The “Harley and Ivy” episode of Batman the Animated Series first ran in January of 1993. That was almost 25 years ago, and yet it remains one of the most important episodes of television I've ever seen in my life.
I was 11 years old and living in suburban, middle-class Ohio, an area of the country that wouldn’t even really seem to have discovered the word “lesbian” until two years later, when Ellen DeGeneres would give us all permission to talk about it. Even “queer” was heavily pre-reclamation back then; we didn’t even know that it meant gay (because we didn’t know what gay meant) -- it just meant the kid you’d smear in a particularly vicious playground game.
And yet, despite the fact that I had no language for such a feeling, that the actual plot of the episode didn’t indicate that this was what was happening (it even goes so far as to shoehorn in a stupid Joker gaslighting romance), and that, again, I was ELEVEN years old, I knew. I knew that Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn were supposed to be girlfriends.
As I sat sprawled across the couch in the family room in front of our big TV, I found myself thinking things that I had never previously understood. Not only were Harley and Ivy the first time I can consciously remember "femmeslashing" two characters together, they were my very first ship period. They introduced me to a realm of possibility that I had only understood deep within the abstract subconscious of my brain.
Whenever representation in regard to queer identities comes up, there’s always some loudmouth concern troll who has to jump in and say that it’s just inappropriate for kids to be exposed to any sexual content in shows and that’s why characters in shows targeted for younger audiences can’t be LGBTQ. And yet every popular show that was on in my tween years had couples on it that my pre-pubescent straight friends could fantasize about or imagine being part of. There was nothing inappropriately sexual in any of those longings. It was all the innocent crushes that kids naturally start to have around that age.
I had plenty of friends who seemed really invested in pairings like Zack and Kelly, or Dylan and … other Kelly. But I never cared until “Harley and Ivy.” Suddenly I imagined two characters in a fictional show kissing and holding hands and being girlfriends -- and imagining myself as their girlfriend too, even though I definitely hadn’t worked out the logistics of that aspect yet.
I also know that I was not alone in feeling the way I did about them. There was something to this, even if the characters’ creators didn’t know it yet. Over the years I have continuously run into other queer women who immediately know what I’m talking about when I mention my Harley and Ivy thing. This ship grew and lingered in the fandom for decades. In fact, in an interview I did earlier this summer with DC's Bombshells writer Marguerite Bennett, she confessed that the Harley and Ivy ship was so prevalent that she actually didn’t realize she was the first to put it officially on the page and finally make them a real couple in that alternate universe book.
Batman the Animated Series certainly wasn’t trying to push a lesbian agenda on us, and I know that because of how frustrated I would get with every Harley episode or plotline after "Harley and Ivy," when she would still be paired up with the boring old Joker. Why, I would think to myself, when Ivy is so clearly the one for her? I don’t know how much more powerful it would have been to see them presented as a couple to me at that age, but based on the sheer joy I get whenever Harley and Ivy would so much as grace a Bombshells cover together, or that I've already had my Friendly Local Comic Store pull list the entirety of their new crossover with Betty & Veronica, I think it would have been a game changer toward seeing myself in the world, and maybe being myself in the world sooner.
Despite any official canon telling me that it was something I had to see in them, my queerness found Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn. The fears that being exposed to gay content would make me gay couldn’t have been less true. If I can speak for the legions of this particular brand of shippers, Harley and Ivy didn’t make us queer. If anything, we made Harley and Ivy queer. Starved for queer narratives before I even knew they were a thing, I latched on to the closest thing I could find that represented it -- and I’ve never let go.