catwoman, Barbara Gordon and Renee Montoya do give the company some legroom when it comes to diverse female heroes (or anti-heroes).
Harley Quinn is arguably the most popular character at DC as of this writing. If you’re reading this you should have a basic knowledge of who Harley is. Originally a one-off gag character created as a “moll” for the Joker in the episode “Joker’s Favor” from Batman: The Animated Series in the style of the various henchwomen from the Sixties Batman show, Harley quickly became a favorite among the writing staff and fans, appearing in more episodes which eventually led to starring roles such as “Harlequinade” and “Harley’s Holiday”, the latter not featuring the Joker at all. With an Eisner-award winning origin story depicted in Batman: Mad Love by creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the one-time psychologist can be relied upon for fun, wacky, high-action adventure (despite grimmer outings such as the origin and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker). An addition to her appeal is also her relationship with top-three ranking Femme Fatale Poison Ivy, starting again with the BTAS episode “Harley and Ivy” which had the characters meet and form a two-woman crime spree that flummoxed both Batman and the Joker.
Therein lies the key word: “relationship”. Recently the nature of Harley and Ivy’s pairing has been depicted as an explicitly queer one. The alternate universe WWII era series DC’s Bombshells has them in a romantic relationship, an issue of Harley’s ongoing series had an expressly flirtatious scene between the two, and, most seriously, DC Comics official Twitter account confirmed in no uncertain terms that “Yes, (Harley and Ivy) are Girlfriends without the jealousy of monogamy.”
As said before, queer representation is at the top of the heap in terms of requisite storytelling today. While very much a minority, enough queer readers and creators have historically followed superhero comics just as much as POC and women have, so visible representation and thoughtful presentation will always respect the genre that’s helped sustain it. And if it involves two characters who are already popular, then that’s half the battle already won.
Unfortunately, the lifelong comic fan in me can’t help by arch an eyebrow when it comes to these two. Having followed Batman longer than I care to think about, I deal on an almost daily basis with inconsistencies in terms of character presentation and, more frequently, character discussion. There are so many different versions of these characters that I’m just now learning to enjoy the ones I like and move on, not letting myself be bothered by stories and different types of characterizations that might offend me. With Harley and Ivy and their relationship, it’s not just a simple case of this being new. Plenty of articles have sung the refrain of “Finally!” when talking about the outed relationship, as though it were bubbling to the surface with barely-there subtext in each and every one of their appearance. As a lifelong fan…I just can’t let that go. Because I watch the “Harley and Ivy” episode and re-read the Harley and Ivy miniseries and even go back to Gotham City Sirens from 2009, and I don’t see it.
For starters, going beyond Harley’s foundational and dysfunctional relationship with the Joker, Poison Ivy’s relationship with men and humanity at large is one of contempt and loathing. Her love and obsession with plants results from and exchanges with that contempt, and the way she attacks and kills people with her toxins famously expressed through kissing reflects on that loathing. Her origin stories (both of them) involve being seduced and betrayed by evil men, and while initially in the 1960s she attempted to have Batman fall in love with her, it took about twenty years for that to evolve into a special kind of hatred.
Which gets into her meeting with Harley Quinn in “Harley and Ivy”. The episode echoes the film “Thelma and Louise”, and much of the script verbalizes combating patriarchy. The two loot a Peregrinator Men’s Club, nearly blow up a bunch of sexist pigs, and proudly proclaim “No man can take us prisoner!”. Batman is even tied up with a bunch of vacuums, referred to by Ivy as “bonds of domestic slavery”. Female Empowerment is clearly the takeaway point with the episode. Moreover, the depiction of Harley and Ivy’s newfound friendship was so honest and real that the image of the two walking around out of costume wearing men’s shirts sans pants only served to fuel the normalization of female friendship on an action cartoon show. But is that gay? There are definite innuendos to pluck out including Ivy’s license plate reading “ROSEBUD” and a cut line of dialogue that originally had the Joker referring to the pair as “busy little beavers”. But such subtext works best with a modern lens. Harley and Ivy combat every male in the episode (except Alfred), and are only taken down by Renee Montoya. Patriarchy is clearly the antagonist, and maybe that involves heteronormative relationships, but it’s simply not strongly stated beyond a sneaky joke here or there to be discernable.
