Harley Quinn’s crypto-queer history in comics could be coming to the big screen

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Queer comics fans are rejoicing with the release of DC Bombshells #42 in which the iconic villainesses Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy finally kiss. Finally. Some of us have been waiting years for this.

largeimages via DC

I was a kid when Harley debuted on Batman: The Animated Series and I loved her instantly. I’ve continued to love her as an adult, though my budget doesn’t always allow me to keep up with comics these days. Where once I bounced around the room in pigtails to celebrate her, now I put on a blazer and talk about her at academic conferences. She has always been a fictional figure in my life in one way or another.

Harley Quinn is an icon for many female comics fans. When she first arrived (in 1992 in the animated series, then in the DC Comics canon universe in 1999, with animated and non-canon appearances in between), she was a bombastic foil to the grim, patriarchal authority of Batman and his fellow heroes. She was clearly devoted to the Joker but wasn’t a mindless servant; in fact, in one of the most important animated Harley episodes/issues, we see Harley correcting a plan the Joker couldn’t get right. She shifted as needed from a misguided but goodhearted young woman to a maniacal sadist, appealing to fans of heroes and villains alike. Until her dramatic costume change under DC’s New 52 in 2011, she was one of the few comics women who kept her clothes on. With her acrobatic abilities and bubbly devotion to whatever good or evil task is at hand, she was both hilariously entertaining and still undeniably dangerous.

In short, Harley is one of the most interesting and important characters in the DC Universe.

She also has a history of crypto-queerness. Despite her obsessive love for the physically and psychologically abusive Joker, Harley has always seemed bisexual in her relationship with Poison Ivy.  As a kid, I didn’t notice the details that scream queer to me now. I didn’t question why Harley and Ivy were both in their underwear at Ivy’s hideout. I had no idea that the word on Ivy’s license plate, Rosebud, was a synonym for the clitoris (or a Citizen Kane reference, but what kid would have gotten that?). I didn’t pick up on any of the eroticism between the two women. To me, Harley was all about the Joker and Ivy was just her pal. DC kept teasing the potential between the two women as a number of comics have made similar visual or verbal implications about their relationship.

In the animated universe issue Batgirl Adventures #1, Batgirl even asks Harley if she and Ivy are an item; Harley responds with a quip about Batgirl’s own friendship with Supergirl but never gives her an answer. There have been flirtatious tussles, shared beds, beaver jokes, and prison shower scenes. The two have been depicted in just about every queer girl stereotype.

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Over the years, a whole plethora of writers and artists have pointed toward an erotic relationship between the two. Last year, writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti even stated over Twitter that “they are Girlfriends without the jealousy of monogamy.” But it hasn’t been until now that their relationship has gotten the visual confirmation of a mutual and obviously romantic kiss.

This isn’t the first time Harley has been depicted as explicitly queer. In the Elseworlds story Batman: Thrillkiller (1997), Harley’s relationship with the Joker is re-gendered as a lesbian one. Here, the Joker plays the butch to Harley’s femme, and the two embark on a crime spree as equal partners. Released before internet fandom became a major social phenomenon, the issue faded easily into the background. What makes the new issue of Bombshells so significant in light of this precedent is its visibility. It’s still an alternate universe tale, but more people can now be exposed to this milestone in Harley and Ivy’s queerness. Within minutes of the issue’s release, images of the kiss were going around fan communities. Many of us knew about the kiss and spread the word before we even knew the story.

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The story itself is important, however, and shows that the kiss is no mere fanservice. This alternate universe locates the women in 1941 Berlin, where Harley has come to track down her ex-boyfriend. Her narrative of their past together follows the typical Harley/Joker path: Their whimsical but violent personalities lead to a mutual attraction, they go on a crime spree, the Joker gradually becomes more sinister, and so on. She means to reunite with him in Berlin, but when Ivy is almost attacked by the villainess known as the Joker’s Daughter, Harley cuts off the Daughter’s hand while speaking in suggestive terms: “Been lookin’ a long time for someone with the right touch. And it ain’t yours.” She then immediately abandons her quest for the Joker and flees with Ivy. Once she and Ivy have escaped, the real flirtation begins. Ivy quips about having “chosen a girl,” to which Harley awkwardly stammers. Ivy interrupts her with a kiss. The kiss.

Here, finally, Harley isn’t with Ivy because the Joker has kicked her out. Ivy isn’t, as she often has in the past, picking up Harley’s pieces after the Joker has broken her heart. The issue’s final scene doesn’t see Harley despairing over her ex-boyfriend but enthusiastically kissing another woman—and not just any other woman, but the one who has been there to offer her support (and erotic pajama scenes) from the very beginning.

What will be interesting is how this development (even if it is an alternate universe story) plays out in the upcoming Suicide Squad film, which is slated to depict Harley’s relationship with the Joker. From what I can tell as a longtime Harley fan who is avoiding major spoilers, it looks as if the filmmakers are going to keep that relationship fairly canonical—including, if one set photo leak is accurate, the physical abuse. Comics and screen adaptations don’t always go hand-in-hand, but their promoters must be well aware of what the other is doing and often plan accordingly (for instance, I don’t believe for a second that a certain development in The Walking Dead #152-153 just coincidentally happened so close to the show’s Season 6 finale). It is only natural that DC will expect the film to bring in new readers. What the new readers find, however, may not match up with the expectations set by the film.

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The alternate universe of Bombshells means that Harley’s canonical relationship with the Joker can be left intact, but it also creates a tension for readers who know that the Joker doesn’t have to be Harley’s only lover. New readers will happen upon these discussions and discover that, when the writers are given the freedom to go against the heteronormative canon, Harley has a long bisexual history. The issue’s unapologetic presentation of bisexuality and its timing should give DC and their readers something to think about.

It looks like they’re going to have ample opportunity to think about it now that Warner Bros. have announced the possibility of Harley getting her own spin-off film after Suicide Squad. Given that Harley’s bisexuality was hinted from the very beginning, her first solo mainstream film shouldn’t shy away from it. Instead, they owe it to the character to acknowledge her sexuality and actually depict it. Harley will forever be linked to her on-again/off-again boyfriend, but her link to Ivy is just as old and canonical as her relationship with the Joker.

If a Harley Quinn solo film is going to give us the real Harley Quinn (and based on what I’ve seen of Margot Robbie‘s performance so far, I have absolute faith that she can do it), she needs to be as sexually dynamic as she is in the comics. If and when they start casting for another film, I’m keeping my eyes peeled for redheads who look good in green. Harley’s getting the Joker this time—next time, give her Poison Ivy.” 

[Author’s Note: In the 20+ years since she debuted, Harley has had a number of queer and crypto-queer moments, some canonical and some not. I have chosen to focus on Bombshells as a milestone in her relationship with Poison Ivy due to its proximity to the release of Suicide Squad, its presentation of Harley and Ivy’s relationship outside the hurt/comfort scenario often associated with it in the canon, and its visual focus on a truly romantic and reciprocated kiss as the story’s climax. These factors, I believe, make the issue a significant and unique reminder that Harley’s bisexuality is essential to her character in the canon and outside of it.]  

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