Occasionally in the 90s we’d get a cartoon that would dedicate at least one episode to feminism or at least some vague notion of female empowerment. Batman: The Animated Series is no exception, and the episode “Harley and Ivy” is definitely one of my all-time favorites—after all, it introduced me to my absolute favorite femslash pairing. The episode in general does some great things, but it’s also still pretty problematic. At the heart of these problems is how we get feminism promoted to us through two female villains, causing it to look more like straw feminism than actual feminism. Despite that, though, this episode addresses everything from sexism to abusive relationships, street harassment, and female friendships.
The episode begins with Batman attempting to chase down the Joker and Harley. The two get away, but just barely. The Joker is angry with Harley because he claims the heist went wrong because of her, after which he kicks her out of the gang. Harley is heartbroken, but determined to prove herself, and goes off to steal the diamond that the Joker was after. While stealing the diamond, the alarm goes off, and Harley realizes this is because Poison Ivy tripped the alarm while stealing some plant toxins. The two team up to escape the cops, after which Harley starts staying with Poison Ivy and the two become fast friends. Poison Ivy tries to help empower Harley in order for her to get over the Joker. They then go on a crime spree and become the new Queens of Crime.
But Harley still misses the Joker and calls him without Poison Ivy’s knowledge, which allows the Joker to track her. Batman has also tracked down the two women and attacks them in their home. Ivy and Harley quickly gain the upper hand, and then the Joker shows up and attempts to steal Harley and Ivy’s loot. The Joker tries to use his Joker gas on Ivy but Ivy is immune and she is able to escape with Harley. Batman starts attacking the Joker, and Harley and Ivy appear to have succeeded in their escape until they are finally caught by Gotham police officer Renee Montoya.
This episode is a lot of fun and touches on some important issues, but part of the problem that I have with it is the same problem I have with some of the other female Gotham villains. Namely, that they are often portrayed as believing in real and important causes, but they are also always shown as a radical or extremist, thus making their cause seem radical or extreme. Poison Ivy is someone who cares about the environment, but of course she takes it to a radical extreme, caring more about nature than people. Catwoman, likewise, is shown in the animated series as an animal rights activist, but she is still someone who is too extreme in her methods of pursuing that cause. And because Harley and Ivy are both villains, their talking about feminist issues makes their cause naturally seem like it’s wrong or at the very least that their methods are too extreme.
I can’t speak for all viewers of this episode, but I was rooting for Harley and Ivy the whole time because the men they encountered seemed to deserve the punishment Harley and Ivy were dishing out. I remember loving that they were taking men who thought Harley and Ivy weren’t as good as them to task, and I really did not want Batman to catch them. But at the same time, I remember feeling conflicted about those feelings because I knew that what Harley and Ivy were doing—stealing things and attacking people—was wrong. Because the two women are villains and doing villainous things while promoting feminism, it’s hard to view the philosophy they are uplifting as right.
Batman isn’t the only one trying to stop these new Queens of Crime. The writers seemed to have the foresight that having a man stop Harley and Ivy would not go over well, and so it is ultimately Officer Renee Montoya who brings them down. This could have been awesome; Montoya is a woman of color and one of my favorite Gotham officers, but sadly she is given only three lines this whole episode. I know Batman usually works with Gordon, but it would have been better if Renee and Batman had worked together. The episode could have mentioned that Renee understood where Harley and Ivy were coming from, but that their actions set a bad example. We could have even gotten a scene where Renee brings the three men who were catcalling Harley and Ivy in for questioning about the two villains, and after taking their statement she could have fined or arrested them for harassment, which would show that what they were doing was still wrong. This would not only have given a boost to the feminist message I feel the episode was trying to go for, but it would also have given a major role to a woman of color, further enforcing the message.
Overall, the episode is good, entertaining, and does address some feminist issues, but ultimately it falls short of the attempted goal and runs far too close to turning into another straw feminist story. It’s fun watching Harley and Ivy kick the butts of every sexist man they meet, but when none of the heroes seem concerned with the same issues, it ultimately sends the wrong sort of message.