by Monica Balleza-Hipolito and Corinne Hall
Four years after the release of the film Suicide Squad, DC Films is releasing a new film called Birds of Prey. It will include familiar DC characters such as Harley Quinn, Black Canary, Huntress, and Renee Montoya. With the upcoming film, many have wondered how the female friendship between Harley Quinn and her new companions will be portrayed. In researching the relationship between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, we have noticed that a common reaction of fans to these two iconic characters is to shape their relationship as a romantic one. The romance between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy is most apparent in fan/slash fiction, but undertones of a lesbian love interest are also apparent in the portrayal of these two antiheroes in the mainstream media presentation of them. Both characters are highly sexualized and fetishized, both come from backgrounds of abuse (mainly by violence from men), and the representation of Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn as having an ambiguously polyamorous intimacy is indicative of queer baiting for the audience through a malegaze.
An Introduction to the Characters and their Love Story:
Both Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy have been abused by men. That they become close out of their mutual distrust of men perpetuates a trope of queer femininity as nothing more than a backlash against trauma, that women only like other women if a man has been abusive to them. This trope is one indication of the male gaze through which Ivy and Quinn are created.
In Batman and Robin, Dr. Pamela Isley becomes Poison Ivy after she is pushed by her supervisor at Wayne Industries. She falls backward, and he then pours a whole ton of chemicals onto her. Believing that she has died, the supervisor is surprised to see Dr.Pamela rise from the spill. Dr.Pamela, who is now transformed into Poison Ivy, kisses her supervisor and lastly states that she is “poison,” killing him with her kiss and touch. DC Comics states, “Once an innovative, radical botanical biochemist named Pamela Isley, Poison Ivy’s academic ambitions died on the vine when she was subjected to less-than-reputable experiments.” Her villainous tendencies are a result of trauma with a violent man, and her new mission becomes revenge. Her beauty and pheromones are used as tools to seduce and ruin men– in other words, her sexuality is poison. The simultaneous objectification of Poison Ivy and the villainization of her seductive prowess perpetuates a male gazey fantasy, viewing Poison Ivy through a lens of danger and desire.
As seen in the film Suicide Squad, after many days of counseling and observation, psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinnzel’s obsession with her patient, the Joker increases, eventually turning into something she believes to be more amorous. Dr. Quinnzel releases the Joker from his prison cell and follows him into what seems like a factory with acid containers. Dr. Quinnzel gets pushed by the Joker into a pool of acid. She is later picked up by the Joker and becomes devoted to him. In the comics, Dr. Quinnzel does not jump into acid but instead “after meeting the Joker, the young doctor became obsessed with the crazed criminal’s warped mind.” (DC Comics) The relationship between Dr. Quinn and the Joker is the epitome of toxic, reminiscent of the abduction as romance trope, and it serves to create a sense of motive for Quinn’s actions from then on. Instead of merely succumbing to the wooing of her kidnapper though, Quinn is portrayed as psychotic and dangerous, willing to do anything for love.
Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy in Fan/Slash Fiction and Fan Art:
Much of what is seen in fan fiction is that the love between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy stems from the violence in the relationship between Harley and the Joker and Poison Ivy’s own trauma. Poison Ivy seems to understand Harley Quinn, In the comic Batman: Harley Quinn “. . .I sympathize with you. You’ve given your all to a man who used you and betrayed you. Now I’ve enabled you with the means to strike back, not only at Joker, but at Batman, too” (Austin, 2015). In femslash, the fans take elements of Harley and Ivy’s story, and turn it into a love story. For example, a fan wrote in the introduction for her fan fiction…
“Ivy is sick of Harley’s delusions. After Ivy reveals her feelings to Harley, she does what she can to lead her away from the Joker’s abuse as the couple deals with threats both inside and outside of Arkham Asylum. When the situation deteriorates, they find themselves entering into a tense alliance with Batman and the police to save Gotham City. (FEMSLASH).”
When we compare an image of fan art with an image from the original comic, it becomes apparent that the relationship between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy is fetishized. In the original picture, the two characters are looking at each other, gazing into each other’s eyes, with love between the two of them. In the fan art picture, the two are standing one behind the other, looking at the audience; this suggests a performative version of their relationship, one intended not for themselves but for the viewing pleasure of a male gazey audience. This fetishization has even been exported to real life versions of the characters, with cosplay taking a playboy bunny approach to the interpretation of Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn:
Queerbating for the male gaze….
There is that scene in Suicide Squad where all the male characters stare at Harley Quinn as she dresses. The male gaze in that scene is emphasized as the camera follows Harley’s body movements. Similarly, seen here in the cartoon movie Batman and Harley Quinn (2017), there is a scene where it focuses on Harley and Ivy seducing Bruce Wayne, using their relationship to get to Bruce as a method of queer bating for the male gaze.
In conclusion, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy are two hyper-sexualized representations of femininity in a world created through the male gaze. They are powerful in their seductive abilities, Poison Ivy with her pheromones and beauty, Harley Quinn with shear force and sexualized violence. Their independent powers are amplified through an implied intimacy, wherein they are capable of seducing men together– their performative love for each other only exists because they’ve both been scarred by men in the past and now must seek revenge. It’s all about the men! Instead of exploring the possibility of a romantic connection between the two through similarities in their backgrounds and mutual respect for and understanding of one another, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn get to be sexy unofficial lovers who use their sexuality for harm rather than good. They embody the fantasy of danger enmeshed with desire, where women are given power only in their ability to manipulate men.
AUSTIN, S. (2015). Batman’s Female Foes: The Gender War in Gotham City. Journal of Popular Culture, 48(2), 285–295. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpcu.12257
Dhaenens, F., Van Bauwel, S., & Biltereyst, D. (2008). Slashing the Fiction of Queer Theory: Slash Fiction, Queer Reading, and Transgressing the Boundaries of Screen Studies, Representations, and Audiences. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 32(4), 335–347. https://doi.org/10.1177/0196859908321508
Hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators” in Movies and Mass Culture, edited by John Belton, 247-264. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
*Class discussions throughout June