The Sexist Writing of Poison Ivy on Gotham

Poison Ivy has always been one of my favourite characters in the Batman universe.

In a lot of ways, she is everything that the patriarchy demands a woman shouldn’t be – intelligent, independent, in charge of her own sexuality while simultaneously lacking any real interest in men. She can be written very, very badly, of course, but she can also be written very interestingly, as a woman who defies categorization and who demands to be her own woman.

Poison Ivy is also a very interesting example of a sympathetic villain, because while she does kill often and unapologetically, she does so because of a traumatic event that changed her forever. For those of you unaware of her backstory, Poison Ivy was held hostage by her trusted friend and employer, who then proceeded to experiment on her and biologically alter her, turning her into something that is more plant than human. Afterwards, Poison Ivy has a very difficult time relating to other human beings and grows to hate them because of what they do to what is now her own kind – plants. She vows to protect the earth from man kind, and she does so, frequently, by killing them. In her story, it is very easy to see her as a victim, someone who is coming to terms with a violent attack but doing so poorly. And although her attack was not a literal rape, there are many elements in it that resemble one – the fact that it was done to her by a close friend but also someone in a position of power over her, the way that it left her feeling changed afterwards, and if one thinks about her in this way, it might explain why her hatred towards mankind seems to have a special emphasis on the word ‘man’.

The reason why I explain this is just to set up the character that I am discussing here, as well as part of the reason why I love her so much, and why it was such a disappointment to see the FOX series Gotham butcher her so terribly.

And I’m not even talking about a mere poor writing of her character – I’ve seen that before, and as much as I don’t like it, neither am I going to dwell on it all that much. I’m talking about a television show that takes a character who can be interpreted in very interesting but highly gendered ways and reduces her to walking boobs without even the semblance of a brain.

And where am I going to start with this? How about I start at the very moment where she became an active character on the show.

For those of you who have not watched Gotham, what I am about to explain might sound somewhat strange, but this is the backstory that she is given on the show. When Ivy is first introduced, she is a child – around fifteen years old. She hangs around on the show for a while, never really placed in the foreground until about season three, when Ivy is grabbed by a man who has the ability to increase a person’s age by touching them. The next time that we see her, she is played by twenty-nine year old actress Maggie Geha. So why did the show decide to age her up by about fourteen years? Because they wanted to sex her up, of course! According to Gotham executive producer Ken Woodruff in his interview with the Hollywood Report, the writers wanted to explore Ivy’s sexuality, something that has always been an aspect of her character, and they didn’t feel comfortable exploring the sexuality of a child.

And on the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea: it is uncomfortable to sexualize a child. Except for one thing: Gotham is about the characters of the Batman universe growing into their adult personas. It is a sort of coming of age story on one level, about Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, and Pamela Isley (or, in this case, Ivy Pepper) growing up to become Batman, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy. And as uncomfortable as this is going to make the parents of many teenagers, I have something to point out: fifteen year olds have sexuality, they are just learning about what that means and how they can explore it. To turn Ivy into an adult with her sexuality fully formed seems less like the show wants to explore how she grows into her sexuality and more like they want the men in the audience to drool over her. Imagine how different the show could have been if they instead decided to focus on a fifteen year old Ivy learning about the power in her sexuality, exploring that and what it means. It would have been less about how sexy she is and more about her learning to take charge of her body. Or, in other words, it would have been less about her as an object that men want to fuck and more about her taking charge of her own body and her own sexual power.

But Gotham is not interested in Ivy as a human being. They do not want to give her any real power. They just want to make her as sexy to the audience as possible, and a fifteen year old isn’t sexy.

And if you want more proof that Gotham doesn’t care about Ivy as a person, let’s look at the way that they characterize her after she becomes a foregrounded character on the show. Remember how I described her earlier – as an intelligent, independent woman with a hatred for all things male? Well, after Ivy becomes an adult and a walking set of boobs, she is then nonsensically made to take care of an injured Penguin (who openly and verbally abuses her constantly), and her defining characteristic seems to be how stupid she is. She is constantly bumbling idiotically into mistakes, not even realizing when she’s being manipulated by others. Now, I can forget the fact that Poison Ivy in the comics is a botanist with a PhD, because I know that she isn’t (yet) in the Gotham universe, but one of her defining characteristics in every previous adaption is the fact that she is manipulative. She knows how to get into people’s heads, and yes, part of that is because she employs the use of pheromones, but nonetheless, she is consistently smooth and seductive and charming. How is she supposed to do all of that if she doesn’t even have the wherewithal to know when someone is very blatantly lying to her?

Although I have no confirmation on this, my theory for this characterization of Ivy is very similar to the confirmed reason for why she was aged up: because the show only sees her as a sexual object. From the comics, they saw a character who was very open about her sexuality and they interpreted that character as stupid, as a doormat that can be easily abused and taken advantage of, when that is the furthest thing from true. Poison Ivy is a strong, independent woman. She is the woman who encourages Harley Quinn again and again to leave the Joker because he isn’t good for her, and yet here she is, allowing Penguin to yell at her and call her stupid. This isn’t just a case of the writers not understanding the character – this is a case of the writers taking a sexist and objectifying stance on a character who is so much more than the tits they reduced her to.

