Maybe she's not so far off (Harley and Ivy)

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It’s January 18, 1993. The top movie and song don’t change between here and “The Mechanic” six days later, so see that post for chart info. In the news, yesterday marked the end of the Braer Storm, the most powerful extratropical cyclone ever in the North Atlantic. Tomorrow will see the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which as the name implies bans the use and stockpiling of chemical weapons. It will also see IBM post a nearly $5 billion loss for 1992, the largest single-year loss in U.S. history. These facts are probably unrelated.

In Batman the Animated Series, we have the much-beloved “Harley and Ivy,” which focuses on the two titular villains, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, as they form the first true team-up in the DCAU. It opens with a demonstration that despite both being distinct characters that work together, Harley and the Joker are very much not a team; she is clearly subordinate, as he makes demands, gives orders, then blames her when his orders have bad results.

But once Harley teams up with Ivy, she shines. This is very much a sympathetic villain story (for Harley more than Ivy), albeit rather different than most since it doesn’t try to make Harley sympathetic by showing where she came from, but rather where she is. Being the Joker’s sidekick/girlfriend isn’t a great place to be, not least because he merges those categories. Their relationship is just another of those power structures that the Joker ostensibly seeks to destabilize, but, as in “Joker’s Favor,” he’s completely fine with it when it’s his power.

Harley isn’t. Harley’s relationship with Ivy is much more of a partnership. We see when they meet that Harley is clever, resourceful, and a much better thief than Ivy, who needs Harley’s help to escape; on the other hand, Ivy has powers, a cause, and most importantly offers Harley unwavering emotional support. There’s no formal confirmation in the show (of course–this is an American cartoon in 1993, after all) that they are anything other than friends, but frankly it’s pretty straightforwardly obvious that they’re lovers, or at least–and this much is visible on screen–the sort of friends who go around with no pants on.

They’re pretty much a perfect match. We see how fantastically successful they are together in a classic spinning-newspaper montage, not to mention such gems as their high fives after successful heists and Harley shooting a rocket at catcallers. They both smile far more in this episode than we’ve ever seen them smile before.

But the Joker has warped Harley badly. That much is obvious from the scene where Harley calls him, not just in the fact that she does call him, but in her visible terror that Ivy will find out. Harley expects to be punished when she does something her partner doesn’t want, and doesn’t understand that Ivy almost certainly would have no worse than maybe some harsh words–and even those would be rooted in Ivy’s recognition that the Joker is bad for Harley.

Mixed in with all this, of course, is Ivy’s particular brand of feminism, which is very binary. She seems to believe that hurting men is the same thing as helping women–her first suggestion to help Harley get over the Joker is to rob a men’s only “adventurer’s club.” Which, to be fair, is obviously a sexist institution and could probably do with a good public shaming, but it’s still hard to see how exactly that’s supposed to help Harley.

Still, Ivy’s conviction of feminine superiority does get some delightful payoff when, five seconds after her declaration “no man can catch us,” Renee Montoya pulls an Eowyn and arrests Harley and Ivy both. Frankly, this episode didn’t need Batman after the initial chase; it would have worked just fine with Ivy, Joker, and Renee Montoya as the three forces competing for possession of Harley.

Because that’s what’s happening here. Montoya and Batman represent, as always, law, order, the traditional structures of power. Montoya is an example of someone who is at a disadvantage within those structures (triply so: she is Hispanic, a woman, and, as revealed a decade later in the Gotham Central comics, a lesbian) but who nonetheless achieves some measure of success by working within the system as one of its defenders. Batman, meanwhile, is someone who (like Harley) stands outside the system and violates its rules, but works to support rather than undermine the structures of power, and enjoys a position of great power within those structures. Like Batman, the Joker represents the same thing he always does: anarchy, the destruction of all power structures purely for the sake of eliminating those structures.

And all three reveal the hypocrisy in their positions. Montoya defends the same society which marginalizes people like her. Batman is, as we’ve observed before, as much of a criminal as the criminals he fights. The Joker seeks to destroy power, but that in itself is a violent act that requires immense power, and as he shows in his relationship with Harley it’s really the power he craves–he wants not to eliminate all structures of power, but to replace them with a simple structure that has him on top and everyone else below.

Only Poison Ivy is sincere and straightforward about her goals. She likes plants, hates men, and wants to upend the structures of power so that the natural environment is valued over convenience and corporate success, and women over men. Most importantly, she’s the only one who doesn’t want to control or change Harley, she just wants her to be free, healthy, and happy.

But this love story is doomed. The forces within Gotham, represented by Montoya and the Joker, are powerful enough; even stronger are the forces without, the systemic homophobia which says that an American children’s cartoon cannot show a lesbian relationship. (Even after 22 years of arguably pretty significant progress, that bias is only starting to crack; The Legend of Korra and especially Steven Universe are pretty clear about the orientations of their characters, but even then they build in a veneer of deniability.) Harley must return to the Joker by the end of the episode, though this will hardly be the last time Harley and Ivy team up.

After all, they got closer to killing Batman than anyone else to date. They dumped him in a lake full of toxic waste, in which he opened his mouth; the fact that he’s not dead by the next episode is a testament to the fantastic medical technology available to one of the richest men in the world. Lesson learned: teams work.

Which means Batman needs an equal. Not a Robin he trained himself, a sidekick, but a counterpart, someone who can do what he does on their own but also work together with him if needed. Someone smart, dedicated, frustrated with the way Gotham works but nonetheless devoted to defending it. Someone he can trust.

It’s time for the return of Barbara Gordon.

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