The Nineties OG Female Duo
In the 90s the number of male duos in American TV animation increased, but female duos were rare. One of the popular exception to this were the side characters Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy from Batman: The Animated Series.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) was a darker look at the franchise then early television versions: incorporating quick dialogue and a film noir aesthetic. It used coding and visual and verbal euphemisms to wink at the older audience that made up a large portion of it’s viewers.
Harley Quinn was a character created for the series, and she became so popular she was incorporated into the comic book canon. The short comic, Mad Love, featuring Harley’s backstory won an Eisner Award.
In Batman: The Animated Series Harley is top henchwoman to the Joker -who she is also in a not so subtle relationship with (see above video). She and the Joker are a comedy duo team, with Harley as the devoted heart to the Joker’s brains.
As a duo, they embody all the traditional elements of a comedy team including slapstick violence… but with the dark setting of the show the violence against Harley at the hands of the Joker is presented to adult viewers as a clearly-coded case of domestic abuse. As Zack Beauchamp writes in Batman: The Animated Series:
“The abusive structure of the Joker-Quinn relationship being obvious to adults but invisible to the show’s young audience reminds the adult viewer of how societal blindness perpetuates actual instances of horrific abuse.“
In the episode Harley and Ivy Harley is kicked out by the Joker and ends up teaming up with Poison Ivy. The duo become a crime team, and in many ways they embody the traditional traits one expected of comedy duos at the time (with Poison Ivy now replacing the Joker as the “brains” but minus any slapstick violence. Their relationship is a healthy one.)
While only containing a relatively short screen time together, fans latched on to their ambiguous relationship. The characters lived together in Ivy’s home with one bed. They had meals together: languishing in a casual attire of just oversized shirts (Harley’s looks like a button-up men’s shirt). Scenes driving in Ivy’s pink convertible drew visual reference to Thelma and Louise.
The question of whether or not the lesbian undertones of the relationship were originally intended is debated by fans. Considering the sophisticated writing style of the show, and the repeated use of coded adult narratives, it seems likely that writers knew exactly what they were doing.
The winking relationship between the two extended to the comics. Batman: Harley and Ivy, which features writing from Paul Dino and artwork from Bruce Timm (the producer of the animated series), also has much slashy fan-service and a prison shower scenes of the two.
In the 1997 comic Batgirl Adventures #1, Harley mentions that Ivy gave her a serum so that she’ll be immune to Ivy’s poison when they “play”. Batgirl asks if that means the two are “friends” while making a vague hand gesture to imply more then friends. Harley doesn’t deny it, but deflects the question.
Regardless of original intent, when the two’s friendship was first introduced in the animated series the ambiguous relationship became a defining part of both their characters… until, it was eventually made canon.