The DCU and the problem with female villains turning into antiheroes
It is well known by now that the DCU is the house of some of the most famous female supervillains in comic book history: Catwoman, Talia al Ghul, Tigress, Fright, Killer Frost, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, just to name a few; in the last years, though, something changed in the DCU: some female villains started to appear less often in the comics, almost as if they disappeared, and others were completely rebooted: their personality as well as their goals completely changed. They became, in fact, some sort of antiheros, seemingly forgetting about their past. This, unfortunately, is what happened to two of my favorite characters of all time, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn.
But let’s start from the beginning:
both Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn were created as villains; Poison Ivy — created by Robert Kanigher and Sheldon Moldoff — made her first appearance in the comics in the sixties. Her real name is Pamela Lillian Isley, and she was a young, promising botanist that got seduced by a Doctor named Jason Woodrue. He tested some of his poisons and toxins on Pamela, which eventually caused her transformation in Poison Ivy: a human-plant hybrid with the ability of controlling plants and the human mind via pheromones. Her goal was, before her reboot, to extinguish the human race so that plants could take over and rule the world, a goal which she tried to accomplish in every way possible. In the New 52 as well as in Rebirth, however, Poison Ivy operated more as an antihero rather than a villain: now paired with Harley Quinn, she’s seen most of the time only around her, becoming nothing more than a side character who has completely forgot, apparently, her true wicked nature.
Harley Quinn’s first appearance, however, doesn’t go that far back in the past: created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm as a sidekick for The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series in the nineties, Harley wasn’t even meant to become an actual character in the comics, but due to her bubbly personality, she later made it into the comics, appearing for the first time in The Batman Adventures #12.
Before becoming a criminal, Harley Quinn, whose real name is Harleen Frances Quinzel, was a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. Her goal was to write a book on the patients in the facility, but when she convinced the head doctor of the Asylum in order to have a therapy session with The Joker so that she could have more material to work with for her book, everything changed. Harley fell madly, clumsily, agonizingly in love with him, and helped him escape the Asylum, becoming then Harley Quinn. She doesn’t have particular inhuman abilities, but she is a skilled gymnast and is eminently good in manipulating someone else’s mind with her psychiatrist skills. She is also extremely cruel and evil, she enjoys inflicting and receiving pain, and she’s immune to various toxins.
As it happened with Poison Ivy, in the New 52 and Rebirth Harley completely changed. She left the Joker and moved to New York, where she became a caring and loving person and also an activist. Everything Harley was got completely destroyed, and the same happened with Poison Ivy. Harley, who was one of the most complex characters in the DCU, became what she always tried to avoid; and Poison Ivy, one of the most powerful female villains in the DCU, became nothing more than a side character who even tries to do some good for the human race.
Fans, however, seem to love this characterization of Harley and Ivy, even insinuating that both characters were not even supposed to be evil in the first place: after all women can’t be genuinely evil, can’t they?
Unfortunately for them, though, both characters are actually supposed to be bad to the bone, but because of the urge of making even fictional content politically correct, two of the most famous female villains in the DCU became flat and boring characters. When you decide to build a character around an obsession, taking that obsession away from the character will make it purposeless and highly boring, and it will also deconstruct it.
Poison Ivy’s obsession was to destroy the mankind, so that plants could take over, as I said before. Taking that away from her completely deconstructed her, as it happened with Harley Quinn — and which we will discuss later on-, Ivy, then, is left without a goal: and what is Poison Ivy without her ultimate goal? Just like Harley, she’s a flat character, with nothing at all that distinguishes her from everybody else. She simply became Harley Quinn’s love interest, and even though Harley cheated on her on multiple occasions, Ivy still decided not to leave her -which is so out of character for Ivy-. Poison Ivy is so much more than a simple love interest, and since she was created as a villain, it’s time that she gets written as such. Moreover, it shouldn’t pass unnoticed that, even though Ivy has always been a shoulder to cry on for Harley, she got easily annoyed when she was around her, and she was often cold hearted.
Poison Ivy deserves to be portrayed as one of Batman’s most deadly adversaries, and she should definitely go back at being a femme fatale: before her reboot Ivy was also extremely sexual, she poisoned humans with her lipstick and she tried to seduce Batman on multiple occasions. Furthermore, Poison Ivy does not care about saving humans and plants, she only cares about saving the latter.
Harley Quinn’s obsession, on the other hand, was the Joker. She became evil because of him, she was literally created because of him, but yet writers decided to take her away from him, and fans are tremendously happy because of that, but let me explain why what happened wasn’t exactly in the best interest of the character: as I said before, the urge of making everything politically correct even affected Harley Quinn and Joker’s romantic relationship. Writers probably thought that their relationship was an obstacle to Harley’s independence and psychological well being, which was actually not the case at all: Harley genuinely loved being with the Joker, he helped her discover her true self and live the life she always wanted to live, deep down. Of course their relationship is an abusive one, but is the Joker the only one who is in the wrong, and is Harley just a victim? The answer is no. Harley, in fact, tried to kill the Joker multiple times as well, and let’s not forget that she wanted to simply use him from the beginning to write her book. Harley is a willing accomplice of the Joker, she is not a victim, she is a villain, and she is just as evil as her former lover, but most importantly, she was completely aware of the relationship she was into and she chose to that kind of lifestyle herself. Joker and Harley’s dynamic as a couple is particularly complex and unhealthy, and even though most of the people who love the new version of Harley Quinn for some reason don’t get it: Joker and Harley actually did love each other, but in their own twisted way. We can’t expect two mentally disturbed individuals to fall in love like anybody else, and the way they showed each other that they were in love, of course, was just as sick as their relationship; Harley, for example, showed Joker that she loved him by being exceedingly clingy and obsessive. Their relationship reflected who they are.
Therefore, was it actually useful to deconstruct a character and a relationship just to be politically correct? Once again the answer is no. Nothing of what happens in those panels is real, and it doesn’t affect the character that is living in that context, since they do not exist. Of course it is fascinating and inspiring to see a character that is escaping a really bad relationship, but why don’t do it with a character who isn’t, indeed, happy in the relationship they’re into, instead of trying to twist an evil character into something they didn’t want to be in the first place? It is in fact made cristal clear in the episode Harlequinade from Batman: The Animated Series, that Harley wants to be the farther thing from normal: in the episode, even though she tried to act as a normal person, but since she didn’t find a way to get along with society, Harley went back to being her normal self after not even one day.
In the end: was it really necessary to turn two iconic female villains into activists, and who is to blame? Let Harley answer that for you: