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.


5 Things I Want to See in the Gotham City Sirens Movie

It’s official.

I’ve been following news regarding the solo Harley Quinn project ever since its first few moments of speculation, increasingly encouraged by every new bit of information that I’ve heard.

A solo Harley Quinn film? I’m cool with that.

It’s going to feature a primarily female cast of characters? Tell me more!

The writer is going to be a woman? Shut up and take my money!

But the most encouraging news of all is what has been most recently announced: the film is going to focus on the Gotham City Sirens, meaning that not only is my all-time-favourite girl Harley Quinn going to be a primary focus (cue the fan-girl squeals for that already), but two more of my favourite DC women are going to play a starring role as well: Poison Ivy and Catwoman.

I may never stop screaming.

And so, I’ve decided to make a list of the things that I’m most hopeful to see in the upcoming Sirens movie. It isn’t a complete list – I decided to focus solely on the things that I could actually see creeping their way into the movie. As much as I’d like to see the abuse between Joker and Harley explored in this film, I will acknowledge that it was swept completely under the rug for Suicide Squad, and so it might be a little late in the game to throw it in. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other things that I’m hoping to see! Beautiful, wonderful, totally possible things that I’ve collected here and I’m seriously hoping to see!

And so, without further ado, here they are: the top five things that I want to see in the Gotham City Sirens movie!

1. Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy’s relationship

I could potentially mean this in two ways: on the one hand, I want to see them as a couple. I want one of my favourite bisexual comic book characters to be outed for the film audience, and I want to sit in the movie theatre in a puddle of my own tears as I watch one of my favourite comic book couples flirt with each other and care about each other and just be plain-and-simple adorable.

But, at the same time, as hopeful as I am that the studio will have the strength and integrity to represent a bisexual couple for the mainstream audience, I can totally see them deciding that they don’t want to deal with the controversy, especially considering they already wrote out the Joker-Harley-Deadshot love triangle in the Suicide Squad movie, because they wanted to endear Joker and Harley as the main couple (barf). I’m not saying that I agree with that decision – I’m just saying that I can see it happening.

And so I’d settle for a good representation of Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn as friends.

I want to see two women care about each other.

I want to see two women support each other and hold each other up, even at the worst of times.

I want to see Poison Ivy realize that, even though she never thought that she’d connect with a human after the experiment that turned her half-plant, she actually really, truly cares about Harley, and wants to keep her safe and happy.

I want to see Harley defend her best friend to the death, against all odds and obstacles.

I just really, really want their relationship to be the main heart of the film, you guys.

2. Poison Ivy’s backstory explored

My primary hope for this film is that all three of the sirens will be represented as complex human beings, rather than the walking sex dolls they’re too often reduced to. And one strong way that I can see this being accomplished is by exploring Poison Ivy’s backstory.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Poison Ivy’s backstory, she was a botanist who was used by her boss for scientific experiments, resulting in her becoming half-plant and having a very difficult time connecting with other human beings, both because she was genetically different from them now, and because her boss violated her trust hugely by turning her into what she became. When explored right, this can make Poison Ivy a very intriguing character, taking the Batman villain who walks around nearly naked and uses pheramones to attract men, and turning her into someone who is very human and very, very hurt.

And I want to see this.

I think it’s only fair, after all – we had Harley Quinn’s backstory explained in Suicide Squad, and as much as I don’t want Catwoman to be simply swept under the rug, she’s already had two live action films that gave her backstory justice. All Poison Ivy got was that terrible Uma Therman adaption that, let’s face it, didn’t explore the conflict of being a half-plant woman in a human society all that well.

And, besides, we can marry this plot line with the first one I suggested – maybe the whole film is about Poison Ivy finding it difficult to connect with anyone after the experiments, but she eventually finds a strong bond in Harley Quinn (and, to a non-lover extent, Catwoman).

3. Catwoman and Batman’s relationship

I know, I know, I already stated that Catwoman’s story has been given its proper dues in two live action movies, and that is true. But, come on – who doesn’t love the complex rooftop trysts between these two?

Like I said, I want Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn to be the main heart of the film, whether they be lovers or friends, but in the background, it would be nice to have the occasional flirtation between these two.

Batman and Catwoman are incredibly complimentary characters – intriguing apart, both of them, but fascinating together. And I always want to see more of them. Not as the film’s main couple or anything like that – I want most of the focus to be on the women, but present nonetheless.

4. A new costume for Harley Quinn

This one’s mostly a nitpick.

Because, look, I didn’t hate the costume from Suicide Squad. It was nice and recognizable and all, but it just didn’t fit into Harley’s whole clown theme for me. I think that her costume has a lot of potential for improvement, and a new film is a good opportunity to take advantage of that.

And another reason why Harley needs a new costume: because Harley changes her costume all the bloody time in the comics. The girl loves her fashion, and any chance she gets to change her look, she’ll take. So all I’m saying is that it would fit her character to have her suddenly decide “yeah, that look was cute – but now it’s time to move on to something new!”

5. Lots and lots of badass, beautiful, and complex women

This is what it all boils down to for me. This is what I am most excited to see in this film.

Because, as a feminist, a woman, and a fan of DC, I will admit that the comics have occasionally dropped the ball for these characters. Some have downplayed their brilliance. Some have forced them to take a back seat to the male characters. Some have reduced them to nothing more than empty shells of a person with huge boobs for men to ogle at. And as much as I love Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy’s relationship, I will confess that there have been times in the comics when the only purpose it played was to make men drool at hot, bisexual women.

But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case for this movie.

This movie has the potential to be brilliant, because it takes (at least) three women who are incredibly complex and strong when they’re written right, and it puts them in the role of the main characters. They can be thoroughly explored, they can be established. They can be weak and cry, and then pull themselves right back up and kick some ass.

I want these women to be complex.

I want them to be vulnerable, and strong, and above all, human.

I want to see three of my favourite comic book characters be done justice.

And as much as I have no evidence that that is what’s going to happen with this film yet, it’s still early enough for me to dream.