Put his house in order (House and Garden)

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It’s May 2, 1994, the day before “Sideshow,” so see that post for charts and headlines.

Today it’s the first episode of the second season of Batman: The Animated Series (in airing order, anyway), and a very strong beginning it is indeed. Poison Ivy is a complicated character, not so much in terms of her motivations or personality, as in the show’s relationship with and attitude towards her. Ivy is a power, intelligent woman rejected by patriarchal society, and conventionally beautiful to boot, so the show’s treatment of her varies from, at worst, a typical femme fatale (as in “Pretty Poison,”), to, at best, a feminist revolutionary on a quest to liberate her sisters from oppression (as in “Harley and Ivy”). Much like Batman (as either a character or a show), Ivy’s depiction is suspended between two extremes: Criminal or savior? Protector or bringer of justice? The familiar order of things, or the new and strange?

To put it in simplistic terms, is Ivy a diseased “bad girl” who needs to change and fulfill her socially approved role, or is she reacting with justifiable anger (leaving open the question of whether her methods and choice of victims is as justifiable) to a toxic culture that seeks to force her into a box in which she cannot fit? This episode’s answer is, basically, “Yes.”

On the one hand, at the surface level, this is an episode in which femme fatale Ivy plays at being a happy homemaker, but lurking beneath that happiness is treachery and entrapment. Her kisses make a man her slave, and then she steals his “seed.” She cannot have children of her own, so she uses her powers, her twisted science, and the stolen seed to create substitute children. The resultant things which emerge from her (once again incredibly yonic) plant incubators appear human at first, but rapidly develop into monsters.  And then, though she calls them her children, she treats these creatures as utterly disposable, using them to commit the very crimes that fund their creation, then discarding them when they’re no longer useful. And this twisted parody of a family, we are told, is everything she truly wants, the only time she has ever been happy.

She is, in short, every misogynistic stereotype of women compiled into a single character. She is the gold-digging seductress, the succubus, who uses her sexuality to entrap men, taking their wealth and draining their life-essence. She is Lilith, who is punished for wanting equality by losing the ability to have human children, birthing a race of monsters instead. She is a patient having an affair with her doctor, and somehow it’s the patient who’s being manipulative. She is the mother/lover, that staple of sitcoms and cartoons, the woman whose husband is her child, too. And she is the abusive harridan, who sits back in idleness (because all her labor creating life, caring for her children and husband, doesn’t count) while her children and husband slave for her.

And, in the end, what the episode tells us the bad girl, the would-be feminist revolutionary whose only on-screen romantic relationship she seems to have actually cared about was with another woman, really wants deep down is to be a housewife who loves a man and births sons. But because she stubbornly, wickedly insists on rejecting the status quo, she loses her chance at that and must depart silently in sorrow, even her grief narrated for her by a man.

This reading is nothing short of scathing. It presents us with an episode that is, frankly, garbage, an expression of total misogyny that despises its own central character and exists solely to break her down and crow self-righteously over her suffering.

There’s just one problem: this is actually a very good episode, and really does seem to be treating Poison Ivy sympathetically.

So let’s dig below the surface level. The episode invites us to, after all: the central mystery of the episode relies on everyone around Ivy accepting the surface image she presents, without digging deeper into her family. As soon as they do, asking a question as basic and easily answered as “What gender are Dr. Carlyle’s children?” everything falls apart for her.

So let’s start there. Carlyle’s children are girls, but have gender-ambiguous names, and Ivy is only able to make male plant-children from Carlyle’s DNA, so her version of the Carlyle kids are boys. This is, as stated above, the key discrepancy that unravels her entire plan, but note that it only happened because Carlyle was male. If Ivy had been able to marry a woman and raise daughters, she would never have been found out, and would have kept what we are told is everything she ever wanted.

There’s a similar ambiguity in the episode’s ending. The pages of Ivy’s photo album that she’s show crying over show a mix of pictures. About half are of her false family, but the other half depict either Harley Quinn and Ivy together, Harley alone, or (in one case) Ivy draped suggestively over the hood of the car she and Harley are shown sharing in another picture, at least suggesting the possibility that it’s a picture of Ivy taken by Harley. And we never actually hear Ivy confirm the truth of her statement that the false family was everything she ever wanted; instead we get someone else introducing the possibility she might be lying and then speculating that she wasn’t. Even Ivy’s tears, which fall on the photograph of her wedding with Carlyle, could equally be about the juxtaposition of a picture of Ivy getting married with the prominently displayed picture of Harley Quinn–again, the only other human being Poison Ivy has been shown actually caring about–immediately above it.

We thus have two major elements of the text pointing to at least the possibility that Ivy’s “everything she ever wanted” isn’t to marry a man and raise sons, but rather to marry a woman and raise daughters. Her desires for love and motherhood thus cease to be at odds with her desire to smash the patriarchy, and instead become a part of that desire. Ivy loves plants and she loves women, and she’s willing to lie, steal from, or kill as many men as it takes to protect the plants and women she loves, both in the abstract and individually.

Her fake little home is just that, a fake, a performance. Performativity is familiar territory for us by now, but here we’re looking at something a bit different from camp, though similarly motivated: performative femininity. Ivy, in this reading, is a lesbian who cares passionately about plants and the environment, and for that she has been shoved to the margins, declared sick and a criminal, subjected to imprisonment in a hellish place. The powers that be will only let her “free” if she demonstrates that she is exactly what they demand she be, what they demand all women should be: sexy, intelligent, desiring only to find a husband and care for him and her children, willing to abandon her own desires, her own political causes, her own intellectual pursuits, to instead dedicate her life to caring for a man and his children. To, in short, settle for a house and a garden.

Ivy responds the only way she can. To survive, she must pretend to be what they want her to be, at least long enough to escape. The world where she can be truly happy doesn’t exist, but she can’t work to create it if she’s being treated as a criminal to be punished and a disease to be cured. So she performs traditional femininity, as a cover to protect her true self.

Because if you look at the misogynistic stereotypes we discussed in regards to her characterization in this episode, there’s a clear thread running through all of them: they’re all rooted in the fear that the seeming “good girl” is a “bad girl” in disguise. And the truth is, they all are, because we’ve defined “good girl” in such a narrow and self-contradictory way that it is impossible to be and torture to attempt. Men have worked for centuries to make femininity a construct for pleasing and placating men; we can hardly complain when women perform it to placate us.

Ivy’s flight is no escape. Her sorrow is real, because she knows what it is to be marginalized and discarded, and now she is going to be pushed out of the world. Batman is right when he says she won’t be seen soon, because Poison Ivy is gone for good. There may be hints or glimpses of her now and again, but there is no place for her in Gotham unless there is first a revolution, an apocalypse, a transformation. She will not truly return, perhaps cannot truly return, until the world is destroyed and born anew.

So, 1997 or so.


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3 thoughts on “Put his house in order (House and Garden)

  1. Ivy, in this reading, is a lesbian who cares passionately about plants and the environment, and for that she has been shoved to the margins, declared sick and a criminal, subjected to imprisonment in a hellish place.

    “This place isn’t a prison. There’s no release date. No parole. Some sweaty, over-weight creep asks you to go down on him to prove you’re fit to mingle with society… When you’re scared enough – or hurt enough – to be quiet, to be ‘good’… Then they’ll let you out. Or maybe they won’t. And nobody gives a damn.”
    — Ivy as written by Neil Gaiman

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  2. Note to self: this is Ivy’s last SPEAKING appearance, but she has a silent but not insignificant cameo in “Harley’s Holiday”

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