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Why Wonder Woman is Important

If I had to choose between DC and Marvel (and many geeks do), I would probably choose DC. Don’t get me wrong, I love Marvel, and one of my favourite superheroes comes from Marvel (Nightcrawler from the X-Men, if you were curious), but I’ve always seen DC as just a little bit edgier, a little bit more willing to take risks. And not to mention, Harley Quinn and, for that matter, everything to do with Batman would probably have to be my favourite things from any superhero comic. So when DC began their own cinematic universe, I was downright dying to see it all come together.

But truth be told, their first three movies left me feeling disappointed. I personally considered Man of Steel to be an awful movie with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Batman Vs. Superman was a bit cheesier, and I loved the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman and Jeremy Irons as Alfred, but it was not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. And although I loved Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, I had some huge problems with the Suicide Squad movie, mostly because they romanticized the abusive relationship between Harley and the Joker.

I say all of this because, by the time that the release of the Wonder Woman movie became close enough to get excited about, I had begun to doubt that DC could put out a good movie. But nonetheless, I wanted to get excited. I really wanted this to be a good movie, because this was just such an important movie.

There have been superhero movies with female leads in the past. In 1984, the world saw the release of a Supergirl movie, in 2004 we had a Catwoman movie, and again in 2005, we had an Elektra film, but none of those films were critical successes, and more importantly, they were a vast minority, and both of those movies were released before Marvel’s great success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As I write this, Marvel has released fifteen films, and not one of them have a female superhero as their lead. Their first superhero movie starring a female superhero, Captain Marvel, is set to be released in 2019, and it follows twenty films with male leads. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is DC’s fourth film, following two films with male leads and one film that divides its attention between one male lead and one female lead.

Not only that, but this film is Wonder Woman’s first live action cinematic appearance. She has had a television series of her own, but she has not had a mainstream movie of her own until now, which is miserable when you consider her male counterparts within DC. Batman has starred in seven live action films, whereas Superman has starred in nine.

So why is it that we have received so many films with male superheroes and so few with female? Well, because studios have doubted for years that the typical movie-going audience will be interested in a superhero film starring a woman! For years, movie studios (including Marvel) have cited the previously mentioned flops of female superhero movies as a reason to avoid making more of them. So, yeah, it’s a pretty big deal that DC was willing to release a mainstream Wonder Woman film, especially so early into the game. And not only that, it’s a pretty big deal that they chose a woman, Patty Jenkins, to direct, because of the top 250 films released in 2016, only 7% of those were directed by women.

So this movie needed to be good. It needed to be, because if it wasn’t, the future of female-led superhero movies was in jeopardy.

So how was it, really?

Well, I am proud to confess that, upon seeing it, not only is it the first legitimately good movie released in DC’s extended universe, but it gave no disappointments. Truly, it is the sort of movie that future superhero movies will try to emulate, and I couldn’t be happier.

In some ways, Wonder Woman captured a side of superhero story lines that I have always loved, and that is the idea that all people, good and bad alike, are worth saving. Wonder Woman explores the idea of empathy, who deserves it and who doesn’t, and a lot of the focus of the film relies on the strength of emotion and of love – two ideals that, interestingly enough, have been labelled feminine and, in a lot of ways, have been excluded from other superhero movies.

And I’m not saying that love is completely excluded from other superhero movies. Many of them feature love stories, and although it isn’t part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Amazing Spiderman 2 dealt with a superhero’s reaction to the loss of his love. But Wonder Woman deals with this differently. For Wonder Woman, love is her strength. She quite literally gains strength through her love for her significant other, her love for her friends, and, even more interestingly, her love for human kind en masse, including her own villains. In Wonder Woman, love and emotions are her asset, not a weakness. Not something that makes her silly and illogical. It makes her walk across a battle field and face fire from enemy troops, and it makes her win the battle in the end. And although I won’t say that this is an aspect that would not be represented in a superhero movie made by and starring men, I will say that this is an aspect that is unique to this film.

And it is so important that this aspect is available in Wonder Woman, because love and emotions have been labelled as ‘feminine’ for years, and more than that, they have been labelled as inferior. Emotions are seen as illogical, but Wonder Woman argues against that. Wonder Woman states that, yes, she is a woman, and yes, she is emotional and loving, but that is her strength. That is what helps her protect people, what helps her defeat her villains. That is what makes her amazing.

And there is so much more that I can say about this film. As I said, this is very much a movie about empathy, and it shows empathy towards everyone – toward people of colour who have faced discrimination or historical genocide, toward people who were born in the wrong time and place and are just trying to do the right thing, toward people who have given up trying to do the right thing and have turned instead toward hurting others. Wonder Woman is a loving and wonderful film that I cannot recommend enough. And even though it took a long time for the DC extended universe to put out a great film, I am so glad that when they did, it was this one.