Poison Ivy: A Litmus Test

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

Poison Ivy, civilian name Pamela Isley, is a woman of refined tastes. She likes the color green, ’50s pin-up inspired attire, and the odd plucky psychiatrist. And she likes men how she likes her chrysanthemums—planted firmly in the ground.

Ivy is also a scientist—which means she’s likely familiar with the subject of this piece: a litmus test.

The other day on Tumblr, a post came across my dashboard which criticized the Myth of the Extraordinary Woman. A story having one Strong Female Character in a group of male characters doesn’t challenge sexism; communities of women, however, can.

Writer, journalist, and geeky feminist extraordinaire Susana Polo added to the post, stating the she considers “‘what the writer does with the Amazons’ to be [her] canary in the coal mine” for Wonder Woman stories. I’d add that by mishandling the Amazons (most often by causing them to fail as a society by virtue of their gender), these writers fail their Wonder Woman story by default since her story is inherently feminist. Anti-feminist Wonder Woman stories are, ultimately, anti-Wonder Woman.

After reading this, I wondered if I had an illustration-based iteration of this test. Did an artist’s depiction of a specific female character indicate to me whether their illustration philosophy was feminist-friendly?

And that’s where Poison Ivy comes in.

Ivy is not a people person. Not only does she not prefer their company at parties, but she doesn’t particularly prefer their company in life, either. In all versions of her varied origin story, Ivy suffers abuse or trauma from a man. In her earliest origins, she is seduced by powerful men and then experimented on by them—thus granting her various superpowers. In the New 52, Ivy’s mother is abused, and then killed, by her father. It’s through her own machinations later on that she gets her powers and primary motivation.

Ivy, upon gaining her powers, deems herself guardian of The Green, the elemental force that protects plant life in the DC universe. She freely murders and commits acts of bio-terrorism to defend The Green from those who would harm it (CEOs, corrupt governments, the occasional bat).

One of her powers is pheromone manipulation. In comics lingo, this is ComicVine’s “Attractive Female” attribute taken to an extreme. Sometimes through air and sometimes through toxic kiss, Ivy is able to seduce/mind-control men (and occasionally women) into doing her bidding.

To hit home the image of Ivy as seductress, many artists (and no doubt editorial forces) dress her in revealing garb. This, despite the fact that Ivy could drape herself in every item from those “Women’s Fashion Trends Men Hate” articles and still seduce their authors—with her pheromone powers.

Since she neither cares about other people’s opinions, nor does need to, she has the freedom to dress how she likes. But, remarkably often, she’s not dressed how she, as she is characterized, would dress herself, but as how the presumed male gaze would dress her instead.

Character-centric styling takes the stage in Batman: The Animated Series (adventures poison-ivy-3new and old). In both iterations, Ivy wears a one-piece outfit in the style of pin-up—something that evokes sex appeal with no cost of agency or personality. Her outfit is complemented by evening gloves, pointed boots, and a hairstyle with shape. The same could be said for DC’s Bombshell iteration of Ivy (which shows skin at now style sacrifice).

Male gaze-centric styling, however, reigns in the Arkham series of video games. In the first entry, she wears an Arkham-issued, pre-shrunk unbuttoned blouse alongside what the internet calls “foliage panties.” There’s no discernible style or fashion reference to it. Her hair’s unstyled, and her makeup is “generic villainess.” Medical professionals only give her a shrunken blouse and makeup to sport. But maybe she was forced to dress this way?

Nope.


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In both Arkham City and the upcoming Arkham Knight (based on a recent trailer), Ivy is wearing a near-identical outfit—she just swapped out the asylum-issued blouse for an identical one without the branding.

Even if she truly loved her asylum outfit, she would have changed or even updated it over the course of two years. But she didn’t. This is some serious ensemble Stockholm syndrome. Many of her comics designs similarly sacrifice personality and style for bland nudity. This ranges from a fully naked Eve-inspired ensemble (which is as boring as it is poison-ivy-2hella old) to something worse—the belly window.

Fortunately (and surprisingly), DC’s New 52 reboot was kind to Ivy. Since the relaunch, Ivy has sported what may be the most character-centric design she’s ever had—a black, full body leotard. Designed by Cully Hamner, this form-fitting garb allows Ivy to fashion her own outfit on a whim. The plants that cling to the leotard serve as an overlaying fabric; she can contort them into a one-piece, a two-piece, a gown, or armor of any hue, shade, or strength at any time. Additionally, her outfit enhances her powers. She doesn’t need to be near a park or greenhouse to wreck stuff; she’s wearing her ammunition as a fashion statement.

When designers take a character like Poison Ivy, a woman layered with nuance, personality, and style, see “seduction” as a power, and lazily reduce her to some generic male sex fantasy, they sacrifice storytelling and the opportunity to turn her into a walking wardrobe/artillery closet. And that’s a crime—a fashion crime.

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