More and more current comics are featuring a broad range of characters, with different genders, races, and sexualities becoming more prominently displayed. Increased representation is an amazing thing to see, especially in an industry so wrought with (ironically) archaic attitudes towards anything “different.”
But sometimes representation isn’t always as it seems.
Characters in pop media are usually assumed to be straight until proven otherwise. Even characters who are widely recognized as queer icons (like Wonder Woman) are editorially forced to not only deny those ties, but also to decry them as “weird” or “incorrect.”
One of the things that comes out of this attitude is the prevention of canon characters from being anything other than straight. When characters of non-straight sexualities are introduced, they tend to be new characters (with Alan Scott and Kate Kane as tenuous exceptions). Beyond that, characters who were always intended to be gay, like Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Northstar, were editorially not allowed (rumor has it, due to former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter policy against openly gay characters).
Instead of supportive representations of pre-existing characters coming out as queer, writers tend to rely on implications. But are these implied sexualities actually helping queer representation in comics, or are they causing harm?
I think a great example of this problem is Harley Quinn #2. Building off of the original relationship between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, first introduced in Batman: The Animated Series, this issue offers a titillating piece of dialogue between Harley and Ivy:
The dialogue is humorous, but has a huge implication that Ivy is interested in the double entendre meaning of the word “beaver.” Of course, in reality, Harley is just introducing Ivy to Bernie the stuffed beaver, but the silent implication of romance remains.
As the issue continues, it also shows Harley and Ivy sleeping in the same bed, with Ivy even giving Harley a kiss on the cheek before she leaves. The problem with this is, titillation aside, nothing is outright stated. The characters exist in this ambiguous limbo of interpretation. While it’s easy to say that DC just isn’t ready for Harley to be portrayed as a queer character, or that it doesn’t make sense in canon, with her steadfast devotion to the Joker, this comic still teases at the possibility, no matter how slim, of an incredibly well-known and popular character being gay. But the issue does not provide that positive representation that is sought after, instead it offers up the comic equivalent of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.”
Per-New 52, Gotham City Sirens also teased at the possibility of Ivy being a lesbian, with Harley cruelly mocking Ivy’s potential romantic interests in her. Again, the possibility of a queer character and perspective is instead skirted and, in its place, a mean joke about Poison Ivy trying to get with someone who is “clearly straight” is inserted.
In a recent interview, writer Jimmy Palmiotti teased that “issue #7 may have a page in it with Ivy and Harley that I think will keep people talking for a very long time…” but the interview then goes on to reveal that Harley and the Joker will be getting married in an upcoming issue, as well.
It’s unfortunate that all characters follow this unstated rule. Because the comic industry is dominated by straight, white men, that is the overwhelming perspective that is presented in comics. It’s not a bad thing that the perspective exists, it’s the fact that there are so few other perspectives represented. Diversity is important, but there seems to be very little room for characters, writers, artists, and other creators of different races, sexualities, and points of view.
One can only hope that indie comics will continue to offer alternative perspectives from the big two, and that maybe, one day, Marvel and DC will catch on as well.