The two would get a few more showcased outings in later episodes, but the biggest opportunity for their relationship to develop into something more would be in the three-part Batman: Harley and Ivy miniseries, done by Dini, Timm and Shane Glines. In it, we see the pair attempt to steal a rare plant and get captured by Batman, thanks in part to Harley’s bumbling. For most of the first issue, Ivy is not speaking to Harley. She fantasizes of killing her and only escapes Arkham to get away from her, bringing her along in the end because, well, the two are friends. Best friends as Harley calls it.
Part Two has them in the jungles of Costa Verde, going up against abusive prison guards, evil slash and burn workers (named Slash and Burn), and enjoy/suffer the environment of an endangered rainforest. Part Three has them move to Hollywood and hijack a production of a “Harley and Ivy” movie, embezzling millions of dollars and feeding Harley’s ego in the process until they’re eventually caught once again by Batman.
Like with the episodes in the animated series, I’m unable to pick up on any romantic overtones that penetrate the basic fabric of friendship between the two. Harley’s goofy and short-sighted nature serves as a comedic foil to Ivy’s conniving, intellectual persona. Part One features a shower sequence with the two of them, but it’s done entirely for comedic effect. Part Two features plainly queer characters, but in the form of Slash and Burn. There’s a notable sequence where Ivy controls the vines and foliage in the Rainforest to masturbate while Harley sits next to their car getting chewed up by mosquitos. Part Three has Harley hungrily lust after stuntmen hired to play Batman in her movie, while she and Ivy receive nude massages in a jacuzzi by muscular male masseuses.
Of course the conversation on their sexuality concerns bisexuality, not strictly lesbianism. And there lies the rub. It’s not impossible for friends to becomes lovers over a period of time (I understand that the Legend of Korra series ended with exactly that), and it’s less impossible for that to happen between two fictional characters. Historically no, I’m not sold on the idea that Harley and Ivy were hot for each other from the start. Perhaps the context of being featured in a children’s show, even a superhero comic forced any intended subtext to be buried underneath the veneer of friendship.
But it comes down to this: what is being lost and gained in the relationship of Harley and Ivy being a romantic one? Speaking for myself, a bit of patience at articles satisfied in proclaiming that this is a love a long time coming from the beginning is lost. But considering the framing of the relationship by the characters’ past, it is incredibly affirming. Poison Ivy/Pamela Isley grew to hate humanity and men especially. Harley’s abusive relationship with the Joker is the stuff of comic book legend. And both get beat up by the Batman. Finding not only friendship, but love in each other, like minded costumed “crazies” who also gets sent to Arkham and feel misunderstood by society, is an appealing conceit of the relationship. Is it a bad look that two prominent female characters in Batman’s world are two of the few queer ones? Perhaps, but there is Renee Montoya to consider. Additionally, the two have swayed much more on the anti-hero spectrum of character dynamics. They always look out for each other, and are will to travel the world and risk their lives for one another’s safety.
Ultimately my feelings on the issue don’t matter, because I’m a straight male. I don’t mean that glibly. My feelings don’t matter because I look at this issue mathematically instead of personally. Whenever one experiences a hiccup involving fictional characters and minority representation, think about how that marginalized group audience member might feel. Consider the validation they could experience in seeing their group represented, and the added effect of that representation personified with popular characters. I never minded the idea of Harley and Ivy being together romantically, but in researching for this article I arrived at the importance and value in having such high-profile characters continue “in that way”. Queer or not, their affection for one another has always been the key element to pairing them off, so at the end of the day nothing changes entirely. Minority representation in Gotham City is a trickle-down process. Every decade or so a Lucius Fox or Cassandra Cain or Alysia Yeoh comes down to make the place feel more real. To have it always been that way with two iconic characters validates the franchise and keeps it relevant for years to come. Comics should always look forward not backward, and while every situation is not Harley and Ivy’s, theirs is an example which can be used as a positive template for stories to come.