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Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy's PhDs

Contributed by
Sep 13, 2018

Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy are two very differently motivated characters, and not too many would mistake them for each other — one is a wacky antihero running with a serious clown theme, the other an ecological advocate with a love for the color green. They do have a lot in common, though. They’re both murder prone, they both have secret moments of altruism, and they are both STEM majors whose careers took a turn until they both became major villains of the DC Universe. Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy don’t just add diversity to Batman’s rogues' gallery — they provide role models for young women that want careers in STEM. Yes, role models. Let me explain.

Both Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn have shown up in various media, but tracking the specifics of their characters is surprisingly easy for the number of interpretations that exist of them. Doctor Harleen Quinzel almost always begins as a psychologist who becomes at least partially defined by her abusive relationship with the Joker, going on to eventually leave him after several painful breakups. Doctor Pamela Isley was a botanist whose work was overshadowed by her male peers and who ultimately became emotionally, physically, and mentally damaged when experimented on by Jason Woodrue. Woodrue himself went on to become the Floronic Man, who had considerably less control over Ivy than Joker had over Harvey, but they do both have supervillain ex-boyfriends wandering around the DC universe.

Dr. Harleen Quinzel

Harley Quinn was introduced in Batman: The Animated Series. In the beginning, there wasn’t a great deal of explanation for her character, just that she was the seemingly unintelligent henchman to the Joker with a great costume and an amazing accent. Soon, we discovered that Harleen was a psychologist who had fallen in love with the Joker after studying and interacting with him for some time. There have been different takes on this — for instance, in the movie Suicide Squad, Harley is given significantly more responsibility for her actions and was using the Joker for her own purposes, whereas in the animated series Joker is a clear abuser who manipulated her into doing what he wanted. Her level of agency in the matter has been a somewhat sliding scale depending on the telling, but the basic story remains the same.

Dr. Pamela Isley

Poison Ivy’s first appearance in the comic gave full credit and emphasis to her botanical genius. Of all the Batman villains, her ability to control plant life and her desire to protect it made her stand out as one of the most intelligent with quite possibly the purest motivations. Although she does manipulate Harvey Dent, he is planning to destroy a marsh she wishes to protect, so in some way, she is still justified despite her murderous methods.

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Both women were disenfranchised by male peers using their work, discrediting them, and setting back their careers. One of the doctors at Arkham stole Harley’s notes on the Joker and used them to cement his own career while leveraging them as blackmail against her, while Ivy’s peers not only experimented on her but left her to deal with legal repercussions which saw her promising career reduced to shambles. While Harley left psychiatry and turned to a life with the Joker, Ivy decided that she would continue her work by whatever means necessary.

Better together

Harley’s first appearances in the comics showed her to be still obsessed with the Joker, but she spent a great deal of time reestablishing her identity once they had broken up. She and Poison Ivy teamed up often, then became partners. Harley had a mostly uneventful first solo series, then later appeared with Poison Ivy and Catwoman in Gotham City Sirens. When Ivy went out of her way to help an unappreciative Harley during a fight and the conversation turned to her relationship with the Joker, Harley called Ivy out for harboring romantic feelings for her, which was not a conversation that got resolved within the series. Later, Harley was given a second solo series in which the two of them appeared as being romantically paired, although Ivy’s interest in her work kept them from being an official couple for some time.

They have been breaking up and reuniting at a fairly rapid pace, so it’s hard to say where they’ll go from here, but in an alternate reality of the Injustice comic, it has been hinted that they were recently married in Vegas. No matter what direction the story takes, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn are a fascinating couple due to the incredible emotional intelligence with which they deal with one another. Even better, we got to see the process through which they got to their impressive understanding of one another as they grew with each other but equally as their own people over several years of storytelling.

Ruthless and genius

The comic book version of Poison Ivy was, for a long time, significantly more ruthless than her animated self. Not only did she enthrall a great many men in order to steal from them, there was a time when she was an actual murderer. Although Ivy has taken a hero turn of late and is enjoying her own redemption arc, her initial appearances in either Batman or even Wonder Woman comics were usually connected to a brutal, black widow-style murder. That version of the character has been retconned to what is proving to be a gentler take.

Ivy’s driving ambition is currently to save the world’s plant life from mankind’s carelessness, a cause she refers to as her “first love,” citing to Harley that her work is “even needier than you.” As for her career, Ivy has never stopped practicing botany and is even shown to own her own greenhouse at times. Even when imprisoned at Arkham Asylum, Ivy is given a small potted plant to calm herself. She uses poisons and herbs from her garden and is the inventor of countless balms and tinctures. At various points in comics and cartoon alike, Ivy’s experiments on herself and her plants cause her to become a plant-human hybrid, which is really interesting and speaks to the obsessive dedication she has shown towards preserving plant life.

Harley is not generally portrayed with that level of interest in psychology. In the comic Mad Love, it is heavily implied by the creative team that Harley Quinn actually got good grades by having sex with her professors, but that doesn’t really hold up. It would be incredibly difficult to become a certified doctor renowned enough to be placed in a cell with the Joker without doing a tremendous amount of fieldwork and spending years in college. In the first issue of her second series, Harley observes that the Joker preferred her when she was pretending to be unintelligent, one assumes because he felt that made her funnier. It certainly set a theme in her life, as it really wasn’t until that series that we began to see a full focus on her intelligence. Still, despite the need of some to undermine her brilliance, there are scenes of her casually finishing crossword puzzles while carrying on full conversations. Although subtle, hints of her genius IQ have always managed to work their way into the panels.

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Of the two of them, Ivy is the one more interested and focused on utilizing her degree in practical ways, and her drive to protect plant life has repeatedly put her at odds with heroes and villains alike. Meanwhile, Harley’s ambition became based on her ability to work with others and on teams, even when the team she’s on is an arguably unhealthy one like the Suicide Squad. Her surprising friendship with Power Girl made for great reading but also said a lot about Harley’s interest in building a sort of bizarro community around herself and learning to interact with the greater DC Universe. Recognizing her own needs more regularly as valid and important displays major growth, and it seems clear that her training as a psychologist helped her learn to deal with others more productively along the way.

There are many things about Ivy and Harley’s relationship that make it one of the most genuinely positive matchups in the DCU. By sponsoring Harley during her faltering relationship with the Joker, Ivy was able to reach out to someone in the way she herself had so desperately needed when going through her own trauma alone. Harley on the other hand desperately needed to have a nonpossessive partner who actually cared for her, saw her for who she really was, and interacted with her on an emotional level. Also important, the two characters don’t condescend to each other, while everyone else in DC seems to at best underestimate them. Usually viewed in terms of attractability, these two both have genius-level IQs — with Harley Quinn taking full advantage of the fact that people don’t take her seriously and turning it to her benefit, and Poison Ivy being responsible for creating several plant species and affecting massive ecological change with her activism. In short, they’re two of the smartest characters in DC, but they almost never get credit for it, and that is just one glimpse at the struggle of women working in STEM.

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