overthinking the idiot box

May 16, 2005

A column tackling gay issues, gay themes, and just general gayness in television

The Sex Lives of Supervillians:
It's Not Easy Being Green in Gotham

by Whitney Cox

Ordinarily, I get a little testy when the bad guys are gay. I mean, it's one thing when they're just sort of incidentally queer, or when it's an actual plot point, or when it's not just a big deal. But as superhero stories tend toward the caricature by their very nature, the stereotypes come to the surface easily, and tend toward the offensive, largely for comic value. You know, when the swishy male evildoer or the man-hating female criminal mastermind gets his/her ass kicked by the Defender of Heteronormativity, Masculinity, and the American Way? Yeah. I hate that.

When you're doing Batman for kids, and kinda have to dodge the brunt of the heavy psychological trauma, Bats himself eventually turns into a one-note broody millionaire. And the bad guys make the heist of their lives they steal the show.
But Batman: The Animated Series handles its criminal element a little differently. For starters, though it has its share of one-hit wonder villains — Mad Hatter and Man-Bat, anyone? — it more importantly has its regulars — a cast of nemeses who have origins, quirks, real names, personalities, and their own wacky stories. Their heists even become vaguely explicable as time goes by: The Penguin's going to be doing something bird-related, Clayface is probably trying to get back to being a beautiful movie star, Riddler's quizzical antics are revenge for getting the corporate shaft, Scarecrow (thwarted academic that he is) just thinks fear is funny. Plus, the most interesting thing about the Dark Knight is that broody and horrible psychosis that compels him to spend his free time and income running around Gotham in tights and a mask with pointy ears, so when you're doing Batman for kids, and kinda have to dodge the brunt of the heavy psychological trauma, Bats himself eventually turns into a one-note broody millionaire. And the bad guys make the heist of their lives — they steal the show.

Therefore, it is with great pride and affection that I applaud Poison Ivy (Dr. Pamela Lillian Isley), lesbian eco-terrorist extraordinaire! As far as the animated continuity goes, she's second only to the Joker (once he gets over his terrible pun fetish) for awesomeness, due to her crazy environmentalism, her tremendously sexy voice and her weird flat-footed green ballerina outfit that makes her look kind of like an escapee from a high school production of Peter Pan (but not in the bad way). And unlike other criminal masterminds, she doesn't have delusions of grandeur or wealth — she just likes trees a lot better than she likes people. You almost get the sense that gift memberships to PETA, Greenpeace and the Daughters of Bilitis during her formative years would have saved Gotham a lot of trouble.

Yet Ivy also is unique among Gotham's supervillains in that she's a lady, but she's one of the guys. Though the animated series can often be superbly gender-equitable, it still can't easily shake its faux-1940s noir sexism-as-replicated-in-1992 when it comes to the young, pretty women. Ivy is the only one who escapes from the trap of having to choose between being a male accessory and a man with incidental breasts. When the bad boys get together to play poker and share "almost got 'im!" stories, she's got a place at the table. She gives as good as she gets to the Joker, who knows better than to treat her as anything but an equal. She's not anybody's moll or employee — she's an independent woman with her own highly toxic greenhouse, a woman who knows how to use her sexual availability to manipulate men (poor Harvey) but couples it with a fairly strong man-hating streak.

And then there's the case of Ivy's having the hots for Harley Quinn. Now, I should admit that I'm probably biased by current comic continuity (where at least one of the most recent Batman writers has said of course Harley and Ivy are sleeping together), which might predispose me to seeing Sapphic overtones where none exist. But really. Their one "Harley and Ivy" episode contains — in the space of a single half hour show — again, made for children, I feel the need to remind us all — Ivy inoculating Harley to make close contact safe, Ivy tying up and insulting a men's club, girls lounging around in nightshirts (borrowed, in Harley's case) with no pants, no fewer than two Thelma and Louise references and Joker and Ivy getting into a total studfight over the girl (Harley again!) at the end. A discourse on the merits of gal pals versus unappreciative boyfriends, or another tragic and cautionary tale about the dangers of falling for the straight girl? You make the call.

Of course, independence, feminism and vegetarianism hardly cement one's identity as a lesbian — but in the world of early '90s children's television, they sure do point to something. Whether or not she is sexually attracted to women — and this is children's television, remember, so the only people allowed to be even remotely sexually attracted to anyone else are the precariously kinky duo of Batman and Catwoman — she's definitely not like the other dames. Unlike Red Claw, Ivy's not a mass of criminal muscle that just happens to be female, and unlike Catwoman and Harley, her sexuality isn't diffused by assigning it an outlet. In fact, when she starts behaving in a sexual manner, beware, because she's probably about to poison someone. She's got her own particular "bad guy" gender, which allows her to be highly sexual while at the same time keeping her sexuality entirely under her own control. And that just makes her hot.

In the end, even though she's the villain, and she's got to be taken down and put back in Arkham (where all the good crazy costumed antagonists go), it's just because she's the bad guy, and not because she's a bad person. Heck, Batman even sympathizes with the sentiment behind her crazy eco-terrorism, even if his perpetual boner for justice requires him to condemn her methods. I like to think he's the one that gave her that little potted petunia she pets while she sits in her cell, reads On Our Backs and waits for the chance at her next exciting cartoon caper. It's the least an equal-opportunity crime fighter like the Dark Knight could do.

Next time, on Out-Takes: Our Lady of Cell Block D; or, Frank Black fights for dames and homos!

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